Music

A Music Teacher’s 2020 Year-End Reflection

Read more at www.violinist.com

December 31, 2020, 11:12 AM · We made it. It’s New Year’s Eve, and in a few short hours, 2020 will be behind us forever. I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to slam the door shut on this year and never speak about it again.

But then I thought about it and tried to remember some of what happened this year. 2020 combined unspeakable horror, overwhelming grief, desperate resilience, and brilliant innovation. We’ve had some serious wake-up calls – about the nature of our world, our humanity, American democracy, and the classical music world.

I think it’s worth it to take a little time to reflect on the past year. It’s important to begin to process it, even as we put it behind us, so that we can move forward, as the new people we have been forced to become this year. We need to understand (as much as we can) what happened so that we can create a better world in the future.

I put together a little four-step process to help myself reflect on this year, and I invite you to join me. (Note: for the purposes of this blog, I’m just reflecting on the way 2020 affected my musical life, not my personal life).

  1. Honor the loss
  2. Find gratitude
  3. Learn from the hard stuff
  4. Look forward with informed hope

1. Honor the loss

For me, I have trouble thinking about this year without running into the massive wall of grief that surrounds it. We have all lost so much, from our loved ones to our livelihoods to our plans. And while it’s painful, finding a way to honor our losses is an important part of closing a chapter from this year. We are all experiencing loss on a number of levels, from our collective loss of a way of life to the personal ones.

This year we lost the entire way that we share art. We lost the ability to give or attend live performances, to be in a room with other musicians and to make music in-person, in real time. We could not hug our loved ones after a great performance, or feel the electricity in the air during a magical performance. We could not travel and meet new colleagues to make music with. We could not hear our students play in-person, we could only hear them through the internet.

The bulk of my career is teaching, but I didn’t realize just how much I rely on my few performances a year to maintain my identity as a violinist. I was particularly looking forward to a faculty concert, where my colleagues and I would perform all of the Mendelssohn Octet. It would have been the first time I would learn and perform this piece. I cried a lot the weekend that concert was supposed to have happened.

2. Find gratitude

If we’ve made it to the end of this year more or less intact, we have something to be grateful for. It’s challenging to find gratitude in the midst of so much loss. In the midst of all the awful of 2020, there were some bright spots, and recognizing those helps paint a more complete picture of the year.

I’m grateful for those who generously shared their technological know-how with the teaching community and for the way we all pulled together to make online lessons work. I’m grateful for the opportunities for access that have been created from everyone teaching and performing online. My students and I connected with and learned from artists all around the world, and had experiences we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I am grateful for my students showing up every lesson willing to try and do their best, for learning to learn online, and for their patience with me as I learned to teach online. I’m also grateful that my experiences brought me more opportunities to write and be involved in the Violinist.com community.

3. Learn from the hard stuff

This is the big one for me – there are lessons to be learned, especially from the hardest things we encountered this year. Allowing ourselves to sit with the discomfort and realize how we’ve grown, and that while some of the new COVID way of life is temporary, we should make an intentional and informed return to in-person activities. I could write a whole blog series on what I’ve learned, but I’ll keep it to a few of the big ones for me:

    Online music education is different, but not lesser in value. I think an online element to teaching is here to stay. The potential for online make-up lessons, connecting with students who can’t travel easily to your location, and eliminating the commute aspect of scheduling lessons is all incredibly interesting.

  • Boundaries and rest are not luxuries, they are essential. I learned this one the hard way this year. During the early days of the pandemic and the lockdown, I worked constantly and made myself available to my students much more, to help the transition to online lessons. If I’m honest, I did this out of fear that my studio would decide online lessons weren’t worth it and quit. As a result, I burned out very quickly and also had some situations where parents used me as emotional punching bag as they dealt with their own anxiety and uncertainty about the situation. I learned that I need to have set email hours and communicate those to my students, to treat my online studio with the same formality and structures as my in-person one, and to have at least one day a week where I don’t have to be Teacher Claire at all.
  • I have to teach independence, and sometimes this means spending a lot of lesson time on something that’s not playing violin. This might include: teaching how to tune, teaching how to take notes, waiting while a student writes something down in a lesson, telling them how to mark their music, examining a piano score and teaching students what to listen for (rather than counting on a sympathetic collaborator to just make it work), and using words to describe for a student how to find a physical motion rather than moving their arm around for them. While this seems like it takes a lot of time in the moment, teaching my students these essential musical and life skills is going to pay dividends in the long run.
  • We can’t ignore the history of racism and sexism in classical music or our world anymore. The time has come to stop programming works only by “the greats,” because no one is selling out concert halls anymore. That’s no longer an excuse. There is no better time to discover new music or underperformed music, to champion it, and to make it an essential part of our cultural life. I would encourage everyone to take a long, hard look at the music they choose to perform and teach and *why* that music has been chosen. And, for that matter, who our audiences and our students are. Who is allowed in the door? What barriers exist to someone getting in that door? How are we acting as gatekeepers of classical music and music education? What are we going to do about it?

4. Looking forward with informed hope.

I’m not talking about the nebulous hope we’ve all expressed at one time or another this year of hoping things will go back to normal. We’re not going to wake up tomorrow with the virus magically gone.

Based on my reflection, I’m hopeful that our world is going to value in-person presence and performance more than ever. I’m hopeful that my students will continue learning and growing and creating beautiful art to put into this world. I’m hopeful that our incredible musical community will continue to innovate and create new opportunities and ways to learn and share music. I’m hopeful that the lessons of 2020 will empower us to create a more beautiful, more equal, and more accessible world for everyone.

So, as 2020 finally comes to an end, I invite you to take a moment to pause and reflect before we firmly slam the door on it. What losses are you honoring? What are you grateful for? What have you learned? And what are you hopeful about?

Happy New Year, everyone. I’ll see you on the other side.

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