‘Music frees me’

During strenuous times, playing an instrument provides respite for both teachers and pupils.

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Music teacher Michele Jones has her home studio outfitted with video and audio equipment so she can teach remotely. — Lucas Thors

Everyone has their own simple ways of finding comfort during tumultuous times: Some people read a good book in front of the fireplace while cocooned in a soft blanket; others clip into their mountain bike and get lost in the State Forest for a spell.

There are so many ways to spend our newfound free time (some folks have more time than others), but learning how to play an instrument is one of the most rewarding processes, and in many instances can become a lifelong passion.

Despite the many barriers to teaching and learning music during a global pandemic that make hands-on interaction nearly impossible, the connection made between passionate educators and devoted pupils remains unbroken.

Owen Atkins, a senior at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, has been taking guitar lessons for a little over six years with his music teacher, Michele Jones.

Owen said he has been interested in music ever since he was a little kid living in California. Once he moved to the Island, he sought out some hobbies to fill his time and forge a deeper connection with the Island.

“My dad told me there was a guitar instructor who lives in San Francisco right now, but when she comes back, she would be willing to give you lessons,” Owen said. “So I decided to sign up to learn from Michele, and I have basically been playing guitar ever since.”

Before the pandemic hit, Owen said he was learning a lot from Michele, and was playing regularly with his friends and peers.

Once restrictions surrounding in-person education were implemented, Owen said he decided to cancel his lessons with Michele temporarily, but that’s not to say Owen ever put down his guitar.

“I have been playing a whole lot on my own, and trying to keep in touch with some of my bandmates from my old band, Dundant,” Owen said. 

Along with following his passion and furthering his knowledge of music, Owen said being able to pick up a guitar and plug into an amplifier allows for a necessary disconnect and distraction from everyday life.

“I like to have a number of things I can use in my life to temporarily escape the redundancy and sometimes repetitive nature of life right now, and I feel like music is a really great way to do that,” Owen said. “It gives me a chance to be creative and focus on something positive. Music frees me, especially right now.”

And with virtual school, homework, and the other daily responsibilities of being a senior in high school, Owen said, it can sometimes be difficult to strike a balance. “It has honestly been really hard balancing everything and making the music fit. I am not typically a very organized person, but I discovered that If I can find better ways to organize myself and manage my time, it makes it all work,” he said.

According to Owen, there are plenty of times where he is feeling down or overwhelmed, but is able to pick up his guitar and get away from it all. Having his teacher, Michele, as an ally, a mentor, and a friend, he said, has also made a huge impact on his life, even now that they aren’t in regular communication with each other.

“Michele is always there if I need her,” Owen said. “She has taught me everything I know. It’s almost like she isn’t just my teacher, it’s like I’ve known her since I was born.”

Another of Jones’ students, Tobias Russel Schaeffer, said even though his lessons are through Zoom, he is still getting a lot from his time playing, practicing, and learning.

“It hasn’t been insanely different from before the pandemic. Obviously there are some technical issues, but other than that it has been just fine,” Tobias said. 

Tobias, who is 15 years old and attends the high school, takes hourlong lessons with Jones once a week. If he has any questions about a piece of music, he said, Jones is always available to help out.

Whether it’s learning a piece of sheet music, working on mastering power fifth chords, or studying music theory, Tobias said he enjoys challenging himself during the lessons.

“I usually prefer the more complicated stuff, like recently we have been figuring out how to play one by Metallica and Ziggy Stardust,” Tobias said. 

According to Tobias, the pure and simple reason he likes to learn and play music is because it’s enjoyable for him. Although he misses the physical closeness and connection felt when taking an in-person lesson, Tobias said he appreciates being able to see his music teacher each week, whom he has been taking lessons from since he was 5 years old.

According to Tobias’ mother, Julie, music is something that her son has been passionate about his entire life, and that fervent interest isn’t diminished because of the pandemic.

“Michele is so passionate about music, and now Toby has that passion,” Julie said. “Music has evolved into one of his hobbies that he really loves, and it has evolved into something that he can pick up and play around with whenever he wants.” 

Jones said she sees music as a way to connect with people, even if it’s through Zoom or another virtual platform. “It’s definitely different from going over to your old music teacher’s house, and she gets you a cup of tea and you sit down to your lesson,” Jones said. 

For Jones, the digital barrier between teachers and students when conducting class online is apparent, but conquerable. 

For students practicing in front of their home computer, Jones said, it can often feel like they are performing onstage, because they are not sitting right next to their teacher in a personal setting.

But Jones uses techniques to make her seven or so students feel comfortable, such as asking them how their week is going, how their dog is doing, and what types of classes they are taking in school. 

In the case of one of Jones’ youngest students, she said, he can “really rock” when she is right there playing with him. But when he is listening to Jones teach through a computer speaker, he is tenuous with his playing. 

“He bought himself this gorgeous Hagstrom guitar this year, and it seems like he is afraid to really go for it,” Jones said.

According to Jones, teaching a lesson through Zoom “interrupts the musical conversation” because there is an additional layer of distraction — not to mention sound feedback and computer lag.

And since kids are often on their computers all day learning remotely, adding to that screen time can be especially fatiguing. “These kids are really sick of it. They understand that we are doing all this to keep each other safe, but it’s like their childhoods have evaporated,” Jones said.

She sees it in one of her young students’ eyes: the longing to return to the studio, to plug into an amp and sing into a microphone. “He loved that, he really loved that,” she said. “It’s hard for me to describe how much my heart breaks when I see my students and I can’t give them a cup of tea and help them get settled in their chair with their instrument.”

But for all the setbacks involved with virtual instruction, Jones said there are benefits that make it worthwhile to keep the music flowing.

Folks can plug into an amp and tune up while sitting in their pajamas in the comfort of their own home, and Jones said she has been enjoying teaching some of her off-Island students, who normally wouldn’t be able to access her lessons.

“There are also lots of good parts to this that we really need to highlight,” she stressed. “The fact that we can still do something, even if it’s not quite the same, is so special.”

When Jones plays music, or is teaching a student, she says there is no room for any other thoughts besides what’s next in the chord progression, or what pointers she can give to an aspiring musician. 

“If you are engaged in playing music, everything else has to melt away. Anytime something is bothering a student, they can go practice their instrument and go to that place that you always have, where it is your world and you can enjoy it, feel it, and own it,” she added.

Just because people are so physically isolated, Jones said, doesn’t mean they cannot connect on an emotional and even a spiritual level, through music.

“Even though we are only supposed to elbow-bump, we can always touch another heart,” she said.