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‘Music’s going to help get us through it’: Teachers take online music lessons to their at-home students

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced music teachers all over Minnesota and beyond to teach from their homes and studios, and to take their classes to their students online. But before hearing from them on all that, what might they have to say about the role of music in historically dark times, including this one?

Ernest Bisong
Ernest Bisong

“Music is at the core of who we are as humans,” said Ernest Bisong, violin, jazz band, and digital music program instructor at Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul. “And socializing is a huge part of what that is. I hope this all passes in time, to get back to what we were programmed to do as humans.”

“What I want to tell everybody is, if you’ve watched movies, listened to music, had a dance party, read a book, drawn a picture, done anything like that, remember how important art was to you [then] in this time,” said Cara Wilson, violin and ukulele instructor at St. Joseph’s School of Music in St. Paul. “Because it’s a performing art, music is about people together. It’s about a conversation between a performer and the audience. So when you see those videos of Italians singing on their balconies together … you know, the other night we serenaded our elderly neighbors who had an anniversary. The performing arts connect people in a way I don’t think we even understand. The arts get under our skin in ways we’re not aware of.”

Cara Wilson of St. Joseph’s School of Music in her in-home music studio.
Photo provided
Cara Wilson of St. Joseph’s School of Music in her in-home music studio.
Wilson’s daughter Anneli takes an online viola lesson from her teacher, Rebeccah Parker Downs of St. Joseph’s School of Music.
Photo provided
Wilson’s daughter Anneli takes an online cello lesson from her teacher, Rebeccah Parker Downs of St. Joseph’s School of Music.

“For me, personally, it’s keeping me sane during self-isolation,” said Joe Suihkonen, a Minneapolis South High School and Oberlin Conservatory of Music graduate who teaches private guitar lessons and at the School of Rock in Chicago, and who spent the first week of his pandemic downtime learning and recording The Beatles’ White Album in its entirety.

“I consider myself a forever student of music, so having something to study like this is just helping keep the hands on the clock moving by. But [as] a consumer of music, it allegedly is supposed to be good for the soul or whatever, but it’s hard to frame it as being truly important when we’re in the face of such an existential threat.”

Joe Suihkonen of the Chicago-based School of Rock teaching guitar via computer
Photo provided
Joe Suihkonen of the Chicago-based School of Rock teaching guitar via computer.

“Music is critical at all points in time, but now it’s even more,” said Paul Babcock, president and CEO of MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis.

“It’s fortunate in some ways that we have this technology so that we can share music and to connect with folks, because we need to keep that connection even if we have to stay within the confines of our home. Music brings a lot to your self to play, and it also brings a lot to being able to connect with others. It’s hugely critical as we go through this crisis at the moment, and music’s going to help get us through it.”

All concerned are doing what they can to keep their students learning and practicing.

Paul Babcock
Paul Babcock

“I’ve got about 10 total students I’m teaching online as of last week,” said Suihkonen.

“Most of our teachers have moved online and we kind of left it up to them as to when they wanted to start that, because our teachers are contractors and they have different comfort levels with technology,” said Wilson. “Personally, I made the call last Wednesday and started my studio online on Saturday.

“I’ve seen all my students, at least once. It’s been really nice. This is a brand new thing for me; I’ve never done this. But there are also social media resources for people who are just doing this for the first time. There’s some really helpful teachers who teach online regularly who are like, ‘OK, here’s what you have to have. Here’s what you do.’ So it’s been really nice to see from the community [aspect], people helping each other and building each other up.”

Bisong: “We just started the process this week. It was on our timeline, but the process has been accelerated. Parents seem to be cooperative, and so far it’s working out. I helped train the instructors to go online. I basically helped them install the software; we’re working with Skype right now as the preferred platform. We set up the computer, installed the software, and showed them how to navigate the software and do some troubleshooting.”

At the same time and for many of the same reasons, songwriters and musicians are taking to social media and platforms like to perform gigs to online audiences, and some choirs and choral groups are taking to online services to facilitate virtual rehearsals.

Zoom seems to be the platform of choice for most choruses looking to host virtual rehearsals,” wrote choir blogger Tori Cook in her March 17 piece, “Virtual Learning: Taking Your Choir Rehearsals Online.”

Apart from Zoom, there are other video conferencing tools you can consider. These tools include, but are not limited to, Facebook LiveYouTube LiveGoogle Hangouts or Google MeetFacebook MessengerWebexGoToMeetingFreeConference, or Most of these have restrictions on the number of participants. So, while they could work for smaller choruses, they may not work for larger ones. You may also have to pay for these tools if you need more participants.”

“I’m a total luddite,” said Wilson. “My tech experience ends at turn it off and turn it on again. I’m an acoustic musician. But if you have a smartphone, it’s pretty easy. It’s fine, it works. Is it going to win a cinematography award? No, but it works. For someone like me, who doesn’t enjoy technology, it’s easy.

“Some of my students actually focus better, watching me on a screen. I don’t know if just because you have to focus more [over a screen], or that they’re just so used to being in front of a screen that that’s what they’re most comfortable with. When I go back to in-person lessons, I might just make a frame to talk through for some of them.”

As for how it compares to in-person lessons, all agree that there’s nothing like being in the same room with the other person, another player, a fellow in-the-flesh musician. Other obstacles?

Bisong: “Not being able to instruct, really, and tell the students, ‘Do this with your arm’ and actually move the arm and, like, play the music and tell them how to make it sound, actually demoing for them is a big challenge. And with so many people doing things online, the Internet connection can be finicky. There’s so many inherent challenges that come with it all, but we work through them.”

“I don’t care for it very much at all,” said Suihkonen. “The hardest part about it is the lag time between devices, so you can’t play anything together. It’s kind of a pain, because we can’t play entire pieces together, and I can’t reach out and move their hand or their thumb. I’ve used Skype and Facetime and Google Hangout, but Zoom is definitely the best, because you can do screen sharing. So I can bring up etudes on my computer and share it to their screen so we’re looking at the same piece of music. Zoom is definitely the best, but it’s hard to do. I don’t love it.”

No one really does from the sounds of it, but from the looks of things for the foreseeable future, many parts of online life will stand in for the real thing. And some students might even prefer online lessons, which aren’t new to the pandemic generation.

“We’ve actually been providing online instruction using video conferencing technology for the last nine years, so making this adjustment for the majority of our programs was pretty seamless,” said MacPhail’s Babcock. “Most of our teachers have experience with it and have background in teaching over distances, and that really made the transition easier for us.

“With this current crisis, it’s actually been a huge transformation and change. We went from 5 to 10 percent of our operations online to being 85 to 100 percent of our operations online, so now all of our students in individual instruction have transitioned onto online learning, and it’s going very, very well. And with students doing what they can and sheltering in place, we’re getting multiple requests for multiple sessions a week now.”

“It’s so easy to be fearful, and if you have something else to focus on, and if you can also offer the normalcy of somebody’s schedule, that’s good for people’s mental health. It’s good for my mental health,” said Wilson. “And so for a student to pick up on the fear and trepidation of the [world], and then to be in front of a teacher who is smiling and thinking about something else and engaging with them — how can that not be good for them?”

“I think the parents of kids are very thankful that their kids have this continued thing that they do to keep them from being too bored and cooped up in the house,” said Suihkonen, anxious to get back to recording side three of the White Album. “The kids are happy that they get to keep playing, but it’s just such a weird circumstance. I don’t know, the whole thing seems really small. It’s a trivial thing to pass the time on. I’m grateful for it, because it’s continuing some of my income. But studying music seems like a weird thing to do right now, but if they want to, might as well, because I’m just playing music by myself over here anyways.”

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