Local music makers transition to online classes

Above Photo Courtesy of Kristine Dunn; Left photos Courtesy of Shaomei Wu
Kristine Dunn, director of Music For Families, above, conducts virtual music classes with students like Mountain View’s Wu-Lickly family, left.

As small businesses navigate the fluid shelter-in-place orders, Music For Families transformed its highly interactive in-person classes to a comprehensive online course.

A music and movement program for children under age 5 and their parents, Music For Families previously offered classes at Los Altos Lutheran Church and Opus 1 Music Studio in Mountain View.

Kristine Dunn, director of Music For Families, said she suspended in-person classes at the onset of the pandemic, as they were held in large groups in community spaces. She brainstormed potential online business avenues with colleagues and fellow teachers, while tracking shelter-in-place updates via the Santa Clara County website. She also looked for guidance from fellow music programs in the area as she grappled with the unprecedented situation.

“I like to joke that I made eight different business plans in that time,” Dunn said.

In the interim, Dunn and fellow Music For Families teachers recorded and uploaded short lessons to the organization’s website to ease the transition to online classes.

“I spent about three weeks thinking, ‘OK, how do we still provide value?’ Because the reality is we could be doing this for a year,” Dunn said.

Music Together, the parent company of Music For Families, rapidly rolled out research and data to optimize online music education. With that research in mind, Dunn introduced a combination of live, 20-minute online classes and short pre-recorded lessons; in-person classes usually ran 45 minutes. The combination allows for maximum attention and greater flexibility for both parents and teachers, while remaining true to Music Together’s vision of deepening participants’ knowledge of music, Dunn explained.

One of the challenges of online classes is ensuring that families have the necessary props and instruments, usually provided in class, to engage with the music. Many teachers are uploading tutorials to guide parents on creative ways to make instruments such as shakers and drums from household items.

Mountain View residents Shaomei Wu and Ben Lickly have attended Music Together classes with their three children for more than four years. Even with the classes offered online, Wu said her kids still get a lot out of the program.

“I think moving classes to at-home is even better in a way,” she said. “It makes it even easier to bring music into the home when it’s at home.”

In the last virtual class Wu attended with her kids, the teacher introduced drums, using spoons for drumsticks and Tupperware for the drum set. Since the class, Wu said she hears her 3-year-old, Archer, banging on his makeshift drum set throughout the day.

Wu and Lickly noted they were surprised that the attention to detail and the community atmosphere they cherish from the in person-classes transferred to the online setting as well.

“It’s like nothing is different. Teachers still respond to what the kids are doing, which is unique to Music Together teachers,” Wu said. “If one of the kids starts jumping, the teacher will encourage that and also start jumping.”

In debuting the online program, Dunn instituted some changes to the class routine, including adding a show-and-tell time to ensure that the authenticity and community atmosphere of the program also were palpable in the online classes.

Drew Wanderman, a longtime teacher at Music For Families, acknowledged that there have been some minor technical challenges, like learning to optimize Zoom for a class of 15 families.

“One hard part is that I have to mute everybody – because of the way the lag time works, it’s impossible to sing all together, so you miss that group-making ability,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, Wanderman said she can see her students mouthing the lyrics and floating their scarves to visually represent the rhythm.

“The idea is they’re watching me and seeing me and hopefully they’re doing what I’m doing, especially the grown-ups … and they can see everyone else on the screen doing it, too,” she said. “It’s still a group activity and they seem to really enjoy it.”

Parent participation

A core pillar of the program relies on parent participation to model music making skills for their young children. Teachers usually wait until the third week of class to emphasize the importance of the parental role.

“We’ve had to tell the parents a lot more, up front, ‘By the way, this isn’t about putting your child in front of the screen – you are the music makers,’” Dunn said.

Most parents, especially ones in the program previously, are receptive to the idea.

The real benefit of the Music Together program is providing parents and kids with the tools to make music at home, achieved in both the in-person and online classes, Wanderman said.

The flexibility of the online program offers Dunn the opportunity to slowly reintroduce in-person classes in the future, allowing families to choose either option, depending on their comfort level.

“We are just in the beginning stages, but if we can continue providing value, we will continue fulfilling a need, which is the goal,” she said.

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