Ross Findon via Unsplash

Mid-March 2020: After we postponed our final concerts of the 19/20 season and a set of in-school education concerts for elementary students due to the coronavirus pandemic, we needed a moment to catch our breath. We then moved our attention to finding a way to salvage our annual free masterclass for area student string quartets. It had been scheduled for late-May. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see students in person as we normally do for this class; we would need to move the event online. As we worked through the logistics, we discovered that the entire format would have to change. Live quartets became recorded solos. The ephemeral live class became something that could live forever and ever online. What had been improvisatory teaching had to now be carefully planned. We learned a lot along the way and discovered many ways going online actually enhanced what we could do and extend our reach.


Suffice it to say, we needed HELP! I won’t go into all the technical details here (it would take up a ton of space and I don’t think I could do it if I tried…). I can tell you that SSgt Jaime Parker (US Air Force Band of the West and Stacey’s husband) volunteered his considerable expertise to help us design the class from the ground up and masterfully ran all the technical components so all four of us could focus all our attention on teaching. It would not have been anything close to the smooth and effortless event that it was without his help. Jaime, you da best!

Tech HQ – the essentials: 3 computers, 1 tablet, extra lighting, camera, mic, snacks & Stacey!


We knew we would need to shift from a quartet class to a solo class to accommodate social distancing. While it was possible that some student quartets may have had a pre-pandemic recording they could have sent us, we thought it was very unlikely. So the call went out on our social media channels for area student violinists, violists and cellists to send us their solo videos. We got so many responses we had to add a second class – good problem (also easy to do when you’re online)! We were so impressed with their intrepid spirits – diving right in to this experiment with their solo performances!


One challenge of teaching via recording that we didn’t anticipate was the discomfort of not knowing how any comment landed. Playing in a master class is an extremely vulnerable thing for anyone to do – you’re putting your art out there specifically to be criticized in front of people!  For this reason, when we work with students, we constantly check body language and facial expressions to see if we are communicating effectively and that the student feels safe. Because we didn’t have the students patched in live, we couldn’t see their faces to be sure. As a teacher, it felt like I was missing a limb! I couldn’t read the student’s face to see if they understood me, if they wanted to hear more from me on this topic. Or if they were ready for me to stop talking.


In a master class, we are working on two levels. The first level is working with the student performers to help them improve whatever issues are holding them back. The second is making that work relevant and interesting to the audience of learners. In a live class, we are able to conduct a process of trial and error with the student performers. Try this…kind of works; try this other thing that builds on the first thing…better still; try something else that approaches from another angle… really getting there now. It’s improvisatory.

Because we used recordings and had no live interaction with the students, this trial and error process was not available to us. So we really leaned into Level 2, making the work relevant and interesting to the audience of learners.  This required much more planning. We couldn’t improvise in this situation.


An advantage of using recordings and being online is that it allowed us time to prepare and more tools with which to teach. We watched the videos in advance and carefully formulated a coordinated approach. In a live class, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to need to address until the students play, so we have to improvise. With recordings, we could plan in advance what to address and even coordinate who would talk about what.

Being online also gave us new and unique tools that we would’t have had in a live class, too. We could rewind videos to the exact moment we wanted to work on, prepare music scores for the audience to see (with annotations, even!); we could even cue up videos of other performers to demonstrate different approaches instead of just telling students to go check them out later. This was definitely a perk of the format! 

Ken uses an annotated score to effectively discuss phrase lengths in Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto


Once each live master class is over, it only lives in the memories of the people that were there; an online event can reach more people and potentially live forever online! It’s gratifying for us to reach more students by having our class online. And as a student, I know I would have loved to refer to a video instead of depending on my memory! Lots comes at you quick in a master class and it’s hard to take it all on board when you’re the student under the microscope. Our classes aren’t available for ever and ever, but they are still archived here and here


Our first foray into online content was definitely a learning experience. We learned that a knowledgeable assist is invaluable and that we can (and must!) do a lot in advance to make an online event go smoothly. We also had to make peace with the fact that Murphy’s Law will probably still assert itself somewhere along the way but that going online also creates new opportunities to enhance the experience. More online content is coming soon – our entire 2020-2021 season will be available online and we’re thinking ways to use what we learned to enhance those concert experiences. Online doesn’t have to be a weak substitute for live – it can be its own unique experience!