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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Ellian

Closeness, Within Distance: Teaching Music Virtually

I was in the studio the other day, closing out Zoom after a day’s teaching, when the realization hit me:

It’s been almost a year.

A year since my students were with me, in the same room; a year since they’ve made music at my side, instead of through a computer screen. The pandemic has dug into the systems we all have lived by, uprooting each and every one. I’ve adjusted to this “new normal” the best that I could (relatable for most of us out there, right?). That adjustment at work can mean setting aside deeper, darker thoughts to focus on the task at hand (again, relatable). But that evening, instead of compartmentalizing it, I welcomed that sense of yearning to bubble up to the surface of my mind. The yearning came with an unexpected optimism in the next thought I had:

I am so proud of them.

Pre-COVID pride that I had for my piano students often materialized in their accomplishments; their sparks of musical passion. When I helped introduce them to an artistic world that made their creativity come alive, I knew that I was doing right by my teaching philosophy. But neither that philosophy, nor anything in that world, exists for us now--or at least, not in the same way. These students have been living through harrowing circumstances. Priorities have shifted. Needs have changed. The pandemic hasn’t just uprooted their experiences, it dug up their lives, too. So I did what any teacher would do in response--I grabbed a shovel and uprooted my teaching. I dug up whatever created more distance between us, making room to plant better ways of meeting my students where they’re at.

I crafted my virtual studio music instruction to become a nimble machine composed of many moving parts. The parts themselves are interchangeable, swapped in and out as needed to suit each individual student. I’ll describe a few of these adjusted “parts” below:

  • Not expecting less, but expecting different. If a student didn’t practice, meet a goal, forgot their material, etc., I didn’t push them harder to correct it. It was important to keep high standards, but I refocused them to be more student-centered, rather than regimen-centered. It’s okay if they dropped the ball. It’s okay if they had a bad week. I imparted that sentiment to them. Providing a positive, open environment where it was safe for them to be themselves, changes and all, helped them look forward to making music with me on a weekly basis in a way that satisfied both student and teacher.

  • Providing materials and resources like dropping sheet music in the mail for a student who doesn’t have a home printer, or leaving a book in their mailbox for a “special delivery”. Students feel loved when they receive things just for them!

  • Telling more than showing sometimes. Not only do piano teachers have to verbally deliver much musical content in virtual lessons (as we can no longer easily demonstrate on their music or the piano keys), we also have to better teach students how to talk about their music to harness their understanding. Seeing students write their own finger patterns or cues in their music, or ask curious questions… their ownership of their education is something that I can thank virtual lessons for instilling in my studio.

  • Taking five-minute breaks between groups of back-to-back lessons is integral to resetting myself physically and mentally, so I can better teach over a packed work day. One-on-one instruction is already intricate and highly involved--put it in a digital format, and you end up having to exert double the effort!

  • Creating an environment to make music an outlet for my students is likely the most important part of this whole virtual process. Students will always learn along as they play each piece on the piano. So, why not have lessons be a fun way to learn a new skill, or to teach them works that they’ve always wanted to learn? Over the course of this year, I have seen many of my students turn to music to help make sense of their changing surroundings. If they have personal connections to what they play, that spark will be alive and well. If I can help make that happen, I will.

Pride for my students isn’t just about the inspiration they can find in the piano anymore--I have also witnessed adaptability and empathy from them firsthand this past year. It amazes me. Uncertain months are still ahead for us, and I will continue to help them grow musically to the best of my ability.

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