By Caeli Smith | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
“Wait, so—when I put my pinky down on the A string, it sounds the same as the open E string?” Allia looked at me, her face lighting up.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, just as excited as she was.
“But it actually sounds kinda different. Like, softer. Not so squeaky.” Allia furrowed her brow and plucked each string, considering the difference in timbre.
Twenty minutes later, I shut my laptop, brimming with the specific joy that comes from a perfect lesson: guiding a student to discovery, supporting their inquiry, and commending their curiosity.
And it happened online.
My violin student, Allia, is ten years old and experiencing homelessness. The shelter where she lives is around the corner from my apartment in New York City—but since mid-March, when my professional life suddenly ground to a halt, I’ve lived with my sister’s family in Philadelphia, providing childcare for their two young kids. Like the tens of thousands of other performers who lost all of their income, I had no choice but to uproot, relocate, and find a new way to pay bills.
In a pre-pandemic world, Allia and her mother would probably have come to my apartment for violin lessons. But, in a pre-pandemic world, I never would have met them.
In March, Allia was profiled in The New York Times as part of a story about NYC schoolchildren who couldn’t log onto their virtual classrooms because they didn’t have reliable access to WiFi. “I love playing the violin,” Allia said in a video interview. I contacted the reporter, hoping to get in touch with Allia’s mother and offer them free violin lessons. We’ve been working together via Zoom since April.
Allia has grit, in the best sense of the word. Instead of being discouraged by the complexities of learning to play an instrument, she digs in. She is unfazed by the task of finding a quiet place to practice while sharing a one-bedroom with several family members. Each week she logs into our Zoom lesson from a different place—in nice weather, she might be on a deserted basketball court on Riverside Drive, or on the balcony of a family friend’s apartment. At the end of our most recent lesson, Allia sat on the floor of the bathroom, her knees nearly bumping into her chin as we discussed her practice plan for the week. She is determined. “Violin is important to me,” she says. So she makes it work.
Learning to play the violin will help Allia hone many skills: discipline, practice, organization, perseverance. Perhaps best of all, it will help her take charge of her own love for music. As for me, teaching online has helped me become a better teacher. Communicating with students via Zoom has made me more intentional with my instruction and demonstrations.
Pre-COVID, I taught half of my students at their apartments. I wrote lesson notes in their practice journals that were often lost or unread. It would have been awkward and difficult to type up and email detailed practice instructions to every student after my commute home. Now, I compile lesson recaps at my laptop in minutes, and email them to my students, CCing their parents. I also have my students send me short practice videos throughout the week, so I can track their progress between lessons. This never occurred to me before working digitally.
In addition to teaching Allia to play the violin, I want to be a source of consistency for her. As it turns out, that’s what she is for me. We meet twice a week for 30 minutes. Despite the way the pandemic has displaced both of us, every Sunday and Wednesday morning, there we are—together in our separate spaces.
Our lessons have grounded me in the same way I hope they’ve grounded her. Allia is reliable, punctual, and excited (and I can always count on a little variety: a Pikachu hoodie with huge, floppy, yellow ears; tales of the latest mischief with her siblings). There is an intimacy to teaching students in their own environment—places I wouldn’t normally see. I see their siblings, their families. They see my living spaces, too—my nephew toddling into frame, the full basket of laundry waiting to be put away. I think it makes us closer.
I got to meet Allia and her mom this summer. I returned briefly to my New York City apartment to collect all the things I left when I thought I was only leaving the city for six weeks. It was pouring that night, and we met outside on the sidewalk, standing under green scaffolding to stay dry. It didn’t feel like we were meeting for the first time. Allia yelled, “See you next week!” as we parted ways, scurrying into the storm.
I want children like Allia to feel a connection to other musical kids as well. The pandemic has meant that we are cloistered more than ever before. So, in June, I founded a platform called MusicAlly, which brings free online lessons to under-resourced kids, using a buy-one-give-one model. We pair students as Practice Buddies to give them accountability partners and a community of musical peers. Allia’s Practice Buddy, Melissa—a child in foster care in Philadelphia—is learning to play the flute. Allia and Melissa exchange weekly emails and practice clips, explaining their practice goals for the week. They exchange musical feedback and support. They both love painting their nails, and even have the same birthday. It’s wonderful to watch their friendship bloom.
Teaching online has brought me close relationships with students all across the country. The only hurdle is remembering the difference in time zones. Across geographical boundaries, children are building important connections, both with their mentors and their friends. This is the paradox of the internet: we’re making the world smaller by acknowledging how big it is in the first place.