The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted virtually every part of modern society as people adjust their daily lifestyles in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. This is an acute struggle for music teachers, who are typically “hands-on” when teaching their students how to improve as a musician and who rely on the one-on-one contact brought about by private instruction.
The Goshen College Community School of the Arts (CSA), an outreach of the Goshen College Music Center, has taken on that challenge by embracing technology where possible. Private lessons in the CSA have now gone “virtual,” moving from in-person sessions to online meetings, and instructors are working hard to keep their young students engaged with the arts in a new way during a challenging time.
CSA director and piano instructor Mary Rose Norell recognized the enormous difficulties brought on by the pandemic, initially suspending all individual and group activities for a few weeks in mid-March as the virus exploded in the United States. She hoped the effects of the virus would dissipate quickly, but it became evident this was not the case. “When we initially decided to suspend lessons I decided to just take a break from teaching and finish up the semester later,” she said. “However, when it became clear we had to stop in-person activities for Spring altogether, I encouraged my students to transition to virtual lessons… and all but one did!”
Virtual lessons are, in many ways, similar to traditional one-on-one private music lessons. Rather than weekly sessions with their instructor in a studio in the Goshen College Music Center, lessons take place online via video-conferencing applications such as Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype. Students can still see, speak with, ask questions of, and receive guidance from their music teachers, but it is done through the screen of a computer or other electronic device.
There are benefits to online instruction during a time when many social activities that divide students’ attention have been cancelled. CSA instructors have noted that previous barriers to instruction, including missed lessons due to conflicts with numerous other student activities, have melted away. There have also been increases in students’ desire to learn, as well as more buy-in from parents as families find a new appreciation for music lessons.
For Luke Norell, CSA Piano Program Director and spouse of Mary Rose, social distancing restrictions and virtual lessons have resulted in many of his students improving at a faster rate than they had been before the shutdown. “Virtual lessons have been a really positive change in format for my studio for this past half semester,” he said. “Several of my students have greatly improved with more time devoted to practice. This is not surprising since, after all, every professional pianist knows that a steady routine of ‘social distancing’ is essential to being a pianist, even when there isn’t a quarantine involved!”
CSA String Academy Director Rosalyn Troiano has noticed a similar improvement. “The parents of my violin and viola students are amazing home teachers for their children,” she said. Troiano currently teaches a virtual studio of 38 students from the laundry room in her home. “There’s a great desire to learn, especially with my youngest five-year-old students, and the middle and high school students ‘own’ their progress more. I feel very fortunate to be able to continue teaching my students online.”
The idea of increased student commitment through virtual instruction was a common thread with teachers. “I find that most of the students are taking a different kind of ownership in their lessons,” said piano instructor Christine Gerig Way. “It’s also been good for me to see that I can let go of certain things which helps them be more independent.” Guitar instructor Matthias Stegmann has also noted the benefits, and said that his students have kept in good humor about the change. “It’s a challenge,” he said, “but it’s a challenge I enjoy.”
Teachers have had to adjust the way they approach the very idea of what a private music lesson is, now that they have moved from the studio to the computer screen. “Virtual lessons definitely favor a big picture emphasis in the lessons, which has been refreshing to me and my students,” said Luke. “Students have learned how to communicate better about music verbally, since measure numbers are more essential, and note names are a helpful part of referring to the score.
“With so much use of technology to help us continue our study, students have also gained practice in recording themselves, which I know we will continue to utilize in our future lessons, virtual or otherwise.”
There are, of course, some obstacles that come with a move to virtual lessons.
Videoconferencing requires a stable and fast internet connection, which not all students have access to outside of school. Teachers have noted that the nuances of sound don’t transmit as well over the internet, meaning it can be difficult to hear low sounds or a student’s tone quality. These challenges quickly became less of a barrier after the first few days of the change as both students and teachers adapted to minimize the limitations of the technology and focused on the positives to continued music education.
Virtual activities don’t work in every circumstance. The CSA was forced to cancel all remaining rehearsals and concerts for their music ensembles, including three youth choirs and two orchestras. The limitations of telecommunication makes group musical rehearsals and performances all but impossible to implement, and participants in these ensembles were issued half-semester credits or refunds of their tuition fees that can be used for future registrations when social restrictions are lifted.
However, one group experience has been able to continue in a virtual format. The CSA operates a thriving Music Together® program of classes for young children birth to age five that has successfully transitioned to online via Facebook Live and Zoom. In a traditional class, Music Together® licensed instructors lead highly interactive weekly sessions with registered young children and their caregivers as they play, sing, and make music as a group. After the onset of social distancing restrictions and with the blessing of parent organization Music Together® Worldwide, classes quickly became virtual and changed to shorter bi-weekly sessions. Families can either participate live with their instructor and other class participants, or watch videos of the meetings at a later date.
These online classes have had the unexpected bonus of reaching an entirely new group of people, as participants can now join from anywhere, even out of the Goshen area. “I have several families from out of town, and two from other states,” said Music Together® instructor Felicia Swanson. “This would not have been possible in a normal class setting.”
Music Together® Coordinator Jenny Campagna has also heard from families who have found positives in the new format. “I’ve had a couple parents tell me their children interact with the activities more without the distraction of other classroom things going on,” she said, noting that the videos are stored online so families can watch them over and over. “One mother told me they enjoy making music at a regular time every day as they repeat the lessons. I love that this format is bringing music to families more than just once a week.”
Mary Rose is pleasantly surprised by the number of families who opted to make the transition and continue with their CSA activities. Around 80 percent of CSA private lesson students who enrolled in the spring semester opted to continue online. Several families who decided not to continue online gave their partial semester refunds back to the CSA in the form of a donation, in order to support music education and the arts even as they take a break from lessons.
Online lessons will continue in the Goshen Community School of the Arts throughout the summer and going forward, pending further developments with the pandemic and guidance from federal, state, and local officials. In the meantime, the CSA continues its work to train the next generation of musicians. Private students will be participating in “virtual recitals” on Zoom this spring, streaming performances from their living rooms to an appreciative audience of their teachers, parents, and friends. Short video “home performances” are also regularly posted on the Goshen College Music Center Facebook page and the Music Center website.
For Luke and Mary Rose Norell, the end result has been immensely gratifying. “I have grown very much in my appreciation for my students and their families with the flexibility and focus they have shown in the past two months,” said Luke. “I think this has helped to build a bond that will make our future lessons even more meaningful.”
“It really reinforces my belief in the special and unique bond of the student-teacher relationship,” said Mary Rose. “It reminds me that we teachers are so fortunate to have this mentoring connection with a non-family member at a time like this.”