by Alicia Dietrich
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Austin and UT closed its campus, it affected not only college students, but many young budding musicians who had been taking lessons from UT students in the Butler School of Music as part of UT’s String Project program.
Led by Associate Professor and program director Laurie Scott and academic program coordinator Dana Wygmans, the String Project pairs Butler School of Music students with young children to teach them to play violin, viola, cello, bass and guitar. The UT students offer a combination of one-on-one private instruction, small group classes and larger ensembles. The program serves young children as it teaches them to learn how to play an instrument, and it serves UT music students by giving them hands-on teaching training and experience. Additionally, the program offers parents the opportunity to learn stringed instruments in parent classes and also early childhood music classes for children 0-4.
When Scott and Wygmans realized they would need to move their instruction online, they had to think through how to offer each of those formats in a virtual forum.
“I was very confident in the private lesson teaching, and I knew teachers would be onboard and would able to make it work,” said Scott. “The group lesson teaching took a little time to organize. It was scary to look at the schedule, but after the first Saturday of group lessons, I was blown away by the level of responsibility of the teachers, the level of preparation and professionalism. I knew at that point that we were going to sail on to the end of the semester.”
Behind the scenes, Wygmans worked to set up a complex schedule of Zoom invites for the large group lessons, using Zoom’s breakout rooms feature to allow the students to break off into smaller groups.
They’ve even continued to hold virtual recitals, and recently hosted a virtual “Play Down,” where the highest-level students play first, and in the next round, the second-most advanced students join in the performance. They keep adding groups to each round until the youngest students join in at last.
“The highest-level students end up playing about 15 memorized pieces, and the little kids join whenever the repertoire reaches their level,” said Scott.
Teaching young children in a virtual format presented its own set of challenges for teachers. For one, the social distancing makes instruction on a string instrument quite difficult.
“String teaching is so hands-on,” said Scott. “So, even if we were teaching six feet way, it might as well be 6 miles away. We've had to be very precise with our descriptive language, utilize modelling and work to engage the student in the process.”
When the children normally visit campus for their lessons and classes, they have the ritual of arriving on campus, walking to the building, taking the elevator—all visual and mental queues that they are getting ready for a lesson.
“When they're online, the children may be doing something on an iPad two seconds before they're supposed to have a lesson, and these transitions have been really difficult for a lot of the kids,” said Scott.
To compensate, the student teachers have had to lean more heavily on parents to become even more involved in the lesson by taking notes and being more involved in helping them practice. But overall, the feedback from parents on the instruction has been positive.
“I’ve had parents tell me that String Project is, hands-down, the most organized of the teaching and learning situations that their children are involved in right now,” said Scott. “That makes me feel really good about what we are trying very hard to do. We’re very invested in making it the highest quality learning situation for these kids that we can. We want to be inspiring, we want to be engaging, and we want them to recognize their success, whether we're teaching them in person or whether we're teaching them online.”
For now, the program organizers and student teachers are preparing their students for promotional juries, where the young musicians perform in front of a panel to determine whether they’re ready to advance to the next ensemble. They’re also preparing to continue summer teaching online.
“The parents and the teachers and the students together have really bonded as a learning community,” said Scott. “It was strong before, and it’s stronger now. The parents seem to really appreciate having the music go on. And we do too. I think we're all grateful that we can do what we love to do on any level. There are many who can’t because of the quarantine. In a lot of ways, there is an abundance of gratitude and joy when we see the kids’ faces every week.”