Pandemic teaching practice tips teaching piano Teaching tips

Music teacher interviews: pianist Jamie Parker

Photo: Bo Huang (and styled by yours truly)

Teaching online is what we’re doing now, and for a while yet. I’ve made the switch and it’s going quite well for me – my biggest challenge is holding the attention of a hyper 7-year old. I was curious how teachers of advanced piano students were coping, and I turned the “mic”, so to speak, to my brother, Jamie Parker. He’s been a Professor of Piano, Rupert E. Edwards Chair in Piano Performance, at the University of Toronto, and a member of three-time Juno Award winner Gryphon Trio since 1993.

I began by asking Jamie what the biggest difference between how he was teaching before mid-March of 2020, and how he’s teaching now.

There has been no in-person teaching since mid-March, 2020. Teaching now is all online, using both asynchronous and synchronous methods. For asynchronous teaching, I’ve recorded a lot of ‘Introduction’ videos of pieces  (since students are now starting new repertoire for the 2020-21 academic year), that I record on my phone positioned at the end of the keyboard, and I lean down to talk about specific issues, ways to practice certain passages etc. Then I run them through a compression app, upload them to Dropbox, and send the students a link so they can download and watch them at their convenience. Students have also been sending me videos of them playing to get my comments on subsequent videos.

For synchronous teaching, I Zoom with students individually, and I’ve kept my weekly ‘Studio Class’ going – it’s an opportunity for us to talk about all the important current events happening and how we respond to physical and social crises, perform for each other, and to just to share a laugh and catch up with one another.

Jamie clowning around with his students. As written by Futian Yao on Facebook:
A star! ?⭐
“We are nine intelligent people”
-Jamie’s words of encouragement as we try to figure out how to do a star/who will take the photo

What I miss most is the physical connection with people. Whether it’s the dozens of daily short hallway interactions at UofT, the hours of working with students to help them find themselves musically and personally, and the exchange of energy between myself and audience members when I’m performing concerts.

What I miss the least is the stress and drudgery of travel. As one artist (probably many) said, “They don’t pay me to play – they pay me to travel.” Actually walking out on stage and playing a Gryphon Trio concert is often the easiest party of my day. It’s all the admin work and travel time that sucks the lifeblood out of you. I am enjoying time to read. Daily. In the past, I typically get up late, teach all day, come home to hang out with my family, get dinner ready and put the boys to bed. Then another double or quad espresso, and practice and check email until 2:30am. So home days are very full with little time for myself. On the road, I do have more time for some relaxing activities – a little sight-seeing, hit the local Trader Joe’s, research the best local IPAs etc. in addition to giving master classes, school shows, and evening concerts.

Performers can get so busy running from gig to another, running back to teach, running back to family, that the slower pace of everything is just fine. For now. Naturally, all of us are itching to get back on stage and reconnect with our audiences.

Socially distanced Gryphon Trio rehearsal for a live online concert in May 2020 – note hockey stick to ensure proper distance

My schedule is pretty regular, just shifted a bit later. I’m usually in bed by 3am, and I get up late morning after checking email, social media, and maybe reading a couple of chapters when I wake up.

I (and I’m sure many others) started using the hashtag #Covid19NewSkills, referring to the fact that with self-isolation comes self-reliance. We had an upcoming Gryphon Trio online performance, and I needed to tune my piano. It’s been about 12 years since it was tuned, so I ordered a kit online, watched two and a half YouTube videos, downloaded a tuning app to my phone and went at it. I even got a CBC feature on me actually cleaning off my piano and tuning it! A friend of mine at school fixed her television, and another friend learned bicycle repair online. I’ve been taking a few Coursera offerings, and I’m trying to learn Spanish. There’s also been time to read more about various Energy Healing methods that I’m really interested in. I bought Dorico (music notation software), so I’m learning how to use that. I might have to learn some music and/or video editing software too – we’ll see.    

The most frustrating thing about teaching online is internet latency. That drives me fucking crazy. I can laugh about it, but really, sometimes the screen freezes and the music stalls, and then spastically speeds up so you can’t even tell what piece they’re playing anymore. You accept that you’re not going to be working on tone quality or projection during online lessons – there’s no point. Dynamic shaping is also a largely inaccurate area of exploration. But you can work on rubato, phrasing, pacing, direction, rhythmic pulse, harmonic and voicing clarity etc.

What I’m enjoying about this period is that I have ‘time for me’ – it sounds so stupidly Hallmark, but it’s true. I’ve got loads more time with my family – the boys have gotten so much better throwing a baseball in the back lane. I get to wash and massage my wife’s feet everyday – not just on weekends! I can practice pieces that I normally never have time to look at. I enjoy the 1:30am walks with our dog. (Okay, one of those statements wasn’t completely true.)

I think the most important advice for students is to be adaptable. We don’t know what the ‘new normal’ is going to look like, and when it will happen. I like to quote the Darwin line (apparently paraphrased by a business prof), “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives: it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

Can you perform online in a meaningful way? Are you good with technology and can help others perform online? Are you good with websites? Can you work on software/hardware solutions? Are you good at organizing people/causes/events?

Once the physical toll of this pandemic subsides, we’ll be faced with some catastrophic economic situations. Many freelance performing musicians will have quit and pivoted to teaching and other careers. Many presenting halls will close. Everyone in music management and public relations will be hard hit. Orchestras will have huge difficulties staying afloat. Teaching institutions will struggle to deliver quality remote instruction. And all of the ancillary (to performances) businesses will be affected – bars, restaurants, parking lots, transit, drive-share, hotels, Airbnb, airlines, tourist activities. It’s going to get brutal out there.

So, this is the time to upgrade skills, explore hobbies you’ve always loved, see how else you can find your best ikigai. I found this image:

My personal ikigai is something like: Music, Laughter, Healing, Beer – I’m still working out the details…

Follow Jamie (and his alter ego, Jim Parker of PNN) on Facebook @ Jamie Parker.

*Note to Jamie: #TheMatriarch isn’t gonna like that you used the “f-word”.

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