Student-run organization offers online music lessons during COVID-19

Since the closure of the ICCSD in March, many students have been left without musical instruction. MusiCommunity, a student-run volunteer organization, hopes to fill these gaps and make music lessons available to all through alternate modes of communication.

Andrew Burgess ’20 teaches a piano lesson on Zoom. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, MusiCommunity lessons have since moved online.

Jadvyga Gerasimovic

Andrew Burgess ’20 teaches a piano lesson on Zoom. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, MusiCommunity lessons have since moved online.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the start of online courses throughout the country, a platform foreign to most teachers. While the transition was smooth for some classes, it is impossible for others. For musical ensembles, like orchestra and band, this transition has left many students without formal instruction.

Due to legal issues, the ICCSD and its teachers are not allowed to offer individual lessons via virtual platforms like Zoom. Some students, however, still have access to online private lessons. Music institutions such as the Preucil School and West Music continue to offer instruction, albeit not in person. Nonetheless, these lessons can cost anywhere from $30 to $75 per hour, a price many cannot pay, making music an unaffordable luxury.

A small group of musicians at West High hopes to change that, though.

MusiCommunity is a national volunteer organization that allows high school musicians to teach music to younger children. This means that no matter where a student lives or what their financial situation is, music lessons are readily available for them.

“[MusiCommunity is] important because across the nation, millions of students no longer have access to music education through their school programs. This is the result of regulation that prevents teachers from teaching one-on-one or simply due to a lack of resources. Filling this huge gap by setting up programs in districts that allow instruction to continue remains our main goal,” said Andrew Burgess ’20, the founder of MusiCommunity.

Filling this huge gap by setting up programs in districts that allow instruction to continue remains our main goal.”

— Andrew Burgess '20

After seeing the effect of one of the ICCSD’s policy changes at the high school level, Burgess began MusiCommunity in 2018 to provide everyone the opportunity to learn about music from a young age.

“This was the first year that ICCSD’s decision to cut music programs for fourth graders began to noticeably impact the quality of ensembles and teacher resources in all district high schools,” Burgess said. “We started with in-person instruction through the Neighborhood Centers for Johnson County before being forced to shift to online instruction using Zoom.”

The transition from in-person to online lessons has posed numerous challenges, such as creating an entirely new set of guidelines and curricula, as well as the typical issues by using a virtual platform. Nevertheless, the MusiCommunity team has adapted and continued to expand.

“So far, we have conducted dozens of lessons in four states and partnered with the ICCSD and a school district in Ohio. We also have had professors at Juilliard, Eastman, USC, and other institutions sign on as advisors, giving guidance on the curriculum and helping our teams,” Burgess said. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the support of our advisors, as well as the enthusiasm of many of our coaches.”

Jonathan Welch, the district music coordinator and orchestra director at West High, sees MusiCommunity as a much-needed solution to the plethora of problems teachers face throughout the district.

“MusiCommunity is important right now because we all have a hard time living in this digital world and trying to find ways to reach out and connect,” Welch said. “As the district coordinator, I’ve had problems with mandatory teaching and equity in giving lessons to students who can’t afford them outside of school. For teachers, meeting with 140 students each week is impossible, and one-on-one time is critical, especially in a time like now.”

Liam Edberg ’22 teaches a virtual lesson about auditioning for Symphony Orchestra with an excerpt from The Barber of Seville Overture.

Welch is also excited about the opportunities MusiCommunity provides for his students.

“I think MusiCommunity is a great opportunity for all of our students. As an orchestra director, I value the mentorship of students who’ve been in the program for many years, especially to help kids who don’t have access to lessons,” Welch said. “Younger students can see music from a different perspective with one-on-one lessons that the music teacher might not be able to provide. These folks build off of each other and build a community at West High, and it can serve as an important tool in a student’s education moving forward.”

Liam Edberg ’22 has been a part of the district’s orchestra program since junior high. As a core team member of the MusiCommunity program in Iowa City, he hopes to spread his passion for music to others who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so.

“[MusiCommunity is important to me because] we are hoping to spread the love and benefits of music to children who might not usually have access to them,” Edberg said. “Music has always had the ability to bring people together, and with the physical isolation that is happening, we need togetherness now more than ever. It’s great to make a connection with someone through something as universal as music.”

Although MusiCommunity has already experienced massive amounts of success on the local level, Burgess and his team plan to do more. Now, their primary goal is to establish more projects throughout the country.

“Our vision is for dozens of school districts nationwide to adopt this program and give music teachers the role of matching up students to teach with students who need instruction. In the coming years, it seems many school districts will implement a curriculum that’s at least half online, which will come with the same issues of students being left without music education that we originally set out to accomplish,” Burgess said.

Structuring learning around what kids genuinely enjoy and making progress with that path is incredibly rewarding.”

— Andrew Burgess '20

It is a hefty goal, but the Iowa City MusiCommunity is making progress. The team has widely publicized the project’s initiative on various social media platforms and met with the district to discuss plans moving forward. Burgess has met with the ICCSD music teachers to keep them aware of what is happening and to begin the process of matching students in need of virtual lessons with student volunteers. Although growth has been constant for MusiCommunity, Burgess’s favorite aspect of the program has been with him since the start: the connections he has made with students who want to learn.

“I love sitting down with a kid, even in a Zoom call, figuring out what they like about music, and creating a lesson from there. A lot of music instruction is very formal and rule-based, which turns off a significant number of kids. With this in mind, structuring learning around what kids genuinely enjoy and making progress with that path is incredibly rewarding.”