How music lessons unified teachers and students in a time of isolation

With the pandemic increasing people's stress and anxiety levels, some say we need music more than ever

An outside view of the Merriam School of Music Oakville Campus
Merriam School of Music is once again open for in-person lessons after being exclusively virtual for the last two years. (Photo courtesy of Merriam Music via YouTube) 

Setting his laptop near his piano, 16-year-old music student Marcus Cameron pauses to ensure his living room in Oakville, Ont., is quiet.

Today is a good day. The dogs have stopped barking and his parents aren’t in any meetings.

He logs into the virtual classroom and peeks at his webcam display, adjusting his lighting so that he doesn’t appear too dim or too bright.

“Hi Marcus, how are you?” his teacher greets, but her voice morphs into a robotic-like tone as his internet glitches. It’s time for another online piano lesson.

Throughout the lesson, his teacher’s face freezes and the audio distorts. Despite the frustration on both ends, she continues to motivate Marcus and give him feedback on his progress. 

It might not have been easy, but this was the “new normal” for music students when the Merriam School of Music locations across the Greater Toronto Area paused their in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecting online to practice and play music, however, kept the students’ spirits, and many of them stuck with it in spite of the challenges.

WATCH | How music students transitioned online during the pandemic:

Music lessons in the age of COVID-19

One guitar teacher at Oakville’s Merriam School of Music campus, Jacob Kovacevic, has been teaching there since 2014. It wasn’t until March 2020 that he conducted his first online lesson from his home studio. 

He expected to see a noticeable drop in enrollment, due to the pandemic. Much to his surprise, the opposite happened.

“I didn’t lose a single student throughout the year of 2020,” Kovacevic said. 

In fact, the number of students he taught actually increased, from 40 to about 55 students a week. A few of them even lived out of province. 

Classes have since resumed in-person at Merriam’s. Kovacevic is now a hybrid teacher, with some students in person and others remaining online.

“There are still a few GTA ones but most of them are at least a three-hour drive away, either north or in the next province over,” he said. 

Students as far as Alberta and British Columbia joined his virtual classroom to take part in “advanced theory and fun.”

Kovacevic made the most of the situation, but teaching online came with its fair share of challenges. 

Finding the right camera angle was one hurdle. Kovacevic found that having two cameras, one on his face and another aimed at his hands and guitar, was an effective way to show his students how to play a chord.

That interactive element was also lost in online classes. Kovacevic said that telling his students to “watch out for this specific note in this specific bar” was difficult.

“[In an] in-person lesson, that’s something that you just point to, but obviously in a virtual lesson, you have to find a different way of doing it, whether it be through drawing on a whiteboard, or something like that,” he said.

There were also benefits to online classes. Kovacevic said his dual cameras made it easier for students to follow along, and more introverted students felt more comfortable to speak during lessons. 

How students transitioned to the ‘new normal’

Marcus Cameron, the classical piano student, found the transition from in-person to virtual classes to be “really weird at first.”

Most of the time, the living room was a relatively quiet place for him to take his classes. However, the start of the pandemic introduced a few distractions.

“I had two new dogs to care for and my parents [were] adjusting to working remotely,” he said.

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As expected, there were technical difficulties. Performing music over a webcam can lead to audio distortion and make it harder to follow along. 

Marcus mentioned the “personal touch” aspect to in-person classes was lost. 

“My teacher [couldn’t tell me], ‘you need to bring your hands up’ or ‘relax your shoulders,’ all that. And just the feel of personal communication was missing for a bit,” he said.

Mental health and music

A Canadian Mental Health Association survey from January 2022 that revealed 25 per cent of Canadians felt increased feelings of depression and anxiety. This was an increase of six per cent from last year.

Kristina Twilt, a board-certified music therapist in Durham Region, said music can make an impact on people’s mental health.

“Specifically for mental health, we know that the act of practicing a musical instrument, especially over a long period of time, can help with the aspects of discipline and of resilience, really figuring out how we can see a challenge and what we can do to meet that challenge. And to overcome it,” she said. 

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people felt overwhelming emotions. Music provides comfort, Twilt said.

“Music can help validate the emotions that we’re experiencing and to be used as a tool to communicate and to give voice to some of the things that we’re thinking and feeling,” she said. 

Marcus also felt that his music lessons lifted his spirits in a time of stress and uncertainty. 

“I always had something to look forward to, something I was always working towards. And it kept my brain busy. And it was just nice, knowing that I was making progress on what I was doing,” he said.

Kovacevic performs music in addition to teaching at Merriam’s. When gigs were put on hold, he was thankful he had his job as a music instructor to lift him up. 

“I was really, really thankful for [the switch to online lessons], because it kept […] me and my close friends afloat,” he said.

Kovacevic received happy emails from parents, saying they were glad their child had something to keep their mind busy during uncertain times.

“Soccer practice was cancelled, hockey was cancelled, all of this stuff just wasn’t going on,” he said. “It gave them something to latch on to.”

Return to campus

As Ontario slowly reopens, Merriam’s School of Music campuses are open once again. 

Marcus returned to in-person classes this past September, and is “delighted to be back.”

“Seeing my teachers and friends in-person for the first time brought me joy and motivated me even more to continue working hard,” he said.

Although he greatly prefers his in-person classes, attending virtually gave him more time to practice and improve his skills. He also spent this period exploring new music genres.

Despite the challenges of the past couple years, Marcus said that his music lessons “gave him something to look forward to each week.”

How engaging with music In everyday life can help you

Music therapist Kristina Twilt said listening to your favourite songs and making playlists with intention can have a positive impact on stress and anxiety levels (Screenshot/Toronto Observer)

Even if you are not enrolled in music lessons, there are still benefits to interacting with music on your own time.

Twilt, the music therapist, spoke about it can help the average person cope with these stresses.

“It sounds simple and obvious, but listening to your favourite music can help a lot,” she said. “Really [listening] to the instruments [and] the lyrics can [provide] temporary distraction and relief.”

Another strategy Twilt recommended is creating playlists with intention, which differs slightly from “workout” or “cleaning” playlists. The overall theme is the same: to play a collection of songs to help make tasks less burdensome. However, there is a trick to making playlists that alleviate stress.

She explained that the first few songs of the playlist should match the energy the listener currently feels. For instance, your playlist should start with “loud, bombastic instruments and sounds.” The songs should gradually change to be softer, bringing the listener into a state of relaxation.

“Oftentimes the advice [is] ‘just listen to relaxing music and you’ll feel more relaxed’. We don’t want to listen to relaxing music,” Twilt said.

“If we’re going through a hard time to be listening to music that matches what it is that we’re feeling, it validates us and […] when the music gradually changes, our bodies and our mental state respond to that change. It can be a very effective way to naturally […] bring us from a state of higher stress into lower stress.”

About this article

Posted: Apr 19 2022 2:10 pm
Filed under: Arts & Life Music