By Patrick Sullivan
Like educators around the world, string teachers and their students have improvised like mad since the coronavirus brought the hammer down on in-person interactions. The learning curve has been steep, but the payoffs are big, says Shannon Jansma, a violin teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“Right now, everything is uncertain, and having a set goal and working towards it each day helps people feel more in control, and like they’re accomplishing something,” Jansma says. “Music is also a great way to express and work through complicated feelings surrounding the current state of affairs.”
But after you’ve mastered video lessons, how else can you keep the learning going—and experience music’s joys and consolations?
Here are seven online learning tools recommended by Jansma and other teachers.
1. The Violin Guild: This Facebook group, which has thousands of bowed-string players as members, is helpful for musicians of any level, says Jansma. The enthusiastic participants are quick to offer advice on everything from bow holds and basic finger placement to high-level discussions of advanced repertoire.
2. StringMasters.com: With Grammy-nominated violinist Jeremy Cohen as artistic director, this website aims to be an online music conservatory. A student subscription gets you access to a big library of digital sheet music, plus videos and tutorials. You can also pay for interactive, real-time lessons via your webcam with your own teacher (if he or she’s a member) or from the likes of Hot Club of San Francisco‘s Evan Price. To help students and teachers during the COVID-19 crisis, the site is providing relief pricing.
3. Cadenza: Available for Mac and iOS, this app serves advanced violinists, violists, and cellists. Launched in 2018 by Christopher Raphael of Indiana University, Cadenza describes itself as “an orchestra that fits in your pocket.” Endorsed by the likes of cellist Michael Dahlberg, it lets you play solo melodies backed by accompaniment that adjusts to your rhythm and speed. “So if you’re ready to move on to play without a metronome, it acts like a live accompanist,” explains Matthew Tifford, a Maryland cello teacher.
4. International Music Score Library Project: Founded in 2006 and located at imslp.org, this nonprofit digital library offers public-domain editions of a huge number of pieces, études, and scale books. The site is great for any level, Jansma notes—but use search filters. “Searching by instrumentation alone can yield thousands of results, so it’s good to have a few other parameters in mind, like piece type or composer,” she says.
5. Distance Learning Resources newsletter: Krutzstrings.com has been sending out these e-newsletters to the American String Teachers Association community. “There is a lot of information to sift through, but there are definitely some good YouTube channels, websites, and apps that they recommend for a variety of levels and styles,” says violinist Morganne Aaberg of the Jacobs School of Music String Academy.
6. SightReadingFactory.com: This website offers computer-generated exercises to hone sight-reading skills. You get 10 free excerpts a month and can pay for more. The site is especially useful for beginners and intermediate-level players working on note reading, according to Jansma. “You can work on a randomized example tailored to the skills you want to improve or use their preset options for your playing level,” she says.
7. GarageBand (and other audio and video editors): Lag is real—and deadly for online musical collaboration. “You can’t play duets over Zoom or FaceTime,” says Tifford. “It just doesn’t work.”
Tifford has been using his phone to record his part of a duet with a metronome. Then he uploads the video to YouTube so students can play along in real time. But teachers are also experimenting with audio and video editors that allow for more complex interactions.
California teacher Shira Kammen uses GarageBand for a chorus she codirects, recording parts on violin and viola and sending out MP3s with parts muted so chorus members can sing with them.
BandLab.com seems promising to Tifford. “I like the fact that it has both a social version and an educator version,” he says. Tifford’s students are currently using their phones to film themselves playing one part in a cello quartet, using a metronome. Then Tifford uses video-editing software to stitch them together. Apple, he notes, is now offering a free 90-day trial of Final Cut Pro.
“But the end product will not be this video,” Tifford says with a laugh. “This is prep for what we really want to do, which is play together. The moment these restrictions are gone, we’re all going to want to get together in person.”
The string community is finding all kinds of new ways to connect, with players, organizations, and companies all working to offer new resources for musicians during the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking for some inspiration and longing for a virtual concert experience? Musical America is offering a free guide to free streams, updated twice a week. Yamaha is offering a roundup of resources for teachers, and, of course, don’t forget to check back here at StringsMagazine.com for new installments to our “Shutdown Skills” and “Keep Connected” series.