When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, I, along with my teaching staff, began teaching our piano students online. By the end of June, my students had four months of online piano lessons under their belts. I knew it was a big change for them, and that some students had adapted well and some were not as engaged as they had been with in-person lessons. I asked what they liked and didn’t like about them. Here are some of their answers:
— in-person is better because there’s less noise than at home
— now we practice more instead of chilling out watching TV
— as long as I can keep having piano lessons, it’s OK
— I like in-person better, I’m not sure why, I just feel it
— I like doing duets which we can’t do online
— I like online, it’s easier being at home. I can practice right before the lesson.
— in-person is easier; online cuts out when we’re talking
A few students stopped taking lessons due to their discomfort with the online format. It’s true, there was a learning curve for me and for the students who hung in there. We had to get used to the back-and-forth nature of communicating online—no more talking at the same time or playing at the same time. This could be a little hard for younger kids to understand. They couldn’t keep noodling on the piano while I was trying to tell them something or my voice would cut out. Also, my habit of pointing to a measure on the page wasn’t going to work anymore. Now I had to verbally direct them to a specific measure or a note within a measure. Students had to learn how to find their place on the score, a good skill to have.
Making sure that the student’s device was set up so I had a clear view of the keyboard and the entire student was very important. It became more challenging to check fingering if the view of their hands on the keyboard wasn’t clear. Also the sound of the instrument didn’t always come across distortion-free. There could be gaps in the music and fade-outs that had nothing to do with how the student was actually playing.
Despite these challenges and drawbacks, I was able to get into a rhythm of teaching my students online. It was important that we each have copies of the printed scores, so I ordered extras of their books and sheet music for myself. We learned how to take turns talking, how to tackle one small teaching point at a time. It was best to allow them to play the whole piece without interruption, and then focus on each section. We even figured out how to play music theory games during the lessons. In “Guess the Music Symbol”, the student chooses a music symbol without revealing it, then demonstrates it by playing a short improvised phrase. Then I or a sibling try to guess it. Another game is “Calendar Pages”, where we look at a picture in a calendar, then play a short improvised piece to interpret the picture. We’ve also played “Musical Conversations”, in which I play a phrase that is answered by the student and continuing to go back-and-forth; or “Copy That Phrase”, in which I play a phrase and the student sort of copies it and we go back-and-forth that way. We’ve also done some ear training by me playing a note with my keyboard hidden from view, and the student trying to match it on her keyboard. Students have been creative in coming up with their own games to top off the end of each lesson.
The best part is, students continued to progress, improving their pieces and learning new ones. Some of them accepted my invitation to make a video of themselves playing their best piece and posting it on our website in place of our usual spring recital.
As September lessons roll around, I’ve decided to continue with online lessons for the time being. We don’t know what lies ahead, when a safe, effective vaccine will be available, or when things will return to normal. Students will be adapting to their new school situation, whether that means full online learning or hybrid-learning. We long for the luxury of being together, hearing our music-making in the same room, sharing our in-person vibes, playing music together, our spontaneous conversations. That will return, but for now we will use all of our creativity, heart, skills, and intentions to keep the music flowing between us. The more we persist in making music any way we can, the more resilient we will be and the more our spirits will stay high and strong. Music can smooth away accumulated stress and make new brain connections. We need music now more than ever. So, right now, I’m grateful for Zoom piano lessons, FaceTime piano lessons, and Skype piano lessons (and guitar lessons, and all music lessons). Let the music play on!