Sandra Escribano has been playing the violin since she was eight years old, but this is her first time learning music online.
She logs in every week for one-on-one sessions with Associate Professor Dr Kyle Szabo from the Bower School of Music & the Arts at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU).
Having come to the US from Cuba on a music scholarship, it is vital for Sandra to continue her education against all odds.
“I spent all my childhood making music, learning, improving myself, and working hard to pursue my dream of becoming a professional artist,” she told Study International.
“Thanks to Dr Szabo I have decided to be a professional orchestra player, as well as a soloist.”
Since mid-March, Dr Szabo has been conducting online classes for FGCU, when the university converted all face-to-face classes to remote instructional delivery to curb the spread of COVID-19.
But he is no newcomer to guiding students virtually, having done so for years now.
“Students send me recordings of them playing 24 hours ahead and I go through them, leaving comments with timestamps. As I’m doing a lesson, I’ll make a mark at certain measures and demonstrate an impression of what they did, and then show them the way I think they should do it,” he explains.
Dr Szabo’s method has gained attention from local and foreign media alike for its uplifting display of positivity and potential.
“We’ve had the infrastructure, we’ve dealt with the Internet connectivity problems, we’ve dealt with equipment (not everybody has the best light or camera). Lessons didn’t miss a beat; the very next week [after FGCU closed], we were meeting online weekly,” he said.
Growing personally, professionally while learning music online
Learning music online has proven fruitful for Bower Music School students, but it is not without its challenges.
“The biggest difference is simply that I am not in the same room as my teacher. I am a visual learner, so sometimes the fact that my teacher can’t be there in person to demonstrate a phrase or a music nuance, or make an adjustment to a hand position has been difficult,” said sophomore viola performance student Teal Vickery.
Sandra concurs, saying, “It is difficult for us to not have our concerts, programmed recitals, and classes in general. Everything has been reduced to a computer and making music online.”
There are two elements that learning music online cannot replace: the loss of personal contact and the acoustic environment.
“Live performance is magical in a way that you can’t reproduce through recordings,” Dr Szabo says, “but an advantage with recordings or online lessons is that you can reach a wider audience all over the world.”
That’s one of the reasons Sandra sees learning music online as an opportunity to grow as a musician.
“I think this situation is teaching us new ways of learning, and it’s going to change everything in the future,” she said.
Teal adds, “I certainly miss the connectivity that one can only get from physically playing music together, but new opportunities to stay connected with virtual tools have proven that music and the ability to share it, truly has no boundaries.”
Both students agree that they have had more time to play music during the quarantine — not just to practise for their programme but also to experiment and compose.
“There is a lot of freedom in remembering how much I truly enjoy playing music,” said Teal.
‘Music is important in any circumstance’
With social distancing in place and public spaces closed, many performers and artists are now without gigs.
To adapt, they’re taking their art to the rooftops, driveways, balconies and ultimately, to the Internet.
“Everybody seems to have latched on to the arts to keep themselves sane and connected,” Dr Szabo opined.
“Music is at its very centre an uplifting art that allows us to investigate the human experience. We’re all experiencing something new and it’s stressful. So, we quickly look for what reconnects us to our centre and sense of humanity.”
Its power to heal, unite, and connect may be brought to light in dark times, but Teal believes music is important in any circumstance.
“It adds meaning and depth to our lives, thoughts, and emotions, especially during this time of isolation,” she said.
Indeed, performing music brings Sandra closer to her family both in the US and Cuba — she gives a mini private concert for her family at home every day via video calls and group chats. It’s a way for them to not just spend time together, but also “forget everything happening in the world for a moment,” according to her.
“My friends in Cuba and I created a group chat where we send videos of us playing, singing, composing,” Sandra said.
“Although this is a difficult time, our creation does not have to stop.”