Teaching music during the pandemic involved reinventing the wheel, according to Daniel Gasse, founder and owner of the Gasse School of Music in Forest Park.
“Teaching music on Zoom is different than presenting a lecture on Zoom,” Gasse explained. Technology like Zoom might work well for speaking, for classes and basic sharing of information. But for music, which depends on nuance, on the faintest of notes and the silences between them and on perfect timing, finding a way to teach has been difficult.
Gasse, who teaches cello, said during in-person lessons, he often has students play a piece along with him. Sometimes they play slow. Sometimes faster. The goal is for the student to follow along exactly as he plays, learning the exact timing, the intricacies of playing the piece perfectly.
But over Zoom, that doesn’t work. It’s impossible to work out the timing. “There’s always a delay,” Gasse said. So instead he records himself playing the piece at various tempos, then uploads it to the internet so his students can play along with the recording.
Another thing he has discovered is that students need to change the setting on their Zoom app to make it work best for lessons. Zoom, he explained, has a setting that automatically tries to eliminate background noise so the focus is placed on the voices. The program is designed, after all, to accentuate human voices. For music lessons, though, that doesn’t work. If someone’s playing the cello, the program simply hears it as something other than a human voice and tries to numb it like a background noise.
It might sound like a small thing, but it’s one of the many lessons he’s learned while teaching music remotely, and because of tests and research and experiments like this, he estimates he spends twice the time he used to for the same amount of money.
Fortunately, he hasn’t lost many students, with families willing to work on Zoom or outdoors in groups. He has a few students he sees in-person too, masked and socially distanced.
His group classes right now are being held outside in his backyard. Students wear masks while sitting in chairs and play the cello together. With winter around the corner, this won’t be a viable option, he admitted. But the parents, he said, have told him to keep going as long as possible. A few weeks ago, an unseasonably cold day had the temperature hovering around 34 degrees.
“But everybody showed up for the lesson,” Gasse said. And they played outside in the cold.
Recitals used to be held indoors in a church but now they’re outside. Gasse School of Music students played outside behind the Roos for their last two performances. During one, it was raining, but everyone came, and everyone sat, under umbrellas, unwilling to miss the performance. The following week was cold and parents arrived with blankets to keep warm while they watched students perform. Again, everyone showed up.
Gasse said there was more excitement for the outdoor concert than there’d ever been for the inside ones.
“The atmosphere was popping with happiness. The kids were happy to play, and the parents were excited to watch. There was tremendous spirit.”
He attributes that to the fact that people take fewer things for granted these days.
“When you have to fight for something, you appreciate it more,” he said. “It’s harder to learn an instrument from home, so the students are prouder than they might have been before.”
Interestingly enough, Gasse says, students have been making greater strides in music than previously, learning more quickly than they did before the pandemic. He attributes this to the fact that there are fewer activities for kids these days; ballet lessons and sports have been cancelled. Extracurricular activities at school aren’t being run right now, and many kids aren’t even attending in-person classes.
So there is a time void that many of his students have been filling with extra practice hours.
Gasse said his school never closed, even in the beginning of the pandemic.
“It was kind of a miracle,” he said. He and his wife Sara, who teaches violin and viola, heard about the forced closures of non-essential businesses. They sat down and spent the weekend learning how to teach online. Since then, there have been complications, and they’ve constantly tweaked how they teach, as they’ve learned more about technology. It’s been a non-stop learning experience for them.
Ellen Bartolozzi, owner of Bella Angel Music, anther music school in Forest Park, didn’t go the online-lesson route. A few students opted for online lessons, but she found that many didn’t.
“This is mainly because many people lost income and therefore had to give up lessons,” Bartolozzi said.
The pandemic hit hard, with a forced shutdown from March 17 through June 8. When the school was allowed, by state government rules, to reopen, she followed all the guidelines, rearranging her music rooms to comply with safety requirements and keeping everything meticulously clean and disinfected.
“We follow very strict guidelines,” Bartolozzi said. The piano room has two pianos, several feet apart. The teacher sits at one, the student at the other. In the voice room, the student and teacher stand apart from one another. The same holds true for the guitar room, where spacing is maintained for safety. Everyone wears a mask, except for voice students when they are singing.
“I wish I could say that my business did not get affected negatively, but that’s just not the case,” Bartolozzi said. “Unfortunately, none of the loans or grants were afforded to Bella Angel Music. As well, when there is a drop in income, folks understandably need to cut corners, and sometimes that means no more music lessons.”
But, like Gasse, she found silver linings in the pandemic.
“I have had a few people contact me saying they wanted to use this time to study music, as it’s something on their ‘bucket list.’ This makes me very happy,” Bartolozzi said, adding that many students, some new, some she’s known for a long time, tell her how much music has helped them through the challenges of recent months.
And, most importantly, Bella Angel Music is building back up, she said.
“I look at that as a blessing and a testament to the power of music. I also am proud of myself for persevering and staying the course.”
In her own life, Bartolozzi has found music to be a profound source of positivity, something that has helped her through difficult times, a comfort she relies on now.
“2020 has been a year to reckon with, and I am thankful that I have been able to count on music,” she said. “Whether I am learning a new song, giving my parents a socially-distanced concert, or listening to tunes, music is a diversion and a way to be present in the beauty of its sounds.”