Wearing a hot pink nightgown and cradling a ukulele, the tiny star peered nervously into the camera on the laptop balanced in front of her. From a window on her screen, her instructor, Donna Britton Bukevicz, beamed at her.
“Hello, I’m Amelia Grace, and I’m 8 years old,” the little girl said in a hurry before diving to hide behind her mother, who was seated beside her.
“And we’re a little shy,” her mom said, laughing. With some persuasion, Amelia Grace emerged and plucked out “Hot Cross Buns” for her virtual audience.
As of last month, students at Warrenton’s Drum & Strum Music Center can once again meet with their teachers face-to-face. With the coronavirus pandemic still an ongoing threat, though, Britton Bukevicz said she’s not sure when the center will be able to resume in-person concerts.
With restrictions in place, she arranged for her students to showcase their talents for family and friends over Zoom last week in Drum & Strum’s first virtual recital. As they strummed on ukes and debuted songs they’d written themselves, Britton Bukevicz recorded the video call. She then premiered the video Wednesday night on YouTube.
“Music is a super powerful tool. It’s a super powerful medicine,” she said. “Doing this concert with them. … It’s just been another way to help them get through a really troubled time.”
For some students, it wasn’t just their first virtual recital — it was their first recital, period. Amelia Grace, for one, was a bit nervous. As the days ticked closer to the concert, Britton Bukevicz said one student was so worried that she stopped sleeping.
After performing, another student announced that she had made everyone leave the house before the recital began. “They went on a walk,” the student explained, getting a laugh out of Britton Bukevicz.
Holding a virtual recital is something other teachers had been discussing for a while, said Drum & Strum owner Tim Dingus. Britton Bukevicz was the first to plan one. Dingus was encouraged by what he watched: “After I saw her do it, I was like, ‘Golly, everybody should be doing this!’” he said.
From March to June, all lessons at the center were held virtually, as teachers connected with their students over platforms such as Zoom, FaceTime and Google Hangouts. However, with Fauquier’s often shoddy internet access, it was easier for some students than others to follow through with their studies.
Amelia Gray Myers, 13, for instance, lives about 10 minutes away from Old Town Warrenton and doesn’t have a reliable internet connection. To keep up with her ukulele lessons, she said she occasionally called Britton Bukevicz over FaceTime while sitting in her grandfather’s truck, which has access to the internet. However, most of her lessons happened over a phone call, with Britton Bukevicz emailing her chords and songs to practice each week.
Sometimes, though, even Gray Myers’ cell service proved spotty. For her first remote lesson, she climbed a big oak tree with her instrument to make sure her call would go through.
“It was a little difficult,” she explained. “I’d have to hold my phone on my shoulder or put it between two branches and hope it doesn’t fall. I think back on it a lot. The important thing is that it worked. And I got through with the lesson.”
Learning virtually was also tricky for some of Britton Bukevicz’s youngest proteges. To keep one of her 5-year-olds engaged, she had Daisy and Rufus — two puppets — talk to her at the end of each lesson. At the recital, that student happily plunked away at the keys as she sang “Merrily We Roll Along.”
But now Gray Myers, along with two other Britton Bukevicz students, have resumed in-person lessons. To safeguard against the transmission of COVID-19, both student and teacher wear masks during their lessons — something Gray Myers said can make singing especially difficult. The center also has a bottle of hand sanitizer stationed in each lesson room, as well as at the front desk.
If there’s one thing Britton Bukevicz misses, it’s hugging her students, she said. Recently, one of her 5-year-old musicians stopped by the center for an in-person lesson for the first time in months, and all Britton Bukevicz wanted to do was give her a hug. “I went, ‘I can’t do this!’” she said. But she knows that the precautions are for a good cause.
“You do what you gotta do to support your students and nurture their souls and help them through a tough time,” she said.
Angela Roberts is a summer intern from the University of Maryland’s journalism school. Her internship was made possible by the Piedmont Journalism Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.