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As They Connect With Students Online, Kansas City Music Teachers Learn Their Own Lessons

Eman Chalshotori
Cellist Eman Chalshotori uses the webcam on his computer to demonstrate proper bow technique to a student. Chalshotori teaches cello in UMKC’s Musical Bridges program, a grant-funded program that helps some 60 area music students in the metro area afford private lessons.

Before they could prevail over spotty internet service and nudge unmotivated students, some teachers had to overcome their own resistance to online learning.

For countless students around the Kansas City metro, last month's school closures did not put an end to their music lessons.

Instead, their teachers scrambled to stay connected during the coronavirus lockdown. In the process, some of them are making surprising discoveries.

“Curiously, you know, the younger the student is, I’ve found, the more adept they are at learning off of a screen and, in some ways, I’m already getting sense that my youngest students might even be learning faster,” says pianist Charles Dickenson, who teaches 25 students of all ages and performs around town with ensembles like newEar.

Initially he was reluctant to take his classes online. There were just too many compromises.

"Audio quality is never going to be quite as good," says Dickenson. Also, "when you’re teaching piano it’s very helpful to be able to see the keyboard at different angles. But if you only have one camera or one tablet or a phone or whatever, you’re using then you only have that one fixed position and that can be hard both as a student and as a teacher.”

Julie Denesha
Pianist Charles Dickenson instructs 25 students of all ages. Until recently, he felt online instruction did not have much to offer, but he’s quickly adapted and even sees some bright spots.<br/>

Zoom classes have definitely not been a perfect solution for Eman Chalshotori, the principal cellist of the Topeka Symphony Orchestra, who teaches cello to students in metro-area public schools.

He’s one of 15 teachers in UMKC’s Musical Bridges, a program that helps fund private lessons for some 60 music students in the area school districts.

“There’s a whole process," explains Chalshotori. "They have to apply and audition, maintain a certain GPA. But they’re all really brilliant kids with really good talent that just might not be able to afford, you know, consistent lessons. It can be pricey.”

Chalshotori used to meet 17-year-old Janell Jones for her weekly lesson at Ruskin High School. But those days now feel like a whole different time.

Chalshotori says Jones is making good progress.

But the wifi signal is often sporadic, which can be disruptive.

Eman Chalshotori<br/>
Chalshotori used to meet 17-year-old Janell Jones for her weekly lesson at Ruskin High School, but now they’ve moved their weekly lesson online.

And without the structure of school, some of his students are finding it hard to get motivated.

“I have one student where we’re trying to get her to just put on some shoes and, like, not pajamas," he says. "I’m like, ‘Ok, like, have you thought about maybe ... I don’t know, practicing a little bit?”

For one area violin teacher, going online has provided insights.

Julie Denesha
Violinist Laurel Morgan Parks teaches beginning students through a series of instruction videos that she offers on her website.<br/>

“We’re modifying the way we teach a little bit," says Laurel Morgan Parks. "So I think, the challenge is, you know, it’s kind of fun.”

You could almost say Parks is a veteran of online instruction. Her business, Drunken Fiddles, grew out of the instruction videos she offers to adults who are beginning violin students.

“There was a learning curve," says Parks. "There were things going on with the sound, and the light was weird and the room wasn’t right.”

Determined to get it right, Parks invested in microphones and lights to bring up the production value. She also uses two cameras: one wide, the other closeup.

“Since I am charging a monthly fee for the videos I wanted to make sure they were as professional as I could,” Parks says.

Julie Denesha
Parks maximized her production value of her instructional videos by investing in microphones and lights. She also uses two cameras: one wide, the other closeup.<br/>

Last year, Parks pitched the idea for online lessons to "Shark Tank," the TV show that gives start-ups a chance to pitch their ideas to potential investors.

Back in February, she found out she was accepted to a casting call; she’s still waiting to hear whether she’ll be on the show. Meanwhile, DrunkenFiddles.com launched in early April. Parks says she already has students signed up for classes.

For Parks, learning these skills are good for everyone.

“For musicians who are now teaching online when things go back to normal — quote-unquote normal — they will have that additional option," she says.

"They’ll be familiar with how to use Zoom or Facetime or whatever platform for teaching.”

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