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Online music keeps the distance

By David Mclellan | April 4, 2020

LYNN — With all the stresses that come with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one thing that relieves anxiety and can be practiced in isolation: music.

Jetta “Miss Jetta” Olson has been teaching music for the last 22 years. She is used to visiting the homes of private clients to teach piano, guitar, flute, singing or songwriting, but because of the social distancing restrictions of the COVID-19 outbreak, she’s been giving lessons over Skype or Facebook Live to add a note of happiness to her students’ lives. 

“I don’t hear anything negative, and I do have strong relationships with my students. I have a bond with each of them so get to have a few minutes talking and catching up with them,” Olson said. “It’s important to keep that going, that student-teacher bond, keeping a connection with the same people in our lives.”

With a laptop and microphones perched next to her grand piano, for four hours a day Olson still connects individually with her 20 students. 

She said younger students are elated to hear their teacher’s voice, even if they can’t see her in person, and the older students use the music lessons as an escape from everything COVID-19. The teenagers stop thinking about college, and whether they will get to see their friends again before going, and the adults stop worrying about financial distress. Applying mental energy to learning an instrument can be therapeutic while the world is shutting down, Olson said. 

“I think, in particular for the adult students, they are trying to form that structure,” Olson said. “I do have two adult students that have that as their therapy, and that’s what they go to. They don’t think about things like the stocks going down.”

According to Olson, who has a 7-year-old and 8-year-old daughter, as well as two elderly parents under one roof, there are challenges in offering remote lessons. 

“I’m sure every family has its challenges, making sure you have enough signal, which batteries are charged, who’s on what call,” she said.

Olson’s children, Melody and Vienna, receive remote classroom lessons from St. Pius V School in Lynn. Everyone’s reliance on technology has increased during the pandemic. 

“It’s the war of the WiFi,” Olson said. 

Olson is also a music teacher at St. Pius V School, which, like all schools in Massachusetts, has shut down temporarily, and she plays at weddings and other events under  normal circumstances. In addition, she’s the music director at Church in the Cove in Beverly, where she leads a seven- or eight-person band during services. 

The band usually rehearses on Wednesday nights, then plays live for worshippers, but the outbreak has necessitated they record music remotely, multi-tracking their individual performances, then send them to be played during the church’s remote services. 

Not being in the same place as someone makes it extremely difficult — if not impossible — to play music together, Olson said. Her lessons have changed, because she can’t harmonize in the same way with students. 

 “The challenge is doing singing with them, harmonies. Things we normally do together can’t happen because of the delay,” Olson said. “A lot of students are singer-songwriters like me. What I can do is prerecord my singing or guitar and have them play to that.”

The students whom Olson teaches angle their cameras properly so she can give advice on fingerwork and technique during piano lessons. 

Olson said she can only teach for about four hours a day before getting sick of staring at a computer screen, and needs time to look after her children and parents. But despite being stuck inside together for long periods of time, Olson said the family is getting along great. 

“We are in a very different time right now, and it can be challenging for me because I’m basically the head of a household,” Olson said. “I have anxiety, like, ‘Am I putting my family at risk by going to the grocery store?’ I have an 86-year-old father.”

“But there’s no irritation,” she said. “We’re trying to protect each other. It’s different than in the hustle and bustle when you can get irritated a lot.”

But writing music, playing music, and listening to music is something that everyone can enjoy, Olson said. Her mother is a musician, and her children are taking virtual piano lessons from their music teacher. When Olson gets into a lesson, and is able to have some small sense of normalcy talking about music, her students’ faces light up, and she feels at ease. 

“It’s different times so we are coming together,” Olson said.