The last note of the school-based orchestral recital faded into the rafters; a concert weeks in the making was over. Admiring parents snapped pictures on their phones and applauded their grinning musicians, until the principal's appearance on stage drew everything back to a hush. It was the afternoon of March 12, 2020.
"The principal got up on stage at the end of the recital and said, 'All right everyone, school is closed tomorrow. I don't know when it will be back in,'" said Katherine Williamson, assistant concertmaster for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (ASO), who directed the recital. "It was a very unsettling scene."
Covid-19 had already affected bars, restaurants and performance halls, ending live music there. Musicians were foundering, confined to quarters and strumming in their living rooms for social-media audiences. Now, a potentially even more painful chapter was opening.
Music instruction, already on the shaky margins of many public school districts' offerings, stopped from one end of the state to the other. In its wake came uncertainty for music academies, private teachers and community-based arts programs. The silence was deafening.
"This is literally how it went down. We got down here and immediately sat down for an entire afternoon with our staff and got familiar with Zoom because we knew everything was getting shut down, and so would we," said Zac Dunlap, a touring musician and co-founder of Jettway Performance, a private music school and studio in Hensley.
"Our biggest thing was figuring out how to keep our studio running virtually and teach students how to get online, because a lot of them had never had to do that before this. That was our focus that day, finding a way to not miss a beat."
He paused, reliving that moment.
"It was awful. We still have some students to this day who have not come back into the studio."
But music instruction proved almost immediately resilient. As The Associated Press reported in November, demand is soaring. The times have never been better to learn an instrument, AP reported, citing one online marketplace for music tutors, Wyzant, which in April saw year-over-year demand for cello tutors spike 450% in students and 400% in lessons. By October, that had grown to 4500% and 4700% increases, respectively.
Much of the demand comes from newcomers to music instruction, across all age groups, AP reported.
Arkansas professionals say the demand for music instruction — much of it delivered online, but not all — remains constant, despite shutdowns and uncertainty.
"Most of my kids have continued," said Joanna Klett, ASO education coordinator and cello teacher. "I've lost a couple of families. Some people are more open with saying, 'This doesn't work for my child.' I totally understand that. For some kids, it's just harder to focus [online]. For some it was financial. With other families, I didn't necessarily know why they left.
"Overall, though, the response has been quite positive."
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Through a low-slung glass front, lights set a lobby aglow against the pitch-black Arkansas winter. Everything in this strip mall is buttoned up tight except the corner tenant, Jettway Performance, with multiple autos in the lot and a massive touring trailer parked right outside.
One step into the front door, the lights aren't the only things buzzing at this rehearsal and performance space. To go down that hallway, follow staccato drumbeats; to go down this one, float on loose guitar riffs. Masked teenagers and tutors occupy one self-contained rehearsal room after another, sharing rhythm and chords, making music.
"Humans are very social beings and it's the same in the music world," said Zac Dunlap. "Learning music is one thing, but you learn how to communicate it in settings with people in groups. You learn as much sitting in with somebody as you do on your own."
The Little Rock native's Zac Dunlap Band formed in 2014 and took up touring in 2015. The band, which includes his vocalist wife Hannah of Redfield, landed four Arkansas Country Music Awards in 2018, including Entertainer, Vocal Group, Song and Video of the Year.
In 2017, the Dunlaps founded Jettway Performance as a business and as a mission: to promote the next generation of Arkansas musicians. Its Summer Tour is a by-audition-only, real-life School of Rock that gives elite young performers the chance to experience life on the road.
And last year, it all felt about to collapse, even with the help of technology.
"We had to stay completely virtual for three months and a lot of our students stayed with us," Dunlap said. "But by the end of the second month is when you could tell, even if they didn't leave us, they were kind of just checking out by then. So, we knew we had to find a way to get back to in-person soon."
Jettway offers instruction to players ages 4 to 80, 60% of whom are rank beginners in instruments ranging from guitar and keyboard to percussion and voice. The company imposed safeguards to allow the live music-making experience to reconvene. Some were familiar — temperature checks, masks and restricted group size — while others took more creativity.
"Our lessons are one-on-one based so it was one-on-one in the studio, 6 feet apart with masks on. Then we did our band practices in the parking lot," Dunlap said. "It was really hard at first. Luckily, the stages we take them on are usually bigger stages where you spread out anyway. So, we circled them up; instead of doing the typical line stagger, we put them in a circle so at least you can make eye contact and see what everyone else is playing.
"And we had to sterilize between every session. The mic always tasted like Lysol; it tasted really bad, but we'd hose it down real good between each set and we'd roll on."
Jettway's individual lessons filled up, and after four weeks of rehearsals, it's student bands played 12 outdoor gigs last summer, without any illness outbreaks. Dunlap has a theory as to why the program bounced back so quickly.
"I think the root of it is mental health. I think we all do things in our life to stimulate mental health, whether it's sports, bike riding or music," he said. "There are so many people who use music for their mental health, to think things through or get a feeling inside. It's extremely important; it's the way I attack every day."
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Neil Rutman says there's a right way to teach piano and a not-so-right way. The right way is in person, with immediate and live feedback. And after 30 years as an instructor, the artist-in-residence with the University of Central Arkansas music department is not about to compromise.
"At UCA we have the option to do either internet or in-person lessons," he said flatly. "I have resisted the option to do lessons virtually over Zoom because it's impossible, in spite of what many would say."
Rutman isn't a covid-19 denier. He conducts his daily lessons with piano performance majors while observing social distancing, masks and frequent cleaning of keyboards and other surfaces. He opens windows regardless of outside temperatures.
"Probably the most limiting adaption I've made is I stay put on a second piano," he said. "Normally when I'm teaching, I pull right up next to the student so I can test their hands, check their wrists, adjust their shoulders, and now I can't do that.
"Is it limiting their ability to improve? Yeah, and I would do it if I could. But we adapt. I just stay at the second piano and I try to be a little smarter, verbally."
He said the inherent shortcomings of online lessons are so detrimental that professional ethics compel him to draw the line.
"First of all, students need the inspiration of the real person right there in the room, the sound of their voice, the influence of their spirit, and that doesn't happen virtually," he said. "The other problem is conducting quality music over Zoom doesn't work; it's distorted, it's diminished. You could use a lot of adjectives there."
Rutman said he has not lost students, even though other teachers in his department offer virtual lessons. And lest anyone think he's just digging in his heels against the march of time, the 66-year-old does teach his general-ed music appreciation class online.
"I'm not by nature paranoid and I'm generally very healthy, which is why I went with in-person instruction both at the end of last semester and the fall semester," he said. "However, information I got last week has changed my attitude."
Seven college musicians he knows at schools around the country tested positive in January.
"So, just two nights ago, I ordered plastic shields," he said, "and going forward, I'll only go on campus two nights a week."
But he thinks the crisis will ease as vaccinations spread. "I see no need to fear monger among the students," he said. "I'm hopeful."
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The classical ensemble reaches a tingling crescendo, carrying the listener aloft on a wave of tone and emotion. The final notes land softly and as one, and the performers smile.
But beside the melody, there's nothing classical about this lesson. The musicians sit in their homes, appearing in a Brady Bunch grid on Joanna Klett's computer screen. Leading in this manner is an art form, Klett said.
"As a cellist, you have a lot of instrument that you're trying to watch. You're trying to watch your left hand with the bow and the posture of the child," she said. "It took a lot of experimenting with how to position the [camera] device. I figured out a way to use a mic stand that my husband was able to find an attachment for. That way, my kids can see both my left hand and my bow, so that I can demonstrate. It's not the same, but it's as close as possible."
Klett said her biggest challenge was how suddenly her method had to change. One day she was sitting in front of a quartet in an acoustics-friendly Arkansas Symphony Orchestra rehearsal studio and the next, she was setting up chairs on the lawn.
"The first week I only had my phone and most of my kids only had their phone, so it was a lot of squinting at a small screen and getting used to a much smaller sound," she said. "I invested in an iPad so I could see better, that was the first order of business."
ASO's Sturgis Music Academy teaches about 400 students from pre-kindergarten through high school in three terms throughout the year. Its in-school program, designed to turn kids on to musical instruction, is slowly returning, thanks specifically to online teaching options.
Katherine Williamson said that while no one would call the current arrangement ideal, much less superior to live instruction, it reaches children who would otherwise be left out.
"At the beginning of this, so many activities couldn't happen at all, so when parents found that music instruction could continue [participation] actually increased a little bit," she said. "The silver lining is, I see people practicing more because we have more free time with other activities being canceled."
Williamson expects online instruction to be common post-pandemic.
"Going forward, these online lessons allow you to teach anyone from anywhere, so I think that will definitely stay," she said. "If someone can't make it to a lesson due to extenuating circumstances, it's easy to do an online lesson."
Klett agreed, saying the adversity posed by covid-19 and the limits of online lessons have proved instructive in their own right.
"The first group class that played outside was like, whoa," she said. "It was harder to hear outdoors, but that made us listen all the more. Over time, they figured out the visual component of watching the instructor or their colleagues. We're always listening to each other and adjusting, based on what we're putting out and what we're taking in.
"I think there were definitely rough weeks of 'How do we make this better' and 'Let's tweak this,' but everybody was on board. It was everybody shows up and let's do this. It always amazes me that kids respond to things so quickly, and in that aspect, I think it's been a really good learning experience."
She smiles. "That said, I wouldn't want to go through this again, if at all possible."