An Unusual and Challenging Situation: Teaching in Isolation

by Craig Knox

“We find ourselves in an unusual and challenging situation, which will require each of us to redouble our resolve towards our purpose as musicians, namely to share the beauty and joy of music with others through the most compelling performances we can imagine. It will be particularly important for us to keep this in mind as we navigate the coming weeks and months, during which we will be spending an inordinate amount of time practicing by ourselves. In fact, continuing nevertheless to play with this sense of purpose must be a big part of what we practice during this time.”

These are the words I wrote to my students at Carnegie Mellon University and the Curtis Institute of Music after it was announced that both schools (indeed ALL schools) would be moving to online classes. Every aspect of society faces difficult challenges during this time, and students of every age having to make compromises in their educational experiences. However, certain areas of study are more adversely affected than others. Science students have the laboratory. Music study requires rehearsals with other students for chamber music and large ensembles as part of the daily work, not to mention live performances for audiences, which is the very essence of the art form. Then there is the weekly private lesson, in which the student meets one-on-one with a teacher to play an assignment and receive personal instruction.
Most PSO musicians teach. Many of us are on the faculty of universities and conservatories in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, teaching the performers and music educators of tomorrow. Others teach their students in private home studios. Some of us work with the members of the area youth orchestras. I think many of us feel a sense of duty to mentor young music students and pass along what we learned from the previous generation of professional musicians. So how can we continue to be there for these young musicians during this time?

Unfortunately, rehearsing or performing ensemble music with multiple musicians in multiple locations in real time is not possible with available technology. However, the same familiar platforms that many people have been using in recent years to stay in touch with loved ones or conduct business across the country have proven useful for private music lessons. Apps such as FaceTime, Skype, and Google Hangouts, which allow for free video chat on our phones and computers, seemed like an obvious solution for music students and teachers. Zoom has quickly emerged as the platform of choice for many teachers.

During the first week of isolation, I spent many hours establishing various tele-conferencing accounts and familiarizing myself with the advanced options and settings. I sorted through the steady stream of emails from the IT departments at my teaching institutions outlining the proper use of these technologies, as well as the mounds of advice offered on Facebook by colleagues from around the world. Ultimately, I set up my studio with a laptop, USB microphone, lighting, and headphones. For use with music, I also found it was crucial to select advanced Zoom setting to limit audio compression, volume limits, and echo. Once up and running, I was able to connect with a student and proceed with a lesson in much the same way I would normally: listen to the student play, provide verbal feedback, and demonstrate my approaches and techniques. In this way, it is absolutely possible to have a very productive on-line session with a student.

There are frustrations and limits as well! A poor connection or heavy network traffic can mean frozen video, distorted audio, momentary drop-outs, or a lost call. At times the speed of the audio can slow down, and then speed up frantically to catch up. Perhaps the biggest problem is that no matter what combination of high-end microphones and headphones one may use, many subtleties of tone and timbre are lost over a standard internet connection. As musicians, we are used to employing the slightest variation in the color of the sound from one note to the next, and this is virtually impossible to convey in the virtual realm.

Due to these limitations, it would be easy to dismiss the medium altogether, but I prefer to focus on the useful aspects. A teacher can still get a pretty good idea about pitch, articulation, and the uniformity (if not the subtle quality) of the tone, and the face-to-face meeting offers the possibility for a robust dialog between player and teacher. I’ve also made some assignments that don’t require a crystalline internet connection to assess, such as creating original arrangements, and memorization. 

Furthermore, the limitations of video-conferencing have inspired me to look for additional methods of distance learning. One of the most helpful of those has been the use of video recordings. It is easier than ever to make high-definition audio and video recordings using a relatively inexpensive portable recorder, or even just a phone or iPad, and free programs such as Audacity allow students to edit and master their recordings. I’ve created recording assignments in which students make finished recordings of their work, and upload them to a site where they can be viewed by the entire studio, after which we all meet on Zoom to discuss what we’ve heard and learned.

Making these recordings has the added benefit of requiring the student to exercise the utmost discrimination before they post them for others to scrutinize. It’s also great practice for the preparation of audition recordings, as well as for learning to produce effective content for the ever more important social media arena. I have jumped into the fray myself, creating video tutorials on general concepts and methods, as well as specific repertoire, which I send to the students periodically. Making these recordings helps to remind me of the challenges the students face, and helps me to solidify my teaching approach for each topic.

I feel energized by the challenge of finding ways to make distance learning productive and engaging for the students, and by the possibility of discovering new teaching methods along the way that will still be useful once we are together in the studio again. In the face of such a devastating situation, I see opportunity for a “teachable moment” with my students in which the lesson is that, even in this difficult situation, we have an important purpose to find a way to share the beauty and joy of music however we can.