The year 2020 is stretching all of us to the limit. Political turmoil combined with online teaching have made me feel as if taking part in a very strange and macabre experiment. Today, I am just addressing the harsh reality of Zoom land, and not politics (I’ve had it with that part of 2020, I’m fasting). As a studio teacher, I can can’t say that the online experience has been all bad. My students have become more self-directed, are learning to embrace recording, and are exploring new modalities of learning.
But it is undisputable: I, like so many other teachers, am at the end of my tether. When the pandemic started, I was obsessed with the question of how can I best serve my students. In the last couple of months, however, I have shifted my attention to, "How can I practice radical self-care?” Surprisingly, the difference between curling up in the fetal position (yes, it’s happened more than once) and embracing the day is surprisingly thin… as in razor thin. Meanwhile I am aware that when I am good head space, my students benefit, and everyone in my household does, too. So, I keep experimenting with the self-care concept. Here is what I have learned so far:
1. Beautify your space and surround yourself with feel-good teaching accessories
Adorn your space with plants, a nice rug, better lighting, and anything else you can think of to make your space personal, beautiful, and cozy. Small changes to your teaching room can have a big impact. When I started teaching primarily online, I put a plant behind me, so it would be in view during the lesson. Now I put the plants behind the computer so that plants are within MY view. I had a box of Blackwing pencils in my office that I used to use for student prizes. I recently repurposed them for my own use, all of them. I know a nice pencil is a small thing, but every little bit helps. My latest obsession is more ambitious: I’m working on creating an upholstered door, modeled after this tutorial I found online. Overkill? Maybe. But I can’t wait until a door like that is part of my teaching palace. Here is my current set up:
2. Upgrade your equipment
First on the list is hooking up a speaker to the computer, which makes listening to budding violinists a lot more pleasant, especially if you are doing it several hours in a row. Next, convince your students to upgrade to getting a microphone. Inexpensive mic recommendations can be found in a Violinist.com’s Tech Guide for Online Lessons. (Incidentally, you can find that article, as well as guidance about a variety of online teaching issues in Violinist.com's Guide to Online Learning.)
My next investment is going to be an iPad pro, which will allow me to share fingerings instantly, mark up parts in colors from week to week, and finally ditch the unmanageable stacks of sheet music I have strewn all around me.
3. If possible, consider a hybrid teaching model
As I write this, nearly every state in the country is considered a Covid-19 hotspot. Therefore, this next idea is for the more distant future, not the near future. And it’s not possible or appropriate for everyone… I’m talking about an online/in person hybrid model. In the spring, I was entirely online. This fall, however, I rotated some live lessons into the mix. Each student was invited to have a live lesson in a large space about once every three weeks. Two weeks in Zoom, one week live. I had devised this plan for the benefit of the students, not myself, but what I noticed is that having a little bit of live interaction sprinkled here and there was good for me as well. It was a space and scheduling challenge, and we had to keep our masks on and stay distanced, so it wasn’t exactly business as usual. Still, I felt like I was coming up for air, and I cherished it.
4. Continue learning and practicing your craft
Putting some fake plants up is easy. This next one is harder, but richer in rewards. Lean in and invest in your own progress as a violinist. The concept is not new to me, but Zoom has opened up some new possibilities. Online workshops are popping up all over the place. I’m joining as an observer the Cleveland Institute Winter Intensive next month and I took Nathan Cole’s Violympics course in the summer. In that spirit, here is a shameless plug for my own Practice Blitz workshops that I’m teaching in January! You can learn more about the my four workshop sessions at www.practizma.com/violin-mini-workshops.
I generally take a lesson once or twice a year. Sometimes this is a formal lesson with a high-level artist, sometimes I do a playing exchange with colleagues. I need the deadlines, the growth, and the inspiration. It goes without saying that you will likely not play as well as you might like to in a lesson. If you, like me, are teaching many hours, this is the reality. But it’s worth it. I always record little voice memo about what I learned on my phone, and I love playing these back when I feel stuck.
The last formal lesson I took is clearly etched in my mind as it was only days before shut-down last March. While at the ASTA conference, I played for Jeff Multer, amazing teacher and Florida Orchestra Concertmaster. Below is the recording I dictated into the phone that day. The audio quality is not great, but it gives you a glimpse. Note my last few words in the file!
5. The Well
Lesson notes are not the only use for voice memos. Whenever find something that inspires me as a teacher, writer, violinist, or person, I record a little something about it on my voice memos app. I gather book recommendations, poignant ideas I come across, beautiful things I want to capture and remember. These little recordings are my positive inspiration diary. I scroll through them when I’m doing the dishes or going for a walk. The memos are all dated and time stamped, but I don’t transcribe them or organize them in any way. I just take a listen when the fancy strikes me. I call it "the well that keeps me well."
6. Ten Minutes of Physical Self-Care
I’ve thrown in the towel on being a true yogi, or a person who does what I would call "real exercise." I have, however, developed the habit of 10 minutes of Yoga (thank you, Adriene) plus a 10 minute walk every single day, rain or shine. The difference between 10 minutes and nothing is profound.
7. Be careful with rescheduling
With most of my own performances cancelled, I have often allowed students to reschedule much more than I had in the past, simply because I could accommodate it. The line between teaching time and personal time, however, has become even more blurred as a result. I am currently trying to cut back on my loosey-goosey scheduling tendencies, as it essentially extends my teaching times. Of course, for our most inspiring students….there might be exceptions ? P.S. If you are a student reading this, strive to be the kind of student a teacher will reschedule for.
8. Embrace your Helplessness
I have found it helpful to embrace rather than to fight my own sense of helplessness in the current situation. I am trying to cozy up with helplessness for two reasons. First, there are only so many new technological and motivational “solutions” one can learn in a year. Maybe we don’t have to be the master of online teaching, maybe we just have to be ok at it. There is honor in aiming for B+.
The second reason to embrace helplessness is that it invites us to lean on others. When I truly feel helpless, I stop googling, and reach out to a real person. A phone call is so much more satisfying, and the last thing we need right now is more computer time. We are hardwired for connection and human contact, and we get so little of it right now.
I am bracing myself for the long haul, since 2021 is looking barely brighter than 2020 in terms of teaching. My creativity and positivity as a teacher depend on my state of mind, so I am pacing myself and continuing to explore the self-care concept. If you have suggestions for self-care for studio teachers, please comment below, I think we would all love to hear your ideas!
Oh, and one request, please. No politics! I’m on a fast.
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