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Music Lessons Went Virtual During The Pandemic — And Some Charlotte Students Thrived

Zoe Snipes.jpg
Nick de la Canal
Northwest School of the Arts sophomore Zoe Snipes began taking virtual music lessons during the pandemic. She's found the virtual format helpful for learning her saxophone and may stick with it even as pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Lots of people decided to pick up new hobbies during the pandemic. Some people got into baking, knitting or gardening. Many others decided to get serious about playing an instrument and sought out virtual music lessons. Such lessons were uncommon before COVID-19, but they've turned out to have real benefits for some students.

One of those students is Zoe Snipes, a sophomore at Charlotte's Northwest School of the Arts. She was among six students rehearsing inside the school's band room a few weeks before school let out in May.

The students were seated 6 feet apart and were wearing special face masks with slits allowing them to play their instruments.

Though Snipes' face was covered, you could hear her smiling as she introduced her alto saxophone, named "Saxy."

"She's been in my family for — I don't know — maybe 30 years? Since my uncle was in college," she said.

Snipes inherited the instrument in fourth grade and has been dabbling with it ever since. She said playing helped her relieve stress during the pandemic.

"When you're angry or sad, you can put it in the saxophone and practice your music, or just play, and you feel all relaxed afterwards," she said.

Though she's been playing it for years, it wasn't until the pandemic struck that she decided to get serious and sign up for lessons. The decision came from having more free time and realizing she might want to pursue saxophone in college or beyond.

So she and her mother began looking for tutors.

"And we found one online, based out of Atlanta, and she was really nice because she actually played the saxophone, and a lot of music teachers, music directors, they don't actually play the saxophone — like, that's not their instrument," Snipes said.

Nick de la Canal
Zoe Snipes, a sophomore at Northwest School of the Arts, practices her alto saxophone during band class in May. She signed up for virtual music lessons during the pandemic and says she's grown more confident as a result.

She wasn't sure at first how the virtual music lessons would work. She's never done one before.

As it turns out, private music teacher Chad Gibson was also worried about how virtual lessons would work.

Gibson has been teaching guitar, bass, ukulele and drums at Charlotte's Howren Music for more than 20 years. He saw a big jump in business during the pandemic.

"I would say before I had an average of about 30, 35 students a week, and I had an increase to about 55-plus a week," he said.

Everyone was signing up, he said, from 5 years old to senior citizens. Gibson said he'd never done a lesson over Zoom before, and he was skeptical.

"I'm used to — in the store, in-person — playing together, in time," he said. "So that's sort of a difficult thing to do online."

That's because the internet creates a tiny time lag that makes it nearly impossible for two musicians playing together to stay in sync, but Gibson developed a workaround.

"If we are going to play together, I might try to play like an eighth note in the front, to try and maybe compensate for that," he said. "And then sometimes, I'll play accompanying music through my soundboard, and then we'll play along to that, and I just trust that what they're hearing. It sounds like they're playing in time, but on my end, it will just sound a little weird."

Gibson said the uptick in students has turned out to be a blessing. Before the pandemic, he made money playing gigs. When the gigs stopped as restaurants and venues shut down, the increased interest in music lessons started. He was able to make up his lost income.

Chad Gibson guitar.jpg
Music teacher Chad Gibson saw a big jump in business during the pandemic, from 30-35 students a week up to about 55. He says some students have thrived in the virtual format.

And over the past year, he's been surprised by how many students have thrived in the virtual format.

"I've had a lot of students who had trouble in the past — some of the younger students," he said, "and I think maybe they're really shy or something, and they don't feel in their element, so I think being at home, they actually made a lot of improvements."

Snipes counts herself as someone who did better learning the saxophone virtually.

"It's actually better than in person, because you're not really as nervous, because I get very nervous very easily," she said.

Snipes says the virtual lessons also force her to think harder because her teacher isn't there in the room with her.

"If you make the same mistake twice, she's not really going to notice, so if you want to get better, you actually have to listen and pay attention," Snipes said.

Gibson says he will likely keep offering virtual lessons to students who want them as a way to help those shy, budding musicians bloom into masters of their music.

And Snipes says she's planning to keep with her virtual lessons and already feels much more confident playing along with her classmates.

"It's good to know that I'm good with this instrument, and I'm getting better, and I feel like without the pandemic, that would not have happened."

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