Violin Lessons This Fall: Going back? To What?

July 24, 2021, 4:40 PM · Since March of 2020, the question has been omni-present in our collective consciousness: When can we go back to in-person? In-person lessons, in-person classes, in-person rehearsals, in-person...anything. When will this be over?

We’ve come a long way in the last year and a half. Violin teachers, students, and their families pivoted online with no notice. With collective ingenuity, community support (albeit at a distance), and sheer determination and desperation, we’ve carved out an online existence for music education. We’ve learned a lot about what works, and what doesn’t work.

in-person, online

The whole world is also reeling from the trauma and grief of the pandemic. We learned to see even our closest family as potentially dangerous, not to hug or get too close of them for fear of infecting them or becoming infected. We spent holidays apart and we delayed celebrations. We were separated from those we most wanted to be with out of fear of the unknown virus. One of my students recently told me that what he misses the most about in-person lessons is being able to stand next to me and be close to me.

In many industries, namely education and those deemed "essential," teachers and workers have endured verbal and emotional abuse, with frustrated customers even going so far as to state that they didn’t care if teachers died, so long as children could go back to school in-person. It’s going to take a long time for us to recover from the shocking realization that our lives and the lives of our colleagues mean so little to those we serve and work with.

Things are different this summer - we can start doing some things again. We have learned much more about COVID-19. Innovations in vaccine development and distribution have brought community spread down in many areas of the world. We have more knowledge about how to prevent transmission. The CDC has said that vaccinated people can gather, even without masks. Schools are preparing to open fully in-person this fall.

With all these developments, music teachers are faced with a number of questions, namely, "What do we do, and how do we do it?"

Conflict resolution specialist Priya Parker, in an interview on author Brené Brown's podcast, stated that she is most concerned about is all of us racing back to something "without pausing and asking, 'What have we learned during this time about our work? How we work? About at the core of it what it is we do and what is needed right now? What have we learned about things like access and equity in this year of reckoning?'"

Questions have started to pop up in teacher groups on the internet, about how to handle students and their families with different vaccination situations (and different approaches to the vaccine), how to adjust restrictive attendance policies to ensure that sick students do not attend in-person lessons, about what safety precautions teachers are taking for in-person lessons, how to do recitals, how to create an equitable experience for students who choose to remain online. I’ve started to get emails from potential new students who are tired of online lessons and are leaving their current teacher because they want something in-person. I’ve handled queries throughout the pandemic from parents and students about when we’re going back.

The mental effort is exhausting, with so much to consider: the current (and constantly changing) situation, our own families’ needs, and the needs/preferences of each student. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, despite strongly worded opinions on the internet. Some students and families are ready to go back to in-person, without ever opening Zoom again. Some have realized that online works better for them, especially those with lengthy commutes who don't want to return to a long drive for violin lessons. Some teachers may have found that online teaching provides scheduling convenience and other online work opportunities, and they never want to go back in-person. Others are ready to accept a combination of in-person and online (especially when it’s more convenient for their schedules). And when a teacher's and student's views don't match, does the student seek out a new teacher? Does the teacher ask a student to leave? There’s no easy, neat, or tidy answer.

Later on in that podcast interview, Parker asks, "What have we learned in this pandemic that we actually want to bring with us, that we want to move forward? And finally, what do we want to reinvent or invent anew in this moment?" Such a moment does not happen very often - a moment that allows us to decide how we want to be together and what we want that to look like.

Teachers have an opportunity to not only redesign their studios to suit the current moment, but to adjust policies, procedures, and ways of doing things that they’d wanted to change long before. They can consider and clarify the values that define their work.

Here’s a series of questions that I’m asking myself as I prepare to have a studio with both in-person and online options this year:

  1. What is my personal level of risk? What are the conditions under which I feel safe, comfortable, and able to be fully present in my teaching without worrying about my personal safety? The best learning environment for a student is one in which they feel safe and their teacher feels safe. If either or both parties is worried about getting sick for the entire lesson, that is not a safe lesson space.

  2. What safety precautions am I putting in place in my teaching environment? How will I communicate these protocols clearly to my studio families, and how will I reinforce them in-person?

  3. What if a student wants to remain 100 percent online indefinitely, regardless of the pandemic? How will I handle facilitating those lessons, especially if I don’t teach at my home and need to transport technology to make an online lesson happen? How will I handle group class and performance opportunities for them?

  4. What have I learned about myself as a teacher from teaching online? What techniques, methods, and language do I want to carry forward in my teaching?
  5. What mindsets and beliefs have been challenged by the pandemic and online teaching, and in what ways have I changed my thinking about my studio and who I am as a teacher? Was there anything from before that just doesn’t work anymore?
  6. What are the things I have missed the most about hearing and seeing my students in-person that I want to incorporate and focus on for the students who are coming in-person? What are the things that they’ve missed that I can be sure to include for them?
  7. How do I ensure an equitable learning environment for both in-person and online students so that they all have high-quality lessons, opportunities to connect with their fellow students, and performance experiences?
  8. Under what circumstances am I willing to change my protocols and setup? If I’m in-person, how bad would things have to get for me to go back online 100% for safety? If I’m online, what would precipitate a return to in-person instruction?

I’m still working on the answers to these questions myself. I’ve been thinking a lot about them, though. While I’m not here to tell you how to run your studio this year, I do have four guiding thoughts, inspired by that podcast I keep referencing:

  1. Give yourself time to think thoroughly and reflect on what you’ve learned, gained, and lost during the pandemic and to process your own feelings. Use that to design your new studio structure this year. This is an opportunity to let go of what wasn’t working for you and to build something new for yourself, your students, and their families.
  2. Be clear and consistent about your values, especially when it comes to safety, and communicate them clearly and often. Studio policies, emails, signs on the door and walls, distance markers on the floor, and even a "orientation talk" face-to-face with the student and their family during the first lesson can all be ways to do this. Every student and family should know what to expect when they walk in your door, have visual reminders as they enter the space, and then, if needed, your verbal reminder during the lesson will go over much better.
  3. View this year as a beta test. Know that you’re trying things - and communicate that to your students and families - and that if something doesn’t work, you’ll try something else. You don’t have to come up with something for the beginning of the year and then stick to it for the entire year. Build yourself in options for different situations, along with a generous amount of grace and flexibility.
  4. Say what we’re all thinking and ask your students what they’re thinking. Especially at those first few lessons back - things are going to be awkward and messy. Modeling the type of openness we’d like to have our students have with us and giving them language to use to describe their own feelings will be crucial as we all transition. For example:

    "It’s so good to see you again in-person, but it’s a little disorienting because I’d gotten so used to ‘eye contact’ on Zoom - it might take me a little while to get used to looking right at you! How are you feeling about this?"

    "Here are the new safety protocols, which are totally not what I fantasized about teaching when I decided to become a music teacher, but keeping the room clean and safe for us and everyone else in the building is important to me and I’m grateful that you’re helping with that."

    "This is going to be a new experience for all of us - I feel a little weird, even though I’m really happy to see you. How about you? How are you feeling?"

There’s more, there’s always so much more. It’s my hope that teachers, students and parents reading this know that they are not alone in navigating the transition back to whatever it is we’re going back to. I also hope we can all take some time this summer to reflect and lay the groundwork for a courageous, new, more equitable and kinder world in music education.

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July 25, 2021 at 03:10 PM · I have not stopped teaching in-person lessons. If you live your life in fear, you have no life!

July 25, 2021 at 04:45 PM · Fear is one thing, and taking reasonable precautions during a global pandemic is another. There was a lot to learn in the last year and a half and I’m happy to see Claire bringing up these thoughts and ideas for people to consider.

July 25, 2021 at 11:03 PM · Victor, I had in person lessons too. I would not be able to learn online because of my various challenges.

July 26, 2021 at 01:02 AM · The point is that teachers need to make intentional decisions that serve their studios and their communities. Individual students may prefer in-person lessons all they want, but if a teacher is not offering them, they will need to find a new teacher. End of story. Same thing if a teacher has decided they are done with Zoom and refuses to offer any more online lessons, but a student wants only online lessons. Time for a new teacher. As with anything, not just pandemic protocols, the teacher sets the policies and protocol for the studio and the students' job is to follow those policies and respect the teacher. There are many reasons for teachers to either teach in-person or online these days - or a combination - which was the inspiration for this blog. Individuals may have their own strong beliefs (myself included), but those beliefs should inform their studio policies or what they look for in a teacher; not what they believe every single other person on the planet should do.

July 26, 2021 at 05:44 PM · I went in the opposite direction. I am a kind of Luddite techno-phobe and declined to learn on-line teaching. I am of retirement age and violin teaching is supplemental income. When my college music department switched to on-line only I resigned/retired. I also resigned from the studio where I worked for other reasons. We shall see this fall if I attract enough private in-person lessons to continue at all.

This is not the proper forum for medical debate, but I would like to point out one issue that is being ignored; the different methods, attitudes, and natural bias of two groups; the clinical M.D.s and the government public health Ph.D.s. M.D.s deal with individual patients, while the public health officials do statistics on populations. Statistics do not predict what will happen to an individual. Individual case histories have little statistical value and are negatively labelled as "anecdotal" In this country the government public health agencies (FDA,CDC,..) have the final authority over what treatment and prevention is permitted, not the M.D.s. Contrary opinions, from fully qualified MDs, are being suppressed by both government and big media.

July 28, 2021 at 12:27 AM · @Joel: Thanks for sharing your personal perspective. It sounds like you've chosen where your boundaries are and like you're in a place in your life where you can make that work for you!

And no, this is a post about music teachers making decisions for their studios, not medical discussion. I'm sure there are other blogs out there where the second part of your comment would be more relevant.

July 28, 2021 at 10:54 AM · Hi Claire! Thanks so much for writing about this. I think your points about being as clear as you possibly can be with your expectations for what is appropriate in your studio is really helpful. I too am thinking through what I am and am not comfortable with in regards to lessons this fall. I'm also taking the time to reassess what policies I want to have regarding makeup lessons, possible group classes, etc. Being clear on my own boundaries and the reasons behind them will be the best thing I can do for the health of my studio. Thanks for the reminder.

July 29, 2021 at 02:35 AM · Hi Caitlin! I agree - clear boundaries of every kind are crucial for the studio all around - and for us, as teachers!

July 29, 2021 at 07:54 PM · I've been basing my decisions on my local/regional COVID information, as well as working with parents directly to find the best balance possible for my studio. Call it an extra managerial responsibility, I guess. One I'd prefer not to do but seems best for my studio.

July 30, 2021 at 08:53 PM · I would say that I've learned ways that I can be more accommodating, AND ways that I should be less accommodating.

July 31, 2021 at 04:49 PM · --from a recent Dilbert cartoon; " I have learned to be less afraid of going to prison".

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