She was supposed to perform last month with the biggest music ensemble in the Twin Cities at one of the fanciest music rooms around.
Instead, Sarah Perbix has found herself teaching some of the littlest players in town from her living room ever since the coronavirus moved in and the stay-at-home order took hold. And she’s still quite happy to have the gig.
“It’s nice to stay connected to music, and to each other,” said Perbix, pianist and French horn player with the indie-rock band Cloud Cult, whose March 22-23 concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra had to be postponed (they’ve been rescheduled for Jan. 18-19) along with several other shows.
Also the proprietor of Sarah Jane’s Music School in northeast Minneapolis, Perbix is one of many Twin Cities musicians who lost jobs onstage but were happy to fall back on sideline work as music instructors.
Teaching doesn’t come close to making up for lost revenue from live performances but it helps a lot in the meantime, these musicians all agree. The caveat, of course, is music lessons now have to be taught via FaceTime, Zoom, Skype or other virtual methods. That, too, has been challenging — but not without rewards.
“The first lesson I did felt so ‘Black Mirror’-like,” guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker said, referring to the Netflix series about modern technology altering reality.
“But for better or worse, it felt normal pretty quickly.”
His canceled slate of performances include tour dates with Andrew Bird, a festival residency in Eau Claire, Wis., and local shows with the Suburbs and Gramma’s Boyfriend. Ylvisaker had long been teaching on the side through Twin Town Guitars in south Minneapolis, and he said those lessons “are lessening the blow for now.”
Singer and trumpeter Cameron Kinghorn of the bands Nooky Jones, Black Market Brass and King Pari similarly saw his calendar dry up in a matter of days last month, including dates as an auxiliary member of the New Standards.
Having music lessons to fall back on was as much of a psychological cushion as it was a financial one, he said.
“Honestly, opening up my video screen for lessons that first week was really nice,” said Kinghorn, who has a music education degree from the University of Minnesota. His voice and trumpet classes are also booked through Twin Town Guitars.
“I was losing all these shows and everything was dropping off and changing so rapidly,” he continued. “Just to have that one-on-one with a student felt like a rush of normalcy.”
That feeling is mutually welcome among students, it seems.
Addie Jones, 10, a fourth-grader at Minneapolis’ Barton Open Elementary School, was already taking virtual singing lessons because her teacher moved to Seattle. That helped for a smooth transition once the quarantine hit.
“Since I was already doing it that way [virtually], it feels normal to me, and not a lot else feels normal right now,” she said.
‘Sense of community’
For those not already well-versed in how to learn musical verses through a computer or phone, though, the new way of teaching took some getting used to.
“I really thought it was going to be pretty lame,” singer/violinist Jillian Rae admitted of teaching online, “but after a little practice, it’s actually been working out pretty well.”
An instructor at Music Lab who performs under her own name as well as with Corpse Reviver and many other acts, Rae certainly had incentive to make the online adjustment: “If I didn’t have teaching, I’d have nothing right now,” she said.
The hardest challenge lies in the lag time between the teacher and the student during online lessons — usually a second or two, which makes it nearly impossible to sing or play in unison. Plus there are the simpler technical challenges of logging on and making sure everything is powered up.
When one of her younger students’ video screen fell to the floor mid-lesson, Rae recounted, “that turned into a nice laugh for both of us. There’s so much else going to worry about right now, who cares about things going wrong in a music lesson?”
Ylvisaker said not being able to physically help with finger techniques makes his lessons harder, but his interactions with students have opened up in other ways: “It’s turned into us having more conversations and even a little bit of life-coaching, which is nice,” he said.
It sounds like the students themselves mostly made an easy adjustment. Perbix said of her wide age range of students, “In a lot of cases, the kids are more comfortable using this technology than the adults.”
And the kids are the ones she is happiest to be teaching at the moment.
“I think they really need the one-on-one connection with someone outside their home, even if it’s through the screen,” she said. “There’s a terrific sense of community that comes with playing music. That hasn’t been lost.”
Plus, Perbix added with a laugh, “since they’re stuck at home all the time now, I think they’re practicing more.”
Maybe that’s one possible upside should the stay-at-home guidelines continue into the summer: By the time this thing is over, we could have a whole generation of young musicians with a leg up on becoming versatile players.