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Local teachers keeping the music alive with modified studios, online lessons

While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down live music, performances and choir practices everywhere, many musicians have been keeping the music alive through online performances and lessons. Last week The Review spoke to several of the music teachers affiliated with the Vankleek Hill Music Festival to see how they have adapted their regular lessons to the changing times and help to keep music alive in the region.

Ian Hepburn is one of many music teachers who have had their world turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. A full-time teacher of music at Grenville Elementary School and private music instructor of piano and harp in area schools, the Chair of the Vankleek Hill Music Festival found himself without a festival or even a place to teach when the pandemic first hit last spring.

“Those of us who teach in schools – that was completely closed to us,” Hepburn recalls of a spring in which he had to cancel both his music classes and the Vankleek Hill Music Festival itself.

With schools closed and private lessons cancelled, Hepburn and other private teachers were forced to come up with other ways to connect with their students. Many at first turned to online teaching, and as things opened back up, switched their attention to modifying home studios with makeshift barriers, masks and hand sanitizer in order to be able to safely resume in-person lessons.

But while lessons have resumed, the damage from cancelled classes and lessons remains.

“Since this all started, I and all the other teachers I’ve spoken to from the music festival, have pretty well lost half of our students,” observes Hepburn, adding he to has resumed private lessons in a modified studio at his home. “Those of us who were teaching at schools – we’ve pretty well turned our teaching into what we can do at home.”

While most local music instructors tried at least some online teaching at the beginning of the pandemic, frustrations with delays and poor reception made lessons difficult – particularly for beginner students. Most were ecstatic to be able to return to in-person instruction, which allowed for direct instruction, even if those lessons come with new restrictions.

“I’m not doing any online music teaching, mainly because I find it so frustrating,” comments Linda Crawford, who teaches piano and voice to students in both Vankleek Hill and Ottawa. “There’s the delay, and then the microphones don’t work properly and the sound is awful. It’s not that the student is playing badly – it’s that it is not working.”

Christos Bereris is one instructor who took his lessons completely online at the start of the pandemic. The private piano teacher offered free online lessons for any students after he was unable to continue the lessons he normally would instruct in area schools.

“I did it for free, because neither I or the students were very well equipped – it was extremely limiting,” recalls Bereris, who has since resumed in-person lessons. “You can do some things, but other musical things you want to teach online is almost impossible because of the response time – just that one second (delay in) response time is everything in music.”

For some, the slow down in lessons has not been as major a disruption. Carol Hague, who has been teaching singing full-time in Vankleek Hill and Hawkesbury for more than four decades, was already in the process of scaling back her student count when the pandemic hit. While she has had to install plexiglass barriers in her dining room to continue to teach, the extra cleaning between students has not been as stressful as it would have been with her previous schedule.

“I only have seven students now, so there is a lot of time for me to sanitize after each one – I have at least an hour in between lessons,” notes Hague, who also tried online vocal lessons with one of her students for several months. “We both agreed this does not work. With singing there has to be an accompaniment of some kind, but with time lag that doesn’t work.”

Full time music teacher Alice Rodger has also had to adapt her schedule since the start of the pandemic. The instructor of piano, guitar and ukulele has been giving lessons at the Creating Centre in Vankleek Hill, but has seen a significant drop in the number of students.

“In March when this happened I continued teaching online, but it probably cut my students to about a tenth of what I was doing in school,” says Rodger, who also had to cancel her regular summer music camps. “Come September I just put it out that I was not allowed at school, so I continued online and took my students after school as best I could.

“A lot haven’t returned, because I know it was convenient for the parents at school, so they just haven’t been able to continue. It’s too bad, because I’ve missed the ones who could still be doing music but they can’t because they just can’t get to me.”

The pandemic has also caused the cancellation of choir practices and concerts in Vankleek Hill. Rosemary Harden runs the Acquire Community Choir in Vankleek Hill, while her husband Reg Harden organizes the Acquire Handbell Choir. Both choirs have been shut down until COVID-19 runs its course. While they miss the Acquire program “intensely”, the Vankleek Hill couple has kept busy creating music together.

“We’ve taken this COVID time and we are still making music, but it’s more solitary – we’re making music for ourselves,” said Rosemary Harden, who is also teaching socially distanced piano lessons to select students out of the couple’s home studio. “I’m not advertising and I don’t try to pick up new students, but I have some who are so interesting I can’t say no.”

The Vankleek Hill Music Festival is a non-profit organization which organizes an annual music festival, which consists of a series of non-competitive concerts held each Spring. Funds raised from the concerts are dispersed to music students in need. While this year’s concerts were cancelled due to the pandemic, organizers are hopeful to resume the festival in 2021.

Reid Masson

Reid Masson is a graduate of Algonquin College's Journalism Program. He has over 20 years of experience as a staff writer and editor for various newspapers across Canada, including The Ottawa Citizen and Brockville Recorder and Times.

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