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Winnipeg Free Press Article October 14th 2020

For some people, it’s called six-string therapy. For others, it has become 88 keys to coping with 2020.

It seems learning to play a musical instrument has struck a chord for adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the whole COVID outbreak, a lot of people are starting to turn toward in-home lessons or online lessons,” says Mike Fondse, operations manager at Quest Musique’s Portage Avenue location. “As far as music lessons, home recording, anything regarding playing music at home has skyrocketed recently.”

It’s no surprise, really. In the spring, when lockdown protocols to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus kept people at home, they took up baking, tried learning a new language, or planted their first gardens, among other activities.

Guitar sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic. (John Woods / WInnipeg Free Press)
Guitar sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic. (John Woods / WInnipeg Free Press)

Parents were no longer driving their kids to hockey or soccer practice. Concerts were cancelled and health officials recommended against large family gatherings.

People had more time on their hands, and started looking for something to do.

So as fall marches on, COVID-19 cases in Winnipeg rise and temperatures drop, people have decided once again to do something different with their spare time. They’ve grabbed that old acoustic guitar that was gathering dust and learned the chords to the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. Others have sat down at the piano — or a newly purchased portable electronic keyboard, perhaps — to try their hand at Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as they did years ago.

Others have kept the beat on a set of drums, imagining they’re Buddy Rich, Neil Peart or Dave Grohl.

“Sales-wise, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in business,” Fondse says of entry-level instruments like guitars and pianos. “Anything to get new players started has completely taken off.”

Groove Academy in St. Vital has seen a crescendo of adults seeking music lessons this fall.

“It’s more than normal, I would say so,” says Anthony Giancola, who teaches drums, percussion and piano. “Some students have taken lessons when they were younger and they want to get back into it.”

Groove Academy, like most businesses and teachers who offer music lessons to students young and old, has had to adjust its offerings, owing to the pandemic. It put its group lessons on hold — Giancola hopes they’ll be back in January but says that will depend on how the coronavirus progresses — and added online instruction for those wary of straying outside their bubble.

No tooting your own horn: Music instructors note would-be students are most interested in instruments that can be played while wearing a mask. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)
No tooting your own horn: Music instructors note would-be students are most interested in instruments that can be played while wearing a mask. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

He’s finding people are most interested in musical instruments they can play and learn while wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing, such as the guitar, piano or the drums.

The academy found the popularity of online lessons in the spring hasn’t lasted into the fall.

“It was at first, but September we were shockingly surprised that there were a lot of students who wouldn’t come back unless it was in-person lessons,” Giancola says.

Others, however, have embraced online music instruction. Robert Burton of the River Heights School of Music began offering more guitar and piano lessons via the web, and, thanks to his facility with the technology, he’s even picked up a bass-guitar student who lives in Oxford, England.

“Because of the internet, and because of me having to do so much online teaching with Winnipeg students, I’ve become adept at negotiating that sort of thing,” he says.

Burton’s students aren’t the only ones buying musical instruments. He purchased a bass that has well-marked frets so online students can easily see finger positions when viewing on video-conferencing apps such as Zoom or Skype.

Other guitar purchases were more personal, especially after the pandemic forced him to call off a couple of vacations.

Robert Burton, owner of River Heights School of Music, has treated himself to a couple of new instruments during the pandemic. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)
Robert Burton, owner of River Heights School of Music, has treated himself to a couple of new instruments during the pandemic. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

“One was kind of a gift purchase because I turned 60 this year, so I bought myself a nice Telecaster. And then some of it was, what the heck, I think I’ll get back into playing mandolin, so I bought a mandolin,” Burton says.

“I’ll be as guilty as anybody buying something to make yourself feel better, a guilt purchase. You see something and you go, ‘Ah crap, it’s the end of the world — I’m buying a mandolin.’ That’s the thought process.”

That thinking has led guitar companies such as Gibson and Martin to report huge rises in sales in 2020. It’s been a massive rebound for Gibson, which declared bankruptcy in 2018.

Fender, the company that makes Burton’s new Telecaster and the Stratocaster, the electric guitar made famous by Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and many others, reported in July it has sold more guitars than it has at any period of its 74-year history.

Home-recording equipment has also been given a pandemic-related boost. Quest’s Fondse says the surge is due to the need for microphones and computer interfaces for online lessons, as well as the ongoing growth in podcasting.

“Anything to do with recording right now, we’re seeing a record across the whole industry,” he says.

Burton agrees: the rise in online music lessons has forced him to adjust his equipment needs, and he’s bought backups in case there’s a shortage in electronic musical equipment.

“I switched from using regular microphones that I had to keep moving in front of my face to using a lavalier that is hands-free,” he says. “This job has changed quite a bit, as everybody’s job has changed quite a bit.”

He predicts music lessons, especially among adults who are just strumming their first notes, will continue to grow in popularity. The internet is the reason, he says.

“We live in a world where people’s first step to doing something now seems to be seeing if there’s a YouTube video for it,” Burton says. “I can’t help but think there might be a surge later on when people have been trying to teach themselves piano or guitar on their own using YouTube videos and realizing that’s just not a viable thing to do, particularly at the beginning.

“Learning the piano is not the same as changing a seal on the toilet.”

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

Alan Small
Arts and Life Editor

Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.