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Learning songs through a screen: How Minnesota music teachers are bringing instruction online during a pandemic

Ashley Groves teaching lessons from her home. (Photo courtesy Ashley Groves)
Ashley Groves teaching lessons from her home. (Photo courtesy Ashley Groves)

by Colleen Cowie

January 20, 2021

Throughout the past year, many of us have had to figure out how to do our jobs online, replacing offices for a work from home setup and trading the meeting room with the Zoom room. But how does a music teacher work from home? What happens when you can’t play a song along with a student because of the lag time of a video call, or what if a student doesn’t have reliable access to a computer? These are questions that music teachers have struggled with over the past year, finding setbacks — and some unexpected benefits — to teaching online.

Minneapolis singer-songwriter Ashley Groves has been teaching private lessons for the past five years. Before the pandemic, Groves and her band were gigging regularly around the Twin Cities and she was busy teaching voice, piano, and guitar lessons to students in Minneapolis and Rogers. 

Groves says that in March, a number of students started dropping their lessons because they were hesitant to transition to an online model. “It's been a lot harder to recruit new students,” she said. “But every once in a while it definitely does happen. I also work in a music school in Rogers a couple of days of the week, and they have actually opened in with masks. So everybody who comes in sanitizes their hands and wears their mask, and then we get to do it in person which is nice."

Since Groves is now in a rhythm of teaching both online and in person lessons, she sees benefits and drawbacks to both models. While wearing a mask is a necessary health precaution for both students and teachers, masks block students’ mouths, which Groves says can make teaching voice lessons challenging. 

“I need to see a lot of a person's face to help them get what they're trying to go for,” said Groves. “If it's a high note they really need to open their jaw, and if we're in person I can't necessarily always tell if they're really doing it. And then I'll be asking them and they'll be like, 'Yeah I opened my jaw.' And I'll be like, 'But how much? Was it really open?' So that's been nice when those students did a Zoom lesson instead, to be like, 'Oh, you really aren't opening your jaw! Could you please?'"

Like Groves, multi-instrumentalist Willow Waters has also had to navigate the new landscape of teaching and making a living as a musician during a pandemic. Waters releases folk and jazz-inspired music under her own name and also plays in local projects like Sister Species and Unlawful Assembly. Before COVID-19, Waters taught private lessons to a few students, but spent the majority of her time playing in bands and working sound tech gigs on the weekends. 

“Then when COVID hit, of course the entire live music industry shut down and it's still shut down,” said Waters. “So I had to start thinking about what came next, what was the shift that needed to happen in my work life. Even before COVID hit I was thinking about how I could reincorporate teaching into my life and how I could make that a bit more central. But then COVID made it completely necessary.”

Waters teaches a variety of instruments including guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, and trumpet. While the pandemic uprooted her schedule, teaching lessons over Zoom has allowed her to reestablish a steady income while live events are on hold. This past year has also given her an opportunity to reconnect with her passion for teaching. “I realized really early on that teaching seemed like a really good fit for me in terms of a career,” said Waters, who studied music education in college and saw the pandemic as an opportunity to pick up more students.

While Waters was eager to dive back into teaching music lessons, she was skeptical about how musical instruction could transition from in person to online. Waters had never taught over video call before, but when the opportunity arose to teach at a virtual summer camp through the local non-profit She Rock She Rock, Waters signed up. She Rock She Rock has been offering Girls Rock n Roll Retreat (or GRRR) — a week-long summer camp for girls, trans, and non-binary youth — since 2007, but 2020 was the first year that the camp operated entirely over the computer. 

“I was a bit apprehensive going into the She Rock camp, because it was going to be online,” said Waters. “I didn't really know how it was going to go, I wasn't entirely confident it was going to work. But I was really blown away by the way the camp was organized. I guess I just realized that even through the screen you can still make really meaningful and beautiful connections with students.”

Waters wasn’t the only one who was unsure of what to expect from an all-online camp. “How exactly are we going to teach instruments in little Zoom rooms? How are we going to interact with kiddos and help them feel that same welcoming and empowering and inspiring feeling that She Rock She Rock is so well-known for creating?” Those were some of the questions that She Rock She Rock Managing Director Allegra Wallingford was asking herself in the days leading up to camp.

Wallingford had only begun her position of Managing Director three days before camp began in July. Earlier in 2020, from March to June, a group of volunteers formed a transition committee to decide how to translate GRRR’s programming to an online format. They created GRRR: Studio Edition — an all-online camp that brought GRRR’s typical activities like learning an instrument and playing in a band to a digital space. 

Instead of learning a physical instrument like bass or drums, campers at GRRR: Studio Edition learned how to program MIDI instruments into the software Soundtrap using their own computers. “Soundtrap really helped the planning of camp,” said Wallingford. “Teachers were able to build a curriculum using it pretty quickly. The lead teachers of different instruments — the drum, guitar, bass, and vocal teachers — all got together and decided how to best put their knowledge into Soundtrap."

GRRR-SE staff
GRRR camp staff in a Zoom meeting.

Beyond the logistics of teaching instruments over the computer, Wallingford, who began working with GRRR as a junior counselor in 2013, was nervous that an all-online camp wouldn’t be able capture the same energy as in-person. “There's that very specific GRRR energy that I was nervous was not going to be there,” she said. “Obviously the first day was kind of glitchy with all of the technology issues we had, but from then on it was exactly what I imagined it could be: that full of energy space where everybody is so supportive and excited to share their ideas and their music and their talents.

"The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, which was kind of surprising,” Wallingford continued. “The kiddos were so excited to just have camp still in such an unstable year. It was a nice thing to look forward to. For our returning campers, they really rely on GRRR. Every summer is a space to express themselves creatively. So they were just so happy to even have camp this year."

“As soon as She Rock camp was done, I was ready to hit the ground running,” said Waters, who taught virtual guitar and bass at camp. “I had already put out a flyer to try to find new students, and had several coming in. It built very steadily from there, maybe one new student every week or two." Now Waters is teaching online lessons full-time, using tools like Zoom, YouTube backing tracks, and Google Docs to help instruct her students.

Similar to She Rock She Rock, 2020 also forced Slam Academy to bring its programming from physical to digital spaces. Slam Academy offers four core courses in Ableton Live (a digital audio workstation popular for producing and performing electronic music); sound design; DJing; and mixing and mastering. Instructors typically teach out of Slam’s Minneapolis headquarters which is outfitted with a recording studio, an expansive performance hall, professional recording equipment, and instruments. 

Kyle King teaching a class over Zoom.

Slam instructor Kyle King said that even before the pandemic, Slam was thinking about how they could incorporate more technology into their classes. "We have a satellite school in Denver and we've done satellite workshops in all of these other areas — we weren't unfamiliar with the online world,” said King. “Having to go all online was a bit of a challenge. We were probably better equipped, but even then there were still some challenges."

According to King, one of the main challenges to teaching remotely has been not being able to provide students with the same equipment and resources that Slam could offer in its physical studio. "When you come to Slam, if you don't have a laptop, we'll give you a laptop,” he said. “If you don't have a good internet connection, we've got internet that we can share with you. We have a bunch of gear that we can just loan out to you. We're trying to bring music to everybody.”

Slam has been able to transition three of their core classes to a digital format — all except for the DJ program, which King taught before COVID. “I've been a DJ for 20 years now, and that is a physical medium,” he said. “You need to get your hands on the equipment and use it and get comfortable with it. We can't expect every single student who takes our class to have that equipment."

Kyle King teaching in a studio.

While the DJ program is on hold, King is still teaching Slam’s Mixing and Mastering class online. In the class, students learn to take their own recordings and get them ready to be played over the radio or streaming services. Mixing and mastering are both processes that require listening closely to small details in a song. So when King started teaching the class over Zoom, he had to find a way to share recordings with his students while still capturing sharp audio quality. 

“With a piece of software I use called Audiomovers, I'm able to share the audio from my digital audio workstation to my students in significantly higher fidelity than what we would normally have,” King Said. “Zoom is made for voices, it's not made for broadcasting high quality audio files. This Audiomovers software provides that. It's essential."

Where Zoom falls short

Whether it’s a weak wireless signal or the extra distractions of learning an instrument from your own home, teaching online has posed a new set of challenges that music teachers have had to adapt to. One of the most common issues of teaching an instrument over video call is latency, or the delay between when a noise is emitted on one end of a video call and when it is picked up on the other end of the call.

Because of latency, Ashley Groves isn’t able to sing along with her voice students like she normally would in person. "If the student has some pitch matching problems, you can't really sing together to be like, 'Okay, sing this note,'” said Groves. “But it also presents an opportunity to have the student to try to recognize for themself, 'Am I above the note? Am I below it? Am I on it?'”

One of the unique challenges that GRRR had to solve was recreating their camp showcases — typically in-person rock concerts held at a local venue — in an online space. “Typically we have concerts on the last day of camp that attract 100 or 200 family members and friends,” said Wallingford. “We had to decide how to make that happen in a fun way that was on Zoom.” The GRRR staff put together a Zoom showcase where teachers played their campers’ pre-recorded songs for their families and friends, while playing slideshows of the campers’ band photos and hand-drawn artwork.

“We were obviously just hitting play on these soundtracks but [the campers] were still so proud of the music that they created,” said Wallingford. “Even though none of them had met in person they were able to create band photos and graphics and artwork that was so cohesive and what you would expect from a real in-person band but they were able to create from their bedrooms all over the country."

While technology can make it easier to collaborate across distances, Kyle King noted that access to technology can also prevent people from being able to access classes. “There is still a lot of wealth inequality in this country and across the world,” he said. “Because of that, the expectations of students having a laptop that's capable enough to run the software that we're using, an internet connection that supports even a Zoom call, or the technological education of how to use Zoom, does still prevent an amount of people being able to take the online classes.”

Finding the silver linings of teaching online

While teaching through a computer screen poses its fair share of challenges, teachers have also been finding some silver linings to online lessons. “Safety, honesty is really nice,” said Groves, who teaches both in-person and online. "I really love my schedule,” said Waters, who once worked for a private lesson company that required teachers to drive to every student’s house, and is now relieved to cut commuting out of her schedule.

“I have all of my lessons back to back with a short gap between them. I feel way more in control of my schedule, which I really like. I don't have to pay to rent out a studio to teach out of either, or work for a company that's going to take a cut of what the students are paying."

Another perk to online teaching that Slam Academy has found is being able to offer their classes to students outside of Minnesota. “In this class I have right now, there's one student from California and another student from New Jersey,” said King. “Those are two people who I would not have been able to previously have in my Mixing and Mastering class, unless they wanted to fly to Minnesota every Monday. To me, that's the biggest benefit. I would love to be able to continue to offer this mixing and mastering class in person and online.”

Is online music instruction here to stay?

After learning the ropes of online instruction, some teachers are already thinking about ways to incorporate technology into their lessons long-term. “I do think that we will continue to offer the online programming in some way or another as long as we can,” said Wallingford. “It's just so simple to create music this way. You don't have to go into a recording studio. You don't have to find practice space. Obviously those things are fun and we love in person performances and we're excited to get back to those kinds of things as soon as we can. But I do see our digital programming continuing for the foreseeable future. And I'm excited about it."

Later this month, She Rock She Rock is offering StudioLab classes for adults and youth. Like GRRR: Studio Edition, the StudioLab classes will utilize the program Soundtrap to allow participants to collaborate with each other while they write and produce their own songs. She Rock She Rock is also looking forward to 2021’s GRRR camp, which they plan to run virtually again. “We're excited to be doing things virtually this year and not feel like we have to scramble to make it happen,” said Wallingford. “We feel a little bit more seasoned now that we've done it once."

But at the end of the day, while online models have been instrumental in keeping lessons up and running, it’s just not the same as teaching in person. "I can't way to see somebody in real life — their eyes light up the first time that they make a cool song or the first time that they share something that they worked on,” says King. “There really is no replacing that.”

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.