Blog Post

Teaching online…oh my! Music teaching musings with Joanie

photo portrait of smiling light skinned woman with long grey, wavy hair holding her guitar up with the guitar's neck resting against the side of her face

I am, and have always been, a teacher and a performer who creates opportunities for interaction with my class and/or audience.  As a teacher I almost always invite my students to come to the floor and sit in a circle with me.  As a performer, I’ve never enjoyed being up on a stage, far away from those who have come to hear me, and I have naturally gravitated towards a performance style that invites the audience to be part of the creation of the event, through echo songs, zipper songs (songs that invite input from the audience to write new verses), call and response songs, body percussion parts, and conversation.

photo portrait of smiling light skinned woman with long grey, wavy hair holding her guitar up with  the guitar's neck resting against the side of her face
Joanie Calem

So…it’s not that I need the energy of the class or the audience to keep me going, it’s just that I see music making as a group activity.  Enter the corona era!  I think many of us children’s musicians are trying to channel our inner Mr. Rogers, as in, how do we connect with a class or an audience that we cannot see and hear?  Doing a Facebook Live concert is relatively easy, knowing that people are out there watching and will continue to watch makes it easy to connect, and it’s more performance oriented, so the straight-on teaching is there (for me) though less the focus.  But teaching music?  When I’m not there to physically help students maneuver their hands to get the kinesthetic logistics of playing an instrument, hear the beat, sing the pitch?

In addition to being a classroom teacher, I also teach private piano, guitar and ukulele lessons, and lead an intergenerational choir.  My private students and I have resorted to FaceTime, Google Hangouts, What’s App, and Zoom.  None of these platforms were created to carry music, so it’s not easy, but it’s working.  Far better than nothing.  Keeps my students practicing, allows us a weekly interaction, allows me to continue earning some money.  The intergenerational choir is a little interesting, because you just can’t sing together on Zoom without lots of fancy expensive microphones and sound boards and equipment that a typical family would not have on hand.  So everyone mutes, sings along with me from their own home.  Not ideal, but still far better than nothing.  I’ve noticed that some of the kids who are more reticent about singing when we are physically together are singing along from home…at least I can see their lips moving!  This is a definite lemonade from a lemon…unwittingly providing these particular kids a different kind of participation that works for them.  (Side note: I am sure that there must be some techie musicians out there who are busy figuring out an online platform that will allow group singing, as we have suddenly discovered that this is missing on a global level!  I am hopeful!  I wish I had studied engineering and could be that innovator, but that’s not quite my skill set.)

When Molly from Art Possible Ohio contacted all of us about putting our lessons online, I was kind of stymied as to how to even start, because of everything that I shared up above.  But then that inner Mr. Rogers started talking again, and I realized that yes, I will not be able to physically help the students maneuver their hands, or determine that they can hear the beat, or know if they are singing on pitch, but I can certainly share the content in much the same way that I would do if they were in the room with me…just without the interruptions that are the natural consequence of putting a bunch of students (of any age) together in a room!

This year I have been teaching at the Red Oak Community School with the support of Art Possible Ohio.  Red Oak is a small school with a focus on outdoor education and environmental stewardship.  I was hired to teach music, using my “Trip Around the World” curriculum for grades K – 2, and “History of Protest Music” for grades 3 – 5.  For grades K – 2, we are using a wide range of percussion and rhythm instruments to explore the music of different cultures. For grades 3-5, we are learning the ukulele and gradually playing many of the protest songs we are exploring on the ukulele.  As a school with a natural love of the environment as it’s focus, I have gravitated to songs about the environment for each curriculum.

I am slowly creating my Ukulele lessons for YouTube, to share with my Red Oak students, Art Possible Ohio, and the rest of the world of course, because it’s YouTube.  I will get my “Trip Around the World” lessons filmed later this week as well.  In this context, the classes are not limited to age range, and anyone of course is invited to sing and learn.  That is one thing that I love about the internet!

I’ve tried to figure out the best home electronics set-up for a non-techy like me, and I have landed on filming with my phone, uploading to my laptop and editing on Adobe Premier Pro.  For the ukulele lessons, I need to be standing so my hand and ukulele (actually I am using a banjolele!) can be seen easily.  For the “Trip Around the World” curriculum, I will invite everyone to the floor with me, so that we can easily play the percussion instruments.

This is all a huge learning curve, especially for a non-techy like me!  But I have come to appreciate that any challenge I am having, someone else before me has had as well, and Dr. Google usually has some suggestions.  I spent one entire, frustrating Sunday figuring out why Premier Pro wouldn’t export the video I had just edited and worked on for hours.  Dr. Google came through.

I admit that it has been a little odd to overnight change my entire life around.  I am used to leaving the house early in the morning to get to some school on time, teaching music to a variety of age-groups all morning, singing to adults and seniors mid-day, and then tumbling home to start welcoming my private students into my home studio in the later afternoon.  I miss my classes!! But it’s not bad…I actually love my house, I love my family, I love not being in the car, and I love forcing myself to record and learn new skills.

But of course, this is not a paid vacation.  I have no idea what kind of income I will be able to maintain in this manner.  I can certainly continue to get my art and music out to the world, and I can certainly maintain a semblance of a private teaching career this way.  As a performer, I feel so badly for my young musician friends who have worked hard to create an income base for themselves entirely based on touring and live performing, and are now scrambling to monetize those skills online, when thousands are in the same boat.  I know that people are succeeding, monetizing Zoom classes, monetizing online concerts.  I hope this is sustainable.  We are all grappling with the unknown nature of this new Corona reality and how long it will continue.  But we artists are by nature creative, “think outside the box” creatures.  I know I often fall asleep at night stymied by some technical glitch that I can’t figure out, only to wake up in the morning with another idea that might just work…and usually does!

I will be uploading my teaching videos onto my Joanie Calem for Kids YouTube channel (I have a second Joanie Calem YouTube channel that is more grown-up oriented music.)  I would love to hear some feedback.  Good luck to all of us :-).

Here is video #1!

Want to get a Ukulele of your own? Joanie recommends these two options:

Mahalo Kahiko Series MK1 Soprano Ukulele

Mitchell MU40 Soprano Ukulele