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  • Writer's pictureCorey Gemmell

Teaching Violin During Covid: Not All Bad

March 14 2020 is a day most of us will not forget. It was the first day of province-wide lockdowns in Ontario and indeed across much of Canada and the world. It is impossible to speak to the scale of impact that Covid has had on billions of people around the world. As we were forced to turn inward, both physically and mentally, it is to the Arts that people would turn for solace, escape and understanding. As violinists and violin teachers both Angel and myself are members of a profession that necessitates people interacting in person.

Looking back now it is easier to have some perspective on the impact of Covid on teaching violin exclusively online. Our perspective is simply this: teaching online has some real benefits for teachers and students alike.

Coming to this conclusion was somewhat of a surprise for us both. First of all online teaching is nothing new. As the internet has woven its way into all our lives and technology has improved music teachers have been able to reach far flung communities where students don't always have access to in person teaching. World class artists have been using online platforms to reach people from around the globe to share their incredible experience and knowledge. This of course was only a small percentage of violin and other musical instruction as the majority of parents and students still pursued in person instruction.

After March 14 2020 many parents and students chose to suspend lessons, supposing that the lockdowns and social distancing would end after a period of time. It was hoped that violin lessons, along with the rest of society, would return to normal. As we are all too aware this did not happen and it may not for quite some time to come. As the new realization set in lessons cautiously resumed, but this time online.

As teachers Angel and I purchased some necessary equipment; quality microphones, stands and tripods, upgrading computers, desks and rearranging our studios. We also needed to learn new tech skills to record and edit video and audio in order to best help our students from home. Students were in much the same situation, though to be fair many were already acquiring such skills as their schools began working online. And both we as teachers, and our students, learned the art of teaching and learning remotely.

One of the biggest surprises for both of us as teachers is that while the lessons' pace slowed down the students' retention improved significantly. The reasons for this are quite simple. When teaching most violin teachers will play along with the student to varying degrees, whether it be to help them tune a pitch, match a rhythm or match an articulation. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this it is really a shortcut to the student's understanding of any particular problem. The student will match our sound and make the correction but the real understanding of the process gets short-circuited. As everyone by now knows it is impossible to play simultaneously online because there is an insurmountable time lag. At first we both felt this was a frustrating problem. But gradually it has become apparent that this is actually of incredible benefit.

We all learn hands-on. From the time we are in preschool or kindergarten we learn best by doing. In school students retain information when they take notes rather than simply being handed notes to read and digest on their own. Learning the violin is no different. Rather than the teacher marking a fingering the teacher now has to identify "line 3, bar 5, beat 3" and the process the student goes through in simply finding the relevant place has already jump-started the learning. Rather than playing a pitch at the same time until the student slides into the correct match the student now has to first listen to the correct example, play their own and evaluate and make a choice about which way to correct it. Same for rhythm and for articulation. There is equal benefit in the student marking the bowing and fingering from the verbal description from the teacher; the violin equivalent of taking notes in school or university. In other words the student is going through the process of listening, obeying verbal instructions, comparing and contrasting, correcting and choosing what correction to make. This is when real learning, long lasting learning, really takes place.

Perhaps this is not quite making lemonade from lemons but there are certainly benefits to the methods and processes behind learning violin remotely. The pace may be slower but the lessons have a much longer lasting effect. And that is what learning should be all about.

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