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.
This 5th week of teaching all piano lessons online has been a real turning point and where I can see who is thriving and who is not. Most of my students are now so comfortable working on Facetime and Skype that they are making real progress. So much so that we are ready to host 3 virtual recitals next week on the Zoom platform that allows multiple users to share screen time together in a group. By now, our studio would have hosted one of our major large recitals of the year. So, not only will students perform in real time, albeit online, I am going to use my non-individual lesson teaching time this coming week, which would have been our spring vacation week from school, to put together a video of all of our students performing a newly learned work that will be posted on our private You Tube channel for all of my families to watch. It is really important to have specific goals of achievement, just like we have during our regular piano semesters. Students are excited to share and perform on Zoom. And they are very pleased that we will have a permanent video record of their playing…something we have not done before as a whole group. Parents often video record their individual students in performance. But now we will have a presentation of the entire studio. I’m planning on using some fancy video editing tools to create a movie that is as visually interesting to watch as much as to listen to. We’ll see if my new-fangled video skills can stand up to the test! Fingers crossed!
But not all students are thriving in online lessons. The very young are having a difficult time. It seems that students in elementary grades truly thrive on interpersonal connections; the warmth of a voice, a ready smile and body language that is easy to understand and that provides immediate feedback. While teaching online, I try to speak slower so that I can be understood. I use letter blocks, hand gloves and numbered dice to indicate clearly that we are talking about a “C” versus a “D” or “right hand” versus the “left hand” or the finger number “Four” versus finger number “Five.” One blip of the screen can mean that the student does not hear your reference point and 5 minutes of ensuing miscommunication can eat away at valuable lesson time. Learning to count octaves up from the bottom of the piano and to count measures has been a critical skill to teach and learn. Fortunately, we can see ourselves teaching as well as seeing out students at their piano, which is a wonderful reminder to make sure our facial expressions are larger and thus, easily understood. But young students, as much experience they have playing games on screens, seem to not feel our communication as much. They hit a dead spot, like a bird flying into a window they cannot see, and lessons may not be as much fun as before.
So, it’s not just as simple as getting the right “set up” for teaching online. It’s not just making sure you have copies of all of your student’s music. Something is missing and for some students, it can be detrimental. So, the next problem solving going forward will be how to make sure everyone stays engaged. It is amazing how much my middle school and high students are thriving with the necessity now of being more independent in their lessons and practice…taking their own notes. Checking off their memory list pieces. Writing in pieces learned onto their 30 lists. And with extra time at home and fewer activities to divert their attention, energy and focus, I’m hearing some of the best piano playing of the year. But it is back to the drawing board for me still. Maybe I’ll go watch old episodes of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. Fred and Elmo were always able to make it seem like they were in our living room, for everyone, all the time.