Teaching online is starting to seem so normal that the lessons and the days move smoothly from one to the other. So routine now, except that working solely online is very tiring, as study after study has shown. Something about not being able to read body language makes the brain work harder to communicate and to reach an understanding of what someone is truly saying. Most students are cheery when coming onscreen for their lessons, but I am also seeing a kind of restlessness now because it seems to be no end in sight from this pandemic. So, we are looking for ways to use what tools are available for use in online platforms that liven up the fun while learning. I now wear a different hat every week for teaching. One week it was a gold paper crown for my birthday. Another a silly fish hat with the head sticking out on side; the tail sticking out the other. Students have started to come to their lessons wearing their silly hats! I also pair my hat with a question of the week. This week was “What did you do this week that was different or new when nothing much is new now from day to day?” I learned so much from my students’ sweet answers: Kaylee made popsicles from scratch on one warm day; Al biked down to the waterfront with her brother and read a book. Sophie went to the large football field behind the high school with three friends and they took a different part of the field, spread out and exercised for their respective sports; softball pitching into a net, soccer moves, field hockey plays. I started to pair up students in lessons for surprise visits…as when Henry visited Dean during his lesson. That was huge! We held an open window, open door recitals where everyone played their memory lists this past weekend with everything open to the sidewalk so that people walking by might hear their music and smile. And my students have gotten really good at sending emoji’s, emoticons, and Giffy mini video-clips. In more than one lesson, we made a game out of communicating this way! If I wanted to hear a particular piece, I sent an emoticon that represented the song. That was a blast! And of course, students continue to share their pets, their stuffies, and their artwork. In some ways, teaching is more intimate than ever before as we see into our student’s living rooms, bedrooms, and houses.
Week #9: Piano Lessons during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
We are calculating how much everyone practiced during a 7-week period…most of which has now been spent at home in isolation during the COVID-19 Pandemic. We had just launched this year’s fundraising through practicing project, when in studio lessons ceased. But the practicing continued and now my students have raised between $15 and $35 by finding a family member who would sponsor them at three cents a minute. As of this date, we have raised just over $800 with more promises still to come. This money will be used to pay our three Berklee School of Music composition students who have created arrangements and elementary grade reductions of piano pieces by women composers from the 12th century through the 20th century! I am so pleased…knowing how difficult money is right now with many people out of work. But fortunately, most of our studio families are managing by working at home. We plan to put this music in a book that will be printed and passed out to all of our studio families. Then we will take this music on the road…making publishing arrangements so that this music can be made available for all to use.
This was a very significant week for our studio! We realized our first online video recital on our own YouTube channel. I made it unlisted and true to that designation…. these videos do not turn up in any searches or even on my public YouTube page. I divided our 40 some videos into 6 segments, all under ten minutes in length so that students and families could watch in parts or all together for the normal length of a studio recital. Since this is a very historic time, as one of my students Henry put it…” we are making history” by staying at home…I titled each section of our recital using the remarkable characteristics that my students and families have exhibited during this stressful time: Titled “The Resilient Piano Students of Penny Lazarus”, the sections are WE ARE BRAVE, WE ARE CREATIVE, WE ARE OPTIMISTS, WE ARE CONFIDENT AND DO HARD THINGS, WE ARE PLAYFUL AND HUMOROUS, WE REMAIN POSITIVE AND UPBEAT, and WE ARE GRATEFUL. It was wonderful how the student’s pieces…fit well into each category. I am so proud of all of them, especially since we put this recital together with most of the teaching online.
I’m still upgrading my online studio setup! This week we added a large pliable arm to my video camera so that students can now see almost all of my piano keyboard when I switch to the piano view from my headshot view. Although I just realized what was happening with one of my very young students…Sophia…a first-grader who just started lessons in September. All of a sudden, she was having difficulty telling up from down, right from left and high vs. low on the piano. I couldn’t understand why suddenly she was confused. She had these concepts down pat since September. Then I realized it was a video camera view! It was reversed on her parent’s phone. We are constantly learning how to teach music during this epidemic.
This week was also marked by the sudden appearance of buzz cuts for a lot of boys! All of our hair is getting out of control since we can’t visit hair salons or barber-shops. At least the boys can use hair clippers!
Even though I was still working during the Spring vacation week, writing and participating in webinars on Women Composers as well as creating our studio video, I had enough of a break from being at the computer to feel rejuvenated. It was helpful that there were occasional lovely weather days that allowed me to get out to work in the garden. Feeling energetic again allowed me to take stock of my work station so that Josh and I made some significant improvements: by ordering extra-long cables, we were able to improve the output by hooking up my laptop since it had been moved over to the piano, to the large speakers under my desk on the opposite side of the room, so I could hear my students even more clearly. We improved input by also connecting one of my recording microphones so that it would pick up my speaking voice while teaching. We reworked the video camera so that it would give my students an alternate view of my hands on the piano as well as seeing my face. It wasn’t long before switching between my computer camera and the video camera became smooth and automatic. My students came back to lessons with new skills online as well. They were screen sharing with me! To show me their work and new finds of music on You Tube. I am definitely enjoying my updated workstation!
This would have been the Massachusetts spring vacation week but with the closure now of 6 weeks of school and since it took about 3-4 weeks for local schools to create a unified plan for learning online, this traditional spring break was cancelled. I, however, was desperate for a break since we didn’t miss a single day of piano…we all moved from in studio lessons to online lessons over a single Sunday. I was straining my voice to speak clearly, and the use of headphones created headaches. I absolutely had a bit of PTSD over worry about making online lessons work technically and just as interesting and reflexive as in person. Would my students continue to enjoy their lessons? Would parents be able to pay for lessons? So, we mixed things up a bit: we held three group workshops using the meeting app Zoom and students followed this experience by submitting videos of their playing so we could create a group video recital to be posted on You Tube.
The Zoom meetings were terrific! We all began with a sobering thought for all…Governor Baker had just released information that school was cancelled for the rest of the year just an hour before our first zoom workshop. I started each workshop by giving the students time to talk about their feelings regarding school. Their responses were adult-like, heartfelt and honest. How they missed their friends; missed school birthday parties, sports, band, art classes, drama and their preference for learning in person. We are all so concerned about high school seniors missing their graduation ceremonies and senior week festivities. But my students pointed out that they were missing eighth grade graduation ceremonies marking their transition from middle school to high school and other step up ceremonies marking the movement from elementary school to middle school. Students were worried about falling behind. They were worried about their school lockers! The order to leave school came so quickly that most students did not know to empty their lockers of notebooks, iPads, jackets, sneakers and food. One student felt very badly for the custodians who must be smelling the rotting food emanating from each cubicle.
The students played so very well and really listened to each other. I initiated the need to mute all except for the student who was performing. But a few students in, I realized no one was making a sound. I didn’t have to mute anyone in the other group sessions either. We used hand signals and I learned a few new ones as well…the pointing up of fingers number 2 and 5 meaning “I agree”! However, the favorite time was at the end, when all students were encouraged to share peaks at their pets. Dogs, cats, birds, and guinea pig. We were even treated to chickens in Thalia’s backyard! Almost all students turned in videos of their playing and allowed us to make a successful end to the third quarter of the teaching year.