Tuesday, May 26, 2020
May 26, 2020

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Arts instruction in Clark County goes virtual during pandemic

Many Clark County residents who teach voice, dance, music and art classes endeavor to adapt presenting their lessons via social media, with mixed results

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
7 Photos
Musician Jeffree White, owner and instructor at the Washougal School of Music, welcomes a rare visitor to his music studio last week. White's usual load of about 30 consistent students has dropped to 10, he said, and he's trying to make a go of online lessons despite the technical hitches.
Musician Jeffree White, owner and instructor at the Washougal School of Music, welcomes a rare visitor to his music studio last week. White's usual load of about 30 consistent students has dropped to 10, he said, and he's trying to make a go of online lessons despite the technical hitches. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Music educator Janet Lindsley has closed Mini Mozarts, her arts-oriented, downtown Vancouver preschool, and joined a new Facebook group called “Teaching Voice in the Zombie Apocalypse.”

She’s hoping that online music instruction proves to be a lucrative wave of the future, she said, and has already signed up a handful of far-flung new students who’ll study with her remotely. They are students who never would have found her, she said, if not for internet outreach during the coronavirus crisis.

“I’ll be teaching kids in Seattle I’ve never met. That was really eye-opening for me,” she said. “If somehow or other (Mini Mozarts) doesn’t survive, I’ve got this extremely new source of income.”

Local music, art and performance instructors are losing their live, in-person lessons, and many are rushing to move those sessions online. Some are finding that transition surprisingly smooth sailing, but not all artists and musicians are as handy with computer and video technology as they are with instruments and paintbrushes.

Even if everything works right, the inability to look over students’ shoulders at their canvases, or place their fingers on the right guitar frets, makes virtual arts instruction less than ideal, several said.

“We’re still figuring this out,” said Jeffree White, owner of the Washougal School of Music. “I wouldn’t say it’s full steam ahead just yet.”

Some teachers insist that their lessons just won’t transmit over the internet because they require real human contact.

“It’s very difficult to Skype” voice lessons, said Vancouver music educator Jana Hart, whose private lessons and classes at Lower Columbia College in Longview are all on hold now, she said. Poor sound quality and internet connection hiccups are part of the problem, she said, but so is being physically apart.

“So much of teaching voice is looking for small tensions in the jaw and tongue,” Hart said. Those are hard to spot on a screen.

“We’re not planning to move online,” said Barbara Sheehan, owner of the Vancouver Art Space, a visual-art studio and school at Vancouver Mall. “We do a lot of fine art instruction that requires real contact with real people. Online is one level too remote, at least for my style.

“I’m sure somebody will do it and make a big success of it, but it’s just not for me,” Sheehan said. Her fingers are crossed that the crisis ends soon.

Perhaps Sheehan’s own contractor, art instructor Pamela Sue Johnson, will be the one who scores that success. Even before the coronavirus hit, “I was already actively building a virtual classroom,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty fearless about that, whether it’s live or recorded video.”

Johnson certainly means to make money at it, she said, but for now she’s offering free art demos live on Facebook. That’s her way of helping the community combat stress and depression, she said.

“I want to have a positive impact,” Johnson said.

Financial strain

The biggest problem with delivering music or art lessons online is everybody’s bottom line, several arts teachers told The Columbian.

“Many students are suddenly without income,” Hart said. Therefore, so are their teachers.

Piano instructor Rachel Risor has been known to keep dozens of student appointments per week in a small practice room at Hazel Dell Music World. But she said she doesn’t expect to see many of those students again. At least half have told her they’re discontinuing until further notice. Offering online lessons didn’t help.

“A whole lot of them just quit right away,” she said. “I understand some of that is financial strain. It’s the idea of paying for lessons for your kids when you’re also trying to put food on the table.”

Risor, who said she knows other instructors facing the same predicament, is almost ready to quit teaching music. Fortunately, she’s got some online financial-services work that looks stable.

“I’m not doing so well in my music situation. I’m just glad I’ve got another business to fall back on,” she said.

Mini Mozarts preschool owner Lindsley said she’s gotten herself an overnight job in an Amazon warehouse. She’ll be restocking shelves from 6 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. because she can’t count on private music lessons as a big moneymaker, she said.

“I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “I need to cover the costs of the business that closed.”

When Lindsley launched Mini Mozarts, a four-hour-per-day, arts-focused “niche school” for young children that has thrived in recent years, she was following the example of her mother, a teacher who ran a child care center.

“I always thought child care was going to be one of the safe things. People always need child care,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, quite honestly. The last few months of school are when we usually put away a lot of money to survive through summer, because in summer our enrollment drops.”

Metropolitan Performing Arts, a Vancouver performing arts school and studio, is offering most its usual classes — drama, dance, voice and more — online, executive director Barbara Richardson said. A lighting-design class will have to wait for an actual stage production, she said. Meanwhile, MPA has even added some fun activities, such as a video-scene competition, for eager acting students with too much time on their hands.

“It’s not ideal, because in theater you feed off the energy of the people around you,” Richardson said. “Enrollment has taken a dive, but a good chunk of our students are signing up for everything. They miss their theater family. People who go through life creatively, like our instructors and our students — I think some of them see this as a new opportunity.”

More work

After they experimented with a remote piano lesson, Washougal instructor White and student Daniel Martinez agreed that the result was a mixed bag. It’s hard to squeeze the whole piano keyboard into any video camera angle other than directly overhead, White said.

“I’m going to need an overhead webcam,” he said.

So far, trying to play together in real time over the internet “gets garbled and out of sync,” White said, so he’s going to have to get used to taking turns, playing less and talking more. He’ll also have to devote more time to preparing lesson materials and sending them to students in advance, he said.

“I need more time between lessons and I need to put in more prep work,” White said. He’s hoping to keep things fun and social by pulling together his students’ video performances into an end-of-term video recital, he said.

White added that he’s been gratified by his students’ kindness and charity. Some have made donations so needy fellow students can keep taking lessons. Some have made donations to White himself, who has lost half his clientele.

“People are stepping up to help each other get through this and it’s very cool,” he said.

His piano student, Martinez, is a dance instructor facing the same kinds of challenges. His day job as a house cleaner has evaporated, and he’s looking for other profitable niches while continuing to offer private dance instruction online.

“I’m not one of those teachers who had any kind of online platform, but that doesn’t matter. I can adjust,” Martinez said. “We all have to adjust. We’re learning as we go.

“We all know how much art picks us up and helps us through traumatic times,” he said. “It’s super-important and we will adapt.”