How to move music education online

The Conservatoire in Blackheath is a charity that has been offering tuition in music, art and drama for nearly 140 years. Every week, up until March 2020, more than 2,000 students (from babies to retirees) would come to the building for their individual tuition or group sessions. When COVID-19 hit, the conservatoire had to close its doors. Mairéad Sheerin, head of music at The Conservatoire, tells the story of what happened next.

Early on in lockdown, I received this note from one of our tutors: “Like most people, I have noticed that different schools and organisations have very different ways of dealing with the coronavirus. One or two have been sending very frequent, frantic messages, a bit like running around in ever-diminishing circles (to no end, of course) while others thought it through first and came up with a very good plan. The Conservatoire is definitely in the ‘think it through’ category!”

It was very gratifying to hear that! Blackheath Conservatoire is, in some ways, quite an international organisation – not as much in our reach (yet!), but rather as in our make up. Many of our tutors come from overseas, as do many of our students and students’ families. So, when we watched as the news of a new virus came out of China, we thought of our Chinese tutors and families. When the virus took hold in some Italian regions, we spoke with our Italian tutors to check in with them and their families in Italy. Perhaps, therefore, it was on our radar sooner than other establishments.

We are a unique organisation in that we are not simply a school – we are also an events venue, exhibition space, we have a café open to the public and we also provide outreach to other institutions. We started to think about how we could move our teaching online, organise our events safely and ensure our tutors with families in areas affected by the virus felt supported, from as early as the end of February.

We noticed our student numbers beginning to drop in mid-March. The announcement of school closures and cancellation of public exams on 18 March was a turning point: on that day, and the following days, few people came in for individual lessons and group tuition. In line with schools we decided to close our doors. Staff held several meetings on 20 and 23 March and from then on almost everyone worked from home.

At those meetings we decided to give ourselves as much time as possible to get things up and running – we had two weeks left of term plus two weeks of Easter Holidays so we decided to make the first day of summer term, 20 April, our ‘Online Launch’ date. We immediately contacted our tutors to find out who would be happy to teach online, and get a sense of the support they needed: many were ready. We contacted all our students about our plans to get an idea of how many would be interested in continuing their lessons.

Our teaching divides into three areas: music, art and drama. Music then sub-divides into group teaching and individual teaching. We teach all ages from babies to…well, the oldest member of one of our choirs is 103! We could see how online individual teaching could work – many tutors had already given or received online lessons in different environments.

We also set up a ‘Slack’ chat room so that tutors could share their concerns alongside their tips and discoveries. It was important that at every stage we included those who were actually going to deliver the teaching, we did not want anyone to feel as though anything was being imposed – the situation was stressful enough! Further, we gave everyone the option of pausing their teaching until real life resumed.

It was clear we had to identify which group tuition sessions could work online and which definitely couldn’t. Once we’d worked that out, we then had to decide the best format – pre-recorded videos, live Zoom lessons, or a combination of both?

We brought in our programme leaders to discuss what would be a best fit for their programmes from both a tutor’s and learner’s point of view. Obviously early years Zoom lessons would be chaotic and we would have to limit numbers, so pre-recorded videos seemed an obvious alternative and, excitingly, opened up the opportunity to grow a new national or even international audience.

Clearly pre-recorded videos weren’t going to work for adult art classes, where a tutor and peer presence is vital. Children on our school-age music group classes have continued with a mixture of pre-recorded videos and Zoom lessons every few weeks – we felt it was important for them to ‘meet up’ with their musical pals.

Once we came up with a pathway for all online tuition, we put together user guides for our students: some still had to be talked through the process by our front of house staff – remotely of course.

We were also keen to keep up the sense that we are a creative organisation, so each week old and new footage of our concerts and our tutors’ online performances were put up on our Facebook page and shared on social media – this also meant we continued to promote our tutors as performers. I have had very touching feedback from our students that this lifted their spirits as well as keeping their contact with us.

We are now over half way through the term and things are settling well. Individual tuition tutors seem happy, I check in on them regularly to see that they are well and coping – some live alone, some have had to move back to their parental home, some are educating their children. Group Zooms are going well. Pre-recorded videos are getting great feedback.

There is a general acceptance that everything takes longer (more planning, the time taken to produce and send resources such as accompaniments to students, uploading videos) but tutors are happy to take the long view – in order to have a business to come back to, so we are all putting in more time. The most important thing for us has been staff and tutor versatility and it has been very rewarding to watch everyone adapt right across our age range – our tutors range from those in their 20s to those in their 70s. We hope part of their willingness to adapt has been driven not just by their desire for their students to progress and their desire to share their music, art or drama but also by the support they have been given.

Our next challenge is to grow our current reach. We are putting together a Summer Holiday programme which, unlike in normal times, can go far beyond our usual South East London boundaries. There are also opportunities to reach certain groups – teenagers! – that we find harder to attract because they have so many other things to do and places to go. So, yes, these are challenging times but they are exciting too.

You can find out more about Blackheath Conservatoire’s teaching offer via its website.