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  • Writer's pictureLouise Casini Hollis

The Art of Interacting Online

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Peggy Watson – Hampton Roads Philharmonic

Words by Louise Casini Hollis Photos courtesy of Louise Casini Hollis and Hampton Roads Philharmonic.

It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.

“Music has been a huge part of my life since I was a child, and teaching music was a natural extension of that,” Peggy Watson shared from her home in Newport News. As concertmaster for the Hampton Roads Philharmonic, a private music teacher, and the Peninsula’s Kindermusik teacher, her weeks are normally quite busy. Additionally, Peggy plays with Grace Notes quartet, Strings & Things quartet, and Stowehaven String quartet. But even though performances and rehearsals have been canceled, Peggy is still busy virtually teaching 25 of her students.

Originally from Long Island, New York, Peggy received her Bachelor of Music degree from Grove City College and M.S. in Music from Long Island University, CW Post Center and is certified to teach K-12 music in Pennsylvania and New York states. She taught orchestral and instrumental music to elementary and middle school students for five years for Longwood Central School District in Middle Island, NY before moving to Hampton Roads when her husband Chip got a job at Jefferson Lab in 1988.

A multi-talented musician who plays the violin, viola, piano, flute and guitar, Peggy is busy keeping up with her piano and violin students via Facetime, Zoom, and Skype. “The easiest platform is Facetime,” she explained. “When I do Zoom, there are often video or auditory problems… It’s never easy even after we’ve been doing it for weeks.” The sound quality of music produced on-line lacks the resonance and timbre experienced when one hears it in-person, “so working on tone is difficult, because I can’t be certain what I’m hearing from them” observes Peggy.

Peggy Watson playing the violin in profile

The technical reason for this is that there is only so much bandwidth available, so cell phone companies use audio signal processing called dynamic range compression that, “reduces the volume of loud sounds while amplifying quieter ones,” writes Lily Katz in her article “Why Conference Calls Sound Bad”. “This yields more efficient processing at the expense of sound quality,” Katz adds.  Thus, when music students play, the frequency of the notes is shortened through bandwidth compression, distorting them on the receiving end.

Audio problems aside, Peggy has discovered that remote teaching offers practical challenges as well. “Things that would be easy – take tuning the instrument,” says Peggy, “I’m having to instruct the students and sometimes the parents how to tune the strings, whereas in two seconds I could do it in person. In some ways that’s good. It’s creating more independence in my students.” Fortunately, when she first attempted online lessons, “it was with a high school student that has been studying with me since she was a child, and so working out some of the kinks with her was very helpful to me to offer lessons to younger students.”

“The biggest difference for me is I can’t do duets,” observes Peggy. “I can’t play the teacher part with them. I’ve been a bit frustrated with that because the time lag – I just can’t get around that. Most of my students don’t play with other people, so for them to learn ensemble [skills], they have to do it with me, and now I can’t do that.” However, Peggy has found a perk of teaching online, “is that I’m getting a glimpse into my student’s homes which they love… I get to see what kind of piano they’re playing. I feel like I’m getting a better handle on what they are doing at home.” While Peggy is getting more comfortable teaching online, “I don’t think it’s ever anything I would seek to do instead of in person. I can see it being useful – a sibling is ill so they can’t come for an in-person lesson, [or] I could teach someone in California. Distance-wise, you’re no longer constrained by how far people are willing to drive.”

A group shot of the Hampton Roads Philharmonic. They are standing on stage with their instruments.

 “I’m a very hands on teacher,” she observes which is important in teaching Kindermusick classes where children newborn to 7 years old experience rhythm, movement and language through song, dance and using musical instruments. An added benefit of Kindermusik is the social engagement it provides very young people. “I first learned about Kindermusik when a friend of mine started teaching it,” explained Peggy. “She had me substitute for a couple of her classes, and I was hooked! It’s a fantastic program that is so good for early child development, and it’s a ton of fun! I did my training in 2001 and was fortunate to find a home for my Kindermusik program at First Baptist Church in Newport News.” Some Kindermusik teachers have moved their classes online, but Peggy has not. “It hurts my heart, but to me the in-person [aspect] is just too important to it,” she says wistfully.  Families can still take advantage of Kindermusik’s benefits at home, though, by signing up for their weekly at-home activities available through their website.

While Peggy continues to teach private music lessons remotely, she misses the immediacy of the classroom. “I love sharing ideas, knowledge, and passion with other people–so I was drawn to teaching. I get excited when my students master new skills, concepts, and pieces of music–it makes my day to see the ‘light bulb’ illuminate!” she says excitedly.  And so until she can be with her students in-person, Peggy will continue to help her young musicians grow through virtual means.

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