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Pandemic Piano

I had finally finished writing my dissertation, sent the final draft to my supervisor, when it seemed COVID-19 was going to hit fast and hard. News was coming in that other countries were already being quickly affected, and it seemed Canada would be next. So, on Thursday, March 12, I decided to take half the stuff out of my carrel at Robarts Library. I also reluctantly started to ask about a refund for a Climate Café booking with Hart House, as it really didn’t seem smart to gather 50 to 75 students at the time, even though governments here hadn’t declared a shutdown. Sure enough, the next day, Friday, U of T declared it would close and all events would be cancelled starting the following Monday. All classes, everywhere in Toronto would be cancelled until two weeks after March Break.

We now all know that the original two-week time frame was delusionally optimistic. Worldwide, we’ve seen starts and stops as attempts to open up the economy have not necessarily succeeded. Everything slowed or stopped, but music, that seemed to continue. DJ dance parties online were thriving, artists were streaming live sessions on various platforms, and music lessons went online. I was actually excited for the change. I was also excited that we might take this slow-down to rethink everything. What creative ways would we fashion to reach out to others?

Video segments on Zoom can be sent to parents and students for reference

I started to figure out the best platform for music teaching. Something that might emulate the experience of students coming to my door. Everyone was looking to Zoom, and I found it easy to use, and was not frustrating me, like Skype was. Lesson content didn’t necessarily have to change, but delivery did. The most difficult was finding ways to engage younger students. I found some good learning apps online that could lend some interactivity through screen sharing, but having to integrate them into lessons quickly meant that, on reflection, I could do more to improve overall lesson flow. I discovered how much in-person proximity does to convey energy. I’ve taught kids since I was 15 years old and have grown so used to sitting with them at the keyboard, standing up and moving to music, having them feel finger weight on their arms, demonstrating at the piano—all this had to be done between screens and camera adjustments. And when attention span is a concern, all these button presses and camera adjustments can be really cumbersome.

For advanced repertoire, my worry was not having the right equipment to properly hear sound. The right headphones, speakers, and microphone became important. I found that getting recordings sent for my listening helped with sound quality and I could hear dynamics and phrasing much better, and so could give more detailed comments. I’ll update as I discover what equipment seems to work well enough.

Despite these challenges, there’s so much potential in online music teaching. Both teachers and students need to adjust. I think our expectations around screen-watching are high. We see flash, colour, and sound, often with dizzying variety and speed. Music lessons can definitely be high-energy, but there is also much painstaking work and detailed problem-solving involved that isn’t immediately conducive to online viewing. Somehow the teaching screen, its creation and reception need to find its own context. I’m really looking forward to working on that this upcoming school year. The planning has already begun. I’m even going to pick up that guitar to play some songs for the kids’ group classes!

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