MARK MURPHY'S MUSIC SCHOOL! LIVE! FROM THE BASEMENT! by Sara Courtney
The shutdown made them bored. The music kept them connected.
Just a few months ago, before masks and hand sanitizer and the words “remote learning” trudged their way into our weary lexicon, Columbia High School senior Emma Herrero was busy playing on her varsity soccer team and getting ready for upcoming spring sports. Balancing her busy schedule of athletics, AP classes and social life, she also took music lessons at Mark Murphy’s Music school in South Orange.
Herrero’s days were packed with the normal distractions of a teenager readying for college. Then came COVID-19, and now, months later, only the music remains.
Herrero has studied at Mark Murphy’s Music for 10 years. “Music was something I did every single week,” she says. “It was a constant.” She had been busy with sports, homework, and friends – the ordinary tapestry of a teenager’s life – when suddenly the everyday ceased; music became the connection to a sense of normalcy.
“Once I do my homework for four hours a day, what could I do with the rest of my day?” she asks. “I was going to manage softball – that’s gone. I can’t go out with my friends now. Honestly, in terms of keeping my schedule stable, music was really helpful.”
Sophomore Vivienne Frederick kept a hectic pace as well. “Before the shutdown, I was very busy; I had a lot going on,” she says. “I was always around people, so when the lockdown came it was a difficult switch going from being out and about to just being at home.” Frederick was grateful to still have her lessons when other activities were canceled. “When they switched online, that was really good for me. It gave me something to look forward to every week.”
Mark Murphy, who founded the music school in November 2003, noticed that studying music became vital during the shutdown. “It was a touchpoint to their old life,” he believes. “It centered them each week.” As a small business owner, Murphy considers himself lucky the school was able to transition to remote and his students adjusted with him. “This is our best summer enrollment in the history of the school.”
Senior David Wiggins recalls, “For a while, everything kind of stopped. Everyone was figuring how to adjust to this whole situation.” While schools everywhere struggled with the transition to remote learning, Wiggins had mixed feelings about music lessons taking place remotely. “I was a bit cynical, because when you are learning something, you always think to yourself, ‘What is the best way to learn?’ It’s in person. It wouldn’t be the same going digital.”
And that ability to go digital proved critical for the music school. Says Murphy, “Around the 12th of March we closed, and within a week we went from never doing anything online to doing it all online.” The rapid transition required a monumental effort: “It was startling because it just happened so fast.” Despite his initial concerns, Wiggins was impressed. “It worked out. You are still able to connect through the screen.”
Studying music not only provided a much-needed sense of connection; the way the students practice has actually flourished without the burden of rushed schedules. Senior Eloise Wendt found that the extra time has changed her approach. “I started practicing more. I think being home all the time, it just makes it easier.” Another musician, Rafi Colton-Max, filled his time with music. “A lot of the activities...shut down everything, but with music it has continued, just in a different manner. I would say I was busier than my fellow classmates because I would practice so much.”
Frederick reflects on how her approach to practicing has evolved. “I’ve been able to really experiment what works best for me, what styles of music I like.” Herrero echoes this sentiment.
“Once quarantine started, I found myself practicing the actual assigned music pieces, sitting down with a metronome.” Wiggins strikes a similar note. “I would say I started playing a lot more creatively, I started thinking differently, I had a lot more time to think about how I was playing. A lot more ideas would come to me more often than they did before.”
As the pandemic wears on, Murphy considers the unexpected downtime a small positive for his students. “Nowadays, kids’ environments are just so much faster; there are so many things vying for their attention. The glass half full is that it has slowed everything down. They aren’t as busy as they were. So they are able to practice so much more.”
In fact, Murphy believes the burst of creativity and focused practice connects students not only to their recent past, when their lives were unencumbered by the ubiquitous virus, but to the distant past decades ago, when budding musicians like himself had little else to do but play. “It was the mid to late '80s when I started guitar. There was no internet, no iPhones, no social media.” Reminiscing on the many hours he spent in his basement practicing, Murphy recalls that “I became obsessed in the best possible way with music.” He sees similarities to the way his students have adapted during the shutdown. “They are spending that basement time, alone time, but now they have this technology to share the results.”
Many of the students’ music studies incorporated software technology, such as audio engineering, which requires an understanding of Logic Pro X, a digital and audio workstation. “You use it to record, mix, and master music,” explains Wiggins. “They had a Logic class I was taking before the shutdown, and after as well. It’s something I’ve been getting really into.” Murphy speculates his students’ sudden free time spent practicing in the basement, just like he did decades ago, has been accelerated by such modern capabilities: “We live in a technological world and there are so many tools at their disposal…. We saw our kids rise up in unique ways.”
Rising to the creative challenge, Wiggins worked on covering the Beatles. “I approached Mark with a cover of “The Long and Winding Road” and he suggested Emma sing over it.” Murphy was more than impressed with what he heard from Wiggins. “I was blown away,” he confesses. After Wiggins sent the mp3 file to Herrero, she worked on it in her basement, eventually recording her vocals, then sent the audio file back to Wiggins, where he put it all together in Logic. They released their collaboration the day before graduation – held virtually.
“I chose that song because it reminded me of a high school graduation,” says Wiggins. “There’s a long and winding road ahead of you, but you always wind up back in the same place. It fit that theme – especially in the times we are in now.” The response was overwhelmingly positive, if not a little bittersweet. “It’s very fitting they chose that song,” says Murphy, “and it turned out very beautiful.”
Without concerts or recitals, Murphy encouraged his students to create videos of their performances. Colton-Max recorded the jazz standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” which he arranged for other musicians to collaborate on, recording and mixing the entire jazz ensemble remotely. Wendt worked on a cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” admitting that the song took on “additional meaning” because of the shutdown. Once it was shared on social media, Taylor himself took notice, sharing it to his own Instagram feed.
Murphy believes the abundance of time to practice and the ability to share widely is the best of both worlds: jamming in the basement like the old days, yet with access to technology to connect with others. “Someone in high school in the 1980s never would have had access to that,” Murphy says. “She had the alone time to prep it, and then the recognition that comes from sharing it in today’s day and age.”
Using an app called Acapella, Frederick explored layering different parts of songs. She shared a cover of Kasey Musgrave’s song “Rainbow,” calling the song “comforting,” with a message encouraging people to look on the bright side. “I think that really applies, especially now during this global pandemic.” Her cover was shared on Instagram, where it struck a nerve with many visitors.
Calling music “a safe place,” Frederick encourages others to see “the rainbow through the dark cloud.” For her, that rainbow is her lessons. “It’s something I look forward to everyday, even when things are not completely normal.”
To hear the students’ performances, follow Mark Murphy’s Music School on Instagram.
Sara Courtney comes to Maplewood by way of Seattle, where she spent her youth obsessed with the grunge scene.