1st row (left to right): Vince Feliciano, Tala Newell, Ben Norton, and Lia Barry
2nd row (left to right): Tyler Liu, Alejandra Mart, Joey Pulone, and Dalia Lévy
Music is a universal language. Being able to understand it and play it has a profound impact on an individual’s life. But being able to teach music is a whole different experience and requires a separate set of skills. I reached out to eight former and current teachers who play a variety of instruments to learn about their experiences.
The journey to QuaranTunes
Head piano teacher Tyler Liu is a sophomore at UC Berkeley and became a part of QuaranTunes in April 2020, when the organization just started. He learned about QuaranTunes through a friend who knew the founder, Julia Segal.
“He was really good friends with Julia at the time,” Liu said. “I had just found out [by] word of mouth, like 'Hey, [they’re] starting this thing up [and] you're very musical. You can like help out with teaching instruments if you'd like.’ I said, ‘Oh, this sounds like a good idea.’ And I've been pretty much helping out ever since. I no longer teach, but I [have] some head teacher duties here and there.”
QuaranTunes also provides its high school teachers with a valuable asset: volunteer hours. Tala Newell is a junior at Bridgeway Academy and has been with QuaranTunes for about two years as a guitar and composition teacher.
“I had to have hours for my school to graduate,” Newell said. “But I wanted to do something that I enjoyed. I was like, ‘Oh, I can do something with music.’ And I found QuaranTunes just by looking up ‘volunteer music teacher’.”
Our volunteer teachers come from all kinds of musical backgrounds. Liu got started with the piano with the help of his parents.
“At a young age, you just kind of get involved,” Liu said. “Parents will just throw you into extracurriculars and be like, ‘Okay, try this.' And that's how it was me and piano.”
"[My dad] played a recording of Jacqueline Duprey ... and I just fell in love with the sound of the cello"
Dalia Lévy is a junior at Fremont High School and taught at QuaranTunes since the summer of 2020. Similar to Liu, her family introduced her to music, especially her pianist dad, Frank Lévy. However, Lévy became fascinated with the cello when she was 10 years old. It has been her main instrument ever since.
“[My dad] played a recording of Jacqueline Duprey, who’s a famous cellist that passed away a long time ago,” Lévy said. “And I just fell in love with the sound of the cello. My whole household is basically filled with music … [and] he teaches at home so I get to learn from him and we get to play duets together.”
Others like Tala Newell led a music journey that involved a lot of exploring.
“I started learning classical guitar when I was nine years old,” Newell said. “And then I quit a year after because I really didn't like learning classroom guitar [and learned] on my own through YouTube videos. Three or four years ago, I started up just regular guitar lessons through a teacher that I knew at Guitar Center, and that's really where I'm at right now.”
"[Out] of all places, [it was the] boy’s locker room where I just had this melody come up in my head"
OCSA (Orange County School of the Arts) senior and composition teacher Joey Pulone also branched out after discovering his passion for music and composition at a young age, even if those moments were spontaneous.
“I had piano lessons that I believe is where I started developing my perfect pitch,” Pulone said. “After that, when I was in fifth grade, I started playing the clarinet. [Then] seventh grade comes up and that's where I taught myself how to compose music. [Out] of all places, [it was the] boy’s locker room where I just had this melody come up in my head. I was able to write it out and my whole band played it.”
Big efforts, big takeaways
Every musician starts out as a student. QuaranTunes teachers are able to reverse the student role they have been in their entire lives and spread musical knowledge to other young students.
“I really think it's amazing to be on the other side,” Pulone said. “Sure, I received all this music education, but I really think it should be carried on from one generation to the next. Otherwise, where's it going?”
The teachers have formed close connections with their students and worked hard to give them the enjoyment and music education they deserve.
“All of the students I worked with were just super cool kids,” said former voice teacher Ben Norton. “[Lockdown] was tough and it was a highlight of my week to get to work with them."
"[Lockdown] was tough and it was a highlight of my week to get to work with [my students]"
Norton reflected on the rewarding experiences he had while teaching.
“When I was figuring out a new way to describe something intuitively, and my student would just pick up on it and immediately sound so much better because of it [was rewarding],” Norton said. “But the main thing is when they were able to forget that they were singing on Zoom and they were just feeling the song and expressing themselves. [The] challenge was to get them to enter that mindset [and leave] behind their anxiety.”
Even though he taught voice for just under a year, Norton’s experience at QuaranTunes influenced him to open his eyes to the different kinds of singing styles out there.
“I'm currently studying classical voice here at Lawrence [University], but I'm transferring,” Norton said. “I'm hoping to transfer to Berklee College of Music next year so I can do contemporary voice and songwriting. [A] part of what woke me up to my desire to do that was working with kids who did not want to be singing classical music.”
Teaching music to others also allows one to focus more on the details and test their own understanding of their instrument.
“I think the biggest thing I've learned from teaching is the fact that some of the things we take for granted,” said ukelele teacher and UC Santa Barbara senior Vince Feliciano. “You really get to hone in more once you start explaining it to someone else. For example, [when] you strum, [you] don't really think about it anymore. But then, when someone asks [you], then we explain the process that helps us refine our ability a little more.”
"When I'm teaching [the trumpet], I have to actually figure out how it works for me and if it would work for someone else as well"
Trumpet teacher and Easton Area High School freshman Lia Barry echoed Feliciano’s points.
“I feel like to teach trumpet, I have to understand it a lot more … because when I'm playing, it's just what works for me,” Barry said. “When I'm teaching it, I have to actually figure out how it works for me and if it would work for someone else as well.”
Teachers always have room to grow, especially after realizing the extent to which they can help their students.
“I think … trying to [play] in a way that someone else could copy it is something that's helped me be a better player,” Barry said.
For Liu, teaching is a way to determine how well he knows the piano.
“It's like showcasing how do you really understand how you can play an instrument,” Tyler Liu said. “[It’s] one thing that you learned something, but [it’s different when] it comes time to actually teach someone who has no idea where you're at. … I find that it's pretty rewarding when you get the student to actually show progress to something that you know what to do."
"I feel like teaching really opened me to the idea that the kid will bring new ideas to the table that I might have never thought about"
Even though teachers have more advanced technical knowledge of the instrument than their students, Lévy emphasizes that learning goes both ways.
“I feel like some teachers might go into teaching it with the perspective of like, ‘Oh, I'm better than the student,’” Lévy said. “But, it's really not like that for me. I feel like teaching really opened me to the idea that the kid will bring new ideas to the table that I might have never thought about. [For example, questions like] ‘How can we phrase this?’ or ‘How can we interpret what Bach is saying or Mozart?’ [would lead to different answers] from the student and from me.”
The ups and downs of virtual lessons
The virtual format of the classes allows teachers to be more inventive and engaged with their curriculum. Students can take advantage of technology to improve their musical skills.
“There are a lot of tools at our disposal that we wouldn't really be able to use if we were in person,” Feliciano said. “So one big thing is being able to share your screen on Zoom and then being able to draw and being able to edit PowerPoint slides and edit worksheets on the fly.”
"There are a lot of tools at our disposal that we wouldn't really be able to use if we were in person"
Nonetheless, Zoom music lessons have their limitations.
“I'd say the biggest challenge teaching was just being over Zoom,” said former piano teacher and Bishop O’Dowd High School senior Alejandra Mart. “Not having that person-to-person contact was difficult because you're not in the room with them and able to help [the students]. But I did think it made the reward a lot better, [which was] … seeing … how excited they got when they learned a piece and they played it … in front of me.”
Impacts on students
Alejandra Mart volunteered at QuaranTunes for about 16 months, starting in August 2020. She still cherishes the memories she has made during the experience.
“I had two very lovely girls that I really got to know and just [saw] a lot of myself in them,” Mart said. “It definitely deepened my love for the piano. [For one] girl I taught, we actually got really close. This is kind of strange, but for every new piece, we [would] create a character for that piece. It was our way of personalizing the piece and it was a way so she could have fun with it and have it be more important to her.”
"This is kind of strange, but for every new piece, we [would] create a character for that piece"
Learning music is a collaborative effort between the teacher and the student. When Liu was a new teacher, he went with the flow and tried his best to meet his student’s needs.
“I think a pretty memorable time was … the first piano student I had [who was a] middle schooler,” Liu said. “He didn't really know much at all about the instrument. And obviously, this is my first time teaching too. So we kind of [bounced] back and forth from each other? [When] I finally stopped teaching [during the summer] and he had to go back to school, we were able to accomplish [a Minecraft song he] wanted to play. [We] worked our way up there.”
"One of my students was on The Kelly Clarkson Show with QuaranTunes so it was really awesome seeing her there"
Newell has taught the same students for two years and she admires how much they have grown with her.
“One of my students (Tamara Yasin) was on The Kelly Clarkson Show with QuaranTunes so it was really awesome seeing her there,” Newell said. “She’s really into singing and songwriting. And I really liked working with her on that and I like seeing that she's going to open mics now. And then one of my other students, he wants to work on this new song and he came to me … and it’s actually a pretty hard song. I love … that he wants to work for it.”
All eight teachers have gained valuable skills and memories at QuaranTunes. It is their hard work, kindness, and patience that has allowed the music community at QuaranTunes to become the big support system it is today.