It took a bit of fiddling, but Samantha Musleh sat Instructor Kate on a stool so she could watch three of Musleh’s daughters, one after the other, play the electric keyboard at their South Bend home.
Okay, so it was Kate Ragan, a University of Notre Dame student, streaming live from Denver, Colorado. The girls didn’t know exactly where she was. Only they could see and hear them – and the notes – through the laptop.
But here’s the tricky part of their class, which had gone virtual because of COVID-19: seeing each other’s hands on the keys. Ragan tilts the camera on her computer for a better angle.
“It’s difficult (to see) but it’s still good,” says Saja, 8.
“Sometimes the connection is bad or the computer dies,” says Jenna, 13.
These challenges only spur Jenna to work harder, she says, adding, “I want to make sure I get it right the first time so it doesn’t take too long.”
Or as her mother puts it, “It’s harder to remember, but harder to forget.”
Notre Dame’s piano students have been giving free or low-cost piano lessons to local children for six years at the Center for Civic Innovation, the old Hansel Center on Washington Street in South Bend.
A new semester of classes began in January and was discontinued in March with the onset of the pandemic. For two months, Notre Dame students were derailed by Midterms, moving off campus to their homes and finishing their own virtual college, said Celine Marcos, an AmeriCorps member who coordinates the Center’s tutoring and artistic enrichment educational programs.
Then piano professor John Blacklow urged staff at the center to bring classes back, albeit online, which they did in early June.
The Google Meet video program brings three Notre Dame students — in Texas, Colorado and Alaska — to meet with kids in South Bend and Buchanan.
“These virtual sessions were oddly a lot easier to arrange in our current situation than during a regular semester,” Blacklow said. “In ‘normal times,’ the transportation factor was typically a hindrance to many ND students’ schedules.”
Previously, all courses were held in half-hour sessions between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. every Thursday. Now children’s families and teachers can choose the days and times that are best for them.
They’ve gone from in-person tutoring for four students in grades 2 through 5 to virtual tutoring for seven kids, including some slightly older and younger, Marcos says.
Student Michael Lukowicz in Dallas, Texas, was initially skeptical that virtual classes would work, but reports, “We’re making progress so far.”
He teaches three students from different families whom he has never met in person.
Juan Carlos, 6, works directly with his father, who Lukowicz says is “super helpful” when it comes to helping his son implement what he’s been taught.
Albany, 13, is a quick learner, perhaps because she’s had a few classes beforehand.
Lukowicz, a sophomore, is majoring in neuroscience and behavior — in a pre-med degree — with a second major in music, focusing on piano playing. As such, he is fascinated by tracking each child’s developmental level by age, which he learned in his introductory psychology course.
He’s had to take some virtual piano lessons from Notre Dame during the pandemic this spring.
“I think that was a bit easier,” he said, comparing himself to his younger students, “because I’ve been studying the piano for so long.”
If they were there in person, Lukowicz said, “I could demonstrate things to them or guide their fingers to the keys.”
And he hasn’t found a way to correct the position of his students’ hands in a way that takes the least amount of effort — an important lesson his teachers taught him as a boy.
Current classes end on July 31st. They’ll return this fall, Marcos says, but she adds, “We just haven’t decided yet if they’ll be online, in person, or a combination of both.”
As it stands, the program is not seeking youth to take classes as there is already a waiting list from the west side of South Bend and there is a limited number of Notre Dame volunteers.
However, the Music Village is continuing to offer the virtual classes it has begun since the pandemic began in piano and a range of instruments and singing (themusicvillage.org) while the charity’s building in downtown South Bend remains closed.
Lukowicz is open to returning to keyboard lessons in person or virtually this fall. The same is true for the Musleh girls, even as they compare how much easier it was to sit side-by-side with an instructor at the center’s electric keyboard earlier this year. Her mother will allow in-person tuition “if it’s safe enough.”
“I wasn’t thinking that far ahead,” Musleh admits, her thoughts focused on the girls returning to classes at Christ the King School next month. Musleh himself teaches English as a New Language to preschoolers at Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center.
The girls’ current teacher, Ragan, sends a weekly package containing lessons, her own video and sheet music to print out. That helps Saja, who says she practices 10 minutes every day.
Hannah, 10, who is also in a choir, attributes something that’s not virtual at all. She says Ragan is kind: “She never gets angry if we mess things up. She does not judge us.”