Music by VICE

How Music Teachers Are Adapting to the Awkward Reality of Virtual Lessons

"Music teachers find themselves in a uniquely advantageous position. Not only can I do this work from home, but everybody has a little more time to pursue their hobbies."

by Josh Terry
Apr 17 2020, 11:00am

As most everyone has had to adapt to the new realities of social distancing, music teachers are facing unexpected challenges in moving their services online. Whether you're an out of work musician offering lessons for the first time, a private instructor scrambling to keep clients, or a public school teacher forced to keep an entire class motivated over a Zoom call, there are a wealth of obstacles and awkward learning curves you must overcome in this strange reality.

"It's tiring to sit at a screen all day for the kids and for the teachers. In-person teaching is much more energizing, just to be seeing real human beings and hearing their actual voice," said Sam Cantor, a Chicago-based musician and teacher who's been conducting music lessons virtually through the Old Town School of Folk Music.

VICE talked to nine music teachers across the U.S. to see how they've been coping and working in the COVID-19 landscape. Although the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the music industry, making life especially hard for touring artists and venue workers who rely on live music, music teachers are a unique bright spot who are able to provide a service to people stuck at home who now find themselves with ample free time to pursue their hobbies. Read on for their stories below.

In mid-March, full- and part-time music teachers began moving their classes online. Most agree that services like Zoom, Facetime, and Google Hangouts are convenient ways to hold lessons but the technological limitations of having lag, not being able to hear and play music over a call in real-time, and not being able to hold younger students' attention are drawbacks.

Harry Haines, a Chicago-based music teacher.

The technical side of not being able to physically be in the room with someone is more of a problem with younger kids because they rely on visual demonstrations for a lot of things. I've actually rigged my computer now where I've got a Zoom set up where I'm running my keyboard workstation into my computer and I've got a visualizer of the keys so I can actually press keys on my piano and it'll light up for kids to see and they can hear it too because I've got a sound mixer running. I'm lucky. I have this batch of parents who are willing to financially commit to remote lessons and even do more lessons a week. I've picked up some business because these kids are stuck at home all day and parents are really looking for an excuse to use this spare time with their children at home.

Max Allison, a Chicago-based piano teacher and musician with Mukqs.

Teaching a piano lesson is so heavily rooted in the tactile factor of being next to your students and showing them where to put their fingers and demonstrating examples to them in person. Online makes it a slower process because the physicality is removed. Kids also have attention issues and Zoom must get boring but I'm optimistic. People raising kids need a lot of help. Given that the conditions right now are so strained and different, even just having someone come on Zoom or Facetime with their kids to teach their kids is a boon and a change in the routine to keep their kids stimulated.

Sam Cantor, a Chicago-based music teacher and frontman at Minor Moon.

I teach classes through the Old Town School of Folk Music, and once everything went online, it was nice to be a part of a larger organization to help guide me through so I wasn't totally on my own. The first week was exhausting though. It's tiring to sit at a screen all day for the kids and for the teachers. In-person teaching is much more energizing, just to be seeing real human beings and hearing their actual voice. But the transition to Zoom has been relatively seamless despite the technology not allowing you to play music with them in real-time. I do worry about starting teaching relationships, especially in group classes with new students, will be really, really hard. But sustaining for the rest of the school year relationships that began in real life with kids is definitely doable.

Peter Katz, a New York-based teacher at School of Rock and frontman at Peaer.

At School of Rock where I teach, a lot of the kids are in these larger programs where they're supposed to be learning songs with the goal of performing them at some point. That goal has gotten murkier now. We don't really know what's going to happen. While online it's hard to really show kids how to properly hold their instruments and play chords, it's been nice that some kids are really grateful for the fact that they have a guitar they can practice on at home in their free time. It's no longer an after school chore they had to do. Music teachers find themselves in a sort of uniquely advantageous position. Not only can I do this work from home, but everybody has a little more time at home to pursue their hobbies. We can provide that service for people to hone their skills online.

Devin McKnight, a New York-based instructor at School of Rock and frontman at Maneka.

I'm at School of Rock, too, and I was pretty skeptical at first about moving lessons online, just because so much of my experience teaching relies on being able to physically show somebody what to do. It's been more like a guided practice rather than a traditional lesson due to the limitations. It's challenging anyway but keeping the flow of a lesson online is hard because any dead air with a kid with attention issues can't stay focused. You need to keep the action going constantly. I don't have access to my other jobs, which was working at a library and being a touring musician, so teaching makes me feel better to be able to do something.

Renée Yoxon, a Montreal-based musician and voice teacher.

I teach vocal lessons online already because I've prioritized teaching vulnerable populations. So I specifically teach people with disabilities and transgender people probably way more than I teach non-disabled and cisgender people. I'm trans and disabled and I understand them very well.I have made a point to reach out to people who might have difficulty getting to lessons, for reasons related to disability or if they're rural and trans and need to find a teacher, they can come to me online. Even something really simple, as in they can't afford the bus fare or they can't afford childcare, there are so many reasons why people want to take lessons online, even before this. Vulnerable populations are the people who are affected most by this pandemic.

Virtual lessons are a service that all teachers really should be offering. You don't need to touch your students. I have some students actually with sensory processing disorders and so they can't have the camera on while we're doing lessons. I give voice lessons by phone where I don't even see my students. Learning to teach people with a variety of disabilities and gender identities and whatever situations have really forced me over the years to look at things from unique angles and find ways to adapt my teaching and taught people who are deaf, blind. If you put your mind to it, you can always find a way to teach people.

Touring musicians who are out of work due to the postponement of live music and public gatherings are turning to teaching lessons online. While artists have been able to find clients, they've had to get used to the technology.

Melody Walker, a Nashville-based touring musician and vocal coach.

Since touring ended, I realized the best source of income is to go back to teaching and online is the only way to do that right now. I'm a voice coach and I prefer teaching lessons in person. Voice is a body-based thing where it's so helpful to be in a room with someone's energy. There are a lot of limitations to the technology to play music in person together on a call. You can't accompany someone. You could send them a file to watch and listen but that's it. Sometimes the sound will cut out on Zoom if people make loud sounds. People have so much screen time, so asking them to do a music lesson, which would normally be this in-person exchange of energy away from all distractions, is not the most attractive option right now.

John DeDomenici, bassist for Jeff Rosenstock and recent music teacher.

I'm a touring musician, so I took up teaching again because all my other jobs went away immediately. It was the only thing I could think of that I could do from my house because I don't know how to do anything else. I can get out a lot of people on Twitter pretty quickly, and it's going ok. Using Google Hangouts is super laggy and it's especially hard with beginners—one session was me just figuring out how to tune a student's guitar over the internet because they didn't have a tuner. There was some awkwardness at the beginning, but I don't think anyone was expecting it not to be, which is nice. Everyone's been pretty accepting that this is obviously not the way I would normally teach. The best lessons so far have been people who are looking for a new idea when it comes to playing bass or guitar. That's really easy to actually explain in this situation. I had a lesson with a kid from Sydney and he was a great player. We just spoke about just the approach that I take and some different approaches he could take to playing. We dissected a couple of songs and it was great. I could see myself doing that forever.

Other educators, like Audrey Alger, teach large classes at public schools, grapple with the same technological hurdles but are more concerned with how their students are coping with the changes.

Audrey Alger, orchestra teacher at Evanston, IL public schools.

We've had to teach online which we're calling "remote learning." I think that as a society we have greatly underestimated how much inequity there is with access to the internet. I think that not using the internet as a public good is maybe a big flaw in our social structure because now that this has happened, we were scrambling to make sure that kids had hot spots and that kids had access to technology so that they could even participate in this kind of learning. For my students who haven't had internet at home until two weeks ago when they got a hotspot from their school districts, trying to navigate a computer, on their own at home without an adult, is extremely hard for a lot of them.

I don't mean to sound negative but probably the most important thing that students learn at school is how to interact with each other and how to function in society. And right now the society part is not there. If we were to do this forever, if we were always going to be online teaching, trying to build that community over the computer would be really hard. I’ve had students call me crying because they can’t do their eighth-grade orchestra performance. For a kid, that’s such a huge milestone being able to do that. Not only that but not being able to go to graduation. It’s even worse for high schoolers. There’s a huge emotional impact on these students being stuck at home. Kids need a safe space to go to every day.

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music industry
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School of Rock
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COVID-19