Features, Print June 4, 2020

In My Room: Music Teachers Turn To Online Methods, Keeping Musical Communities Together

by Valerie Vampola

Janice Vlachos hopes to create lifelong lovers of music. She practices this daily as the choral director at Fairview High School in Boulder. But when music educators across the nation were told they had to teach online, Vlachos knew she couldn’t stay true to her philosophies through just 30 minutes of theory worksheets and history lessons.

So she asked her students what they wanted to do. “The first thing the students wanted to do was connect with each other, so we met up on Zoom,” Vlachos said in a phone interview for BandWagon

They wanted their community back, and in a time of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, music educators like Vlachos wanted to make that possible.

The virtual version Fairview High School’s Excalibur Choir in Boulder

The students still wanted to make music and decided to try a “virtual choir.” Virtual ensembles, including choirs, are a huge trend worldwide, allowing musicians to collaborate with their friends, bandmates, or favorite artists from home. But putting together a collaboration of 15-plus people requires a lot of time, a hefty budget, and in this case, a supportive community.

Families donated money to offset costs of video editing and mastering, and local friends of the vocal music community like arranger Kerry Marsh and Stephen Ross of Face Vocal Band turned the student phone recordings into beautifully mastered videos. While out on a walk, Vlachos’ phone pinged with a link to the final video of the virtual performance, wherein she heard her students make music together for the first time in over a month. It stopped her in her tracks.

“I hadn’t heard their voices since March 12th, and I had to stop walking because I couldn’t see (them),” said Vlachos. 

Making music from a distance gave Vlachos ideas on ways she can improve ensemble practice and give more to her students. She collaborated with Marsh to provide affordable practice tools that students and professionals can use outside of rehearsal time. The virtual choir videos even opened doors for the choir students to maintain the tradition of singing songs for graduation.

Private teacher and owner of Loveland Academy of Music, Karen Suedmeier, does her best to ensure the musical community at the school stays strong by moving private lessons and group classes online. Loveland Academy of Music offered online lessons since 2013, but only had a few lessons per week before March of 2020. After stay-at-home orders were put into place, teachers could maintain a source of income while students could have consistent social interactions through music lessons.

“Most [families] were grateful for us moving online because it helped them maintain a sense of normalcy,” said Suedmeier.

Loveland Academy Of Music student Zoe continues violin instruction via the web.

The academy faced some frustrations with maintaining and recruiting enrollment mostly due to the financial situations of families, but Suedmeier is proud of the extra steps they took. They initiated practice competitions and awarded prizes in personalized challenges to motivate students, as well as offered free online group activities and Zoom concerts. She even receives feedback from parents, who indicate how much more involved they are becoming in their students’ lessons as they listen to etudes playing in the background and can hear the concepts instructors are teaching.

 A few months ago, online lessons wouldn’t have crossed most people’s minds as an effective way to learn music, but Suedmeier and the community at Loveland Academy of Music now see that it’s an equally viable option. 

“I’m excited about the option of professionals taking lessons during their lunch break” Suedemier gave as an example. “It opens up a lot more possibilities, like the flexibility of teaching on snow days.” 

Unable to shred onstage, Lance Ruby’s online music lessons have become more regular and more refined.

Guitarist Lance Ruby has taught online Skype lessons since he moved to Colorado from Utah in 2017. Now with all of his gigs canceled, he can continue to teach from his Fort Collins home and maintain financial stability. Moving everything online awarded him the opportunity to refine his teaching in creative ways: Ruby created a two-camera set up allowing him to keep his face on camera, but also zoom in on his guitar technique. In the past, his students always left their lessons with a page of notes, but now with access to notes digitally, he noticed common themes.

“I noticed there were a ton of repeats, so I started collecting those notes. I’m writing a packet, or a method book, that covers those topics, like scales and arpeggios. And now I have a nice PDF I can quickly send them and talk about it,” said Ruby. 

He doesn’t feel the online lessons have impacted a change in student progress, but students like Nick Larson miss the personal connection with Ruby during their lessons. With a family at home, finding uninterrupted time for lessons and practice is a little more difficult. 

“The real difference is the relationship I have with Lance, and being in his room motivates me. I have to come out of my shell more when I’m in someone else’s space. It’s hard to focus when it’s in your house,” said Larson.

On a personal note, as a private teacher and a life-long music learner myself, music education in the days of social distancing gave me the idea to connect with my own music communities too. Online lessons let me teach students in other states and allow for consistency when families move to different cities. One of my favorite online meetings is hosting weekly master classes with my best University of Northern Colorado friends who reside in California. We can demonstrate what we’ve been working on and provide constructive critiques in a trusting space, rather than defaulting to social media for feedback.

As Janice Vlachos put it, “there’s good days and bad days,” just like there were in pre-virus times. Not all learning environments have the same impact online as they do in person, but stepping outside the box allows educators to become the students in improving their teaching, while students are the glue that keeps their community together.