When Margaret Waddell gives a piano lesson, the atmosphere is relaxed — even when her students are learning through Zoom.
As a piano teacher for 30 years, Waddell is serious about music teaching and learning, but she creates a friendly environment in her classes, even when they’re taking place online. The children introduce their pets to her and their classmates as a way of getting to know each other.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents its challenges, but Waddell, of Hummingbirdhouse Music Studio on East Walnut Street, said learning how to play the piano online allows children to interact with each other.
“A lot of children are stuck at home, not playing with anybody else except their sister or brother,” Waddell said. By attending music lessons online, children can participate in a group setting and have the chance to listen to others play.
Waddell said music is good for children’s spirits during this difficult time.
“If children are learning music, actively making music and playing games with music, they tend to be happier,” Waddell said.
Even before the pandemic, Waddell had been teaching two children from Chicago online for over a year. She said that experience made the transition to teaching entirely through Zoom a lot easier. Still, she had to make some changes.
To guarantee the quality of online learning, Waddell upgraded to fiber-optic service and a 5G connection. She has one webcam that focuses on her and an iPad that gives her students an overhead view of her piano keyboard. She is also directly wired in through an ethernet cable.
“It is important as the host of the Zoom classes,” Waddell said. “On the children’s end, it makes a big difference where they live, what type of internet they have, how good their device is, as far as screen resolution and sound capabilities.”
Some children have to make sure no one else in their family is using their household internet during the lesson.
Waddell said the content of her piano lessons hasn’t changed much.
“The only redesigning I did was to change the student groupings a bit for the summer, so I could put students together who were working on the same section of each book,” she said, adding that she now teaches three or four kids at a time.
Waddell acknowledged that online lessons aren’t for every child. She’s seen a slight decrease in enrollment. Still, she has about 20 children learning how to play the piano.
“I lost one family of two kids whose parents felt they were not doing well online,” she said.Waddell said music is a self-expression tool for children.
“Music is like language,” she said. “They can hear music in their mind, and they can sing it and speak it through their fingers.”
Elizabeth Shuman’s 7-year-old son, Nicholas, was one of the Chicago pupils to enroll in Waddell’s online lessons. She said the method Waddell uses, called Music Moves for Piano, which was created by Marilyn Lowe in conjunction with Edwin E. Gordon, differs from traditional approaches. It is based on the Music Learning Theory that Gordon researched for decades.
“This curriculum really highlights that kids can learn to play with music and discover so many different things,” Shuman said. “It is more holistic than other piano curricula.”
“We provide opportunity for children to listen and move their bodies, which helps them learn how to audiate music,” Waddell said. Audiation is the ability to think music in the mind with meaning.
She said she works with the idea of whole-part-whole.
“Children listen and move to a piece of music, and we break it down into two parts: the tonal patterns and the rhythm patterns, which helps them create meaning in their minds.”
In this way, Waddell can get feedback from children’s responses to the patterns she speaks or sings and can understand how well the children are hearing music in their minds and comprehending it.
“After working on parts, we return to the whole piece with greater understanding,” Waddell said.
At the beginning of an August lesson with three students, Waddell asked the children to move their bodies with her while she sang a song. The pace and weight of her movements matched the rhythm of the song. Waddell said that learning the elements of movement — time, weight, space and flow, as developed by Rudolf Laban, an Austro-Hungarian dance artist and theorist — helps children understand the elements of music.
“In this way, they will learn how to play the song lightly or heavily, with free flow or bound flow, and so on,” she said.Charley McDonald, 7, is another of Waddell’s students. Waddell said Charley has become quite creative with her music. A key component of Music Moves for Piano is to encourage students to create and improvise and to compose their own songs.
“She makes up her own tunes all the time, and they are beautiful,” Waddell said. Charley even composed a song for Waddell.Charley used to take in-person lessons with Waddell and at first was less interested in online lessons. Waddell said she even thought about quitting. Charley’s mother, Katherine McDonald, recalled having a difficult time getting her daughter to attend a Zoom lesson one day.
“But she had a wonderful lesson and told me right after class that she was really glad she participated and she was going to miss Margaret the next week when she wasn’t going to be available to make the Zoom lesson,” McDonald said.
Waddell followed up with a long telephone conversation with Charley to help her better understand the learning process, Waddell’s role in it, how different each kid is and Charley’s choices as a learner. Waddell wanted Charley to see how well she was actually doing to help raise her self-esteem.
Charley decided not to quit.
“I think she really understood what I was saying,” Waddell said.