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On a brighter note: Most Northampton Community Music Center students continue lessons online

  • Northampton Community Music Center teacher Capella Sherwood and her husband, Greg Campbell, join their sons, from left, Winston, 5, Desmond, 8, and Sidney, 3, for a practice. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Students in NCMC’s Piano Connection class, a weekly session for adult pianists, at a recent virtual class hosted on Zoom. Image courtesy of Northampton Community Music Center

  • Desmond Campbell, 8, and brother Sidney, 3, set up for a practice in the backyard of their Northampton home. Sidney doesn’t play the cello but does take a “Music Together” class. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Community Music Center teacher Capella Sherwood and her husband, Greg Campbell, watch their son Sidney, 3, take a small cello back to the house after a family practice in the backyard of their Northampton home on Saturday, May 2, 2020. Sidney doesn’t play the cello but does take a “Music Together” class. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Community Music Center teacher Capella Sherwood and her husband, Greg Campbell, join their sons, from left, Sidney, 3, Winston, 5, and Desmond, 8, for a practice in the backyard of their Northampton home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Community Music Center student Desmond Campbell, age 8, plays cello alongside his father, Greg Campell, as the two serenade a Northampton neighbor on his birthday. Desmond has continued his NCMC lessons online. Photo courtesy of Capella Sherwood



Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2020

Arts organizations all around the world have been hammered by the COVID-19 outbreak, with concert halls silenced, theaters darkened and art galleries and museums shuttered.

But one brighter note in the Valley can be found at the Northampton Community Music Center, where over 75% of students have continued to take lessons remotely since the doors were shut March 14. It’s not a perfect replacement for in-person lessons, teachers and NCMC staff say, but it’s something everyone looks forward to as a way to stay in touch, share the joy of music and give structure to the day.

“We’ve found some students are practicing more than they did before,” Jason Trotta, NCMC’s executive director, said with a laugh. “This can be a highlight of the day for a lot of them, because it’s something they count on: a regular routine when their lives have been so disrupted otherwise.”

And teachers — many of whom had to scramble to learn how to use Zoom, the video-conferencing platform that has become a go-to tool for so many virtual interactions — say they enjoy talking to their students and keeping them engaged in music, though they’ve had to develop new lesson plans in some cases, especially when working with ensembles.

“I’d never done this before, so it was definitely a challenge at the start,” said Capella Sherwood, who teaches violin and viola at NCMC; she has seven individual students and also leads a group class. “It’s actually worked out quite well. I love seeing my students, and they look forward to being with me.”

Sherwood, who lives in Northampton, also has three young sons, all of whom are continuing with their music classes at NCMC. Desmond, who’s 8, plays the cello; Winston, 5, plays violin; and Sidney, who’s 3, is part of a popular class for young children, “Music Together,” in which students sing and dance as a group.

Sidney, she says, “loves to be part of the class [on Zoom] because he gets to see all of his friends.” Winston, meanwhile, sometimes practices three times a day, while Desmond plays cello with a friend via Zoom, in addition to taking his weekly lesson.

“I think the whole social aspect of this has been really important, so we don’t all feel isolated,” said Sherwood, who is home during the day with her sons. Her husband, Greg Campbell, is a former professional musician and teacher turned doctor, currently working at Baystate Medical Center.

Financially, says Trotta, keeping lessons going has provided an economic lifeline to the center at a time when NCMC has had to postpone Springfest — a key fundraising event typically held in downtown Northampton in May — until August. The center also had to cancel a number of concerts this spring that were designed to bring in additional revenue.

“We were really just shellshocked when we had to close,” he said. “And when we realized this was not going to be some temporary thing, we were really forced to adapt.”

Fortunately, adds Trotta, there were a number of “tech-savvy” faculty members who had already taught online and were able to reach out to students and other teachers to help get them working remotely as well, and parents were also eager to help. Thanks to all those efforts, he says, “We’ve been able to get 75-80% of our students taking private lessons on board.”

For those students who have not been able to continue, either due to slow internet service or economic circumstances, NCMC has offered refunds for the balance of the 2019-2020 season, while also encouraging families to consider applying the balance toward fall lessons or as a donation to the center.

Making adjustments

As pleased as they are that so many students have been able to continue their lessons online, teachers and staff say remote learning has its drawbacks. Violinist Emily Greene says one the biggest challenges can be working with young students still learning the basics of an instrument; you can’t physically help a student with his or her fingering, for instance, via a computer.

“For something like that, we really rely on parents sitting in on a lesson to help,” said Greene, who has 17 single students and also teaches three group classes. “And they’ve really been great in that respect.”

For the various ensembles at NCMC, from choruses to chamber music groups, the lag time between when musicians hear notes via computer means playing together can be almost impossible. As one alternative, Greene has her ensemble students do solos one at a time, with other students then offering feedback. Students can also mute their computers or phones and play along with the soloist on their own.

She also has taught lessons on music theory and famous composers during some remote group sessions. “You have to find ways to be creative,” said Greene, who sometimes revisits older material with students. “You can have students do more review, rather than introduce new music.”

Amanada Stenroos, another violin teacher, says eye fatigue from many hours on Zoom is also an issue, while sound quality is not ideal. But Stenroos, who has 14 students, finds her lessons a welcome alternative to the otherwise bleak news about COVID-19. Remote teaching is also an opportunity to learn herself, she said: “Having to rethink ways of describing something you’d normally show on your instrument is a good and beneficial challenge for any teacher.”

Students and teachers who have worked together for a long time have an advantage, parents and teachers say. Jim Fitts of South Hadley says his twin daughters, Mary Stella and Sarah Anne, now 18, have studied violin with Greene since age 9 and are completely comfortable with online lessons. In fact, they had previously worked remotely with Greene on past occasions when their family was on vacation.

“They both really look forward to their lessons right now,” Fitts said of his daughters. With the pandemic, “Everything happened so fast, and the doors at NCMC were locked before anyone had a chance to say goodbye. So it’s been great for them to touch base” with Greene online.

Trotta says there’s still much uncertainty of how NCMC will move forward with its summer programs and in the fall. The center did get a $90,000 loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and some additional funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, but long-term financial security depends on being able to resume live classes and events.

In the meantime, NCMC is encouraging students and parents to post videos and images of their practice sessions to the center’s Facebook page and other social media sites to promote community. Some families are also working on making music together; Sherwood plays regularly with her older two sons, and her husband joins in as time allows.

“It’s just a great way to spend family time,” said Sherwood, who notes that Desmond, her oldest son, and her husband recently serenaded a neighbor outside by playing “Happy Birthday” to him on cello and violin.

Greene says she’s grateful to be part of the online music effort. “Music and the arts — that’s something so many of us turn to for comfort in a difficult time.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.