Tricia Tunstall, Cofounder and Contributing Editor, The Ensemble
On the first Thursday of December 2021, I did something I hadn’t done for the previous 20 months: I taught six piano students in a row in person, in my home studio. After 16 months of virtual teaching, I had been gradually reintroducing in-person lessons during the fall, one kid at a time, as they became vaccinated. This was the first day that every student on my roster was actually on my piano bench.
It was euphoric. Kids whose faces had become vacant, routinely glancing away from the dull buzz of the screen, came into my studio with their eyes alight above their masks. Kids who had simply stopped practicing during the endless months of FaceTime came and played the hell out of their pieces; from “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, everyone had practiced. In one lesson, when I showed a student a chord inversion, he put his hand on the keys an octave below and played the chord too; we played it in long tones, then staccato, then in triplets, then syncopated—our hands together, in the same space, at the same time. He didn’t want to stop. In another lesson, a student brought her friend, who’s also one of my students. They wanted to play in the same space, at the same time, together. They didn’t want to stop.
The next week, Omicron surged, and I went back to virtual teaching. During the dark December afternoons on FaceTime and Zoom, my students’ despondency has been palpable.
Ensemble readers: you’ve all been here. You are here. Many of you have been through this multiple times, going back and forth between in-person and virtual teaching as the virus has waxed and waned and waxed again. Across the world, wherever you are, you and your students have been infinitely adaptive and resolutely game, making virtual music learning happen wherever and whenever it can, because it’s better than no music learning.
Meanwhile, we all rummage through the sea of pandemic truisms—isolation is terrible; isolation is bearable; technology is lifesaving; technology is life-sapping; people will never recover; people are resilient—to find our truths, or our various truths, or our contradictory or debatable truths. But I wasn’t looking for A Truth that Thursday. I was simply struck by one. Each of my students was musically alive and emotionally available in ways they couldn’t be in virtual space. We were experiencing the essence of actual music-making again: being physically together in the same space with the instrument, and the soundwaves, and one another. That’s how human animals invented music—as a uniquely moving way to be together, to feel together, to deepen connections that flood our lives with meaning.
As we begin a medically fraught, culturally schizophrenic, politically riven new year, I urge you not to forget this particular truth. Music-making and music-learning are most powerful, and most transformative, when people are in the same space at the same time. Let’s continue to cope, with grit and grace, when we have to be apart from our students. But when we are able to be together, let’s never take it for granted. Let’s remember to rejoice.