Life in the Time of Cholera, er, Covid-19: Online Lessons

Over the centuries the teaching a musical instrument has essentially changed very little. Except perhaps for repertoire, the violin lesson you see today could easily have taken place in the 18th century. So when I informed my students and their parents weeks ago that because of the current Covid-19 crisis here In Italy I was going to start giving lessons online, some of them protested strongly. It seemed like they thought I was trying cheat them, that doing lessons online wasn’t really “work” for me, and that such lessons wouldn’t be effective. They were mollified after I explained I have been teaching my grandsons successfully online for two years and, yes, it can be frustrating. There are less than ideal internet connections, you can’t hear as well as you would like, the tone can be distorted, you can’t see as well (really important with beginners), and there just isn’t the same exchange of energy that you have in a one on one situation, all of which mean that I actually have to work a lot harder than in a normal lesson situation.

To the skeptical few who still wanted to suspend lessons until “this is all over,” I pointed out that they have invested a lot of time and money in the musical education of their children and that it’s a pity to lose all the momentum we have created. Besides, who knows how long this health crisis will really last?

But then on talking more to all of them I found out what was really behind some of their protests: they are leery of the internet. Most Italians live near where they were born, are close to their relatives and friends and don’t need to communicate with them via internet. Italy also would fit very nicely into the state of Arizona, so most Italians see their “faraway” relatives in person quite frequently. Therefore, very few have Skype, some are unsure how to download apps, and only use the internet for email, work projects and their children’s schoolwork. So I had to talk them through it. Here are the various concerns:

  1. Woe is me, what’s Skype?  Parents may not know how to download an app, but their children certainly do (much to the parents’ surprise), and they know how to use them, too. Children here all have cell phones and even those without them are experts, like children everywhere in developed countries. I have seen even five year olds help their parents with their cellphones. Secondly, if parents can’t bring themselves to use Skype or Zoom or any of the other video services, they can use WhatsApp. Yes, thank heavens for WhatsApp! Italians are hooked on their cell phones and especially messaging, so everyone has WhatsApp. And, joy of joys, this particular app has video for the cellphone! So for the most technologically challenged of my parents, WhatsApp is a godsend. Now none of them has an excuse not to try online lessons.
  2. Using their phones (for What’sApp) instead of their computers or tablets won’t work well as the screen is so small. Not to worry, I have given lots of lessons via my cell. It doesn’t matter to me whether the screen is big or small. I see everything I need to, though I am glad that I have a cell phone with a big screen. And they really don’t need to see me as much as I need to see them. After a week of online lessons, most have figured out how to download Skype and other apps so we have a choice: if one app doesn’t work too well, we try another.
  3. How am I going to make notes for them on their music? Easy. My younger and very high tech violin teacher daughter made me take her old 12″  iPad Pro from her when she got a new one and then install 4Score on it  to avoid carrying a lot of heavy sheet music and scores around. I used Notes to scan all the method books I use and group music on this iPad. It was a little laborious, but it sure is coming in handy now! I just screenshot the page in question, make the corrections and notes with my handy Apple Pencil, and email the page in question to the parents (who have already bought all these books).
  4. How are we going to make videos of your pointers? They can’t, but I can take a minute or two after lessons, make a short video and send it to the parents via, you guessed it, WhatsApp.
  5. There’s a lag between the video and audio. Sometimes you have to be really creative in getting the internet to work for you as the app you are using may not always have great reception. So I have found a way around the video/sound lag. I call the assisting parent with my cell phone and listen to the sound on that while watching the video on my computer or tablet with the mike turned off. Works like a charm.
  6. How are you going to teach my small child without being able to touch them? Yes, this is a challenge. I have started asking the parents of the little ones to send me videos of their practice (when they’re having a good moment), then I make observations, perhaps make a short video for them myself, and then see them once or twice a week for a shorter lesson. It seems to be working pretty well. I have noticed that the parents of these highly active small children are very happy to have this activity to help keep them busy. Yes, you need more flexibility and more time, but what’s the alternative? We need to have some compassion for parents who are trapped in confined and often small spaces with young children. And we can also give lessons to the little ones when they’re in a good mood instead of making them adhere to our fixed schedule. Obviously, this is more difficult if you have lots of little ones, but still better than stopping lessons altogether.
  7. No group lesson? Nope. I am not going to try to do that online although I understand other teachers are. I don’t have a good enough internet connection. It’s okay – the important thing is to keep the individual lessons going. Sooner or later we can all get back together.

In short, for every objection (or fear, really) that parents had, I had a solution ready. Now all they’re worrying about is how to pay me. I’m still working on that one as bank transfers for this sort of thing aren’t very big here yet.

The big surprise to my parents is that online lessons are very effective, far more than they would have thought. It isn’t perfect, but it certainly is better than letting everything slide, hoping that things will pick up again, losing momentum and perhaps interest in music altogether. And as an added bonus, they don’t have to face traffic to come to lessons! After a full two weeks of teaching this way, it’s working out even better than I expected and could have hoped for. In fact, I am even enjoying it. And parents are surprised at how well I can hear intonation, tone and dynamics problems.

We’re in this for the long haul, I’m afraid. The problem is that this epidemic is not going to be over in a couple of weeks. The number of cases is still going up in the places that have been cordoned off for weeks here in Italy. So I think all private music teachers need a long term strategy for teaching in these difficult times. It may be months before this situation is under control and even then, older people (like me) will still be at risk as this virus seems also to be carried and transmitted by healthy people to those with weaker immune systems. The Italian national quarantine is going on for at least another two weeks and will almost certainly be extended. I will probably not even go back to in-person lessons even after that for quite a while as I am at risk for my age even though I am healthy. I think that it’s time for national private and public music teacher’s associations to start speaking up. Everyone has too much to lose. And it’s not so difficult to give lessons online, even though in person is so much better for lots of reasons.

Now the advantages.

  1. No risking my life in the demolition derby that is our highway system.
  2. My car will see the end of the five year guarantee in May without hitting 100,000 kms (I’m 1000 kms short).
  3. I am not getting ANY disease transmitted by my students – not colds, nor flu, nor pink eye, not to mention Covid-19.
  4. Staying at home all the time, I don’t have to worry about constantly washing my hands and disinfecting, although strangely I feel like I should after every lesson.
  5. My students are all rested and finally have time to practice! They are doing school lessons online but even with a lot of homework, a lot less time is spent on schoolwork in general – and a lot less time is wasted, too, a point not lost on their parents.
  6. Everyone, including students, is finally learning how to tune a violin. I’ve been after them about this, but finally they’re biting the bullet. There are lots of apps to download (and no one is protesting about that now) and YouTube videos to help them.
  7. The parents are so glad to see me! I don’t think I have ever been so appreciated. Italians are a gregarious lot and love to go out, congregate in cafe’s, in the piazzas, hang out with their families and elders. Now they are stuck at home, some in very small apartments, with their children and none of the usual help from grandparents (they’re at risk, remember?). They can’t even go to the park as they are all closed. The kids look fine, but I perceive that some of the parents are getting the beginnings of a nervous tic. To see a friendly face (me) who’s going to help them with their kids… So it’s a good thing that they have all overcome their worry that they’re not getting their money’s worth with online lessons and that they can’t handle the internet.
  8. Now that they know how easy it is to do lessons via the internet, they will in the future let me give lessons to their kids online when they have colds and other communicable diseases that no one ever thought twice about exposing me to in the past.
  9. I don’t have to keep to a very tight schedule. Until now I have rented space in a music store where they have very rigid opening and closing times. Now, I can give those five minutes more to a student if he needs it without worrying about robbing someone else of his time. It makes for a very relaxed way of teaching. I can also spread the lessons out over the day so that I have a 15 or 30 minute break every couple of hours so I don’t get too far behind. I’m enjoying teaching so much more this way.
  10. Students can’t “forget” their music. This is one reason why I had scanned all my music on my iPad, much to the dismay of students whose “mother left it on the music stand.” No more excuses now!
  11. I now have time to go out and help my husband gather up all the myriad olive branches that were pruned in our little olive grove. Wait – that’s not really an advantage…

Parents are also beginning to realize how seriously underpaid all their children’s teachers are…  Maybe something positive will come out of all this after all.   :))

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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22 March 2020

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