Tag Archives: Teaching with Creativity

Back in the Studio: Teaching amidst Covid-19

The first week of summer lessons…July 6th, 2020…students started to return to in-studio lessons for the first time since mid-March.  What joy for both students, parents, and for me!  We set up protocols:  We all wear masks.  We wash our hands with disinfectant coming and going.  I’m teaching the “Coronavirus Etude” by Jeff DePaoli as a fun way to warm up and actually have each student clean their piano!  I stay on my side of the room at my piano.  The students use the left side of the studio and that piano stays as the “student” piano.  Parents wait in their cars and only 1 student at a time comes into the studio.  I’m spacing out lessons with five-minute breaks so that I can clean doorknobs, stair rails, piano bench, etc.  I found myself today using a kind of amalgam of teaching styles combining online patterns with studio tools.  Students write in their own piano notebooks.  They now bring their own pens, pencils, and colored highlighters.  We still count in measure numbers.  Students draw their own stars on their music pages.  I draw out more complicated things on my own whiteboard and take a photo and send it home to print out.  I truly was able to stay on “my” side of the studio…it is not 6 feet apart but almost.  While the COVID numbers in MA are still steadily declining, we are using this in-studio time to play duets and record…things we can’t do online.  But when students are reading new music, I am finding that I’m incorporating more ear training and solfege…tools that I added to online lessons but now are continuing in the studio.  The first thing that I have been doing with all my students, is to remove my mask for a second and show them I am still smiling even though they can’t see the lower part of my face.  Sweet second grade Gracie…responded by saying, “But Teacher Penny, I can see that your eyes are smiling”!  And so begins a new normal, for as long as it can last.

Piano Teaching Week #14 Online! (amidst COVID-19)

We just completed our final week of the teaching of the regular school year.  After a two-week break, our studio will start summer lessons, still online, Monday and Tuesdays until the school season of 2020-2021 starts up again in September.  For this final post of the regular school year teaching amidst COVID-19, I can say I am so very proud of my students and their families.  They stayed

We just completed our final week of the teaching of the regular school year. After a two-week break, our studio will start summer lessons, still online, Monday and Tuesdays until the school season of 2020-2021 starts up again in September. For this final post of the regular school year teaching amidst COVID-19, I can say I am so very proud of my students and their families. They stayed on board and online to the point that online lessons started to feel very smooth, even normal. We produced two completely different video recitals in the space of these 15 weeks. And continued to conclusion, our women’s studies project where every student studied at least one piece by a female composer and counted practice time to raise money to sponsor 12 arrangements of compositions by women for early leveled piano curriculum. Collectively, the studio raised $1,300! During this project, I was asked to be part of a panel of 4 teachers/professors of piano to give three national webinars on “The Myths, Mystery and Magic of Women Composers” for Music Ed Connect.

One point of evidence though that this is still not a normal time is that, even though MA is starting to carefully open up and our numbers of Covid-19 infections are going down, the rest of the country is now seeing staggering high cases, threatening everyone’s health, travel, and economic viability. We do not yet know how schools will function this September. And so, I do not yet know in what fashion the studio will operate this fall. This summer we will remain 80% online with a few students coming to the studio for lessons, with social distancing, using my two separated pianos, washing of hands, masks, cleaning of surfaces between lessons and allowing only 1 person at a time in the studio, phoning parents in the car when we are ready for another student to enter.

I am suspecting that this September, we will be using a combination of in-studio and online lessons, depending on the situation and/or rotating days in the studio and days online. It is important to get back to studio lessons because as well as we adjusted to lesson online, there were things we could not work on such as tone production and it took longer for students to learn new repertoire over the internet. Using the internet is just not as effective for very young students.

I am pleased that more students than normal have signed up to continue lessons over the summer since no one is traveling much. And I am offering tuition packages of 4 lessons that can include a mixture of private and online group classes. We have fun things planned: an interstate studio online theory competition; creating music book stories online, playing group piano games with online “escape” rooms, meeting out-doors in small groups to create plaster molds of our hands, and small group outdoor theory book picnics. It’s more important than ever to maintain a connection to all of my students.

But as one 5-year-old student of a colleague has said in a heart-breaking way: “I don’t like to Zoom. It’s a picture of a teacher sending a picture of a piano lesson to a picture of a student. It’s not real…it’s fake. I want the real one.”

and online to the point that online lessons started to feel very smooth, even normal.  We produced two completely different video recitals in the space of these 15 weeks.  And continued to conclusion, our women’s studies project where every student studied at least one piece by a female composer and counted practice time to raise money to sponsor 12 arrangements of compositions by women for early leveled piano curriculum. Collectively, the studio raised $1,300! During this project, I was asked to be part of a panel of 4 teachers/professors of the piano to give three national webinars on “The Myths, Mystery and Magic of Women Composers” for Music Ed Connect.

 One point of evidence though that this is still not a normal time is that, even though MA is starting to carefully open up and our numbers of Covid-19 infections are going down, the rest of the country is now seeing staggering high cases, threatening everyone’s health, travel, and economic viability.  We do not yet know how schools will function this September.  And so, I do not yet know in what fashion the studio will operate this fall.  This summer we will remain 80% online with a few students coming to the studio for lessons, with social distancing, using my two separated pianos, washing of hands, masks, cleaning of surfaces between lessons and allowing only 1 person at a time in the studio, phoning parents in the car when we are ready for another student to enter.

I am suspecting that this September, we will be using a combination of in-studio and online lessons, depending on the situation and/or rotating days in the studio and days online. It is important to get back to studio lessons because as well as we adjusted to lesson online, there were things we could not work on such as tone production and it took longer for students to learn new repertoire over the internet.  Using the internet is just not as effective for very young students.

I am pleased that more students than normal have signed up to continue lessons over the summer since no one is traveling much.  And I am offering tuition packages of 4 lessons that can include a mixture of private and online group classes.  We have fun things planned:  an interstate studio online theory competition; creating music book stories online, playing group piano games with online “escape” rooms, meeting out-doors in small groups to create plaster molds of our hands, and small group outdoor theory book picnics. It’s more important than ever to maintain a connection to all of my students.

But as one 5-year-old student of a colleague has said in a heart-breaking way: “I don’t like to Zoom.  It’s a picture of a teacher sending a picture of a piano lesson to a picture of a student.  It’s not real…it’s fake.  I want the real one.”

Piano Teaching Week #7 Online! (amidst COVID-19)

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!

Piano Teaching Week #5 Online! (amidst COVID-19)

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.

 

Piano Teaching Week #2 Online! (amidst COVID-19).

March 22 -28, 2020.   Now that everyone has been set up with their online platforms and have figured out the best placement for their smartphones or iPad or laptop computers, we were able to start our lessons much quicker this week.  We all had to come up with creative solutions to place our devices so that we could see both each other and our keyboards.  My video camera is placed up high on the mantel of a fireplace in the studio, held in place with a gummy stick product similar to playdoh.  Some students used removable painter’s tape to wrap their phones to a nearby lamp pole!  One family came up with the solution for their laptop….by placing a small 5 step metal ladder by the piano…the next to the highest rung was just the perfect height! 

We begin each lesson with students showing me where they wrote down their practice times in their piano notebook.  Now each week, I can start to challenge them to raise their practice time to 150 minutes, which surprises everyone that this is only 30 minutes a day for 5 days.  One of my students takes Sunday off from practicing because this is the day, they dedicate to family two-mile runs, bicycle trips and backyard planks to stay in shape since all team sports have been canceled and we are all mandated to staying either indoors or outside away from others.  During lessons, we are now experimenting with split screens!  I have learned, from one of my tech savvy students of course, how each of us can watch a YouTube video at the same time and still see each other.  Professional music groups are filling our inboxes and spirits with samples of symphonies and chamber pieces played virtually from their own living rooms.  One of the first of these to appear is the Colorado Symphony playing a virtual chamber version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy of the last movement of his last symphony, #9.  Many of my students play this theme and have it memorized for their memory lists.  For each of these students, we were able to watch this uplifting 5-minute video of musicians playing physically separated in their individual living rooms but musically together with sophisticated recording equipment.  It was wonderful.  Inspired by this experiment, I also set up a private YouTube Listening channel for the studio and downloaded a video for each student for them to watch…usually a video of a piece they are currently learning so that they could understand that their music is important because other pianists play them too.  

So far, everyone is healthy and practicing social distancing.  Some of my families are very fearful; they have parents with asthma or grandparents who have compromised health issues. We don’t know anyone yet who has had to be hospitalized although the numbers around us are growing. One family spent the week working to extricate an Aunt and Uncle and cousins from a sabbatical in Spain.  They made it back, healthy but under quarantine now in North Carolina.  Families are doing their best to celebrate birthdays at home without friends and family and school mates.  It helps, all around, for me to see my families and I’ve been told that my students look forward to their weekly lessons.  It is difficult to stay on time…I’m running at least a half late by the end of a teaching afternoon.  It’s not just that teaching online is harder; but we all need to check in with each other.  Parents share their worries; yet we are all so grateful our musical life continues as normal in an otherwise very abnormal time.