What We’ve Learned This Spring and Summer


What a year it has been! In early 2020, Rocky Ridge, along with almost every organization in the world, had to dramatically change the way we function in order to keep our staff, students, and patrons safe. We were incredibly lucky that we were able to pivot to online, virtual learning through the power of Zoom, FaceTime, and other platforms. Our amazing, versatile faculty members were central in making this a success, and we are very thankful for their skills and flexibility when it came to transitioning almost overnight towards the world of online music learning.

Our year-round community music school division was the first to experience the online music learning world. Then, as it became clear that holding our summer camp programs at our beautiful, historic campus high in the Rocky Mountains would not be possible, we made the decision to cancel all in-person summer programs in favor of offering to virtual camps instead.

Our first virtual camp was our Adult Piano Seminar, held in late May. These intrepid pianists were the first to test out our proposed online system of private lessons, masterclasses, and performances. They were wonderfully brave when it came to participating in something that was perhaps outside the comfort level of many. One of our favorite parts of this virtual program were the social hour “hangouts” we scheduled where we got to know more about each other. We got to tour each other’s homes, meet each other’s pets, and even eat dinner together occasionally!

Participants and faculty of the Adult Piano Seminar

Next up was our Virtual Young Artist Seminar, a four-week program for college-aged musicians. In planning for this virtual program, we were very conscious that we needed to address the major challenges in the arts industry, as well as other issues facing young musicians as they plan for their future. Beyond their weekly private lessons, score study, and Bach seminars with our faculty, students participated in sessions on audition preparation, how to record and edit ensemble performances remotely, professional development workshops, and how to recognize and begin the process of addressing inequality in the arts. Additionally, they heard from and interacted with experts in a number of fields outside performance, including arts administration, arts marketing, fundraising, and more. We also experimented with virtual well-being classes aimed at helping musicians: at the beginning and end of each day, we gathered for optional meditation and yoga sessions aimed at calming our minds and keeping our bodies healthy.

A student participating in daily yoga and meditation classes aimed specifically for musicians as part of our Virtual Young Artist Seminar.

Out wonderful Young Artists performed live over Zoom for their final recital. The livestream of this performance has been viewed 700 times on Facebook! You can check it out here!

Our combined virtual Junior Programs that took place in late July brought together middle school and high school musicians for private lessons, studio classes, group composition and music theory classes, as well as a virtual ensemble. We were amazed at the creativity generated by this group of imaginative students! Our group composition class, led by composer Maggie Polk Olivo, resulted in a beautiful and original work entitled “The Musicians of Rocky Ridge and the Lair of the Phoenix.” The final result is available to watch on our Youtube Channel!

One of the core tenets of our regular summer Junior Programs is to perform outreach concerts in the Estes Park community. Not being able to do that this year, we asked our students at the beginning of the virtual camp to think about how they could safely perform live for someone in their community or extended family who might really need the power of live music at the moment. You can view the results of Rocky Ridge Reaches Out on our Youtube Channel. 

Our final virtual camp of the summer was our Jazz Program, which has just finished. For this camp, our jazz faculty members put together a series of fun and informative sessions on various topics including Kansas City jazz, the history of 8th note development, African diaspora, bebop, beyond bebop, and more! In addition, our students, who ranged from 10 to 17, also had the opportunity to work on their improvisation and composition skills in group settings.

As we’ve reached the end of our summer of virtual music learning, we thought we’d share a few things that we’ve learned along the way.

The Top Ten Things We Learned About Online Music Classes

1 – You can still start an instrument or skill from scratch online.

You may have found yourself with more time at home lately, stuck inside. There’s no better time to start an instrument! Or perhaps you’d like to get the kids involved as well? How about family lessons on the instrument of your choice? Through our year-round program, we offer private lessons with some of the best teachers in the region. Their immense experience in the virtual learning format, as well as the digital resources they can offer you (pdf documents and study aids, practice recordings and accompaniments for when you practice by yourself, YouTube links, and more) mean that learning an instrument online from scratch can be done! Since going online, we have had several beginner students start learning an instrument, and so far they’re loving it. You can also still find, purchase, or rent instruments safely during this time (here’s our list of trusted companies in the Denver/Boulder area).

Now is not just the perfect time to learn a new instrument. If you’re already an experienced musician, it’s also a good time to learn a new skill as well! Why not try our new online Songwriting course? See below for more information or visit the Songwriting page on our website to sign up for a special introductory class on September 1st at 7 pm MDT!

2 – Geographical boundaries mean nothing anymore.

This is one of the things I’ve found most exciting about going online for both our year-round classes and our summer music camps – we’re not bound by geographic barriers any more! Anyone in the world can now take lessons with our world-class faculty! You no longer have to live in Denver or Boulder to take lessons with Rocky Ridge! You can even, if you’d like, take your lessons with you when you’re out of town or on vacation somewhere. You may laugh or wonder why anyone would do that, but you’d be surprised – it has happened already!

Our in-person summer music camps in Estes Park always drew in hundreds of students from around the country and, indeed, around the world in many cases. There is, however, something different about choosing to gather together virtually from our respective homes around the world instead of gathering together from our respective homes in a shared physical space. We had group classes with people who lived in Denver, Florida, Texas, Indiana, Washington, Minneapolis, Arizona, and even Singapore! Our virtual summer music camps taught me three things about distance learning from the comfort of one’s own home:

1. I found online learning to be an excellent exercise in understanding the variety of humanity and lifestyles. Sure, when we go to our summer camps, we get a lot of time to get to know one another, but there’s something different about getting to know someone within their own environment. We get to see each other in our natural contexts! During our virtual camps this summer, we felt like students got to know each other in a different way: they didn’t just get to see a fellow student’s surroundings (what their house looks like, etc.), they got far more insight into the realities of their lives and how they live day-to-day. Our planned virtual social hours were the best ways to get to know one another. In fact, students told us in their surveys that they would’ve liked to have even more of these scheduled!

2. Travel to a physical location can present a few logistical issues and inconveniences that can be avoided by online learning. Plane tickets, packing, parking, traffic – not a problem this summer!

3. Erasing any geographic boundaries meant that we could easily host several important guest speakers during the course of our summer. Robert Walters (English Horn, The Cleveland Orchestra), Scott Reed (President of the Music Academy of the West), Stanley Konopka (Assistant Principal Viola of The Cleveland Orchestra), James Czyzewski (Cellist at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra), and Nicholas Mariscal (Assistant Principal Cello of the Milwaukee Symphony) were some of the people our students got to talk with and learn from. One of the most popular guest speaker seminars we hosted was a two-part lecture by Molly Gebrian, Assistant Professor of Violin at the University of Arizona, who also studies neuroscience and the connection between music and the brain. Her lectures taught us a bit about the neuroscience behind practicing by showing us what, how, and when to practice. It was fascinating!

3 – You can still play and perform “together,” even in a pandemic!

Of course we miss being able to play music together in the same room at the same time. But there are still ways we can play “together!” We experimented with two different ways. In our virtual ensemble class, our wonderful instructors Ken Marrs and Scott Glysson would share a piece of music on our screens and instruct all students (save for one) to mute themselves. That single student would then play or sing their part while everyone else would play or sing their respective lines to themselves. Then we would rotate so that everyone got a chance to play/sing their part, effectively leading the group, over Zoom. Our Jazz Program instructors used a similar approach in our improvisation classes. They would play a repeating progression over Zoom, and all students would improvise a line on their own, all muted except for one.

The second way we got to play music together was to produce an edited video of a group performance. You’ve probably seen a few videos like this on social media since the pandemic started. Ken and Scott chose to have students record themselves singing and playing along to the song “Make Them Hear You” from the musical Ragtime. Then Scott worked very hard to edit portions of each student’s video into a cohesive whole. The result was beautiful and moving!

4 – Flexibility is Everything.

Our students this summer did an amazing job of being present and engaged for multiple hours on screen after having spent the last parts of their Spring semesters learning online after schools closed. But it can be difficult, especially when students had other commitments outside of Rocky Ridge. We learned this summer that flexibility should be key in the online learning format. Offering students the ability to pick and choose which classes, seminars, or studio classes they wanted to attend will mean that we are able to welcome many more students into Rocky Ridge’s virtual sphere than we would’ve otherwise.

5 – You can actually have decent sound on Zoom!

For musicians (and so many other people in other industries), Zoom became a lifeline during lockdown. The problem for musicians was that Zoom’s technology prioritizes the human voice and tends to categorize music as “background” noise that should be suppressed. Luckily for us, there are some settings you can optimize in order to transmit a better sound! You can also enhance your sound greatly with the purchase of an affordable external microphone. We put together a document on our website that should be helpful if you’re taking music lessons on Zoom ——– >> Zoom Tips.

6 – You forget about the “virtual” platform after a while.

Thanks to Zoom’s various features that aid educational learning, it is possible to forget that you’re not in the same room as your classmates. For musicians, the best features were the ability to share scores (and the ability to annotate those scores digitally) and being able to share YouTube videos or other sound files (the sound can be really good if you make sure to check the options to “share computer sound” and “optimize screen share for video clip” when you share your screen). ——-> 








7 – Attitude is important. 

It goes without saying that our faculty, staff, and students will always prefer our in-person programming. We will always prefer meeting students at our beautiful campus. While our students, staff, and faculty were disappointed that we couldn’t meet in person this summer, we all decided to make the best out of a less-than-perfect situation (one of the ways we tried doing this was to bring a bit of our campus into our virtual learning space by using photographs of Rocky Ridge as our Zoom backgrounds).

We found that learning online requires a lot of discipline, and self-motivation, and self-control. It’s easy to pretend you’re paying attention, it’s easy to get distracted, and it’s also very easy to forget to attend a Zoom class or lesson. Learning online also requires much patience, especially with regards to unavoidable technical issues. Somebody will always forget to un-mute themselves. There will be wifi glitches, which can be especially disheartening in the middle of a performance. Sometimes the Share Screen function lets you down, even after you’ve practiced the process several times. Everyone must remember not to let these things annoy them and to adjust their outlooks appropriately.

8 – There are some reasons why online music learning can be even better than in-person learning. 

Once again, we miss in-person learning and can’t wait until we get to go back to this. We understand that learning online is certainly not ideal for many. In addition, with the prospect of schools taking place online in the fall, we understand that screen-fatigue is a very real thing for kids and adults. In talking with parents and teachers in our year-round academy, however, we were initially surprised to learn that there were many who were equally surprised at how well it was going! The best part of online learning, alluded to above, is its convenience. You don’t have to leave your house to access your musical education. The offshoot of this is that students appeared to be more focused and less tired, two characteristics that are crucial for effective music learning. Instructors have reported to us that they have noticed more exponential growth in their students than before.

9 – Online learning can be nerve-wracking, but those nerves disappear fast.

We get it – logging onto a Zoom meeting to attend a seminar or class for the first time knowing that you don’t know anyone else in attendance can be really nerve-wracking. Equally nerve-wracking is the prospect of having to play your instrument online for those people you’re about to meet virtually. We noticed, however, that those nerves disappeared very quickly. How? I think it comes down to two factors: 1. Our instructors and faculty members are particularly adept when it comes to making students feel comfortable in the online format. They easily inculcate a virtual environment that is safe, respectful, and accommodating.  2. I think the fact that you’re tuning in from the comfort and safety of your own home, your own environment, means that you’re put more quickly at ease once the initial nerves die down. Performing from this sheltered, relaxed environment can lessen nerves as well. You’re performing in the same environment in which you practice!

10 – There are so many exciting upcoming opportunities for online music learning!

We are invigorated by the successes of our online summer programming. As a result, we have announced two new online music learning opportunities that will start this fall. The first is our Japanese Music and Dance series, starting August 25th. This will be a wonderful chance for musicians of varying skill and age to explore music they may not be very familiar with. Interested students can choose to take four hour-long private lessons on one of the following topics depending on their interest (see below):

This will begin with a group introductory group class on August 25 at 7 pm MDT where instructors Mami Itasaka-Keister and Jay Keister will demonstrate the Japanese folk song “Soran Bushi.” Students will be introduced to basic Japanese singing, taiko drumming, and dancing for this popular song from Hokkaido, and hear an arrangement for Western instruments. Learn more about our Japanese Music and Dance classes and register for the introductory class ($10) at https://www.rockyridge.org/japanese-music-and-dance-classes/.

Mami Itasaka-Keister and Jay Keister

The second exciting opportunity is our Songwriting course: a chance for musicians 18 and older to finally learn how to make songwriting a more integral part of their musical lives! Self-expression is an important part about being a musician – now you can learn the basics of writing your own music so you can tell your own stories. For four weeks you’ll get to participate in a weekly 60-minute group class as well as a 30-minute private lesson with Mike Barnett. As with our Japanese Music and Dance program, our Songwriting course will begin with a 60-minute introductory group class ($10), happening over Zoom on September 1st. You can learn more about the course and register for the introductory group class at https://www.rockyridge.org/songwriting-class/. We’ll see you there!

Mike Barnett

Finally, a bonus thing we learned this summer (which ended up being the BEST part of our online summer programs): When we do virtual classes, we get to know your pets really well! Melody, Dolce, Tomac, Coda, Boris, Thunder… these were just some of the four-legged stars of Rocky Ridge’s summer! They unwittingly became internet celebrities through their cuteness and their insistence on cuddling up to their humans all day! I know that not one of the summer Zoom session went by without my dog sitting behind me on my desk chair. We even had one or two furry musician wannabes who very occasionally commanded our attention by howling beautiful accompaniments to their humans’ performances.

Tomac and Coda working very hard.

As always, we look forward to the day we can welcome students back onto our beautiful campus where we can celebrate music and nature. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing you online for some wonderful music-making! To close, please enjoy the following video: a photo montage of our Virtual Junior Program to an arrangement of the Rocky Ridge camp song by Maggie Polk Olivo for the Southwest String Quartet, made up of Rocky Ridge faculty members David Rife, Wynne Wong-Rife, Rebecca McKee, and Mary Beth Tyndall (video edited by Maggie Polk Olivo).

Watch Video


-Megan Quilliam

Assistant Director