Arts & Events » Music

Playing at Home

Local musicians describe the pros and cons of teaching music online.

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In a nod to these strange times we’re now living in, guitar-maker Fender began offering three free months of lessons — guitar, bass and ukulele — to the first 100,000 new subscribers to its Fender Play platform. And that was after Moog and Korg had released synthesizer apps for free, calling their largesse “a gift to spread positivity.”

Because Netflix and staring at a phone can fatigue the soul during quarantine, music lessons are more important now than ever. For children, they are a regular, challenging routine mixed with fun and practice. For parents, they create an educational environment at home as their children continue to build musical foundations by trusted instructors. For musicians, they are steady income as many of their booked performances are canceled.

Local musicians who depend on teaching income to supplement their other musical gigs have had to adjust. Before the global pandemic, Treesa Gold performed with the Richmond Symphony and other orchestras, supplementing that with teaching Suzuki method violin that supplied about a third of her income. In the weeks leading up to the quarantine, Gold admits to having felt anxious about students coming back-to-back in and out of the studio.

“I was having kids wash hands thoroughly before and after each lesson,” she says. “Plus we also do group lessons once a week and that felt all kinds of wrong as well.”

The good news is her 12 students all have been able to remain in the studio via FaceTime lessons.

“It will be my beginners that’ll lose the most from not being able to have lessons in person,” she says. “Both because I need to shape their hands with my hands and also because little people have littler patience for online lessons.”

Looking to supplement lessons, Gold introduced a live-streaming group class where she did the next installment of the music history course, Dead White Guys, on the expressionist era. Because of the newness of it all, she expects things to morph as the studio needs demand.

The early results are good.

“So far, especially for my advanced players, FaceTime lessons have been working far better than I expected,” she says. “The biggest loss is being able to play with the student because you can’t play simultaneously in a lesson over FaceTime because of how the microphones work. It’s a loss, to be sure.”

Drummer Scott Clark counts on teaching drum and beginning piano for a fifth of his income when he’s not performing at clubs, theaters, corporate events and weddings. He’s begun offering online lessons and some students have signed on, although those he taught through schools have not. Despite his loss in students, he’s hearing about teachers growing their studios through online lessons.

“I think this trend will continue over the months as this quarantine continues and parents are looking for other outlets for their children or even for themselves,” he says.

Like Gold, he sees music lessons as important now because everyone needs outlets.

“I also think that especially now having something else to focus on can be a great way to take your mind, or students’ minds, off of this new normal that we have all been thrust into so quickly,” he explains. “Something about having a lesson and something structured can help give direction and drive in a time of confusion and adjustment.”

Samson Trinh is the lower- and middle-school music teacher at the Steward School, in addition to teaching private and group ukulele and saxophone lessons to 15 students as part of its afterschool enrichment program. Fortunately, his students and their parents were open to continuing private lessons online.

“Zoom instantly entered the lives of many public and private school educators, including myself,” Trinh says of focusing on continuous learning by communicating with educational apps such as Seesaw, Google Classroom and Zoom. Many educational resources, he says, are being shared among teachers through social media.

He quickly geeked out and adapted to the bells and whistles that Zoom had to offer.

“I used a headset with an attached mic and connected an audio interface to Zoom’s speaker and microphone settings,” he says. “I’m very impressed with Zoom’s ‘Share Screen’ feature, which allows me to share with students in real time. I can play audio recordings from Spotify and iTunes, mirror my iPad via airplay to my MacBook where students view PDFs of sheet music from an app called ForScore and play music video examples from YouTube.”

Clark acknowledges that musicians aren’t the ones people think about first when it comes to job loss.

“Restaurant workers and other types of ‘industry’ workers are more visible day-to-day, so as I tell people about the work that I — and most of my friends - have lost, everyone seems shocked,” he says. “They always say they’ve never really thought about musicians and the work that they’re losing.”

You don’t have to be a musician to realize how much we need the moments of joy music provides in our lives right now.

“We need it more than ever,” Gold says. “And, as always, music lessons plant the seeds in the next generation that help our society keep the arts alive and well.”

Then there’s that gift of positivity.

“In the coolest and nerdiest way,” Trinh says, “Playing a musical instrument is a jubilated full-body workout for the brain.”

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