The beat goes on: School continues free music lessons during pandemic

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — With the help of more than 100 volunteer teachers, the Joy of Music School provides free instruments and music lessons to about 200 children from financially disadvantaged families. That mission has not stopped during the coronavirus pandemic.

During what was supposed to be spring break for the students and staff, Executive Director Francis Graffeo and his team began creating a path forward, one that would allow students to practice their music while practicing social distancing.

As was the case for many local nonprofits, COVID-19 presented uncharted waters for the school.

They decided to offer lessons via Zoom.

“Things are the same and they’re not the same. Obviously, when you’re teaching a child in person you can get a sense of where their foot may be or the position of their spine, whether they’re sitting up straight or how deeply they might be breathing. But, the connection is still there and there’s plenty to work on with a student even if you’re not in the same room,” Graffeo said.

The school lost a handful of teachers, as some were college students faced with moving back home and unable to continue teaching.

Some students were unable to continue their lessons, due to a lack of technology access, tech savvy, or adequate internet speeds. The school has worked to help some families transition, through equipment and wifi assistance.

Their efforts took some financial investment and a lot of volunteer hours, but it’s work Graffeo sees value in, as he believes music education is essential. “It’s just like math,” he said, “you have to rehearse it to gain strength.”

It didn’t really hit Autumn Thames that she’d be wrapping up her nine year music journey at the Joy of Music School online until her last violin lesson.

“There are some parts that you miss, having your teacher play along with you in different parts. Me and my violin teacher would usually…different duets every lesson. So, you lose some of that, but you’re still able to get a lot of information and a lot of other things through Zoom,” Thames said.

She plays both the cello and violin, and plans to take those skills to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in the fall, where she plans to major in music performance.

“Being able to take music lessons really has opened up a lot of doors in my life…When we first came to Knoxville, music lessons really were not an option, financially, for my family,” she added.

The school extended online classes through the summer, which has actually proven more convenient for some families.

School leadership now look to the fall, with a desire to hold in-person lessons again, without losing sight of health risks.

Graffeo plans to implement increased sanitation efforts, minimizing the number of people in the school, and other guidance set by the CDC. He’s also considering hybrid classes, in which students may participate in one out of every four lessons at the school.

A challenge, unique to music performance, is whether certain instruments hold a greater chance of shedding more of the virus. One example, Graffeo cited Thursday, is singing. He said those in-person lessons will likely be off the table for a while.

Given the overhead and investment associated with making the switch online for more than half of their students, Graffeo said the best way for people to help the school’s mission currently is through monetary donations that can be made on their website.

The schools’ annual spring recital will premiere on YouTube this year, June 9 at 7 p.m.

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