Anthea’s diary: How I teach violin in virus-hit China

From our occasional diarist, Anthea Kreston:

It can be a little difficult to read the subtleties of the person on the other side of the screen when you’re teaching on Skype. You can tell the basics – tired, excited – you may have just put your kids to sleep as the other person is having their first sip of morning coffee. But when I saw Y (not his real name) last week, his usual chatter, the buoyancy of a teenage boy – his flair and interest in sharing stories of our different cultures – these were all muted. He lives in a city of 12 million, quite far from the epicenter of WuHan that we hear so much about. After some time, after the Sevcik and the Sibelius – I asked how school was. Maybe it’s the narrow focus of the media – I try to cast a net – the Guardian and NYT are daily reads – but somehow it didn’t occur to me that Y, and his entire city was on lock-down.

The planned Chinese New Year trip to the ancestral mountain village had been cancelled. In fact, there had been no school, no violin lessons, no outside for 14 year old Y and his family for weeks. He said – “everyone is sick, we are afraid when we run out of food – someone has to go out there and get more….“. What he left unsaid showed clearly on his face. He was afraid – I noticed their small apartment looked different – not the tidy place I am used to seeing on the rectangle of my iPad. And Y hadn’t prepared his lesson in his usual diligence.

Y is one of a large handful of online students – some from remote areas who need some kind of input (I have one student from India), old students or new friends who want audition prep, things like this. When I met Y, and his Dad saw us work together, a new Skype relationship was born. I know how goofy he is, how he loves to show off with his breakneck technique and toss of his teenager hair. And so after we hung up, I couldn’t stop thinking about him and his family. The psychological toll, the isolation and fear.

And so, I devised a Coronavirus Daily Bootcamp Workout for Y, and proposed it to his father. 2 new videos every day into our Skype – a new devilishly hard Sevcik scale with metronome, and a new page of his new concerto. Every day. And very very good. They thought for 2 days about it, and now, I already have a veritable library of videos. I watch them, send comments, ask him to re-do – and add new assignments. We will continue this every day until he can go outside again. I can see him smile sometimes, now, as he careens through a new page of Symphony Espagnole or a Bach Fugue. He complains a little at the pace, but I say – “I need you to work hard, Y – I want you to come out of this as a new violinist“. We have a pretty big pile of emojis that land in our chat space, and he gives me a wink and a smile, and says – “ok I can do this!“

Musicians are a world-wide community. As I see countries closing down their live concerts, people being isolated, I wonder what we can do to help our friends as they struggle through dark thoughts and tragedy. I hope that Y will emerge from his home soon, with something new to share with his friends and teachers. Or, at least, with new tools to try to work through his own demons.

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  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    This century is supposed to be the century of China. The future looks unpromising, as they have difficulty even in maintaining hygiene, God help us if they dominate the world. I may dislike USA culturally, but I would much rather be governed by them.

  • Alexander says:

    nice to hear from you, as always

  • S says:

    Thank you for teaching, Anthea. It’s one of the noblest professions. Your impact is surely greater than you will ever know.

  • Bruce says:

    Trust Anthea to come up with a way to mine something positive out of such a scary situation.

  • fierywoman says:

    Bless you, Anthea!

  • Marg says:

    Anthea – what an inspired teaching approach! Good for you. You have given him motivation and resurfaced his passion. Brava!

  • anon says:

    I am sorry, but there are many, many, many other teachers as dedicated as the “sometimes” diarist who don’t feel the need to broadcast their self-important accomplishments across the internet.

    I feel for my close friends and colleagues in China, Hong Kong and other areas feeling the effects of this tragedy. I do not feel that from my sheltered, safe home I need to tell the world how I am facilitating normal life for them.

    I rarely read Ms Kreston in the past – sorry I did this time.

    • friend says:

      Why so cynical? We can’t all go to China to help. What she’s doing is of value to the students there. She really doesn’t come across as a self-important braggart, “facilitating normal life for them.” You, however, have broadcast your bitter negativity across the internet.

    • Bruce says:

      Right. Because self-aggrandizement is the only possible reason for writing anything for publication.

      P.S. Why do you feel the need to proclaim “I feel for my close friends and colleagues in China, Hong Kong and other areas feeling the effects of this tragedy”? You claim in your next sentence that you do not, but it’s obviously untrue since you just did it.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      This teaching experience is informed by the wonders of modern technology more than anything else. Sure beats carrier pigeon!!

    • SVM says:

      Personally, I find it interesting to read about Kreston’s work. Of course, as anon says, it is true that there are others who are doing similar work. Assuredly, it is true that Kreston broadcasts her travels and professional activity in far more intimate detail than most professional musicians.

      Nonetheless, it is a good thing that somebody is putting these experiences on record. The music profession is a complicated beast, and it is valuable to learn about what takes place “off stage”, especially when it involves one or more protagonists of renown. In particular, I admire the candour with which Kreston discloses some of the difficulties she has encountered, even at the risk of causing some commentators on this site to question her professionalism.

      Speaking as someone with no experience of video-link teaching (but much experience of in-person teaching), I would be very interested to read any further articles Kreston may care to write about how she does it. Whilst there are many people and organisations who have written on this topic already, few of them strike me as genuinely competent and even fewer of them are of a calibre commensurate with Kreston’s. So, encore…

  • Adele says:

    how cruel Anthea, this lack of empathy. stressing him out when he is already on the brink of despair.

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