By Laurence Vittes | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
The pandemic made it a requirement that teachers learn to adapt to a virtual studio, with students making music in separate spaces. Online exchange platforms like Microsoft Teams and Google Meet have worked in situations where audiophile quality was not required. But they were designed to transmit speech clearly by filtering out environmental noise—like the sound of music. In making music teaching possible in a remote setting, they also compromise the art and the teaching of it.
Cellist Kate Dillingham, president of the Violoncello Society of New York, may have changed all that with the launch of MyBlueSkies, a musician’s dream of what a platform should be. Designed by a team of musicians, sound engineers, and software developers, it’s a feature-rich environment across all devices providing a solution to long-distance musical instruction and performance, complete with an integrated scheduling calendar.
The platform handles up to 15 users per stream and up to one million passive listeners. Audiophile sound is available for use with USB stereo microphones. Dillingham launched MyBlueSkies in the fall with a livestreamed performance by Miklós Perényi playing Beethoven from the European Music Institute in Vienna. I spoke to Dillingham in October.
How did you develop MyBlueSkies?
I had left New York City, where things were uncertain, for North Carolina at the invitation of friends. Through playing tennis, which was the one activity we could do safely together during Covid, I was introduced to the person who became my business partner. He had played for the Pittsburgh Steelers back in the day. We started talking and he introduced me to several other internet-business owners. We worked with wonderful teams of developers, musicians, and engineers to create what we hope will be the most audiophile-friendly experience available on the commercial internet, and to make the audio and video experience as close to being in-person as possible. I call it Zoom for musicians.
What do you use MyBlueSkies for?
I use it for teaching lessons, giving live presentations, master classes, performances, and working with composers—all in real time when we cannot be in the same space together. It makes what was difficult just a few months ago not only possible but a pleasurable experience.
How did you manage online teaching before launching the platform?
When the lockdown happened and kids were forced to do their schooling online, I said to them, “I have zero expectations that you’re going to learn anything on Zoom in terms of the music because the sound is so terrible. However, I will be here for you every week. If you want to talk, if you want to play, if you want to scream, I’m here for you.” And each of them came every single day.
In fact, during those Zoom-only days, both my kids and adults worked harder than I’ve ever experienced. It made me a more focused teacher because I had to listen so carefully through the difficult connections. Having to focus at the granular level that was required of me developed me as a teacher. I was a pretty good teacher before, and I became an excellent one as a result of the whole process.
But the sound was so unmusical. After teaching for two weeks, I thought I was going to jump off a cliff. I didn’t want to think I’d spent my whole life devoted to my talent, my instrument, and music to now have to teach and play with inferior technology. So MyBlueSkies has been an opportunity to marry my love of music and technology and teaching and performing and solving problems for people.
How did MyBlueSkies change things?
After taking lessons with me over MyBlueSkies, a 14-year-old high school student entered her first competition and won second prize. She also won the assistant principal chair in the principal orchestra of the Norwalk [Connecticut] Youth Symphony.
The platform had made it possible for me to hear every nuance of her bow making contact with the string, her dynamic range, and the accuracy of her intonation. And it was the same for her when I was demonstrating. Being able to hear and see each other clearly gave her confidence. It also made me a better teacher, too, in the sense that I could focus on really minute details.
She was reluctant, however, to make a video for the competition. The worst thing that can happen, I told her, is you learn how to play better. And sure enough, she made a video, sent it in, and won second place. First time out. For me it was a pretty impressive testament to the relationships we can have in an online setting. And it summarizes the whole inspiration for my project—how to make real-time engagement a much better experience for everybody.
Are there any advantages to online group teaching?
Online teaching is never going to replace in-person teaching. However, with great sound, I think there are some real advantages. You can broaden the experience of the student because you can connect with anybody in the world. On our platform, you can create a streaming link and share it with a million people.
What about working with composers?
I worked with a quartet in one room here in New York and a composer on the West Coast and she was able to speak about interpretation, articulation, and all the things that are at the core of the musical experience as if she were there with the musicians in the same room.
What does the future hold?
We have been speaking with an advisor about how to grow MyBlueSkies, how to invite a bigger, broader audience and bring them right into the creative process, focusing on the connections you can make and what you can do on the platform with other musicians. We’re working on a way for teachers to create short video profiles—what they do, what they like to teach, what instruments, what genres, what age groups, it can get quite specific—that they can use as marketing tools. And we are researching integration with [music-notation program] Sibelius.