By Scott Flavin
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” —Orson Welles
Whenever I think of J.S. Bach, I marvel at how the intensely structured rules of form found in his music (fugues, chorales, polyphonic lines, Baroque dance suites, etc.) seem not to have limited his creative force, but rather amplified it. Lately, I’ve been pondering this idea quite a bit. With the outbreak of COVID-19, new limitations have inevitably impacted our daily lives; however, as performers and teachers, we may use these limitations to create new, exciting, and perhaps even more productive solutions moving forward. Of course, COVID-related regulations vary from place to place, but in my own college studio (I am a professor of violin at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music), I’ve found solutions that, in some cases, inspire heightened student engagement and provide new, effective teaching methods.
New Paths for Lessons: Online
Zoom (of course)! Yes, we’re all fully ensconced in the joy of Zoom: Despite the miracle of online video communication worldwide, it just isn’t the same as in-person lessons. We must endure reduced-quality sound, limited image clarity, and, of course, physical distance. However, I’ve found each of these deficits has a parallel benefit.
1. Reduced-quality Sound
How on earth could this have a benefit? I have found that in limited doses, online playing can highlight faulty tone-production issues in a much more direct way than in live playing. In other words, in order to sound even passable as a player on Zoom, one must produce twice as much beauty in one’s sound. By searching for a concept of beauty, the student is encouraged to find greater resonance of tone, purity of sound, and beauty of vibrato, even when he or she is playing in a bedroom or living room. It is a new kind of motivator.
2. Limited Image Clarity
Despite lesser-quality images, webcams can be extremely useful, as the point-of-view of a computer’s webcam allows a teacher to see different visual information than you would in person. For example, shoulder tension can be seen very clearly in some cases, and most notably, issues in the bow hold jump out, especially in the right thumb.
3. Physical Distance
While not interacting with a student in person can be a big drawback, some students respond better to verbal or visual cues. By finding new ways to verbally express proper positioning or stance, for example, teachers may clarify concepts more completely with the student. Before I started Zooming, I was also concerned that students would be distracted or less engaged in lessons; however, I’ve found just the opposite! Perhaps the limited range of computer interaction encourages greater focus. In any case, this has been a positive discovery.
New Paths for Lessons: In-Person
In-person instruction is limited by a number of factors, but one equation that’s on the minds of many educators is Air Exchange Rate (ACH)—the rate at which air in a given space will be exchanged in an hour’s time. How long you can teach in an enclosed space depends partly on the size of the room and how long it takes for the air to be changed, be it with HVAC or open windows or doors.
In my teaching studio, I am limiting in-person lessons to 30 minutes. While not having a full hour in person with a student is a disadvantage, I have created alternative lesson structures that provide some specific advantages for students. I’m giving them the option to choose which format they would like, as each has benefits; I felt it was important to give them a bit of control in some aspect of life!
1. Hybrid 30/30
This option allows a weekly, live, 30-minute lesson in the studio, followed by a 30-minute discussion and analysis outside the studio, while the air cleans. This format is useful in several ways. First, because of the limited time, there is a greater awareness of the importance of every minute, so students come prepared. While the student is in-studio, there is limited talking. The lesson is video-recorded, and I take detailed notes. This actually allows, in some cases, more playing time for the student, and brings to light new areas of focus in the student’s development.
In the following 30-minute discussion, the student and teacher are able to address concepts with even greater depth than might be possible in a standard lesson setting, while watching the video together can greatly help the student increase his or her ability to self-diagnose playing issues.
2. Three-week Cycle
This cycle consists of two weeks of hour-long online lessons, followed by a hybrid 30/30 lesson in the third week. The first two lessons are an opportunity to clarify specific goals and establish them thoroughly, leading to a fully realized performance and follow-up discussion in the third lesson. This option is especially useful for students in helping to organize their practice, improve focus, and build performance skills. By incorporating multiple mini-performances into their lesson schedules, students can achieve goals more comprehensively in less time.
3. Hybrid Studio Class
My weekly studio class is in a hybrid format, as some of my students are studying remotely. This has allowed me to revisit the structure of studio class. Using the model of the French conservatoire, where an entire studio benefits from witnessing individual instruction, two different students each week will participate in-person, performing and presenting concepts live. The rest of the studio will listen and participate online. The distinct advantage is that by focusing the class on the two individuals, each member of the studio gets a clear picture of his or her own strengths and weaknesses, with different students in-person, and in the spotlight, each week.
Teaching a class comprised of online students and in-person masked students can be a great challenge. The most immediate is successfully using technology: cameras, microphones, Zoom—all these tools require skills. Also, as a teacher, you feel less connected to the class, as the masks cover much facial responsiveness (and clarity of voice), and the online students are on a screen. However, you become acutely aware of the importance of every word you say, choosing each more carefully, and giving concepts time to “sink in,” perhaps in a way you never considered before. While the changed dynamic and pace can be rather disconcerting initially, you can create a more meaningful and immediate connection with the class.
Whether or not you need to worry about ACH, or hybrid lessons, the point is that there are still many creative options available to teachers to help reach students in effective ways. The current world situation perhaps provides an opportunity for us to discover entirely new and exciting teaching strategies, keeping our students engaged and growing.
As visual artist Phil Hansen put it, “If you treat the problems as possibilities, life will start to dance with you in the most amazing ways.”
This article originally appeared in the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine.