Online music classes bring people together in a virtual world
School of Rock
Online classes, ensembles, master classes
Jazz House Kids
Online classes, master classes, listening parties
By GWEN OREL
It was only a matter of time before artists figured it out — and they are figuring it out.
When coronavirus first shut everything down, the arts shut down, too.
But more and more, art is reopening — differently.
Montclair Film holds watch parties. The Montclair Public Library holds story hour. People are meeting in virtual book clubs.
One of the first and most seamless transitions has been that of in-person music lessons to online music lessons.
Teachers have been giving private lessons on Skype for years.
But taking whole schools of music to a virtual platform is new.
School of Rock and Jazz House Kids are offering group classes, master classes, and more.
And that’s not surprising, said Melissa Walker, president and founder of Jazz House Kids. Though the community of jazz has been hard-hit, artists are rising to the occasion.
“In a way, I feel that artists already exist by creating in the cracks of life,” Walker said. “Artists innovate. Jazz in particular happens in the unknown. We improvise.”
Music, she said, is “something people can hold onto.”
‘WITHOUT MISSING A BEAT’
Kevin March, general manager of School of Rock Montclair, said the national organization for School of Rock began talking about making a change on March 9. On Friday, March 13, School of Rock Montclair stopped its group performance programs.
“These are the flagship programs, with students coming together and rehearsing,” March said.
By the next day the school decided to close down for students.
It was March’s job to get equipment for the staff, train them, and inform the students.
“I went from being general manager and dealing with staff in one way to being more of a tech person,” he said.
For the first week, teachers came to school to teach lessons to students remotely.
Then, on March 21, Gov. Phil Murphy shut down all non-essential businesses. “At that point I had to quickly make sure everyone was able to teach from home or from their own studio,” March said. For example, he had to ensure that all four drum teachers had their drum sections and equipment at home.
Christian McBride, Jazz House Kids’ artistic director, had been touring in Europe and knew about what was going on with COVID-19 there.
“We created a task force and came up with a 48-hour transition plan,” said Markus Gottschlich, director of music operations at Jazz House Kids. “We switched to online without missing a beat, the weekend of March 14.”
By Monday, March 16, everything at Jazz House Kids was online.
All 17 ensembles at Jazz House Kids are still meeting. Some classes and workshops are opening the virtual doors to alumni and international students.
“We jumped head in, and now we offer even more,” Gottschlich said.
One of the hardest things for both School of Rock and Jazz House Kids is the fact that Zoom, and the internet, have a slight delay.
People cannot play together in real time.
School of Rock has begun holding “check-in rehearsals.” It allows students to see one another on Zoom, and then play, individually, what they are working on. “It brings back the social element,” March said.
Renaissance Middle School seventh-grader Hannah Meyer-Najmi, 12, who has been studying drums at School of Rock for three years, said that it’s hard to write songs this way. But she’s getting used to it. Her teachers, Joe Billy and James Stivaly, came to her online class and played their song for the dozen or so students. The students were writing lyrics. A teacher had a document open that he shared on the Zoom screen, so everyone could see it, and students would either unmute themselves or type in the chat screen “an adjective or verb or noun having to do with nature,” Meyer-Najmi said.
It’s fun, but not the same as the songwriting class in person, when students would be in individual rooms or have free time to wander the school. “I miss seeing my friends there,” she said. “That was my place, like my second home. I spend a lot of time there.”
Still, she was glad to see her bandmates on the screen. “I haven’t really seen anybody,” she said.
School of Rock teacher Stu Damm said that the bands’ not being able to play together is “a real bummer.” Mainly, he teaches one-on-one lessons. “I have to reach in and find my best teaching chops and adapt them for remote learning. It takes a little more patience and ingenuity,” Damm said. “I try to let them know this is the one time in their life they will really have the time to practice.”
He tries to make it fun. He’ll tell them, “Keep the teacher in a small box dancing,” for example.
Turning to remote for one-on-one lessons was unnerving at first, first because of the sound, then in making sure he could see the students’ hands, and that there were the right camera angles.
But he got used to it. “I like that seeing their own drum sets, I can see that a lot of them have it set up wrong,” Damm said. “I can tell them, ‘Move up the snare drum, angle the cymbal toward yourself so you can reach it more easily.’”
School of Rock also has a Method book that instructors can share on Zoom.
Jazz House Kids focuses primarily on its 17 ensembles. As at School of Rock, the ensembles cannot play together, because of the internet lag.
Instead, students are recording themselves playing their parts and sending video to instructors, who cobble it together.
Class time also uses Zoom break-out rooms, where teachers can play one-on-one with students.
Trumpeter Nathan Eklund, who teaches a blues and roots class, one of the smaller ensembles, puts the video together using Final Cut. Students have to play to a metronome, or else the timing would be off.
“As long as we align the front end and follow the metronome, the sound works,” Eklund said. Later, if students feel they can do their part better, they can send him a new version of their piece, and he can just drop it in.
But nuance is lost. “I can hear pitch, but the subtleties of dynamics and articulation and tone quality are not as clear as if they are in a room,” he said. “Jazz as an art form is live, interactive music.”
Now, thanks to the lockdown, Eklund has to treat jazz as if he’s recording pop music, with tracks laid down separately.
Montclair High School freshman Violet Mujica, who was profiled in Montclair Local in a Friends and Neighbors article in August 2019, plays in two Jazz House Kids ensembles. For her, working on keeping regular time has been important.
“Video recording makes me think about what I’m doing more,” she said.
MASTER CLASSES AND MORE
Both School of Rock and Jazz House Kids have begun offering online master classes to their students and to the public. At School of Rock, there are six master classes per week that students can participate in, including music business, arranging, and guitar clinic.
They are free for students who are enrolled, and $50 a month for non-students. The classes are at all levels and ages, March said.
Jazz House Kids is offering master classes on Wednesday, using Zoom and featuring guest artists from all over the country. Just like a master class in the physical world, the teacher demonstrates, a student plays, and the teacher critiques.
Walker said that Jazz House Kids is preparing pre-recorded master classes to deliver to the schools in underserved communities in Elizabeth, Newark and Union, where they would normally visit.
Jazz House Kids has also been offering virtual concerts and listening sessions, with Friday night “Hang at Home.”
“Hang at Home” is an extension of something Jazz House Kids had been doing, Walker said. “Every few months, Christian (McBride) would have a one-on-one conversation about music. People love getting the inside scoop, hearing about the inside process.”
The first Friday of the lockdown, McBride held a listening party that NPR called “one of the top things to do this weekend.”
Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner had just passed away, so McBride’s listening party focused on him. McBride spoke, then played music. People could type in questions.
“For two hours, it washed away the blues,” Walker said. “People were transported out of this fear, this uncertainty.”
This past weekend, the listening party was with drummer Jeff Tain Watts. “He lives in a church. He showed us the church, the stained-glass windows. It’s fun to see people in their living rooms. We’re all in our homes, all in this together,” Walker said. McBride and Watts would speak, then they would play music from Spotify or YouTube, then take questions from the chat lines.
And the “Hangs” are terrifically popular, Walker added: “We are reaching more people every week than ever, between 20 and 30,000 per week. The best way to keep swinging is to go into peoples’ homes.”
Last weekend, about 20 percent of viewers were from outside of the United States, Walker said, and questions came from teenagers looking for tips, and from retired people who’d always wanted to know something they never had a chance to ask.
This coming weekend’s “Hang at Home” will focus on the saxophone. The following week will focus on singers.
As for the Montclair Jazz Festival: It will happen when it’s safe, Walker said. It could be in the autumn, and even have an online component, she said.
A PLUS SIDE?
It’s not all dire.
People are lonely, but also working harder.
Mujica says that having her own internal metronome has helped her. “I wouldn’t have as much of a drive to practice if I didn’t have classes still,” she said. “In the moment, I don’t really think. I stop thinking and just play.”
Eklund says that spending time in the ensembles, having each student play on his own, playing back to the group, has created a different, maybe a higher, standard.
“It gives me a chance to hear them,” he said. Previously he had been focused on getting students to play together. Working on individual skills is something he may incorporate in the future more.
School of Rock drumming student Meyer-Najmi agrees that working this way has increased some of her independence. Before, she and her teacher, Damm, would play together. Now, she plays alone, and Damm can hear all her mistakes and what she needs to work on. “It’s more challenging, which I like,” she said.
Walker said, “This time has been illuminating in terms of calling upon our strengths to be of service. It has brought us back to the essence of what life is about: being part of a community.”