My New Normal: My Online Music Lessons Are in High Demand

A woman teaches violin through a video session.
Susanna Sonnenberg is a private studio music teacher who teaches violin, viola and cello lessons from her home in Pittsburgh. She now teaches her students through video lessons since a stay-at-home order was issued April 1. Photo courtesy of Susanna Sonnenberg

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May 2020.

Susanna Sonnenberg is a private studio music teacher who teaches violin, viola and cello lessons from her home in Pittsburgh, which has been under a stay-at-home order since April 1. She teaches students from 5 to 70 years old from all over the world. Here’s what her life looks like now, as told to contributor Dana Sitar.

I’m one of a fortunate few who have gained business due to stay-at-home orders. Kids who can’t play with local orchestras or take music lessons at school, and adults who are at home with extra free time all find me.

I’ve been running my own music studio teaching violin, viola and cello lessons since October of 2015 after 15 years of public school teaching and administration. I’ve had some online students since I opened my studio, so I was equipped to keep running my business during this crisis — and even grow.

Before the pandemic, I had 58 students. Now I have about 70.

I live with my husband, 16-year-old daughter and five cats. We’re all home now.

My husband is a realtor, so he’s self-employed, too, but often works outside our home. Now his work is on pause, and he’s applied for unemployment since self-employed workers became eligible.

Thankfully, we’re able to save money and keep paying our bills without any problems. Before this all happened, we had based our budget off my income. We’ve both found ourselves unexpectedly jobless in the past, so we’ve based our finances off of a single income and considered the second income supplementary for about the past five years.

Now we don’t have my husband’s regular income for discretionary things like eating out, but my income covers our needs, and I’m even making a little extra from having more students.

About 60% of my students were taking lessons online before we began staying at home, and I transitioned all but two of the rest of them online two days before Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order went into effect. Most of my students had been with me pretty long term, so transitioning to all online lessons went smoothly.

I lost just one student to financial concerns, and one older student who paused lessons to practice social distancing early on and wasn’t open to online lessons. Otherwise, everyone has been happy to continue. A lot of my students have been grateful to keep at least one thing in their life normal as so many other things are changing and uncertain.

I teach about half of my lessons through the online-learning platform TakeLessons and the other half through Skype, FaceTime or Zoom — whatever the students prefer.

I was surprised at how easily my in-person students adapted to online lessons. They didn’t need much to get started, just a laptop or tablet with a webcam and internet access. One student even told me online lessons have helped her become a more confident player, because she can’t depend on my playing along with her.

That’s usually one drawback of online lessons: The lag in video chat keeps you from being able to play together easily.

A woman plays the violin.
Sonnenberg teaches about half of her lessons through TakeLessons and the other half through Skype, FaceTime or Zoom. Photo courtesy of Susanna Sonnenberg

I’ve talked with other teachers who are disappointed they can’t play with their students or include duets in their lessons. I’ve been able to share some work-arounds I’ve learned over the years: Record yourself playing to share with the student, or play virtually with the student muted so they can hear you and play along.

The other big concern from other teachers is lighting. We and our students have to be able to see each other clearly, so we can demonstrate techniques and offer them guidance on theirs. I keep two floor lamps pointing at me from the front, and I can adjust brightness and color through my webcam to keep things clear.

It was already normal for me to teach seven days a week, but I’ve expanded my hours a little as I’ve picked up more students. I teach anywhere from six to 14 30- to 60-minute lessons per day between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. Still, everyone in my family is getting more sleep than we used to.

To save money — and because he has more time — my husband usually cooks dinner at home, and we just get takeout as a treat once on the weekend. That’s a lot less than we used to eat out, so it’s been good to eat healthier.

In a lot of ways, it’s nice that we’re all at home, because we get to spend more time together. Anytime I’m not teaching, I’m free to spend time with my family.