Is It Time to Go Back to In-Person Violin Lessons?

June 26, 2020, 5:51 PM · For teachers of many subjects including violin, viola and cello lessons, the global pandemic has pushed classes onto online platforms.

As anyone who has taught or taken such lessons knows, it's simply not the same as in-person lessons. On the positive side, platforms such as Zoom allow teachers and students to remain connected and to continue to make plans and progress.

But wouldn't it be nice to get back to in-person teaching? It's so much easier to hear, to see, to fix hand positions, to play duets, to chat while walking in the door, to just BE together.

mask violinst

This brings up the question that I've seen with increasing frequency on Facebook and other platforms: Is it time to go back to in-person teaching?

Of course the answer to this is: "it depends." For example, if you live in New Zealand, where the coronavirus is nearly eradicated, then a return to in-person lessons seems reasonable enough. Some parts of Europe are also seeing declining numbers; it might be possible to try in-person lessons with certain precautions such as distancing, plexiglass screens, hand-washing, etc.

I live in the United States, where in recent weeks certain states have relaxed restrictions and encouraged the opening of businesses. A number of teachers have gone back to having in-person lessons, with varying levels of precautions such as wearing masks, washing hands, holding the classes outdoors and at a distance, etc.

At this point, though, teaching in-person remains a risky and inconvenient proposition in many, if not most, parts of the United States. Here is why:

First, the virus is spreading more rapidly than ever in the United States; it is not going away. Unchecked, it spreads at an exponential rate. Just this week, Thursday brought the highest number of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. to date -- even higher than in April, which was considered a peak. The proliferation of the virus in the United States, as well as the lack of contact tracing and testing, as well as the two-week incubation period for the virus, makes it very hard to tell whether one's community is safe.

That being the case, both teacher and student would need to take extraordinary precautions to prevent transmission of the virus during an in-person lesson. But adhering to that level of safety precautions can actually be more unpleasant and more difficult than simply having the lessons online.

To get an idea of the level of precautions needed, take a look at this list of recommendations by medical doctor and epidemiologist Ethan Berke, given to Minnesota-based teacher Susan Crawford, who posted them on Facebook:

Teaching this way is proving very difficult for those who have tried it. On Facebook, violin teacher Wendy Tangen-Foster described her recent experience with trying just one in-person lesson: "I taught one in-person lesson on my patio - a beginner who only had a few months of lessons before lockdown. I set up a rope to show physical distance and gave her a bath mat to help her know where to stand. She could barely play with her mask on, so that came off right away. (Her dad said it’s challenging to find masks that fit small children.) I tried so hard to keep my distance, but I just couldn’t. My teacher instincts kicked in and overrode my sense of precaution. With permission from her dad, I gave her some assistance with placing her violin, etc. I did not touch her directly, but I did touch her violin and came within 6 feet of her for moments at a time. I’m usually so hands on with beginners - It would be impossible for me not to help."

"Logistically it was also difficult because I had to set up an outdoor studio. Then we had to keep rescheduling the lesson due to rain, and, during the lesson, I kept going back inside to get more and more teaching tools (her rubber band broke, we needed scissors, etc.)"

"Lastly, it was so uncomfortable to wear a mask while teaching, and she couldn’t see my big smile after her successful Lightly Row preview. But the main problem was that I felt so anxious and unsure afterward. Had I been exposed? Could I have exposed her or her dad? How would they feel if I got sick? How would I feel if someone in their family got sick?"

"The whole situation caused so much stress and was just so difficult in terms of logistics. I am much more comfortable with online lessons where my students are are actually faring quite well and we don’t have to worry about anything - and we can easily read each other’s faces and see each other’s smiles."

I look forward to the day when the students and teachers in my area will be able to return to in-person lessons, but that day has not yet arrived. I urge everyone to continue practicing, learning, teaching and playing your instrument for fun. But to the extent we can, let's protect each other and do our best to shut down the transmission of this virus.

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June 26, 2020 at 11:14 PM · No way. Not yet. Not for me.

June 26, 2020 at 11:26 PM · I 100% agree. Luckily the restrictions in my province have eased and we have fared quite well in the pandemic, plus many restaurants and personal services have opened up, so it's most likely safe to have in-person lessons, perhaps with precautions. That said, there are many places in the world where there are still very high numbers of infections, and in those cases it's safer to stick to online lessons.

June 26, 2020 at 11:28 PM · I'll be teaching online until a safe and reliable vaccine is available, which produces antibodies to this virus and its mutations, and which has minimal side effects. I'll be making a decision in conjunction with my personal physician and other knowledgeable physician friends and colleagues as to when it is most appropriate for me to receive the vaccine. As of yesterday, I was advised by one of the medical specialists with whom I often consult, to stay online, not let anyone in our home, and not to allow any parent and/or student to pressure me into teaching in person in our home. She advised me specifically to make no exceptions to this rule, for my safety, as well as for the safety of my entire studio. I live in Farmington Hills, MI, USA. Sharon Rothstein, M.D., M.P.H.

June 26, 2020 at 11:29 PM · I should add that students and teachers should be flexible and be open to both online and in-person lessons because everyone feels differently about what risks are worth taking. This means that if teachers are going to offer in-person lessons, they should still have the online option available for students who want it.

June 26, 2020 at 11:31 PM · No. At this point, things are as bad as ever, if not worse in many states. I'd love to get back to face-to-face lessons, but little has changed since early March. Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said in the New Yorker this week, "Because a small minority of the population has been infected to date, and because of the level of contagiousness that it has, we’re a long way from the point where natural immunity, even if it’s strong, will provide a significant block to further transmission of the infection and, therefore, we’re just in this rather awful position. As at the beginning of the pandemic, most of the population is still susceptible." Don't meet for lessons. It's too risky. Just hang in there. This virus doesn't have a "sell by" date stamped on it, and boredom isn't a vaccine.

June 26, 2020 at 11:45 PM · I agree with the point made about flexibility; though I do not plan to teach in person until I personally feel it is safe, I think I will keep the Zoom option available for those who might want to go that route until they themselves feel safe.

June 27, 2020 at 12:34 AM · Sadly, I do not feel safe going back to in person lessons. I stopped my private lessons the second week in March when our governor (Colorado) ordered a shelter in place. I’ve missed them, terribly, but our state is going up in numbers and every state around us is surging in numbers. I will wait it out, hopefully there will be a vaccine in the fall. I’m discouraged, but I’m alive.

June 27, 2020 at 01:06 AM · I've actually been quite happy with my Skype lessons. My teacher and I had established a baseline in person and know each other pretty well, which I think is the main reason that it works. For me, eliminating the 30-minute drive each way has been a real boon. Lessons now really just take an hour, rather than the whole afternoon. I have had more and more regular lessons since the pandemic started than I did in the previous year.

I'm hoping to stick with the online lessons indefinitely, even when it is safe to meet in person. I think my teacher wouldn't be averse to the idea, but I might have to fit it in to some unusual times.

June 27, 2020 at 01:14 AM · Listen to the health officials for your area and follow their guidelines. If they say it's okay, then go ahead if you're comfortable. If not, don't push it and stay remote.

June 27, 2020 at 01:36 AM · I am in agreement with those who say it is too soon to return to in-person lessons. No vaccine, no guaranteed effective treatment, and the possibility of up to 40% of infected people showing no symptoms – that is too risky for me, for my family, and for my students. Additionally, teaching in person means that you are assuming the risk level of the most exposed family in your studio, and there is no way to know what that is without asking a lot of intrusive questions that are frankly not my business.

Plexiglass shields or shower curtains are expensive ways to get a false sense of security while keeping your risk level high. It is the rare teacher who has a space large enough to keep an adequate distance. My teaching studio is larger than average, and 8 feet is about my limit.

It seems clear to me that the days of back to back lessons are over even when we return to the in-person lesson so that is going to complicate scheduling when we do get to that point, which I do not anticipate being anytime soon with the way things are going in Texas. When I do return to traditional teaching, I plan to keep online lessons as an option.

June 27, 2020 at 03:51 AM · I am resuming lessons next week and gave the parents the option of online or in-person lessons. I will schedule at least 15 minutes between students for time to disinfect and require anyone coming inside to wear a mask and for the students to wash their hands. New York has things nicely under control right now that I’m hopeful this will work.

June 27, 2020 at 06:48 AM · I would like to ask about orchestra/ensemble rehearsal. Is there anybody attempts to do it? The online rehearsal is more like play together with a backing track, but not listen and play together. So in some sense there is no online solution to rehearsal. How have you or your orchestra/ensemble coping? Is there any discussion, safety measure, tips and tricks for those trying to get together and play?

June 27, 2020 at 02:50 PM · We love online lessons! I have teens, out of the Suzuki books (8+), but I absolutely love not having to spend hours driving them to lessons, worrying about getting there on time in traffic, forgetting a piece of music or a book, getting home super late to start homework that cannot be done in the car, etc. We love our teacher, but I’m gonna hate going back to the rat race.

June 27, 2020 at 08:35 PM · Remote teaching/learning and home schooling are our new normal. I accept the situation & appreciate the savings of travel time.

I take piano, harp & cello lessons via Skype & zoom, some youtube. I have more homework but more time to practice.

June 27, 2020 at 08:50 PM · I’ve heard from many students that they are very happy with online lessons and plan to continue using Zoom, even after it’s safe to be together in person again. Some kids really prefer being in their own space - and having 0 travel time is really fabulous (for both teacher and student.) Yes, there are a few frustrating things about not being able to touch a student’s hand or tune for them. But for dedicated students, I’ve found it to be a wonderful substitute, and I’m really happy with my students’ continued progress.

June 27, 2020 at 09:22 PM · Here in Australia a lot of teachers have already gone back. I will be starting back in the studio next term (3 weeks from now) provided our cases stay low. I've found zoom lessons incredibly frustrating.

June 28, 2020 at 12:35 AM · My 7 year old daughter is thriving with her Zoom lessons. We were given the option to come in recently but hard to see why we would do it until there is a vaccine.

June 28, 2020 at 12:52 AM · Regarding ensembles, my 7 year old one is in an ensemble that split apart because of the virus. They were mostly through playing The Swan as a quartet. I happen to be a classical guitarist and adept at mixing and recording, so i worked with the teacher to finish this up for the kids. He recorded the accompaniment for piano on his iPhone and emailed it to all the kids to practice against, and then they recorded their parts against the piano, and emailed me their recordings for me to mix. Haven’t completed this yet, but hoping the kids are going to get to hear how they sound together. In the meantime, the ensemble members are working through new pieces, part by part, in the hope we get back together and can play as an actual group with the material being learned.

June 28, 2020 at 11:02 AM · I live in Southeast England, and am teaching 30 children a week remotely. I had my first parent asking when we will be going back to face to face teaching this week, as the lockdown is reducing, but I heard that the R rate here is 1.1, so I don't feel safe enough. I would not wish to teach with a mask on, despite the frustration of not always being able to see or hear properly online. My main employer has told us to prepare to teach beginners online at the start of next term, which I really don't want to do

June 29, 2020 at 07:30 PM · I decided in March not to try learning the electronic substitute to lessons. I have only one risk factor (age). My live one-on-one lessons restarted in May. No more touching by me. The main benefit of the mask is to prevent an infected person from spreading it to a non-infected person. Statistically we reduce the odds of infection by reducing human contact by; time, distance, numbers, and air space. Sun-light might de-activate the virus. As a possible preventative I am taking Vitamins A, C, D, Zinc, and beverage quinine. Yes, I know, that is not yet proven by double-blind studies.

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