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The trials, failures and unexpected successes of learning music online during the coronavirus quarantines

Tyniayah Pettway practices his instrument with Sandra Ragusa (not pictured).
Tyniayah Pettway practices his instrument with Sandra Ragusa (not pictured). (HANDOUT)

The days repeat themselves for Hotin Chan, a 19-year-old sophomore studying cello at the Peabody Institute.

He wakes up in his dormitory single. He logs onto his lecture courses via Zoom. He practices four to five hours in the afternoon. Twice a day, he picks up frozen meals from the cafeteria which he reheats in his microwave. He goes to sleep.

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Then he does it all over again.

Chan is one of a handful of Peabody students still living on campus amid the coronavirus pandemic, effectively stranded there now that his home country, China, has barred foreign residents from returning in the hopes of deterring further outbreaks of COVID-19.

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But though Chan is still at school, no one else is. Nearly all students and staff returned to their homes when Peabody, along with schools all over the country, announced the transition to online instruction in March. He now must carry on his music studies in the same manner as his disbanded peers: through a screen.

For Chan, lessons over the computer don’t compare to the real thing. “The sound of our instrument is such an important aspect, and I want to learn about it and be able to control it,” he said in a phone interview. But teleconferencing distorts that sound and makes real-time feedback difficult. “If your teacher is talking at the same time that you’re playing, you can’t hear him.”

As quarantines from the coronavirus have necessitated remote work, music educators — from the neighborhood piano teacher to elite conservatory professors — have struggled to maintain the quality of instruction.

Peabody dean Fred Bronstein said the transition has gone “as well as we could have hoped for it to go,” with the school prioritizing students’ ability to “advance and finish their degree” amid the disruptions. Most instructors had no prior experience with teaching music virtually. “The paradigm shifted so quickly. Everyone shifting their teaching in a manner of days — it’s not an easy thing to do.”

James Lowe, who runs the Baltimore School of Music, is considering continuing online lesson packages after the quarantines end.
James Lowe, who runs the Baltimore School of Music, is considering continuing online lesson packages after the quarantines end. (HANDOUT)

Regarding online lessons, he acknowledged that “sound is a challenge. There’s no question about that.” Other key aspects of a music education are simply impossible to recreate. Ensembles, both chamber and orchestral, “are on hold,” he said. “A whole ensemble is just not really practical.”

But he pointed out that how music students adapt to the challenges can be a lesson in itself. “It’s part of the way we’re trying to train our students to think about [music careers]. How do you keep your maximum flexibility so you can adapt to the environment?”

To that end, LAUNCHPad, Peabody’s career services department, has introduced a digital collection of resources meant to sustain their students’ education and sense of community, including virtual watch parties of previously recorded concerts and online tutorials, all of which are free and accessible to the public.

James Lowe, himself a Peabody alumnus, runs the Baltimore School of Music, which offers open-enrollment music lessons for a variety of instruments. He estimated that the school has lost about 40 percent of their students, whether due to students’ own lost income from the quarantines or a general wariness about learning music online.

“It’s tough. I get it,” said Lowe, a guitarist with prior experience teaching remotely to students from his home state of Nebraska. “You have to change your teaching pedagogy. The way we’ve always dealt with issues [like] fingering or hand position — I can’t just move their hand a little bit or make these small adjustments. We have to over-explain everything.”

There are some upsides to online instruction, like the convenience factor for students — so much so that Lowe is considering continuing online lesson packages after the quarantines end. And the remaining students have enjoyed unexpected insights from their instructors.

“I keep hearing from teachers, ‘I’m so glad that I’m seeing where students are practicing because I understand issues so much better,’” he said. “One of our guitar teachers had a student that had a chair with arms on it. You can’t play like that. Or students that don’t have a music stand or a footstool.”

Dr. Mellasenah Edwards teaches violin at the Peabody Preparatory and the Baltimore School for the Arts, where she also heads the music department. She reported that the shift to online teaching has caused her to become “more positive, more efficient and focused than ever in the lessons because I have to be as clear as possible.”

That involved creating a list of guidelines for her students about where to stand in front of the camera and how to prepare their music, but that efficiency also came with a price tag: Dr. Edwards uses a high-quality microphone and speakers so that she can provide demonstrations to her students and hear them as well as possible — a roughly $250 investment, in addition to her laptop, that she acknowledged not all students are able to make.

Ashley Lainez studies with Osi Atikpoh (on computer screen).
Ashley Lainez studies with Osi Atikpoh (on computer screen). (HANDOUT)

But the increased focus she noticed in herself has transferred to many of her students. Learning remotely is “getting them way more organized. They have to write things in [their music themselves] because I’m not there to write it in. They’ve become more accountable.”

Regarding the unavoidable hang-ups — spotty Wi-Fi, dropped connections and, in Dr. Edwards’ case, two Pomeranians that bark for her attention in the background — she said, “You have to have a sense of humor about it. I do think we’re going to become way more creative after this.”

Perhaps no music education organization has had to make more drastic adaptations than BSO OrchKids, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program that provides in-school and after-school music lessons to over 2,000 children across 10 of Baltimore City’s public schools.

In late February, OrchKids staff was already discussing the possibility of long-term school closures, according to executive director Raquel Whiting Gilmer. But the day that really stands out for her was March 12, when their staff heard that Governor Larry Hogan would hold a press conference later that day; they correctly guessed that he would announce the temporary closure of public schools.

“We sprung into action and made sure all of our after-school kids had their instruments and supplies,” Gilmer recalled. OrchKids’ after-school program constitutes their most intensive form of lessons, serving over 300 students with three hours of music instruction four days a week — and dinner. “Miloš Tošić, who oversees our instrument inventory, ran out to get extra reeds and extra rosin. We pulled out instruments to take into our offices because we house hundreds of instruments at our [partner] schools — we didn’t know if we would have access to them.”

The following week, OrchKids provided a crash course in the app they would be using to provide private online lessons to both staff and families, including a technology survey. “We knew we needed to have a platform that would be accessible on cell phones because that was going to be the technology available to most of our families,” said Gilmer.

The shift to offering private lessons was itself a departure, as OrchKids primarily operates on a group lesson model. So far, many OrchKids students have taken advantage of the opportunity, particularly those in the after-school program, with 90 percent of those students signing up for online private lessons.

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Instructor Rachel Winder, who typically teaches band at Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School and Highlandtown Elementary/Middle, was able to squeeze in one last concert with her students on March 11 — the day before Governor Hogan announced school closures — before she transitioned to teaching virtual private lessons. Although she confessed that she prefers teaching chamber music, “it’s really nice for me to see [my students] one-on-one.”

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In fact, they often wind up helping her, too. “Seeing students every day is kind of what brings me home,” said Winder. “With all the stress and anxiety of what’s going on in the world, sometimes it’s hard for me to pick my horn up. But then I think I’m going to see my kids today. Let’s warm up, let’s get ready.”

It could be tempting to look at the way that musicians are adapting to the COVID-19 quarantines and draw a rosy picture about the state of the artform during the lockdowns. Make no mistake: Music education is suffering right now, and seemingly in direct proportion to how advanced a student is.

In general, beginning and intermediate students seem to have more to gain from online instruction. There are concepts like basic rhythm and harmony that can be more easily taught through a screen — and it’s an argument that there’s no better time than now to pick up a new instrument, especially for those with extra time on their hands. (To that end, those with some disposable income should check out the Baltimore School of Music’s virtual lesson package.)

But when you’re at a level where you don’t need an instructor to inspect your at-home practice space or walk you through numbering your measures, then frustration like Hotin Chan’s, the sophomore cellist at Peabody, becomes understandable, along with the larger Johns Hopkins student government’s request for partial refunds of tuition.

Tuition at Peabody, which is part of Johns Hopkins University, tops $25,000 per semester for full-time students. Chan pointed out that the canceled “chamber music and orchestral playing is a huge part of what we pay our tuition for. It’s why we’re here physically.” Not to mention that facilities like gyms, libraries, printers and 24/7 practice rooms are now not available even to the few students left on campus.

So, yes, tech-savvy students can pull together ensemble “performances” through layering apps, but that doesn’t recreate the experience of learning how to shape live sound with dozens of other people and respond to in-person cues — an ability that often forms the base skillset required for eventual employment as a musician.

“I understand that it’s a difficult time for everyone,” Chan added. “It’s hard.”

OrchKids executive director Raquel Whiting Gilmer also acknowledged the difficulty of the situation, along with the importance of continuing some kind of music education throughout it. “COVID-19 is a crisis, but Baltimore has lots of crises that have been going on for a while. Our families, our students, live in the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by violence and challenges around food [and] housing security. These are issues that people are still facing — and there’s a pandemic.”

But throughout it, their students have returned to their instruments, dialed into their lessons, and played on.

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at nonemakerwrites@gmail.com.

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