Music lessons in the time of Covid: How Pittsburgh schools are making it work

Photo courtesy of the Center for Young Musicians.

Lauren DeMichiei grew up in a household where her parents always played vinyl records. Her partner, Joe Serkoch, vividly remembers watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” especially episodes with noted Pittsburgh guitarist Joe Negri.

Lauren and Joe grew up to love music — both are working musicians — and have passed that love onto their son, Jasper. At 6, Jasper already plays the drums and keyboards and seems to naturally gravitate to music.

Jasper jamming out behind the drums. Photo courtesy of Joe Serkoch.

Both parents think music helps Jasper be happier and healthier, but they admit there’s a balance that needs to be struck.

“I think being exposed to music, just hearing it, is super important if you want your kids to develop any kind of affinity for that form of expression,” Lauren says. “You want to start as early as possible.” (Check out this video that traces Jasper’s progression as a drummer from babyhood to age 6.)

But where to go from there? Lauren and Joe are trying to figure out what type of formal instruction best fits their son without taking away from his natural interest. They agree that finding the right teacher is crucial to developing and maintaining Jasper’s interest in music. And during the pandemic, with most music schools offering limited in-person classes, parents like them have to figure out how online lessons can be impactful.

Kidsburgh talked to teachers about the importance of music lessons, and how their classes address teaching during the pandemic. Here’s how some Pittsburgh schools are making it work.

Photo courtesy of the Center for Young Musicians.

Center for Young Musicians

Even as staff at the Center for Young Musicians (CYM) in Shadyside adapted when classes went online last year, one immutable truth remained: If parents weren’t invested and supportive of their kids’ music lessons, the best instruction in the world would fall flat.

“Without as much face-to-face contact with their teachers, children rely even more on the musical modeling of the adults around them and closely observe everyone’s level of enthusiasm,” says Victoria McGinnis, president of the center. “CYM parents made it clear to their children that music lessons are a priority at home, and we are grateful to them for ensuring this `space for success.’”

The courses at CYM range from electric guitar and piano to songwriting and cello ensemble. Demand for instruction remains constant, McGinnis says, even as instructors have learned to refine online teaching experiences through pre-recorded videos, addressing latency and sound quality issues, and finding appropriate music apps and games to engage kids while fostering growth.

“Teachers have also sought out additional professional training in order to do more for the students they work with in our school community,” McGinnis says. “In other words, CYM teachers’ already high expectations of themselves and their students’ have been raised.”

The skills that kids master through music lessons are transferable to other areas of education, too. Concentration, for example, can be learned by teaching kids how to focus.

“Linking small steps together and repeating them in a playful way will give kids the results and positive feedback they need to be confident and feel calm,” McGinnis says. “Being challenged to do something difficult and then mastering it, no matter how small a musical skill it seems to be, creates trust and a satisfaction that permeates the whole family.”

At For Those About to Rock Academy, classes are offered for ages 8-80. Photo by First Angel Media.

For Those About to Rock Academy

When David Granati held classes at For Those About to Rock Academy, the sessions were communal affairs with plenty of food, beverages and bonhomie, along with prayers of thanks. But that family-oriented atmosphere took a hit last year when the pandemic struck.

Initially, he held sessions outdoors with a few students but decided that was too risky. Instead, Granati, a longtime member of the Granati Brothers and one of the area’s most accomplished guitarists, decided to employ one of his prized musical tricks: He improvised and concentrated more on the recording aspect of learning.

“When I usually have class, we’re sharing instruments and sharing microphones and sharing the space,” he says. “We did some streaming, but my quip for that is it’s kind of like DoorDash compared to home cooking.”

In lieu of live practices — save for occasional socially distant one-on-one lessons — file sharing became a way for students to collaborate by adding guitar solos, bass lines, drum parts and vocals to basic tracks.

“That worked really well,” Granati says. “The main thing was to keep them fired up, keep them moving forward, keep expanding and taking advantage of the time.”

He encouraged students to use the surfeit of time they suddenly had from not commuting to school. Some of Granati’s students had one-way commutes of more than an hour. Granati pushed them to spend that freed-up time on their music.

“You could look at it as a setback or you could look at it as an opportunity,” Granati says. “We chose the latter, and these kids totally embraced it.”

Granati decided to shy away from Zoom sessions in order to not overload kids with online instruction.

“I wanted to get them singing,” he says. “Get them off their computers.”

A student vocal and music concert prior to Covid. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5

Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5

Before in-person classes were halted due to Covid safety precautions, the kids at Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5 in Highland Park started every day with a bit of world drumming. School and birthday announcements followed, along with sports reports and basic instruction in mindfulness or other character-building exercises.

Then came a moment of pure bliss: a song performed live by students on stage in the school’s auditorium.

“It’s pretty joyful and super communal,” says Rebecca Dougan, who has taught at Dilworth for 14 years. “The thing that I miss most about being online is the opportunity to make music communally. It really brings everybody together.”

A magnet school emphasizing arts integration and humanities, the school employs two full-time music teachers — Dougan and Lori Russo — who teach world drumming, rock band, chorus and instrumental ensembles.

Pre-pandemic, kids at Pittsburgh Dilworth K-5 started the day with a live music performance. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Dilworth K-5.

Because all instruction is now online, Dougan has had to employ different skills to challenge kids. She’s directed them to, a site that helps kids learn how to read music, and All Around This World, an ethnomusicology website, to learn about world music.

Dougan encourages kids to think outside the box and try to create “found sound.” She instructs kids to find “a tin can or a rake that you’re going to scrape or a placemat you can rub against another placemat. Whatever you can find to create music, go do that.”

Music and the arts are unique in that they inherently create opportunities for joy and self-expression. While other subjects may also do that, Dougan believes that the arts especially engender a type of “emotional exposure” that is unique and can help kids build confidence.

“The Holy Grail for me is transfer,” Dougan says. “Whether you’re transferring it from the music room to the English room or from childhood life to your adult life. It feels to me the kids who transfer their elementary music knowledge to become lifelong musicians and appreciators of music, the kids who are able to accomplish that transfer, are the ones who have performed a fair bit.”

Anthony Pecora. Photo courtesy of Empire Music.

Empire Music

As much as things have changed in the last year, there’s a rule of thumb that holds true for Anthony Pecora’s students at Empire Music in Mt. Lebanon.

“They need to practice 15-20 minutes each day; that’s the best way,” Pecora says. “Cramming it in once a week, that’s not going to do it for you.”

Because of Covid, all classes are being taught online. The constant that remains is that the kids who have an innate love of music continue to progress. Those who are being forced by their parents to take lessons have tended to drift away.

“Most of the kids who have stuck with it through this are pretty enthusiastic about it,” Pecora says. “This is sort of a make-or-break time for it. If you’re passionate about it, you’re going to be really into it right now. It’s kind of a break from what’s going on.”

The key during the last year is learning to be flexible and being able to adapt to online lessons. Pecora admits that kids who are just starting out might have a bit more difficulty with things like hand placement on guitar. Other kids are just not interested in streaming lessons.

But students who are willing to persevere can make great strides online if they have teachers who can adapt to the new paradigm and stay positive.

“You have to be enthusiastic about the streaming process,” Pecora says. “There are some benefits to it. You don’t have to leave your house. We can still get the same information. Scheduling can be a little easier because you both don’t have to be in the same place.”

Success often comes down to enthusiasm.

“For the teachers who are really positive about that aspect,” he says, “it works really well.”