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Facing The Coronavirus Crisis, Musicians Take To Teaching Online

Bassist Steve Whipple. [Courtesy of the artist]
Bassist Steve Whipple.

Musicians and other professional performers are among those who have already been hit hard by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. For many, most of their regular income opportunities have been canceled, or have been delayed indefinitely. So many musicians are trying their hand at teaching online.

Bassist Steve Whipple has played with everyone from Lady Gaga to NEA Jazz Master Toshiko Akiyoshi to his own group.

As soon as the coronavirus started making its way across the United States, Whipple saw that musicians were getting in trouble. Tours were shut down. Venues started closing left and right.

"A lot of people are stuck at home," Whipple says. "So I thought if we could connect those two populations, you know, we'd help employ the musicians who don't have work."

So he and a couple of friends set up a website called Maestro Match to pair up teachers with prospective students around the globe — both kids and adults. Within days, hundreds of musicians had signed up to teach, from emerging artists to world-famous professionals.

"Some of my heroes are signing up to teach," he says, noting that he has been "blown away" by the likes of jazz trumpet virtuoso Ralph Alessi and renowned opera singer Isabel Leonard becoming part of his site.

While some musicians are racing to play catch-up — learning how to use videoconferencing apps and figuring out how to accept payment electronically, for example — others are old hands, like flutist and educator Barbara Siesel.

Siesel has been teaching online for years. Coincidentally, most of her students are from one country that's already been deeply affected by the coronavirus crisis. "I teach a lot of students from China because there are a lot of students, high- level students, who want to go to American universities and graduate schools," she explains.

Siesel says she's learned that while there are some drawbacks to interacting with her students online, she's mostly found the experience to be really positive.

"Working with somebody online is really focused," she says. "I can see everything that they're doing because they're right in front of my face, and I can't get distracted, and they can't either. So every minute is accounted for."

Other musicians worry that there's simply too much competition right now to really make any money through virtual teaching.

Chris King is a trumpet player from Orlando, Florida. He says, "It's a flooded market with online teaching at the moment, and we haven't necessarily seen any increase in prospective students."

He gigs around the city, and also works at the Disney theme parks, as do many of his local colleagues. Orlando's amusement parks and tourist attractions are, of course, closed now. So he's telling his colleagues to look outside of music to make their monthly nuts.

"Whatever skill you have, by all means, this is probably the time to try and cash in a little bit on it," King says, like landscaping or repairing instruments — whatever keeps the money coming in.

But singer-songwriter Amy Speace says that making music online is exactly the right thing to be doing, for both teachers and students.

"I know one thing that heals people is working on the thing that they love, even if it's not their job," Speace observes. "And if you're stuck at home, why not work on songs? Why not work on songwriting?"

Speace lives in Nashville, which suffered a devastating tornado in early March. Speace says people were already anxious before COVID-19 spread, and they're already getting stir-crazy. So she's been offering group songwriting workshops online. They've been filling up — and not just with professional musicians.

"Waiters, bartenders, service people who are stuck at home, wondering," she observes. "They want to create something because they've got to put their feeling somewhere, because if you're feeling stay in your head, what are you going to do? Do you drink, take drugs? You know, just sit in misery and become suicidal?"

"So I feel like that's my job as an artist and now as a teacher," Speace continues, "to help those who want to express this and give them some tools and allow them a space that there's a community around them that can support them."

Speace says that making art and music together — even virtually — is exactly the balm people need right now.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.