What’s on the uptick in this hunkering down, besides devouring cooking shows?

You are on the money if you identify piano lessons. 

“Piano In A Flash reaches record sales during COVID19,” announces the news release that hit my email in-box. “Piano In A Flash has reached over $4.5 million in sales so far in 2020, an increase of 230% compared to all of 2019. April [2020] sales nearly equaled totaled sales for 2018 and 2019 combined.”

“Really?” I email in return.

Indeed, yes, asserts Hannah Derleth, marketing coordinator, for Indianapolis-based Piano in a Flash, a world-wide on-line course of instruction, founded in 2013 by six-time Emmy Award Winner Scott Houston, host of the PBS show, The Piano Guy.  

Derleth attributes the spike to Houston’s founding premise: “Adults want to learn at their own pace and on their own time from the comfort of their own home,”  affording a perfect fit for “people needing to be productive and [have] something wholesome to do while stuck at home.”

Aside from having the ability to meet this sudden surge, “The team at Piano in a Flash has seen the incredible need for music during this time,” added Derleth. “The ability that music has to take people out of the daily struggle is truly powerful.”

At this point, I reached out to long-time Indianapolis-based piano teacher, Barbara Chirgwin.  What’s happening from your point of view, I asked.

 “Regarding  teaching during the pandemic, I and most of my colleagues use Zoom routinely now,” Chirgwin replied.  “The younger teachers seem to be more ‘into it’ than the older group, of course, but it's certainly better than nothing.”  

I followed up on her suggestion to contact Kate Boyd and Karen Thickstun at Butler University.

“Thanks for reaching out to us,” wrote Thickstun.“When COVID hit in March, Butler Community Arts School was serving over 500 families with private lessons (all instruments, but the vast majority are piano). We teach ages five to 105.  We had one week to switch over to online lessons. We also gave families the option to pause lessons until in-person teaching resumes or to request a refund. 

Our teachers, who are mostly Butler students serving in a pre-professional role, were already comfortable with most online platforms, so this change (while disconcerting) was fairly straightforward for them. 

There is a further concern for Thickstun. “I worried about our families, many of whom have challenging financial situations, working parents, etc.” 

Nevertheless, to her delight, 70 percent switched immediately, and “mostly seamlessly,” to online lessons on Zoom or FaceTime. “More have now joined in, as they learn about online learning and how it works. We found that many parents did not understand online piano lessons at first. They assumed that online lessons meant that the student watches a video and then, essentially, teaches himself.”

While that is a possible approach, explains Thickstun, that’s not what teachers do.

“Lessons are interactive and live, with the teacher engaging with the student during the complete lesson,” says Thickstun. “In many ways, just like the in-person lessons, teachers present concepts, demonstrate technical issues, provide immediate/live feedback, etc. Once parents understood this dynamic, they embraced it. They value the ongoing one-on-one relationship that the teacher is creating with the student. For homebound students and teachers, this connection is priceless, and goes beyond the curriculum of the lesson.”

The bonus, for Thickstun, is that summer lessons are able to continue with the same teacher. “In the past, some of our teachers have gone home for the summer and we’ve had to re-assign students to a substitute teacher. With online lessons, the same teacher can continue lessons from anywhere.”

There are some drawbacks, points out Thickstun, such as not being able to play duets live with the student, and not being able to talk while the student is playing. “We’ve adjusted, and in many cases, my teachers report that their teaching is better now, as they’ve realized how much they relied on x when their student really needed y.  I believe that great teaching is great teaching, regardless of the delivery method. Our students are still engaged and learning, and moving forward in their musical journey … whether the goal is personal enjoyment or a future career in music.”

But what about adult students? Thickstun assures, “At first, many of our adult students were unsure about the technology aspect of the lessons and whether the lessons could still be effective. Our teachers were incredibly encouraging and patient as wary students gave it a try.”

But it’s not just adult piano students who are moving forward with on-line learning.

BCAS typically has offered over a dozen summer camps. “We did postpone some of these camps, depending on whether the content could be effective online,” explains Thickstun. “We also launched new summer online group classes, designed from start to finish to embrace the features of online lessons.  These include Adult Beginning Piano Class, American Top 40 for Piano: How to Play Popular Hits for Adults, Fundamentals of Music Theory, Improvisation 101, and Preschool Music Time.”

Meanwhile, Indianapolis-based Piano in a Flash keeps growing with new learners internationally.  “With millions of people stuck at home during quarantine, many have turned to the online piano learning environment to finally cross learning to play the piano off of their bucket list,” says founder Scott Houston. “Seeing the team come together to make sure piano students all over the world are being taken care of, and finding success with this method of learning, it makes everything worth it.”

The American Pianists Association

What about the five finalists named in the newest American Pianists Association round? They’re also stuck at home, not following the usual APA schedule, let alone continuing with their professional careers. This affirmation came from the APA: “In response to the dire situation that musicians are living in, and in accordance with its mission to support and promote young American pianists, American Pianists Association’s President/CEO and Artistic Director Joel Harrison and its board of directors have awarded each of the five 2021 American Pianists Awards finalists — Dominic Cheli, Kenny Broberg, Mackenzie Melemed, Michael Davidman and Sahun Sam Hong — a cash prize of $50,000 before they even begin the Awards public adjudication process.

“Each pianist will travel separately to Indianapolis over a period of weeks in Spring of 2021 for solo recitals to be professionally produced and live streamed in HD worldwide, with no in-person audience. The competition will culminate on June 25-27, 2021, with solo, chamber music with the Dover Quartet and concerto performances. The winner will receive the Christel DeHaan Classical Fellowship, consisting of career assistance for two years, publicity, performance engagements, an Artist-in-Residence post, and a recording contract with Steinway & Sons record label.

“As we struggled to face the challenges for artists and audiences brought about by the pandemic, it became clear that our normal competition process, which spans an entire concert season, was not viable,” said APA President/CEO and Artistic Director Joel Harrison. “As a competition it is important that all opportunities for our finalists be equal. Under the circumstances, we could not guarantee that all performances could take place or welcome an audience. 

Together with the Board, we considered alternatives to our traditional format that would retain the artistic core of our process and have a reasonable chance of succeeding. Out of that conversation came the idea of doing as much as possible to support these brilliant young artists in meaningful ways with substantial cash awards as a way to sustain the artists throughout the year. APA will award them $10,000 now, $10,000 in early 2021, and the remaining $30,000 at the June 2021 Celebration.”

For more information on the American Pianists Association visit www.americanpianists.org

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