As JH Music Academy teacher Michelle Quinn looked out on Friday’s outdoor recital, she couldn’t help but feel emotional. Watching families and friends come together on the lawn was sentimental “because of everything we’ve been through,” Quinn said. Although her students only had one in-person rehearsal for their group pieces, Quinn was blown away that they didn’t miss a beat.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Jackson in mid-March, Quinn had to improvise. She traded her practice room for her living room and moved all lessons onto Zoom video conferencing. Quinn was shocked that, despite economic hardships faced by many, none of her students gave up violin.
Julie Guttormson’s 11-year-old daughter Aundra begged for violin lessons for years. Guttormson finally gave in just before the pandemic hit, and, when asked if she considered postponing Aundra’s lessons until in-person instruction ramped up again, Guttormson immediately responded that “holding off wasn’t really an option …. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Given the uncertainty surrounding these past few months and inability to teach in person, Quinn was touched by her students’ commitment.
“One of my students, Caroline Monroe, just graduated from Jackson Hole High School. This was her last time playing with me,” Quinn explained. “I’ve been teaching her for six years.”
Monroe didn’t mind the shift to online violin lessons. Instead of grieving the loss of a normal end to her violin career, she leaned into the routine adjustment and found even more time to hone her skills. Monroe appreciates that she can implement tactics learned during her weekly sessions immediately after closing her laptop — rather than after her brisk walk home from the Center. But Monroe knows that online learning isn’t for everyone.
“It worked very well for me, but I could see it being more difficult for less experienced players,” Monroe said. “There’s a lot to learn with posture — a lot of things that [depend on] being in person and having the ability to see exactly how to hold the violin.”
When Monroe learned vibrato, Quinn “just held my finger and did the motion to help me feel how it’s supposed to,” Monroe remembered. “That’s not something you can do on Zoom.”
Quinn agrees. She acknowledged that Zoom lessons aren’t perfect — they can be clouded by a shaky internet connection. And it’s “hard with a beginner” because she can’t mold the students’ hands and adjust their posture like she did when Monroe was learning vibrato.
“The transition [to online] was pretty interesting, but, luckily, we were pretty used to it from school,” said Tara Ferris, mother to fourth-grade violin student Kiedis. “I’m very fortunate we were able to continue the program and play with Ms. Quinn.”
When violin went remote, Quinn didn’t know if she could teach one of her students who is legally blind. When teaching this student, “everything is feel,” Quinn acknowledged. “I have to work with her physically.”
But Quinn cleared this hurdle as well, and her student played at the recital with grace. “I really think [violin] changed her life,” Quinn said. “I’ve never seen someone so excited to come to lessons.”
Although social-distancing pushed the envelope of conventional teaching, the pandemic illuminated the strengths of Quinn’s program — particularly her group lessons. After feedback from her students’ parents,Quinn also transitioned her group lessons.Now that nonessential businesses are open, Quinn holds weekly group lessons on the Center’s lawn. Most students attend in person, but Quinn props her computer on a table outside so that students can also participate online.
“As soon as we got the go-ahead to meet outside on the lawn,” Ferris said, “we were all for it.”
Once the coronavirus lulled in Jackson, Quinn also started holding in-person, private lessons again; however, about 90% of Quinn’s students are still online. Some, like Aundra, were eager to get back to learning in person. Once Aundra walked into the practice room for the first time since the pandemic hit, Guttormson noticed that “her energy level went up; you could even see it from the way she stood.”
Although Quinn knows that “a lot of families are not comfortable with [in-person lessons] just yet,” violin families — some donning masks — flocked to the Center for the Arts’ lawn for Friday’s unconventional recital.
Like the pandemic’s impact on everyday life, not much about the recital resembled that of years prior. There were few lengthy rehearsals and limited refreshments, but Quinn, like she did when COVID-19 first arrived in Jackson, improvised again. In lieu of the classic, coveted cake, Quinn bought individual cupcakes—crowned with a chocolate violin—for each student.
Quinn, the attendees and her students were quick to find the recital’s silver lining. Monroe loved that her family and friends were together again — in person rather than on a computer screen — listening to the music.
“I loved the recital. Outside was so beautiful and made for a nice, casual setting — just sitting in the grass and under the sun,” Guttormson remarked. “That area was made for that.”
Although this wasn’t the violin career end she expected, Monroe said, “Remarkably, it didn’t feel anticlimactic. I think the recital was a nice way to wrap it up.”
It’s safe to say that Quinn’s students, in the face of unparalleled challenges, showed their unwavering commitment to violin at Friday’s recital. Quinn’s connection with the kids and families is evident in everything she does for the violin program, especially now.
“They’re starving to do something, to play music, to be together. I want to do the same thing they want to do,” Quinn said.