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Piano lessons brought normalcy during stressful early days of pandemic

'There have been lots of studies of how much the creative arts help kids and adults in stressful situations and how it helps them cope with mental health issues'

Using music as therapy has been a device that was first being explored near the end of the 18th century. It has become increasingly popular over the last 200 years and with the stresses of a pandemic setting upon us in March, it was music that many people turned toward, hoping to find some balance and normalcy in their lives.  

“When we went online last spring, I was the only activity that didn’t get cancelled for most of the kids,” says Jennifer Levitan, the owner of Deerpath Piano Studio in Corbeil.   

“Swimming, ballet, gymnastics, were all closed. It all got shut down, but for the teachers that were able to get online right away, we became the only activity that these kids could keep doing. In fact, I found that most of my kids progressed even faster because I had their complete attention, they had nothing else to do, even school was different for a little while.” 

Levitan is an active member of the Ontario Registered Music Teacher’s Association and was able to keep her lessons going through Zoom.  

“The music lessons became something that was actually consistent in their lives during that time. Most children that are involved in music tend to have a balance of being involved in several creative arts or sports at the same time. But for those first three months those other aspects of their lives were on pause as those organizations tried to find a way to make their programs fit in the regulations of having the kids participate in a covid-safe environment,” says Levitan.  

But it wasn’t just kids that were turning to their piano for a sense of relief. 

“There have been lots of studies of how much the creative arts help kids and adults in stressful situations and how it helps them cope with mental health issues. I have a number of First Responders and Health Care professionals who are students of mine and I told a lot of them that if their work is getting too stressful and they need to cancel some lessons just to let me know, but I seemed to be the one thing they wanted to do, they said ‘you’re open, I’m there’; so I can see that music has been part of what has helped them get through this pandemic as well,” says Levitan whose oldest student is a 75 year old retiree.  

“He has been with me for six years. He started when he retired and he does not have a musical background. His main goal is to push off dementia,” says Levitan. “Alzheimer’s is prominent in his family and he wants to do something to keep his brain going and keep challenging himself. He has no desire to become a famous piano player or to even do a certified musical exam; he knows that learning will help to keep his brain moving.” 

Levitan says while the piano is not an easy instrument to play, this is a good example of showing there is no “optimal” time to start learning. 

“Unlike certain creative arts – ballet for instance might be hard to start at an older age as your body physically would have some limitations – however piano I don’t find is one of those things,” says Levitan. 

“I think the age thing is a lot more focused on the idea of possibly going to university for music, then yes, you would need to start at the beginning. I’ve had people call me when they were in grade nine or 10 and say, ‘I want to become a musician’ and I just say, it’s not going to happen that way. Having said that, such a small percentage of students are actually going to go on to a career in music.”  

Levitan says some of her graduates have found a way to earn a living for themselves within the music industry.  

“I have had students that have graduated with a music degree or are now travelling with theatre companies as their profession, but I’ve been teaching for 23 years and that represents just a small handful of the hundreds and probably thousands of kids I’ve taught. Most people are using this as a component to enhance their own lifestyle and abilities.” 

Levitan found herself drawn to the piano early on.

“I’ve been playing since I was very young. Any time I was near a piano in a store or at a friend’s house I would ask if I could play. My mom’s friend suggested that she get an old piano for the summer and if I spent the summer playing then she would know I was really interested. I’ve never been off it for a day since. I started lessons at age six and the teacher I had at that point was with me right through me getting my degree,” says Levitan who received her performance diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music when she was 18.

“That meant that I had a college diploma before I had my high school diploma,” she says. “But I worked very hard for that. I didn’t have a job in high school because I practiced three to four hours a day, so that was my job. As soon as I was done, I started teaching and performing. I did a lot of theatre work through my twenties. I’m currently at Calvin Presbyterian Church as the organist. I really enjoy the teaching aspect though; it has changed a lot, mainly because expectations have changed.”

“When I was younger, the expectation was that you would get your diploma and that doesn’t exist as much,” Levitan continues.

“Parents are putting their kids in now as a way to just enjoy the music, and I think that has come out of generations that have had a very strict upbringing in their musical backgrounds. It’s just a different viewpoint.”

However, Levitan still has many students that are working toward those certification goals and during the pandemic, teaching and making sure they were hitting the right notes and perfecting their craft was challenging because of the quality of internet connection.

“I have had to lower the standards and expectations and be ok with it,” says Levitan.

“The reality is that even with the best quality online chat technology you lose the nuances, you lose the energy of the live musical experience. Last week I had a student whose set up wouldn’t allow me to be able to see their foot pedals and I was trying to figure out if they were pedaling exactly where I wanted them to, but the way that the sound was blending together through Zoom didn’t sound exactly right. I had to tell them ‘I think you’re playing it well, but I’m not quite sure, so maybe just double check it this week because I’m not sure to be honest.’”

Levitan adds this isn’t the first time she has offered online lessons, but says it was few and far between where she made that exception and adds, “I always said I never want to do that full-time and yet here I am!”

Levitan says it was a huge let down in the spring when they learned the Kiwanis Festival was going to have to be cancelled.

“I admit I had a lot of tears when that happened and that just became the word of the day, and a lot of my students had been working hard and getting ready to perform and it just wasn’t going to happen.”

However, in November they were able to host their annual Honour Recital online. This is where the students that received the highest marks in their Royal Conservatory of Music Examinations were honoured and celebrated.

“There absolutely was a sense of relief for my students who were at least able to do something while everything else was shut down,” says Levitan.

She adds that was a big reason for keeping the lessons going.  

“I felt it was very important that music is not only something they achieve, but it also becomes therapy. It helps you get through other things in life.”