When New Zealand went into lockdown, piano teacher Elena Reekie faced a tricky problem.

The Auckland teacher takes individual lessions, and has group classes for up to 7 students who gather with their electric instruments.

But self-isolation rules meant Reekie - and the 90 or so music teachers at schools and music education centres across Auckland - had to quickly devise a way to keep the lessons going while staying safe from Coronavirus.

Elena Reekie can watch student Yasmin Robertson as she plays during the video call. Photo / Supplied
Elena Reekie can watch student Yasmin Robertson as she plays during the video call. Photo / Supplied

"On the Monday when the Prime Minister announced that we were going to have to lock down on the Wednesday night, me and a colleague sat down and figured out that we have to do something to put (the teaching) online," Reekie said.

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"We practised in two separate rooms. The biggest issue we had was with lag, the delayed sound from the other side. What we normally do in a class is play together, I accompany as the children play along with me. We got around this by muting the other person. If I play and the other person is muted, when they hear it on the other side and play along it sounds perfectly in time. For them it sounds like they're playing in time and they're with me."

By having the student mute their microphone, they can hear Reekie's piano and play along without the lag from the video call: the sound of their piano can interfere with the audio feed, potentially cutting out the teacher. The teacher can still watch the student's hand as they play along.

Having got over the technical issues it was now a question of persuading the other teachers, students and the parents it was a good idea.

The teachers have really taken to the new system saying it felt a bit weird at first, but seemed like a normal class after a while.

A new teacher who only started this year reported back that one of her students didn't have a keyboard at home, so Reekie, half-jokingly, suggested they download a keyboard app to their tablet.

"And then she comes back to me and says, "I have 5 students and only one of them has a keyboard."

Four of them had the keyboard app. The excited teacher told Reekie: "And it worked just like a normal class."

"But you can really only just do this with beginners," she adds.

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Elena Reekie teaches piano with student Yasmin Robertson via an online video chat. Photo / Alex Robertson
Elena Reekie teaches piano with student Yasmin Robertson via an online video chat. Photo / Alex Robertson

Reekie, who is Russian, started teaching soon after arriving in 1998 when she met her future husband, Lionel Reekie. He is an accomplished piano accordionist who played with Bella Kalolo and Phillip Fan on a unique rendition of Lorde's Royals at the 2013 Apra Silver Scroll Awards.

He suggested she take up teaching after he heard her play. For Reekie, online teaching will never replace the classroom.

"Making a personal connection with students is really, really important," she said.

"It's hard right now (with online teaching), if the student plays something you really have to wait until they stop before you can say something. I can't count along with them, I can't help them stay in time. You really need the human connection."

Sometimes the online connections don't live up to expectations, she says, and she has had to shift some of her regular students from their normal Saturday slot as her husband and daughter are both teaching from home, causing some digital congestion.

"Otherwise it's just like a normal class. It's bizarre how normal it is," she said.

Moving online has seen some students drop off, with an average of only two-thirds turning up to the online lessons.

"That's obviously a big percentage drop in your income. If it's a short term thing then the business will probably survive it. If it was a longer term thing, more than 2 or 3 months then it would probably be not so good for the business."

Reekie has just over 80 per cent of her students using the method that relies on Facebook Messenger.

Some of the teachers were concerned about being friends with their students on Facebook, but Reekie maintains it's not too much of a problem.

"I've been really careful about what I post on Facebook for quite a while, " she said.

Reekie is reasonably positive about the future.

"Now that school holidays are coming up, usually people wouldn't be having lessons, but because people have nothing else to do they might have lessons. But, on the other hand, I don't know how this might have affected my students' financial situation. There will be people who have been affected by it and those that want to have lessons might not be able to," she said.

"We'll see how it all works out – it's a bit too early to tell."

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website