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FEATURE | Unlocked Or Locked Down, How Music Teachers Are Learning To Adapt To COVID-19

By Robin Roger on November 24, 2020

We checked in with music teachers to see how they’re adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Davina Pearl's outdoor music studio (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Davina Pearl’s outdoor music studio (Photo courtesy of the artist)

As COVID-19 transmission rates change, the music learning landscape fluctuates. It’s impossible to fully capture what is happening day by day. What follows describes the way music teachers across Canada have been dealing with the pandemic since March.

It may seem that when it comes to musical education, the stakes are highest for students in the professional track. But the stakes are just as high, and possibly even higher for amateur musicians of all ages, from preschool children to seniors, to start or continue musical learning during this pandemic. For children, the opportunity to enhance language ability, attention span, sociability, empathy, resilience and more, has to be seized at the right time. You can’t put off feeding children nutritious food — it’s the same for musical nourishment.

We know that music bolsters just about every aspect of health, from muscles to mood to the immune system and more. But health experts seem to put far less emphasis on music than nutrition, exercise, sleep or social connection. Studying and practicing music offers more benefit than merely listening to music, as pleasurable as that may be, just as playing sports offers more benefit than just watching sports. And right now, when the gyms are closed to prevent viral transmission from aerosols, music study may be the best available pastime because it can take place safely inside and outside, weather permitting, if the proper protocols are followed.

“We have to do what we can to introduce novelty into our routine,” said Dr. Robert Levitan, a depression specialist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, in a recent article in The Globe and Mail. Learning something new is one of the best ways to do that, ideally, something that requires paying close attention, progresses in steady small incremental steps and takes genuine effort. This is true at the best of times, but now, the need is urgent.

The question is not whether people should study music, but how to do it safely.

When I checked in with various music teachers, I discovered that their ways of handling COVID-19 depended on factors ranging from their risk-tolerance, health status, age, teaching preferences, technical know-how, and scientific sophistication, and access to space. The effort and ingenuity shown by music teachers since COVID-19 started is truly impressive.

Pianist Jennifer Smele (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Pianist Jennifer Smele (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Adapting To Online Teaching

The good news is that there’s a huge range of musical learning opportunities — both virtual and in person — available right now. Every conceivable instrument including voice is being taught, as well as music history, theory, composition and music appreciation. The availability of in-person lessons fluctuates as COVID cases fall or rise. At the time of writing and researching this piece, lessons were still occurring in person, but this was shutting down rapidly by the time the piece was completed. No doubt it will flip back and forth as the pandemic proceeds.

The diminished quality of virtual lessons is the reason that some people returned to embodied lessons over the summer when the cases diminished. Toronto based teacher and RCM Examiner Ron Tomarelli found virtual lessons, “very impoverished. It’s not possible to truly hear dynamics, and everything sounds Mezzo Forte”. For really advanced scores, the communication became quasi-comical. “Imagine trying to convey the fingering on a Chopin nocturne verbally with poor sound quality — ‘put a three on the E’ I say and the student replies ‘E or G?’ It becomes a comedy of errors.”

In Winnipeg, piano teacher, composer, arts journalist and Ludwig-Van contributor Holly Harris described the situation in October. “Half of my home studio is currently being taught in-person, with strict health and safety protocols put in place. Generally speaking, students and their parents were overjoyed to resume in-person lessons again — as was I. Masks are mandatory for everyone, with no exception and of course for myself. I have a hand sanitizer ‘station’ now positioned in my front hallway. I disinfect my piano keys, bench, desk, and doorknobs between every lesson. It’s all fussy, busy, rigorous but also necessary and non-negotiable. ”

Brampton based piano teacher, RCM examiner, accompanist and church pianist Jennifer Smele began teaching virtually last March, but as soon as she could, she organized herself to welcome students safely into her home studio. By stationing two pianos at a safe distance from each other in her studio, Smele can stay on her bench while the mask-wearing students enter through the kitchen door, sanitize their hands, go straight to the student piano for their lesson, then leave through the front door, so that they don’t encounter the next arriving student. With her piano positioned at an oblique angle into the corner of the room, Smele’s face is turned away from the student when she is looking at her keyboard. This way, she can remove her mask, which she keeps at hand if she needs to move near the student piano.

When Smele gave me a Zoom tour of her premises at the end of October, wrapped Halloween treats were sprinkled on the furniture, and all of her students’ scores were displayed above her plate rail. Before COVID, she sat beside her students and read from the same score, but now she stays on her bench so has to have a copy of everything each student studies. An air filter sits in the middle of the room and there is hand sanitizer on each piano.

“For me it’s night and day between teaching online and in person,” Smele told me. “If people are not comfortable coming in person I still teach on line, but for the earliest grades and the highest grades, it’s not possible to work as effectively. The sound quality really matters.” She’s visibly energized by being back with her students in person and with the addition of the second piano. “The power of playing together at the same time is so healing and energizing — the online students don’t know what they’re missing.” Having played duets with Jen, I can attest to the uplifting energy of being her musical partner. Her students are lucky.

Smele has experienced a creative boost as a result of what she calls, “the catalyst for change that COVID has offered.” She’s intensifying her emphasis on technique and integrating improvisation throughout her curriculum.

“I’m seeing some students thrive when they don’t have to read bass clef and treble clef,” she observes. “Some music loving kids just can’t read music with ease.”

She’s also taking a break from examining for the Royal Conservatory now that it takes place online. The technology requirements were more than she felt comfortable with, especially when she felt she was already on-screen too much.

Many teachers expressed frustration or antipathy towards virtual technology. It often goes unnoticed that mastering the various virtual platforms, as well as all the devices and equipment, is a major task in itself, and that coping with technology malfunction is a real strain. “Tech rage” is as intense as “road rage” and cumulatively damaging. The anecdotes of tech failure are legion, including hours spent on hold trying to get through to help desks while students are waiting for their exams and lessons, sound distortions, screen freezes and more.

The adaptation to becoming an on line RCM examiner was far from trivial, according to pianist Asher Armstrong, who continues to conduct virtual exams.

“For me it’s night and day between teaching online and in person.”

“There was a good bit of training, “Armstrong reported to me from his home in Arkansas, where he recently joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas after completing his DMA at the University of Toronto. “The RCM takes logistics, quality control, and other important aspects of the exam experience extremely seriously under normal circumstances, and it has been no less so now that things have moved entirely to remote. Much of the technological apparatuses that were currently in use by the RCM for in-person exams were adjusted for the remote setting, and of course there were a number of training sessions to prepare examiners for this big shift. Those sessions were followed by checklists — you have to be able to conduct the exam with the equipment you have, which I found entailed some challenges. For instance, if you don’t have or can’t borrow a second laptop/tablet, it can be tricky. Similarly, finding an appropriate space where there is no danger of exterior noises, distractions, etc. (in my case, a toddler and newborn!), and with a piano or appropriate instrument! Fortunately, I had invested in some equipment already for remote teaching, and this came in handy with administering exams. The final step for me was a ‘mock exam’ where a Senior member of the College of Examiners checked in with you to be sure you were all set and to help in the event of any remaining obstacles or uncertainties. ”

Armstrong misses in-person exams, but enjoys the scheduling flexibility of virtual examining, due to the elimination of travel, which resulted in intensive workdays for the examiner at each location visited. “With the in-person setting, you were in the exam room from 9:00 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. or so, administering grades from 1-10. Here, there are situations where you might have a block of time from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. or 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. (depending on your time zone) when you could be administering exams. I have had the opportunity to assess a number of split grade 10 and ARCT exams, which are video submissions only and this has been just terrific for me in terms of scheduling.”

While Royal Conservatory Exams are completely remote for 2020/21, as are many other courses including music appreciation, there are still some in-person options. These include Adult Learn to Play lessons in piano, guitar, and cello; Adult Samba; Adult Fusio; Jazz Combo classes, and Latin Jazz Ensemble. Adults studying piano, guitar, and strings can choose between online and in-person classes. There is a detailed statement on COVID protocols for entering and being in the building posted on the RCM web site.

Re-enrolment in virtual music lessons for the RCM certificate program was quite robust last September, and for some courses, such as Music/History and Music Appreciation attracted new students from farther afield.

Beethoven 250 — Music Appreciation During A Pandemic Year

Longtime music educator and broadcaster Rick Phillips is giving a series of classes on Beethoven at the RCM, 2020 being the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. He reports registration of, “online students from places like Caledon, Aurora, Victoria, Edmonton, Ottawa, Boston and San Francisco. The potential reach of online teaching is amazing.”

Even though the technology enables larger, more dispersed enrolments, Phillips’ enthusiasm is dampened by the limitations it imposes on his teaching.

“I can’t say I love the Zoom or online teaching experience.  I have no control over the quality of sound the class participants will hear. When live in classroom, I use a portable Bose speaker system that is excellent. We can all hear clearly and richly. I like to feature quite a lot of music excepts as illustrations for my points in the topic, but I have no idea through Zoom if the points I am making through music are being heard. For example, if I draw their attention to the return of a theme of a work on the clarinet, can they hear that? I have no idea. Depends on their home speakers. Some maybe, some not.

“I can’t say I love the Zoom or online teaching experience.  I have no control over the quality of sound the class participants will hear.”

“One of the major downfalls of online class teaching is the difficulty in discussion. In a live situation, someone may ask a question and we may veer off on a related tangent. That’s often when real learning takes place, through opinions, discussion, experiences, etc. Discussion is almost impossible through online teaching.

“In a live classroom situation, I can see students’ faces and expressions and am then able to judge if the topic is reaching them, or not. I can then reiterate, or go over again, or try another example. I can’t do that in Zoom. I get nothing back from the students during the sessions, so I don’t feel the quality of my teaching is as effective.”

Phillips, who also conducts opera tours and is optimistically offering trips to the Mahler Symphony Festival in Leipzig, Germany in May 2021, and the annual Mozart Week Festival in Salzburg, Austria in Jan. 2022, looks forward to teaching in person again.

“For me, Zoom and online teaching is hopefully a temporary stop-gap until we can return to live, in classroom teaching. It doesn’t come close to replacement, but it’s all we’ve got for now, and in these days of little or no live concerts, it does seem to offer people something that they are missing in their current music-starved COVID lives.”

Davina Pearl's outdoor music studio (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Davina Pearl’s outdoor music studio (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Online Or In Person?

So far as learning to play an instrument, each presents different challenges in terms of whether it may be taught effectively online or safely in person. Voice lessons, for example, are nearly impossible to conduct in person. According to Winnipeg-based performer, composer, adjudicator and wait-listed voice teacher Kelly Robinson, the unmasked student and teacher must stand 8 to 10 metres away from each other. That’s about the length of a yellow school bus. The singing voice produces much more aerosol than the normal speaking voice.

“I tried teaching from 8 metres away and I know for a fact that I can communicate much more clearly over Zoom than from that distance,” Robinson told me. Her solution has been to dive deeply into mastering the technology. “I have learned about Ethernet cables, internet speed, compression and sound settings. I invested in a very good quality microphone, so my students can hear my demonstrations clearly, and I wear noise-cancelling headphones so now the students sound like they are singing in the same room with me. It’s quite amazing! We are accomplishing so much in each lesson.”

Robinson regrets that she can’t play piano to accompany her students during lessons as she did in her studio, due to the time delay of virtual platforms, but being freed up from the keyboard results in a “wonderful surprise. I can observe my student the whole time while they sing. I can pay much closer attention to their breath, jaw and tongue placement and provide much clearer feedback for breath support in specific sections of each song.”

Another surprise for Robinson is being untethered from her Winnipeg base. “People in other provinces have contacted me, especially contemporary-style singers who want a crash course in vocal technique so they don’t harm their voices.” With training in both classical and pop/rock vocal styles and a Bachelor in Science in microbiology with a special interest in caring for the voice during illness and fatigue, she is uniquely qualified to coach a wide variety of singers.

“I love the fact that geography no longer plays into learning.”

Other teachers are also enjoying being liberated from location.

“I love the fact that geography no longer plays into learning,” states composer, composition and piano teacher Katya Pine, who moved to B.C. six years ago. She has been teaching composition for more than 40 years to people of all ages, as well as piano, and has enjoyed a mini-surge since COVID began. “I’ve never had so busy a summer as I had last summer. My current students were all initially in-person students, and together we’ve worked out the technical glitches posed by Zoom to a more or less satisfying condition.” Pine feels no rush to get back to in-person teaching, partly because she has a weak immune system and partly because composition is especially conducive to online teaching. “I have been giving workshops to local teachers on how to teach composition to their students using virtual software. That’s what’s been such an easy transition for me. My students all use Logic and Sibelius. The kids take to the software pretty quickly since they’re literally born with computer-mice attached to their hands. I’d love to teach composition to more amateur adults too. It’s fun to see faces light up over this kind of creativity.”

It’s not nearly so easy for certain other instruments to be taught virtually. Some instruments need a play-along, interactive approach, and some require the instructor to be able to see the student’s entire body to offer meaningful feedback. The student also needs to be able to see the teacher’s body. Drummer and Percussionist Agneya Chikte, an instructor at the Humber Community Music School, went through extensive adjustments.

“It was incredibly difficult going online at the start. First is the tech side of things — a drum set will most probably distort on any average phone microphone! So getting that setup on the student’s side, along with having a good angle to see the students themselves, has been a real challenge. From an educator’s perspective, the challenge has really been to make drum lessons engaging and interactive, without being able to play along with the student. I have created various backing tracks and warm-up tracks so that students can play along on their end while I can listen. It’s safe to say that pedagogically and technologically I’ve made a lot of progress these past few months!”

Drumming, which is so powerfully social, lends itself to ensemble and improvisation. This is central to the Humber Community Music School pedagogy, which includes group music learning for all students from age 3 to 18. While the School is continuing with online lessons for this semester as well as the winter semester, it’s the first time in 42 years that it can’t teach ensemble music. For a jazz program this is a real loss.

Ottawa-based saxophonist, bandleader and music teacher Davina Pearl also plays and teaches in many groups. Her students, both children and adults, were missing playing with the bands they were in before the pandemic. Playing duets is also a cornerstone of her teaching with private students, which can’t be done online. She transferred her lessons outdoors in the summer, and created mini-ensembles for players of different ages and levels, with nearly magical results.

“After being stuck online for the length of the spring, the very first time I played with a student (or anyone) in person, it was in the backyard. It was a very simple duet from when this particular adult student of mine was a beginner. Those pieces don’t usually elicit much emotion, they are quite basic. Especially now that she is doing much more advanced material. But when we got to the end of the little composition, we just looked at each other and burst out crying. It felt so good to finally be playing together again.”

Before moving to en plein air music, Pearl broached the possibility with neighbours, who were agreeable to the idea in advance, and have been very appreciative of the music wafting their way ever since. Passers-by pause to enjoy the music, and have even asked for Pearl’s business card. If street music, which has been springing up throughout the pandemic, continues when it is over, it will be an extremely positive outcome. But, it’s a seasonal option. Pearl is now investigating, “air purifiers, furnace fan upgrades, window fans, and saxophone bell covers.”

A vaccine may be in sight but we are not at the end of the pandemic, at best we are at the end of the beginning. Consider music study and music appreciation as a way to get through the dark, cold, socially distanced winter. Not only will you emerge in good health, you’ll be able to express your joy and renewed vitality musically.


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Robin Roger
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