Hammering, away; Barnes keeping piano lessons sharp from a distance

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln's Paul Barnes sits at the Steinway piano in his home while teaching a one-on-one lesson with student Cameron Berta, who returned home to Dallas in the wake of the university's shift to remote instruction. Photo by Craig
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln's Paul Barnes sits at the Steinway piano in his home while teaching a one-on-one lesson with student Cameron Berta, who returned home to Dallas in the wake of the university's shift to remote instruction. Photo by Craig

In any other year, the acoustic waves that originate from fingertip striking ivory and hammer striking string would dissipate within the walls of the Westbrook Music Building.

But with COVID-19 temporarily joining music as a universal language, the sounds of piano lessons led by Nebraska’s Paul Barnes are now digitally hopscotching across town, state, border and, recently, even ocean.

The 14 undergraduate and graduate students taking one-hour, one-on-one lessons with Barnes this semester hail from across the United States and the globe: Lincoln and Omaha, Nashville and Dallas, China and Argentina. It’s a worldly mix suited to the world-renowned pianist who often performs in New York City and makes annual summer sojourns to teach in Vienna.

While many of Barnes’s domestic students have enjoyed the luxury of going home, the COVID-19 quarantine has forced their international classmates to remain in Lincoln. Whether stationed in the Star City or elsewhere, though, all of those students must adjust to swapping out face-to-face lessons at Westbrook for remote lessons taught via Zoom.

On the other end of that connection has been Barnes, seated at the Steinway in his well-lit living room, listening and playing and teaching as his dog, Clara, stares out a nearby window.

The setting may be different, but Barnes said the lessons are familiar. With the aid of Zoom, his iPad and an app called forScore, Barnes can share and mark up sheet music as easily as he did in person. He demonstrated by grabbing a stylus and circling a couple of measures while mimicking the instruction he might give a student.

“They can see me write comments in the music right there in real time, and that works out fabulously well,” said Barnes, the Marguerite Scribante Professor of Music. “So (we’ve) been able to proceed without much interruption at all.

“The problem is my handwriting is still really bad, so if I wanted (them) to do this, you know, ‘with more energy,’” he said, scrawling the half-legible direction on screen, “they can (only) kind of read that.”

With his laptop acting as camera and microphone, his students can also continue to watch and hear Barnes model the precise fluidity that has made him a favored pianist and collaborator of legendary composer Philip Glass. Even if the occasional hiccup in streaming or intrusion of tinny audio can get irksome when, say, playing a string of 32nd notes that span two octaves, the technology has mostly held up, Barnes said.

“The sound quality can vary a lot, and with what I do … we're talking about very minute differences in sound quality in terms of how you approach the piano,” he said. “So that can be challenging, depending on the internet connection and things like that. But so far, it's actually worked well.”

The weekly one-on-one lessons are the crux of the course. But every Monday afternoon, just as before the COVID-19 outbreak, Barnes is assembling all 14 students for a communal session of playing and, now more than ever, catching up.

“We're kind of one big, happy musical family, so it gives us a chance to check in with each other, to see how everybody's doing, to make sure that everybody's healthy, to see what life is like in their world.”

Just months before the novel coronavirus emerged, while teaching a fall course on piano literature, Barnes got an early taste of remote instruction by inviting composers and former students to speak with the class via Zoom. That class cherished the experience. So when COVID-19 forced his new class apart, he began reaching out to more former students in the hope of recreating it.

The first to take him up on the offer was alumnus Allessandro Conti, a man who would have been more than forgiven for declining it. Conti has since moved back to his native Italy, where COVID-19 has already killed more than 16,000 people and forced a nationwide shutdown.

That new reality clashes with the picture-perfect memories that Barnes and his wife developed three years ago, when Barnes gave a solo recital in Rome before spending several days exploring the Eternal City with Conti.

“(We) had an unbelievable experience there and just fell in love with the city,” Barnes said. “So to see the pictures of the empty streets and the empty squares and the empty Trevi Fountain — I couldn’t believe it. … But it was very, very good to see Allessandro again.”

Even in recounting the devastation that has befallen his country, Conti affirmed that “the Italian people are strong, and they have big hearts, and that he knows that they will get through this,” Barnes said. “Without a doubt, I think it was helpful, because I think — especially for students who are in their early 20s — it's a very confusing and scary time. Because the fact is (that) nobody, even the older people they look up to, have experienced this before. It's completely uncharted territory.

“They felt for (Allessandro), because it was clear that he has gone through hell. But at the same time, I think they were encouraged to realize that they, too, can get through all of this.”

Some of Conti’s solace, and theirs, lies in having a piano to rely on, Barnes said. The act of playing alone, or even playing for others online, can never replace the experience of playing in front of a flesh-and-blood audience — especially for the extroverts, like Barnes, whom music tends to attract.

That’s especially true for the juniors and seniors who will be playing recitals in front of a webcam rather than a crowd. Yet it’s still far better than not playing at all, Barnes said.

“For musicians, especially for musicians who are lucky enough to have beautiful pianos where they live, it's just a godsend, because we can practice all day long,” he said. “My students, they're not discouraged. They're still practicing their heads off. So the quality of work I'm seeing is actually really, really good.”

And despite the need for social distancing, Barnes said he’s intent on maintaining the close-knit fabric of his studio until his students can again meet up in Westbrook — whenever that may be.

“Of course, I'm excited to see them face to face, and I'm excited to sit next to them and yell at them instead of having to yell at them through the computer,” he joked. “But I have to say (that) I'm really, really proud of all of my students and how well they’re doing throughout this incredibly challenging experience.”

--Scott Schrage, University Communication

See a video of Barnes demonstrating the simplicity of sharing and annotating sheet music via Zoom at https://go.unl.edu/27pk.