COVID Stole So Much, But It Couldn’t Take Away Music

During a year of disruption and disorientation, music kept so many of us connected — and helped us through even the most devastating losses.

jennifer weiner settlement music school

Kyla Edmonds sits at the piano at the Mary Louise Curtis branch of Settlement Music School in Queen Village. Photograph by Drew Dennis

When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs in the 1970s, my first encounters with a piano were fairly typical. Starting when I was seven years old, once a week, instead of walking home from school, I’d walk around the block to my teacher’s house, where for half an hour I’d dutifully practice my scales and play whatever piece I’d been working on. Over the years I progressed from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to “Für Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata.”

In high school, I realized that if I wanted to keep getting better at the piano, I’d need to practice at least an hour a day. That would leave me no time for sports or any of my other extracurriculars. So I quit. Completely. Didn’t touch a keyboard again for 30 years.

I can’t remember exactly why I decided to restart my lessons after all that time. Maybe I’d read an article about aging and how mastering new skills can help you feel young. (Spoiler alert — it can!) Maybe I’d seen Lizzo playing her flute and wondered what might have been if I’d stuck with it.

I knew just where to go. When my daughters were toddlers, I took them to music appreciation classes at the Mary Louise Curtis branch of the Settlement Music School, a few blocks away from our home in Queen Village. They learned songs and shook maracas and banged on drums, and I vaguely remembered glimpsing the occasional adult walking the halls holding a sheaf of sheet music.

So that’s where, one Monday afternoon, I met Michael Caruso, a white-haired gentleman in his 70s who is ebullient and erudite and seems to know absolutely everything about any piece of classical music ever composed. Michael has been teaching at Settlement since 1986. He has students who’ve been with him for all that time, boys and girls he’s seen grow up to become men and women, with children of their own.

At my first lesson with him, I sat on the bench in front of the grand piano and settled my hands on the keys. “I don’t think I remember much,” I told him. He set a piece of music on the stand, an easy Burgmüller étude in G major. “Play the right hand’s part,” he said.

I was pleased that I was able to pick out the notes with only a few errors.

“Now play the left hand’s part,” he said.

That was harder, but slowly, I figured it out.

“Now both hands together.”

With starts and stops and plenty of mistakes, I managed.

“Now go home and practice.” I did, on the 66-note Casio I’d purchased when my younger daughter was five — an instrument with all the depth and resonance of a kazoo.

For the next three years, I enjoyed my lessons and was impressed, and relieved, to find out how much I’d retained. I bought a better keyboard (one with all 88 keys) and found that practicing, a chore when I was a kid, was now a welcome respite. I’ve never mastered meditation; in yoga, all I do is compare myself (unfavorably) to whoever’s on the next mat. But being alone with the music, with the notes on the page and my fingers on the keys, refocused my attention and gave me peace.

And that was before COVID-19.

All things considered, I’ve gotten off relatively easy during this horrible pandemic. Early on, I would joke that I’d spent much of my adult life training for quarantine. Work from home? I was doing that. Live in sweatpants? Already had a drawerful. I’ve always been a homebody, and while I missed seeing friends and meeting up for yoga or coffee, for months, I was fine. So were my daughters, who are 13 and 17 and were lucky enough to attend classes in person for most of the 2020-’21 school year.

I couldn’t have guessed what 2021 had in store for me and how essential music would become.

The Settlement Music School is one of Philadelphia’s great treasures, and it’s the hero of this story.

When I brought my girls to Settlement for that childhood music class, I had a sense I’d read about a settlement school before. I finally figured out where — in the All-of-a-Kind Family books, which told stories about a Jewish family in turn-of-the-century New York. Back then, settlement houses were popular. Wealthy white college-educated “settlers” would establish homesteads in immigrant communities in big cities.

“Settlement was founded out of the Settlement House movement in 1908,” Helen Eaton, the school’s CEO, says. “It was meant to be a home away from home for recent immigrants.” The founders weren’t sure the music lessons Settlement offered would ever take off. The building was constructed to double as a hospital, should that be what the community required instead. “But the music school had great success right from the beginning.”

Music let students meet on a level playing field. Whether or not they spoke English, they could learn to read music.

Volunteers started offering piano lessons at the school. Cost: one nickel. By 1914, the Mary Louise Curtis branch was officially a school of the arts.

Since its founding, Settlement has served more than 300,000 students. Today, it’s one of the largest employers of musicians in the tristate area, with more than 250 faculty and staff members providing some 10,000 weekly lessons, classes and activities. It hosts an arts-centered preschool and boasts a star-studded group of alumni, including Christian McBride, Kevin Eubanks, Questlove, Chubby Checker, Kevin Bacon and one Albert Einstein, who played with the school’s chamber music ensemble and served on the board of advisers.

The school’s founding mission — serving immigrants and Philadelphians of all ages, regardless of their ability to pay — ­con­tinues to define the school. Today, more than 60 percent of Settlement students receive financial aid. Its online branch, launched during the pandemic, has enrolled 200 new students from 17 states. It feels especially resonant, and necessary, today.

“We have always embraced a diverse community,” Eaton says. “When you start with that as a premise, the school can only flourish.”

At 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, youth choir practice begins with a familiar scene. My laptop’s screen fills with squares, each containing a face. The choir members range from third-graders through high-schoolers, of all races, from all the area zip codes.

One kid is in a kitchen; another’s in a living room. Some have phones; some have laptops or iPads. Two musicians are Zooming in from the back seats of cars. The connections are glitchy. For the hour-long rehearsal, from the moment Rae Ann Anderson says, “Let’s wake up our instruments! Let’s get ourselves to the land of music!” to the moment she dismisses the class, her enthusiasm barely flags as the kids work on songs from The Lion King. She shares her screen to display the sheet music and shows the kids snippets of Jeremy Irons and Nathan Lane singing in the 1994 film. You’d never guess that this time last year, Anderson was a video newbie, a Zoom virgin with no clue how to teach a choir in a world where singing had become a high-risk activity.

In-person rehearsals and live performances were out of the question. “I’m 64 years old,” says Anderson. “I didn’t have the skills — upload this, download that — and I didn’t even have the language.”

COVID ended the spring’s choir. Over the summer, as the pandemic stretched on, Anderson, who’s been teaching at Settlement since 1989, sought out friends with expertise: “Tell me the definition of this word.” “Where is this on my keyboard?” “How do I make a video?” By September, she was ready for the choir to start meeting in the virtual world but wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested. To her delight, 52 kids signed up — more than half of last year’s 90 students.

Starting up again was “still very scary. I had very little confidence of how it was going to work.” But the kids are there to help: “‘Oh, Mrs. Anderson! You have to push this button!’ I’ve learned a lot from them.”

The challenges kept coming: In January, Anderson and her husband both had COVID, which knocked her out for two weeks of rehearsals and left her with lingering fatigue. When she recovered, rehearsals resumed. On Wednesday night, one by one, Anderson calls on the kids. While it isn’t perfect — “Can you repeat that?” is a common refrain — their voices come through, one by one by one.

Although the end-of-the-year concert, the reward for a year’s hard work, is looking unlikely, Anderson has plans to send the singers an accompanying track as an MP3. They’ll record themselves singing their parts along with the music, and Settlement teachers will stitch together the voices to create a kind of virtual choir.

“Okay, now, Luz, can you sing this for me? Samuel, can you sing this? Molly, can you sing this?”

The litany of names is almost a song itself: Cara. Nefi. Charlie. Jazmyn. Joniya. Kathryn. Tyler. Amir. Zariah. Ryleigh. Saoir­se. Blake. Isabella. Sade. Kaidyn. One after another, the kids hit their notes, their voices rising and falling sweetly, until the words and the melody resolve into a sum greater than their parts, a recognizable song.

In 2002, after working as a Philadelphia corrections officer, Kimberly Lowe Sawyer was unemployed, and expecting. The pregnancy was difficult. Doctors told her she might not live to see her baby. Kimberly remembers writing out a wish list. The first item was simply to see her baby’s face. Another of the items was private music lessons for her daughter. She used some of her public assistance to buy a piano, thinking that if she didn’t live to raise her child, “at least she will start her journey. But God allowed me to see everything on that list.” In 2007, three days before her daughter Kyla Edmonds’s sixth birthday, Kimberly enrolled her at Settlement’s Wynnefield branch, where she began studying piano with Russ Klein. Student and teacher have worked together for 13 years so far. During a challenging year, Kimberly and Kyla have faced more challenges than most. In April, Kyla’s father got COVID and recovered. In September, Kyla’s paternal grandmother died of COVID. And in December, Kimberly got sick with COVID, too. Then there’s the peril of growing up in a North Philadelphia neighborhood plagued by violence.

Settlement, Kimberly says, was a second home for her daughter. Music gave her discipline and escape and an identity, a different path that she could follow. A thing that was her own.

“If I’m feeling any kind of way, I’ll play a song,” says Settlement student Kyla Edmonds. “The one thing that’s been keeping me sane is music.”

“Kyla was always a delightful student,” Russ Klein says. “She always has a smile. She learns things well, and what doesn’t come easily to her, she’s willing to go the extra mile to do right.”

“Words don’t come easy to me,” Kyla says in a telephone interview. “I could definitely connect more with the instrumental aspect of music. If I’m feeling any kind of way, I’ll play a song. The one thing that’s been keeping me sane is music.”

By the time she graduated from Merion Mercy Academy, in the midst of the pandemic, Kyla had been accepted at 13 of the 15 colleges to which she’d applied, with offers of more than two million dollars in scholarships and financial aid. She turned down a full scholarship to study psychology at Villanova to attend Temple, where she’s working toward a bachelor of science degree in music.

Now Kyla is a success story, even though she grew up in a neighborhood where kids her age were dying, where she saw dead bodies on her way to school on three different occasions.

“To tune that out, and to graduate with honors, and to not think the whole world is unkind … ” Kimberly’s voice trails off. “It saved her.”

The music has been saving me, too, as what was once a pleasant diversion became a lifeline amidst this terrible year.

At the beginning of March, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She spent 28 days in the hospital, and came home for a few weeks. Long enough to marry her longtime partner of 18 years, long enough to see all of her children and meet her newest granddaughter, born during the pandemic.

Then her symptoms got worse. It was clear chemo wasn’t working, and there was nothing left for the doctors to do. My mom came home on hospice care, and I went to Connecticut to sit with her, to play music she loved on the stereo — bluegrass and klezmer, Lucinda Williams and Mozart — and to wait.

Like me, my mother took piano lessons as a child. Like me, she gave it up as an adult. When I was a kid, every once in a while, my mom would sit at the keyboard and pick out a few measures from Beethoven’s Minuet in G. When I restarted my lessons as an adult, my mom told me over and over how impressed she was. When she’d visit, I would practice, and she would sit, listening to me make my way through a thorny waltz or prelude. “Very pleasant,” she’d say, her voice approving.

My mother’s mother lived to be 101, sharp right until the end. I thought I’d have my own mom for as long as my mother had hers, that my daughters would have their Granny Franny around as they grew up. Instead, nine weeks after her diagnosis, my mother died, peacefully, at home. On Mother’s Day. (“Giving you material right until the end,” said her wife.) And even though words are my tools — my work, my career — I can’t find the words for this. Not the ones I want to say to comfort my daughters; not the ones I want to say to myself.

I can’t find the words … but I can make music. Or at least I can try.

Since I started in 2017, I’ve moved from the simplest études to early intermediate pieces: Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin, Brahms and Grieg. My current favorites are Bach’s French suites, specifically the fifth suite’s Gigue. It’s a lively, fast-moving piece.

Play it right, and it’s sprightly and airy, intricate and bright. Play it poorly, or slowly, and it’s a lot less lovely.

I sit at the bench, my left foot on the floor, right foot on the sustain pedal, hands on the keys. When I begin, it feels like my fingers have swelled into jointless sausages, like the connections from page to eye to brain to fingers have all gotten muddy and slow. The wrong notes clang; my fingers slip and fumble.

I take a deep breath, and I start again, more slowly, playing the right hand’s triplets, each note careful and distinct. Over and over, harmony then melody then harmony again, both hands together, approaching each other, diverging, coming together again, until the notes stop being notes and become a coherent whole, one that sounds much the same as it did hundreds of years ago, when Bach composed it for his children, one that will sound the same years from now, if my granddaughter’s granddaughter’s granddaughters learn to play. Composers die, and authors die, and mothers die, but music remains, connecting us in a language that transcends words, giving us a way to speak our joy and a place to escape our sorrow.

There will always be music. And, if we’re lucky, there will always be institutions like Settlement, ensuring that anyone who wants it can have it.

I start again … and then there’s no room in my brain for anything else but the music. Worries, doubts, grudges, regrets, sorrow over the time I didn’t have — all of those things recede and then vanish, and I could be anyone, anywhere, at any moment between 1725 and now. The world slips away, and the notes ring out, filling the room, until there’s nothing left but music.

Jennifer Weiner is the author of 15 novels, including Good in Bed, Mrs. Everything and, most recently, That Summer. She lives in Queen Village with her family.

Published as “Though We Lost So Much, We Still Had Music” in “The City Survives” essay collection in the June 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.