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When music lessons move to Zoom: ‘There have been some surprising benefits’

Dave Cordes taught a music lesson from his home in Jamaica Plain.Courtesy Dave Cordes

For voice teachers like Erin Matthews, seeing and hearing her students isn’t only nice — it’s a professional necessity. But in the space of a few days, Matthews and her colleagues have dealt not only with landing on shaky financial ground due to lost performance gigs. They’ve had to quickly master online lessons for such highly physical subjects as posture, projection, and breathing.

That requires fluency in the finer points of the videoconferencing tool Zoom, now the top free app on both the Apple and Google Play app stores. At this point, American life can probably be divided into two periods, B.Z. and A.Z. — Before Zoom and After Zoom. With the coronavirus locking down much of the world, Zoom has become a hub for anything you can imagine: from business meetings and graduate seminars all the way to preschools, yoga studios, visits with grandparents, even birthday parties and weddings. We’re all Zooming in, watching the faces and voices of friends, colleagues, and teachers as they pixelate, glitch, and snap back into focus while networks groan under heavy Web traffic.


Matthews, a Boston Conservatory-educated soprano, had never taught remotely before. “You have to be so much more organized in your approach, and thoughtful,” she said in a phone interview between lessons last week.

Matthews used to teach five days a week out of the Brookline Music School and Westwood’s Merry Melody Music Academy, with a student roster spanning all ages. But for now, her apartment on the Roxbury-Dorchester border has become her studio. Her roommate, countertenor John Bitsas, also teaches piano and voice; the two adjusted their schedules around one another so only one is teaching at a time.

Matthews has adapted to webcam lessons by becoming a “stickler” about the setup, she said. She insists that voice students position their cameras so she can see their rib cages, giving her a better sense of their breathing. And she’s already overcome one big unforeseen complication — the Zoom app initially filtered out her students’ vocal exercises, mistaking them for background noise.


Her students seem to be taking it in stride. “I’ve actually been really pleased with their attention span and their engagement,” Matthews said. “Some of the kids are like ‘I have no school! Hahaha!’ Then, some of them actually get what’s going on, and they’re a lot more somber about it.”

“It’s all about keeping that routine,” Bitsas said. “I think kids really respond well to routine.”

Married musicians Dave Cordes and Shaw Pong Liu recently launched the Cordes-Liu Online Music School, featuring a diverse slate of classes for anyone from infants to adults. Cordes, who teaches at the Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester, had hoped to keep his students in touch — but also wants to allow more people to connect through music.

“We designed this thing to try to provide group music experiences to kids and adults, in hopes that this would be really healing and necessary and helpful at this time,” Cordes said from the couple’s home in Jamaica Plain.

“There have certainly been challenges, but there have been some surprising benefits of moving online,” said Liu, a violinist and erhu player who was named a City of Boston artist in residence in 2016. “I had our first studio class with students from 6 to 13 years old playing for each other over Zoom ... in the current situation, it’s a welcome way to have the community of each other.”


Through their new school, the couple is also trying to weather the wave of cancellations that have quickly emptied American freelance musicians’ calendars and pockets. Liu estimated that she lost over $4,000 of income from canceled gigs in the three weeks at the end of March and the beginning of April, typically a busy time of year for performers.

At Community Music Center of Boston, which closed down its in-person programming on March 13, 91 percent of faculty said they were interested in teaching online, and the school set up teachers with resources to navigate the new world of online education. In the first week of closure, nearly half of the school’s private lessons went on as scheduled, said director of in-house programs Michael Depasquale.

Hannah Sigel, who directs the school’s Una Voce adult community choir, never thought a chorus rehearsal could work remotely. But last Tuesday, about two-thirds of the chorus’s singers logged on to Zoom to catch up and practice together. Sigel is preparing the singers to make individual recordings of their parts from their homes, and she’ll compile those into a “virtual chorus,” so even at a distance, they can hear each other’s voices.

Una Voce, which is made up of mostly retirees, is continuing to prepare for its next concerts in May and June. Like any other gathering in the coming months, whether those shows will go on remains to be seen. Regardless, the singers will keep rehearsing online until it’s safe to meet in person.


“It was really meaningful for all of them to get together [online],” Sigel said. “Everyone was really pleased and happy to be with each other.”


For information about online music lessons, visit www.bmsmusic.org or www.shawpong.com/music-school. Community Music Center of Boston offers online lessons for current students. Lessons for the public will be available in May: https://cmcb.org/cmcb-online-lessons

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her @knitandlisten.