by Elizabeth Reed, 06/24/2020, Belmont, Ma
Piano and the Living Room-Zoom
By Elizabeth Ann Reed
Word count: 822
Piano teachers don’t need technology to travel into the past. We return to the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries every day to teach Bach’s preludes and fugues, to reenact Mozart’s operatic piano sonatas and to regenerate Chopin’s passionate nocturnes. Just a piano and a score are needed to transport us to living rooms, previously known as front rooms, receiving rooms, drawing rooms, sitting rooms, parlors and salons, where these musical masterpieces were often premiered.
Living rooms served as formal receiving rooms for visitors, for playing games, making music, writing letters and reading books aloud. Playwrights presented dramas; authors and poets read their works aloud; composers and musicians performed their compositions in living rooms—all steadfast traditions that continued until the influenza pandemic of 1918. The fifty million deaths overwhelmed funeral parlors worldwide and families laid out the dead in the newly renamed, death rooms. As the world regained its health, the Ladies Home Journal’s suggestion for a new name, the living room, stuck.
In the 1950’s building boom, the addition of a family room with its comfy sofas, drew the family in to do homework, watch TV or listen to music on stereos. Rec rooms were built in basements for pool or table tennis. The abandoned living room was reserved for formal visits, the finer furniture upholstered in aqua tones and smothered with plastic. Without a finished basement or family room, the twentieth century living room remained a center of home entertainment, but the plays, book sharing and music making gave way to the ultimate entertainer—the TV.
Now, in the twenty-first century, technology rules everywhere. The finished basement is a home theatre, outfitted with a flat-screen TV and surround sound. Reading aloud occurs at bedtime, or in the car with audiobooks. Authors and poets read new works at bookstores. Live music is mobile, easily teleported through a cell phone, iPod or tablet. And the living room? It’s the default room—for larger gatherings, for TV when there is no basement—and often, a placeholder for the piano.
Thankfully, the value of piano study is flourishing. Teachers’ studios fill up quickly. The teaching community was jolted out of tradition with the demand to teach completely online, per order of quarantining during this pandemic. With or without a ramp-up, my colleagues and I are trained to absorb a sudden change in dynamic. We transitioned to online teaching in seven days, using qualities inherent to good teaching—creativity, fortitude and patience. The first week I bounced between FaceTime, Skype and Zoom. Connections were untimely and spotty; sound was shockingly distorted; screens froze for minutes that felt like hours. By week eleven I had four devices connected—for Zoom hosting, mirroring a closeup of the keys, viewing online scores, and projecting the games I played with students. Internet and sound issues improved, but they are far from ideal. Technology has not yet replaced the deep resonance that the wood and strings of a piano create.
Online teaching altered my perspective. Instead of students entering my living room to play on my piano, I was beamed into their living rooms, hearing them play on their instruments. There were benefits. Not once did I hear, “It sounded better at home!” I met their pets. I could assess if the bench was too high, too low, too close or too far from the keyboard, which affects posture and tone. I heard the background noise students compete with. The striking aspect of this new perspective is that the living room is once again the center of live performance.
For a piano teacher and students, the culminating event of the year is The Annual Recital. This event is often held in a church or library. I am fortunate to have my late mother’s piano studio available, an open space with a cathedral ceiling and skylights, two side-by-side Steinway grand pianos and seating for sixty. Not this year.
I could have hosted a Zoom meeting of live performances, but I wanted better sound quality and no panic because of technical glitches. My students pre-recorded their performances from their living rooms. My daughter produced a video and uploaded it to YouTube. I recorded my welcome and ending speeches, and graduating high school senior tribute, all from my living room. I compiled photos of current students taken over the years for a slide show. As a surprise, my husband added a slide show of highlights from my music career as a performer and teacher.
Did every student dress up? Did we end with our annual group picture? Did students race to the refreshments table to stack their plates with chocolate eclairs, mini cupcakes and frosted brownies? You know the answer.
In the end, we created the same environment of presenting music from hundreds of years ago—a wonderful, intimate evening of piano performances, shared with guests, directly from our living rooms. With the aid of modern technology, we’ve gone back three hundred years.