Coronavirus Chronicles: Alley Bell pivots from in-person classes to virtual music-making

Sarah Richàrd, founder of Alley Bell Music, performs for the camera at the Edmonds studio. (All photos courtesy Music Together)

Making music in the time of COVID has called for inordinate creativity. Social distancing restrictions have made life especially difficult for performing artists whose life work—and livelihoods—normally depend on gathering crowds of people in ways that are severely restricted, if not totally out of the question, in these unprecedented circumstances.

Notwithstanding the above challenges, Sarah Richàrd, founder of Edmonds-based Alley Bell Music and director of local branches of the global organization Music Together, has discovered creative ways to keep her business afloat, and to happily engage the families involved in her endeavor, at least virtually, for now.

“We’ve been virtual since March,” says Richàrd. “At the time we had 120 families per week who had already paid in full and were under an obligation to them. Having started a new semester, we had to figure out how to continue, what to do.”

Richàrd thought long and hard, as a business owner, about how to proceed, both immediately and from a longer-term perspective, in creating something exciting (especially challenging with small children involved) and new while cutting down costs until the crisis was over.

The solution was to set up the 5th Avenue North classroom in downtown Edmonds as a recording studio with a high-quality digital webcam, soft spot lighting, and external mic. As of September, when restrictions had somewhat eased, all the classes have been given virtually from that location.

The innovative result allowed for lower overhead, as well as new opportunities, by reaching out to other Music Together directors in the US and Canada to create partnerships.

According to Richàrd, “Corona has caused us to come up with new developments, which have turned out to be exciting.”

As it happened, Ashley McConnell’s small center in Vancouver, B.C. was floundering and she was panicked about what to do. She and Richàrd were both concerned about finding enough kids for such unique class offerings as the Rhythm Kids Djembe Drumming. The two directors worked together to form a partnership, creating content for their respective clients on a joint Facebook group and page. They agreed on class offerings on their respective websites with the same Zoom link.

Music Together offers a virtual en español program with opera singer Elizabeth Galafa.

The result was a huge success. Later, they partnered with other programs in California and Colorado for the upcoming January semester, eventually including Nebraska, North Carolina and Oregon in a full class spectrum. The classes also include the popular en español program with opera singer Elizabeth Galafa.

“We even hired a recorder teacher in California, who is teaching virtually under our umbrella,” says Richàrd. “That way, we could split costs 4 ways, lower risks, and cross-promote.”

Opportunities abound for teaching virtually, as well as for camaraderie and creativity, as never before with the international business partnerships in this global company, whose reach extends to such far-off places as Guadalajara and Boston.

The most fun of all, Richàrd says, is their new in-house DJ, Mark Lewis, who originally was a Music Together dad and a professional DJ on the side.

The Unicorn DJ Mark Lewis is available for Zoom dance parties.

“He always came to class, a true British gentleman, with a mom in the UK. I asked him to do a dance party last spring and he knocked it out of the park. He showed up wearing an inflatable unicorn costume,” laughs Richàrd.

Lewis was hired full-time and is listed on the Alley Bell website along with other Music Together directors. He gave five parties over Halloween week at various other Music Together centers as the “Unicorn DJ” and is now booking for Christmas.

Alley Bell also books 30-minute Zoom dance parties for any special occasion or event. They gave an end-of-semester Zoom party and a Halloween dance costume party. The Jingle Jam at 10 am on Dec. 19 is free for registrants of the December interim session or can be booked as a one-time event.

“Birthdays, corporate events and more,” says Richàrd. “We have a seamless musical playlist to dance to and can accommodate 100 people.

A child enjoys Miss Mariah’s weekly Zoom Music Together class.

“Crazy things have been happening from this pandemic,” Richàrd adds. “Our numbers are down, since many families are just not into digital learning. But our regular and new families are grateful for the Zoom classes every week, our pre-recorded content, and weekly Facebook Live classes. Our teachers are doing their best work. We’ve found out what works and what doesn’t in an online format.”

Richàrd expressed her gratitude to the graciousness of her landlord, and to the grant money from the city of Edmonds to keep her enterprise afloat. “We’ve had so much support from the city, our landlord, our loyal families. Everyone wants us to pull through.”

Although operating at lower numbers than normal, Richàrd has started a new ukulele program for all ages with teacher Mariah Fraser. The series had been in planning stages over the last year but was placed on the back burner while the company was getting used to doing everything online. The virtual classes launched in fall with 20 people, both kids and adults. In the winter semester they will be adding intermediate adult ukulele classes. That’s in addition to Richàrd’s private voice studio, and private piano and recorder lessons on Zoom. The program encompasses ages from birth to adult.

“We’ve become a landing place for any age, a community music school,” Richàrd says. “Strange as it may seem, the pandemic has gotten us closer to our goal.”

Richàrd says she has never worked harder than in the last six months. She admits she could easily make more money teaching. But she truly feels that Alley Bell is her calling. She’s passionate about it and grateful to have enough people on her team to allow to the school to continue, and hopefully grow.

“We have dedicated families, new programs that can keep on growing till we can give them in person,” she says. “We are continually refining our teaching, our equipment, to give the very best experience.”

An added challenge with her private students is that they not only need instruction but psychological support. “I’m both teacher and counselor. Their emotions get better of them. They need some self-care. They’re not getting the arts anywhere else.”

Alley Bell Music provides virtual learning for all ages, and the hope that their Edmonds, Lynnwood, Lake Forest Park and Seattle locations will return to in-person classes as soon as possible. Alley Bell’s nine-week Winter 2021 semester begins on Jan. 11. Class descriptions and schedules can be found at www.alleybellmusic.com.

— By Erica Miner

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the impact of coronavirus on the life, work and health of Edmonds,, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace residents. If you or someone you know has a story to tell, please email us at myedmondsnews@gmail.com

 

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