by Joanne Roberts
We’re all feeling the effects of living during the time of Covid-19. Daily updates from the government. Health regulations that are changing constantly. And at the best of times, uncertainty regarding the future. Some people, like myself, have the luxury of working from home. Being immunocompromised, I am grateful every day I don’t have to go out and risk my health. I have a small studio in a corner of my apartment where I teach private music lessons, and for the time being, I am teaching completely online.
Virtual lessons are not new to my industry, but they’re completely new to me. I always preferred in-person teaching. There are so many benefits to being in the same room as your student: for example, I can directly help with any material without a fuss over both of us having copies. I can explain things so much easier with the use of my space and teaching materials. I didn’t find the need to offer virtual lessons because I was doing really well with my studio, and why fix what isn’t broken?
Well, enter something completely unforeseen and unplanned. Life, right? Suddenly I went from unwilling to approach virtual lessons to needing to offer them to stay in business and stay healthy.
I picked up a few new clients, but lost twice as many due to financial strain of the pandemic. It was unfortunate but not unforeseen as we're all going through changes. Many of my older students are waiting on financial support from the government to be able to continue, and are keeping me updated in the meantime. For the students that were able to continue, I was lucky they were all willing (and wanting) to switch to online lessons. For parents, they were thankful that there was something their children were able to keep as normal. Everything social has been cancelled: they can’t go to school and they can’t do outdoor sports. But music, where a special bond is between both student and teacher as they share art and emotions, it was special enough for them to want to keep in whatever capacity.
The changes from switching to online teaching were surprising. Of course, there’s the struggle of sharing materials. Of accounting for any audio/video lagging when communicating. But what has been the most profound has absolutely nothing to do with technology. At my apartment, I had created a safe space for my students to express themselves. We were tucked away in a corner that belonged to just us. When parents/guardians were in the room, they usually had noise-cancelling headphones on and tried not to pay attention (at the request of my students). Suddenly, they were all being put into different surroundings. I didn’t realize that this would be so impactful for them. I had gone into online lessons thinking they would be just as comfortable, if not more so, practicing in their own respective houses. After all, where are you the most comfortable if not at home? But this proved to be incorrect, and it’s taken a few weeks for them to get used to singing in their bedrooms. Playing piano in their living rooms.
They have generally had three concerns: Number 1. They are used to visualizing their flow of music in my apartment. Where would they be aiming their voices now if not across the alcove into my kitchen? They miss the space we shared together. Number 2. Suddenly, I wasn’t the only one hearing their music. Suddenly, they became very aware of other family members and neighbours in the near vicinity. And Number 3. They miss me. As a teacher - and friend, how do we adapt our relationship when suddenly connection has to be replaced by virtual means?
Trust. I had to trust myself and my experience that I would be able to solve whatever would come my way during this pandemic. I had to trust my clients in knowing they were doing their best to use the spaces at their disposal, and as always, trust that we would continue working as a team to overcome the obstacles of holding lessons online. What I found the most useful for breaking the ice of a new location: I openly admitted that I was nervous, too. I had no idea how online lessons were going to go, and we would probably be going through a little trial and error, but we would figure it out together. I asked my students for a tour of their new music space. Where are they practicing now? Next, what do they visualize when they practice at my apartment, and what can we find in their new music space that is similar? I always tell my voice students to pick a specific spot to aim their voices towards. In my apartment, it’s usually at the snacks I have sitting on my kitchen counter. (I usually get chocolate for the holidays, and I love my clients for it.) Where can they aim their voices at now? What’s their favourite part of the space, or better yet, is there a window where we can aim our sounds out into nature? Problem solved. Now, where is everyone else at home? If their space isn’t as private as they would like, what are reasonable requests we can make to accommodate lessons? Or, are we brave enough to start to share our music with the people we love? These questions seemed to relax everyone, including myself, from the nerves and jitters of our first lessons online. But what was the most fun for everyone involved...
Pet sharing. I have two cats and a dog who I love dearly, and who my students love dearly as well. My cats especially love to crawl in front of the computer, listening to my students fawn over them and say their hellos and cute remarks of missing them. But also - I get to meet their pets for the first time. I’ve heard so many stories of O’Malley the cat, and now I get to see the little rascal behind them. He is orange, as I expected of an Irishcat. I check in on their pets every week just as they check in on mine, and it’s a new and welcome ritual that makes online lessons special.
With anxiety and stress in high supply for everyone these days, it’s so heartwarming to be able to connect in different ways. So far, this month in quarantine has taught me that the safe space I provided for my clients can be replicated in a different fashion online. It’s not the same, not truly a replacement, but it’s different in a good way that makes each of us work differently as well. It’s also a very humbling experience - I notice my shortcomings in different aspects of lessons that would have taken me longer to realize otherwise. It looks like we’re in this for the long haul, and I look forward to experiencing how my small studio adapts and evolves to the world we’re all navigating through.
Also, if anyone has time and wants to learn some music...
Joanne Roberts is a multilingual Canadian actress best known for originating the role of Janelle in the Evie nominated co-production of Que faire d'Albert/What To Do With Albert. She is also a producer for Joie de Survivre, and is a co-founder for the Winnipeg theatre company, Wonderful and Meatballs.