How COVID-19 Has Changed Music Lessons for Teachers and Students

L-R: Elizabeth Pupo-Walker, Jessica Pavone (Photo by Hiroyuki Masuko), Kid Millions

Editor's note: Nick Millevoi, a frequent contributor to Reverb News, is a composer, guitarist, and teacher based in Philadelphia. Having moved his own lessons online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he interviewed other music teachers about their experiences as well for this article. Check out his personal website here or find Millevoi's other writing on Reverb.

On March 13, as lockdown orders became inevitable across the country, I spent the morning sending emails and texts to all of my students that our guitar lessons would be continuing via Skype for the foreseeable future. Admittedly, I was concerned about how this was going to go over. I've been giving lessons online for the past five years or so, but those students hired me to teach them in that way and I worried that my usual in-person students here in Philadelphia might not like that format.

I was pleased with the immediate response—most people were onboard, while others were a little more hesitant but willing to give it a try. After a couple back and forth exchanges about how to set up a Skype account and some technical stuff, everyone was willing to give it a go.

Since I had experience giving online lessons, I was confident that we'd be able to accomplish just as much as we normally would in person, but it was important to me that my students feel the same way. Every student has different needs, and my student base is pretty diverse as far as that is concerned—some are professional musicians and some are hobbyists, and their ability level ranges from people who've been playing all of their lives to people who have limited experience.

Nick Millevoi performs for Hoover Public Library's "Live From My Living Room" series.

For the more experienced students, I had no doubts that we would be able to get through our lessons simply by chatting about ideas and concepts and passing assignments back and forth. But would this work for students who need more hands-on experience and would like to play with another person?

In the months since that morning in March, I've been pleasantly surprised to see how all of my students have risen to the occasion and all have made exceptional progress. I have also learned a lot along the way and made some adjustments from utilizing programs like GarageBand and MuseScore to share assignments and ideas back and forth, to being in more regular contact with my students who choose to share videos of their playing and asking questions.

Maybe it's a little weird to say, but I've really been enjoying this experience and, if all the videos and recordings I'm receiving are any evidence, I'm pretty sure my students are too.

But I've been really curious how this process is working for other teachers, especially those who teach other instruments, and have wanted to know how things are going. I think we all stand to learn some things from each other so I decided to reach out to a few teachers who have been working online and ask them some questions.

Rough Transitions

Many teachers have been thrust into the online teaching experience with no preparation and no experience, having to adjust immediately and figure it out as they go. Multi-instrumentalist, composer, and teacher Jessica Pavone explains her transition to online piano and violin teaching: "I have never given an online lesson before. In fact, it was something I was morally opposed to until recent times. Having never taught in this way, it was very clear after the first lessons that I was going to need to become more tech-savvy in order to make this work."

Elizabeth Pupo-Walker with students, via her website.

Percussionist Elizabeth Pupo-Walker is also new to online teaching: "I am not a tech-y person, so this has been a learning curve. I want to be able to adapt when needed, whether it's related to tech or curriculum, so I'm still sorting my way through it all. I try to keep a sense of humor, which helps a ton, since it's a fairly ridiculous experience sometimes."

But not everyone I spoke to found the same humor in adjusting. John Colpitts (aka Kid Millions) has been having a rougher go of transitioning his drum lessons online and explains, "I find Zoom lessons to be more exhausting—even though I no longer commute to my studio, which used to take up as much as 70 minutes a day, it feels like I'm getting less done. I dread the Zooms—I used to really enjoy the in-person lessons. Teaching via Zoom for drums is a much worse experience."

Of course, Colpitts isn't alone. When asked for more insight on the negative aspects of his experience with Zoom, he pointed me to Kate Murphy's recent New York Times article, "Why Zoom is Terrible," where the author writes, "Psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making you feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (or more than you were already)."

Colpitts adds, "It's harder to communicate when the medium is at such a low resolution—audio and visual. Communication slows down, and we both have to work harder to try to be understood."

Tech Tips

While that may be the case, there are things that can be done to improve the experience for both student and teacher. Guitarist Adam Levy has extensive experience teaching lessons online and has been doing so for about a decade. He describes the setup he's found works best for him: "I use the built-in camera on my 2015 MacBook Pro. It's pretty good, especially when I've got a good light source. I have an LED light panel that I bought at a local camera store. Good lighting makes any camera better. My number one advice to anyone wanting to teach this way is: Get an LED light panel, or light ring, or whatever. It really helps make things look professional and not like you're in a dungeon."

He continues, "For audio, I'm using my Tascam DR-40X PCM recorder with its stereo mic pair. It makes talking and music sound better, and I can bring it closer to myself (on a Joby stand), so I don't have to raise my voice quite as much. I feel like this makes the whole conversation feel more personal, because I talk at a more natural volume."

When Pavone noticed that her Zoom lessons were dropping via wi-fi, she discovered that she could easily solve that issue by plugging directly into her router. She adds, "I use an external microphone that is plugged into my computer through an interface for a more solid and focused sound, eliminating use of the internal mic of the computer. I have a 15-foot, 1/8-inch cable that comes out of my stereo aux so the audio out is through my stereo speakers."

While it might be a lot for us teachers to ask our students to improve their own setups, I have personally found that Pavone's last tip is easily achievable for most students. When both parties use external speakers or headphones, it can drastically improve the experience.

Students Thriving

In my experience, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that not only are my students accommodating to the online lesson experience, but that most of them are thriving.

While teachers such as Pupo-Walker, who work primarily in classroom settings, have additional struggles in maintaining the attention of a class of 30 or so students (though Pupo-Walker insists she still manages to "keep it fun"), Pavone has had a similar experience to my own. Even with her younger, school-age students, she says, "I also have noticed that they are much more focused now that they're not in school. The students I work with who typically have had the hardest time concentrating are all really flourishing."

"The students I work with who typically have had the hardest time concentrating are all really flourishing."

She adds, "School is exhausting, and kids are easily distracted by herd mentality and socialization, which makes learning very challenging. Also in New York City, many students have to commute either on a yellow bus or by public transportation an hour each way to get to school, having them leaving home as early as 7:00 and not getting home until after 4:00."

Levy has also noticed one of the more pragmatic improvements to his lessons, noting, "Fewer cancelations/reschedules and folks tend to be right on time." I'm pleased to say I've noticed the same.

Creative Solutions

Of course, most of us music teachers are in this business because we are creative people ourselves—which is certainly true of everyone I've spoken to for this piece, all of whom are performers, composers, and improvisers—and that is an asset in a time like this.

In lieu of being able to play together, I've found new ways to connect with my students, which has been fun for me and given me deeper insight into their creative processes. In the past, I've never asked a student to make a track for me in GarageBand, challenged them to create a music video, or given quite as many composition and arranging assignments as I have in the last couple months, but now I find that these sorts of challenges have brought out a new level of creativity in my students and engagement with our lessons.

Pupo-Walker has also been reaching students in her class in new ways. She explains: "Since so many students don't have instruments at home, I am teaching them how to make homemade percussion instruments! It's a lot of fun. I'm trying to use only household goods that are common to most homes. If they are allowed, I also encourage them to look through kitchen drawers for things like wooden spoons or chopsticks for drumming."

Whatever is necessary to reach students in these times, it's important to remember that the nature of our lessons have not changed. Levy says, "Teaching is so much about connecting on the student's level. In some cases that means listening more and answering questions. In other cases it means coming to each lesson with a solid plan prepared. In person or online, that doesn't change much."

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