Violinist.com Interview with Anthea Kreston: Going Virtual During the Pandemic

June 5, 2020, 7:43 PM · Violinist Anthea Kreston saw it coming.

Back in February she was working online with her student Kevin, in Chengdu, China, from her home in Oregon, when she noticed he was quite depressed. He'd been in lockdown, due to the coronavirus - missing friends and living in fear of the virus. Anthea's efforts to give him inspiration and purpose through music made the headlines, even inspiring a New York Times article.

Anthea Kreston
Violinist Anthea Kreston.

At the time, it seemed like a heartwarming story, but also rather distant. Of course nothing like that would happen in the United States. And certainly no one would face the same psychological discomfort as those who were locked down due as part of the extreme measures in China. Right?

But Anthea knew better, and she started planning for it, early on.

Anthea is a violinist with a B.A. in women’s studies from Cleveland State University and a performance degree from the Curtis Institute of Music. She
spent four years as a member of the Artemis Quartett in Berlin, where she also was a Professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin and Master Teacher at the Queen Elizabeth Chapel in Brussels. You may have seen her regular blog on Slipped Disc. Now back in the U.S., she has been teaching students at Curtis and spending time with her husband and two daughters.

She's also has been hard at work, developing the fully-online Inside Music Academy Virtual Summer Sessions, which will feature a variety of offerings, including classical strings, winds, piano, composition, conducting, adult learners and Suzuki.

Last week I spoke to Anthea about her experience with online teaching, her perspective on the pandemic, and the new summer program that starts June 15.

Laurie: We have all had to pivot to online since the Pandemic, but it sounds like you were teaching a student in China - from your home in Oregon - well before all this happened. How long have you been teaching online, and what made you start? And how long were you teaching Kevin, the subject of the New York Times article, before this situation arose?

Anthea: I have been teaching online since I moved to Berlin to join the Artemis String Quartet in early 2016. Jason (Duckles, my husband and a cellist) and I had carefully placed all of our students with friends and colleagues when we moved, but several of the students began to wither and were on the verge of quitting. We started to teach online at that moment. It would have been sad for them to quit, and of course any student is like family, so we wanted to take care of that relationship. We would meet in person occasionally - they would come to festivals where we were teaching in the summers - in Italy or other places, and would travel to see the Artemis play when we were on our U.S. tours. I met Kevin in Chengdu last summer at a festival, and we hit it off. His dad asked if we could continue virtually, and so we did - first in Berlin, and now in Oregon since we moved back.

Laurie: You were obviously very moved by Kevin's situation in China. Tell us what you did to help him out, and how that went for you both. How is he doing now?

Anthea: Kevin is a sweet, spunky and bold teenager. He is learning English and so we communicate as much as possible non-verbally. I had been following the Covid news, but hadn’t realized so many Chinese cities were on lockdown - nothing popped up when I googled Chengdu, which is 1,000 km west of Wuhan - it’s the gateway to Tibet. But I noticed Kevin was lethargic, looked disheveled and was unusually quiet. He hadn’t prepared like he normally does. I asked him what was going on, and he said, "Everyone is sick, there is no school, we are inside, and when we run out of food someone has to go out there."

This was very early February. I didn’t sleep that night. Kevin was clearly in distress - he was wearing his winter coat and hopping between legs to keep warm. This was when they first realized that Covid had been transmitted through pipes in large apartment buildings. I wrote to his dad the next day, and I suggested that I make a "Coronavirus Bootcamp" for Kevin. Pick a big project, and submit videos every night of a new piece of a concerto and a new Sevcik Scale, and I would comment and assign a new page for the next day. His mood was clearly better the next week, and his progress began to accelerate in a crazy way. He was learning how to teach himself.

I paired up his friends with my family members to create more boot camps, just volunteering. Soon he suggested making a video application for NYOChina, which is an international orchestra program open to kids age 14-21. Kevin had just turned 14, but we decided to tackle Sibelius and learn all of the orchestral excerpts. I sent him videos of Kleiber to take the bowings and Tempi for Beethoven, and Berlin Phil to study of bow distribution and timings for Strauss. He worked very very hard. Of the 17 violinists admitted, from schools such as Juilliard and NEC, Hans Eisler etc, Kevin was one. It was thrilling for him and for all of us.

Laurie: How did it change your perspective, working with Kevin during China's lockdown? How did change the way you planned for the spring? And how did others react, when you suggested it might be a good idea to think about pivoting to online?

Anthea: Well - after the New York Times article, several schools and programs contacted me to ask me to design a program for them. Keep in mind that no one in North America or Europe was thinking this would happen to us as well. That article came out February 14. I conducted many meetings and designed curriculums, all based on a Bootcamp.

At the time, the schools were making dorm room reservations and planning travel for faculty for the summer. I was saying, "We should also have a parallel festival, all virtual." No one believed me, or was willing to go down that road. They were recruiting from China, and I said, "By this summer, people from abroad may not want to come here because we might have Coronavirus" - that was before the name was changed to Covid-19. They scoffed, and I decided I needed to go this one alone. I began Inside Music Academy - a completely Virtual Music School, in mid-March. Our first Session is right around the corner - June 15. Despite contracts that would have sustained my family financially, I walked away from these other situations -- not without a significant amount of fretting and double-guessing my decision.

Kevin’s father told me in early February that Covid was coming here. He gave me lists of things to buy, and when it was possible, later on, sent me 4,500 masks which we donated to our county and local retirement homes. These he sent in small packages - others that were sending masks got caught in customs, but many, many little overnight packages began to arrive for us in mid-March. Kevin’s family was, and has been, as concerned for us as we have been for them. It’s been a lovely part of all of this.

On March 13th, we sent emails to our combined studios of 50 students, pivoting them all online. We have been inside since that time. Our students are having a great time. We have three Zoom recitals every week, with students from Germany, East Coast, Midwest and one block away. We get together, and everyone makes their own reception food. It’s lovely and fun.

Laurie: Considering your experience, where does a teacher need to concentrate efforts, when working with a student online? How does a teacher manage students' expectations? How does a teacher need to manage his or her own expectations in this situation?

Anthea: Just like when I started Inside Music Academy, I threw away the expectations of what a lesson was.

I could see my daughters pivoting to online school, and we quickly realized that we needed a flexible family approach. We needed to stay engaged beyond the screen. We began doing Practice Buddies - my eight-year-old practices on Zoom every day from noon to one with a 10-year-old boy from Los Angeles, and our 10-year-old practices with grandma or a cousin. It’s fun and social, and there is never a moment when they don’t want to do it. They do it three days a week, and they even set their own alarms. I have added this to Inside Music Academy. My girls miss general chatting and socializing, and this is a mix of that and practice: they chat, decide what to practice from their list (scales, pieces, whatever) and then mute themselves and practice with the other person. They are both working on duets with their buddies.

Expectations have to be thrown out the window. Also, I don’t want to remind or scold them about their posture or other things like that. I make lots of little videos for them to practice with, and we work on stuff that is good for Covid, like metronome work, learning lots of little pieces so they play every week on Zoom, and group ensemble pieces with the lesson before or after them. We also do Rhythm games, scales with sit-ups, or other silly things (I do this for my Rise-and-Shine Warmups on Inside Music Academy - wall-sit scales and burpee bow holds). We get up and active in the lessons. We do Victory Laps around our room when we have moderate success trying to play a duet. We say hello to each other's families - our girls come in and out of lessons, and they know all of our students.

In terms of expectations, I tell that that our only goal is to have a good time. That means something different for every student. Whether it means learning Star Wars or Sibelius, I search for the joy. Some people are getting into theory and history, presenting pieces and talking about the composer or what was happening in the world at that time. It’s a chance to get out of our boxes and spread our wings.

Laurie: Are there advantages to teaching music online? Limitations to be aware of? Do you have any strategies you have learned (things to do, things to not do), that might help us all to stay motivated and keep reaching for excellence?

Anthea: I am actually having a very lovely time teaching online and hanging out with my family. Every student is motivated in a different way. Online learning promotes independence and personal problem-solving. If they have a piece they don’t like, we immediately throw it away, or put it in the post-Covid pile. It’s frustrating enough to live like this; let’s have this be about finding joy. Does it mean coaxing mom out of piano retirement so she can learn a duo with us? You bet. Does it mean rearranging a piece so the Italian exchange student living with you can play mandolin with you? Indeed. Expect nothing, and let the students discover and guide you.

Laurie: Tell me about the Inside Music Academy Virtual Summer Sessions. What will you be offering?

Anthea: I am so excited about Inside Music Academy. It’s like a dream come true. It’s designed for Covid - five-day, affordable sessions which run from June 15 through August 14 (and I am sure, beyond). The faculty is made up of my friends, colleagues and teachers: James Dunham, Amy Yang, Sibbi Bernhardsson- we have 30 people teaching, including a robust Suzuki and Adult Learner program. It’s happening in Google Classroom, where we have designed our virtual music school. Daily schedules include Rise-and-Shine Warmups, practice buddies, two lessons a week, Zoom Performance Class, loads of electives such as Podcasting, Conducting 101, the Chop, Community Engagement, and Music Game Room (make a wig out of toilet paper of your favorite composer and silly stuff like that). We use Flipgrid for uploading video assignments from our teachers, and there are also the 12:12 Nanoconcerts live on Facebook and YouTube - who knows who will play - could be someone super famous or you! It’s going to be a blast. Next on the docket is uploading the content for our Baroque Sessions for the Baroque-Curious, with Jeffrey Biegel, Chloe Prendergast and Elinor Frey.

It’s totally energized, high-content and thrilling. Right now I am recording Beethoven quartets (I play both violin and viola) and Jason records the cello, with practice and performance tempi, playalong tracks and music-minus one -- full passion. We have uploaded these for extra content to our Classroom Library, as well as things like Celebration, Bach Chorals and Playalong Pachebel.

We launch soon - the students, staff and teachers are excited - it’s going to be an excellent summer to reach out of your box and explore!

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Replies

June 6, 2020 at 12:57 AM · Thank you, Laurie!

It was a pleasure to talk to you this week.

Stay safe,

Anthea

June 6, 2020 at 01:28 PM · HI, you briefly mention Zoom as your method of working on line. In the past I have tried to work with displaced friends using Duo with cell phones, but the poor audio quality makes it useless. Does Zoom meet the needs of student/teacher standalone with cell phones or do you need enhanced mikes and/or transmission services. Pete in Colorado

June 6, 2020 at 10:26 PM · Wow! This is brilliant. That’s incredible she prepared for the situation before it even hit the US.

June 6, 2020 at 10:35 PM · This article was inspirational and came at a time when I needed some inspiration. Laurie, thanks for writing it, and Anthea, thanks for living it.

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