The Cork music (lessons) must go on! 

Teaching the piano might have moved remotely but it hasn't become any less important for the Cork School Of Music's students. Ronan Leonard reports.
The Cork music (lessons) must go on! 
Cormac McCarthy: Online tutor.
Cormac McCarthy on piano.
Cormac McCarthy on piano.

One of the most crucial strands of modern life that needed to adapt and move online quickly because of Covid 19 related social distancing/self isolation was education, while many primary and secondary school subjects made the transfer relatively easily, such as Maths and Languages, one could easily assume that one of the bigger challenges would be subjects with more nuance and subtlety such as learning an instrument. Cormac MacCarthy, one of the piano lecturers in the CIT Cork School Of Music doesn’t think so as he reflects on what has been a pretty hectic few weeks in education, “online music teaching - both instrumental and academic - has been popular for quite a while now, and there are various tried and trusted templates/platforms/interfaces, all of which has facilitated a speedy and effective transition. From what I'm seeing myself and hearing from colleagues, the level of engagement is extremely positive with all age groups really embracing the new format. Personally, I teach almost exclusively 3rd level students but at CSM we have students ranging from 4 - 70 and beyond.”

Cormac’s official job title is Lecturer in piano, arranging, composition and director of the CSM Jazz Big Band, but he can only teach piano for the next while as the large ensemble is on hiatus, “that's on ice for now and completely down to Covid unfortunately” as there is no way for a group to work together remotely in the immediate term.

The necessity of showing both hands and face to demonstrate and communicate with the student hasn’t been too much of a technical challenge for Cormac but it certainly is a new positive experience for him, “I've been using the online platform Zoom and I've a camera angle set up that can capture both my hands and face. There is a different dynamic at play for sure, but in many ways it forces the teacher and student to be particularly focused and structured. It requires quite a bit of preparation, but the results so far have been very positive.”One of the most obvious resources to have online is the millions of hours of YouTube videos of musical performances, both solo and in concert, that Cormac can show his students but he isn’t using those videos to substitute his own teaching, “I use them to demonstrate ideas of musical language, style and approach as opposed to technique specifically. This is something I would generally do anyway. You would hope students become inquisitive, develop their own interests etc, but it's important to point them in the right direction so they have an understanding of the history, stylistic development etc. “

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy

Having noticed that most of his younger students have taken to this learning quite quickly, Cormac reckons he must have just missed the boat on this kind of teaching practice when he was at the height of his studies, “I have had one or two remote lessons over the years, but in many ways my generation probably just missed out on having the option of widespread online teaching resources. I see a big difference in how musicians a few years younger than me were able to tap into that side of things.”

Many music teachers also tend to be performing musicians too and Cormac’s gig schedule has also been affected by these new circumstances, “the lockdown has had a big impact on every aspect of a musicians life. I had gigs at the National Concert Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London cancelled at the last minute - just as the initial restrictions were announced - and I should be on tour in Spain right now. A lot of musicians are in a perilous situation with months worth of work cancelled. We need music and the arts more than ever in times like these, and I think it's vital the government and the public at large recognise this, and offer as much support as possible.”

He credits the administrators and IT department of CIT for being able to accommodate the various faculties quickly, “I know that for CIT in general, and us at CSM, a huge amount of work has gone into developing the systems necessary for remote delivery. As a result, the paper trail is now seamless and very comprehensive, but only after a monumental effort by all staff and management over the past few weeks.”


There is a lot of uncertainty in regards to how things will work in this ‘New Normal’, however Cormac and his colleagues are preparing for the short term while also planning for next year's prospective students already, “it's certainly a massive challenge for everyone and you'd have to feel for the final year students in particular. They've been working hard to adapt to the new systems during what would ordinarily be a busy and stressful time anyway. To their credit, they've just got on with it and their level of application has been incredible.Regarding entry for 2020/21, we have some pre screening systems already in place where people submit material online. The current circumstances might mean we have to rely more on these, but like everything, it's a moveable feast right now.”

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