UC Berkeley music professor Jeffrey Sykes discusses virtual pedagogical adaptations

Jeffrey Sykes
Jeffrey Sykes/Courtesy

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The pianos of Morrison Hall have been untouched since March, buttered by the balm of the basement practice rooms, floured by dust, baked through summer. UC Berkeley’s fall semester and its mandated online transition has attributed palpable absences to the campus. The music department is feeling the absences, not only of people and sounds, but also of touch. 

“Playing the piano is, physically, choreography. It’s choreography of very small muscles, and over a limited space, but nonetheless a very detailed choreography,” Professor Jeffrey Sykes said in an interview with The Daily Californian. In the traditional, hands-on lesson, he could lightly apply pressure on the wrist to simulate the weight of a note or correct the posture of a lazy arm with just his fingertips as a scaffold. But it’s difficult to communicate such physical tweaks through stuttering pixels. How does a teacher convey the degree to which one’s arm must fight gravity? 

Sykes, who instructs in both vocal and piano studies at UC Berkeley, has been teaching group studio classes as well as individual lessons. The forced retreat from hands-on instruction has changed both his approach to pedagogy and his conception of performance. But for Sykes, it isn’t all absence. Zoom brings a novel idea of focus. “When I’m working with singers, I can’t accompany them,” he explained. “There’s a natural latency in the internet that doesn’t allow us to perform music together — the sound would get all garbled. I’m able to focus on students finding their own pitches and being specific about their intonation without the assistance of a piano, and that forces a kind of thinking and reckoning that is really good.” 

Whereas a traditional lesson leads to tangential rabbit holes, the pathway of a digital lesson is linear. The focus Sykes references is the evolved relationship between the teacher and his disciple, one of vigilance and one-directional surveillance. “It’s made me a better teacher, ” Sykes said. 

“Singing, as you know, is an activity that is potentially dangerous under these situations,” Sykes continued. But Zoom makes possible a professional distance that was previously unfathomable. On camera, Sykes can crowd the screen with his face to show his voice students a strain of the cheeks, a movement of the tongue or a shape of the mouth. That type of microscopic visual simply wouldn’t work in person.

In addition to his virtual classes at Berkeley, Sykes also lectures at California State University, East Bay, in Hayward. Once a week, Sykes faces that potential danger and coaches in-person vocal lessons, meaning once a week, he rolls a piano to the entryway of the campus’s music building, wedging it between the automatic doors. The student stands outside of the building under a covered awning, while he is inside, separated by a few degrees of glass. “No physical contact whatsoever,” Sykes assured. 

As both a frequent performer and organizer — Sykes is the founder and director of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in Wisconsin he is acutely aware of the new distinctions between viewer and audience. “Home is the stage,” he said. But virtual recording allows for the audience to see inside the home of the artist, a vulnerability not previously afforded to the general public. And if any group of people is obsessed with upholding art’s supposed aura, it’s classical musicians. Sykes mused about his recent performances: “In the middle of it, the garbage truck goes by, or the dog starts barking or somebody knocks at the door — the interruptions of daily life. I suppose, in a way, it makes artists and performers seem more like real people.” 

The delineation between labor and craft blurs if the home is to become the stage. To Sykes, this is a welcome idea: There goes the cultus of velvet seats and stifled coughs in the concert hall, and here comes the embrace of empathy in lieu of those elite illusions. 

But that doesn’t mean that Sykes does not feel the acute absence of the old ways. “We’ve lost a sense of the world to which we belong,” he explained. “I learned about what’s going on by walking down the hall. I’d hear a lecture happening in here, and I’d hear somebody playing a chamber music piece over in this room, and I peek my head through the door here and I see somebody practicing the piano on the stage.” 

“Pianos have always been great vectors of transmission,” Sykes continued. “Pianists in conservatories and colleges are often the first people to catch the flu, because they’re sharing the equipment in a very intimate way.” Music is a tactile thing. It’s spit particles in the breath and pads of fingers smudging on cold ivories. It’s walking down Morrison Hall. It’s haptic in that pas de deux sense, between the teacher and the student, hand to wrist to arm. Such is the loss: That traditional pedagogy relies on that somatic convergence of sound and space that meets at the instrument, be it larynx or keyboard. But remote from Morrison Hall, there evidently are new ways of seeing and knowing.

Contact Katherine Chen at [email protected]. Tweet her at @spaghettybaby.