Rachel Sumner teaches a music class remotely.
Rachel Sumner teaches a music class remotely. By Courtesy of Rachel Sumner

Songs in the Key of Zoom

The Passim School of Music has offered classes, workshops, and private lessons to the Cambridge community for 20 years. All of its offerings have been virtual since March.
By Talia M. Blatt

Abby R. Altman has a large tattoo on her wrist: the headstock of a guitar inked in black with a white P written in the center.

That symbol is the logo for Passim, an organization comprising Club Passim — a storied, nationally recognized folk music club — and the Passim School of Music. The school has offered classes, workshops, and private lessons to the Cambridge community for 20 years. All of its offerings have been virtual since March.

“Before, we’d never done anything but in person classes,” says Rachel T. Sumner, the coordinator of the Passim School of Music. She took on the position in May. In addition to planning classes, she has been managing the logistical work of adapting instruction and workshops to the virtual world.

Investing in the right technologies was a key first step. “[Quality] became an issue. We invested in a few pro Zoom accounts, which really helped bring the professionalism up,” she says.

But for ensemble classes — a fixture of Passim’s community-oriented mission — problems loomed. In particular, Sumner references the lag on Zoom that makes ensemble play “nearly impossible.”

Other aspects of music education can also be lost in translation. Lindsay M. Straw, a performer and former instructor at Passim, shares a downside to the spatial separation imposed by the pandemic. “I can’t physically tell them, ‘Oh, your finger is in the wrong place, let me move it for you.’ Or I can’t help you assess the best way to hold the instrument,” she says.

Beyond the constraints of remote teaching, epidemiological and electoral anxieties have also permeated music learning, says Janet D. Feld, an instructor who just celebrated her twentieth year with Passim.

“I’ve had students say to me, ‘I thought I would be practicing so much more, because I’m home all of the time, but I’m not.’ And I’ve talked to them about this. I always say to them, ‘You have to be nice to my students,’” she chuckles. “I always recommend that you don’t get stressed about your stress reduction activities.”

But online music learning offers some surprising silver linings. All the instructors emphasized the increased accessibility of online learning: This year, Passim welcomed students from Alaska, North Carolina, California, and Connecticut. “People who wouldn’'t normally be able to make in-person lessons — older folks who can’t necessarily make the drive and park in Harvard Square — can commit to logging onto their computers,” Sumner says.

Instructors have figured out ways to optimize Zoom for virtual music teaching — they can screen share sheet music and record classes for students’ future use. “I can hold my hands and guitar up close to the camera and demonstrate certain things,” Feld says. She hopes further tech innovations will alleviate the difficulties of playing in ensembles on Zoom. “I’ve heard there’s software being developed to sync sound. Whoever creates that successfully first — they’re gonna be like the new Amazon,” she says, laughing.

Feld also explains some of the positive social effects of going virtual. Some of her students feel more comfortable signing up for online classes because they can now mute themselves. “It was a lovely surprise for me. People feel a lot less self-conscious during class because they’re muted,” she says. “My students in some cases are progressing faster than they were in in-person classes.”

Brian T. Cummings, a 67-year-old student who has been taking classes at Passim for roughly ten years, has experienced this benefit firsthand. “You don’t have to worry about anyone else hearing what you’re singing or playing,” he says. “So there is an odd sense of freedom that comes from knowing that no one is going to judge you and you can push yourself more if you want to.”

Feld believes that the pandemic has brought more people into music, citing slightly higher enrollment rates. When she asks students what inspired them to register, a number of them answer, “I’m home all the time, and I’ve had this guitar sitting in my closet for years. I’ve always wanted to play, and now seems like the perfect time.”

All Passim instructors are also performers, and the gig economy has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. In response, Passim created the Passim Emergency Artist Relief Fund to help offset lost earnings for musicians who rely on gig performances to make ends meet.

“It was day two of having been shut down, and the staff was spitballing: What can we do to help our community? What is a concrete way to focus on our artists?” Altman remembers. She and Matt W. Smith, the managing director at Club Passim, say they have raised more than $140,000 in donations and distributed it to hundreds of local artists.

Straw, a bluegrass and Celtic music artist, says performing mostly virtually has also allowed her more freedom in her performances.. Recently, she’s been streaming concerts on YouTube and Twitch. As a result, she feels a push to be less “traditional” and more “original” in her music.

“Gigs meant I was playing music for other people, for weddings and things like that. This time has given us the option to think more about what we want to be making, for ourselves,” she says. “I like when other people get weird and try new things. Being online, there’s no more ‘this is a bar gig and we have to play fun bar music’ — everyone gets to be a bit more creative.

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