Upbeat teachers finish music degrees and stay ‘upbeat’ amidst covid-19

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Upbeat teachers Nikki Puchkov and Giselle Chan are recent graduates from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Nikki holds a Bachelor of Music Education with a minor in Historical Keyboard and History and Giselle holds a Bachelor of Music with a minor in French Language. Both teachers finished their degrees in April 2020.  


When Upbeat teachers Nikki and Giselle first met during university orientation, little did they know that they would become not only good friends, but also coworkers in the future. Being in the same program, they shared many classes such as theory, history, and choir. They quickly bonded over their “nerdy” love for music theory—a subject commonly despised by most undergraduate music students. “Theory really helped me look at music differently,” Nikki says, “[it] made it easier to learn repertoire and teach it!” Nikki has had a lot of experience working as a collaborative pianist and accompanist, which requires her to quickly learn and absorb the music.  


“There is a very technical and math-like side to theory,” Giselle explains, “it can get super complicated, but I loved researching and studying theory in university. That’s why I went on to take more advanced theory courses in my third and fourth year.” Theory also aided Nikki and Giselle in developing an interest in historical keyboard, and they went on to take classes in organ and harpsichord together. Harpsichord often requires a solid foundation of theory knowledge as there can be a lot of on-the-spot improvisation and analyses in the playing style.  


Another course that they took together was conducting. “It was definitely a new experience for me,” Giselle said, “it’s a lot harder than just waving a stick around. It requires confidence, poise, trust, and so much more. As someone that never likes class presentations, it was definitely a course that pushed me out of my comfort zone!” For Nikki, she found choral conducting to be right up her alley. She began to serve as Assistant Conductor for the UTSC Ruckus Alumni and Community choir in addition to her role as their collaborative pianist.  


Nikki began working with Upbeat Piano Studio in 2018 and Giselle in 2019. Both teachers were quick to bond with their students and developed a passion for working with children. Both teachers had taken various music education courses which were very useful in understanding the process of teaching piano. According to Nikki, the child education courses allowed her to “learn about stages of child development [and] plan out lessons that would be most effective for [her] students.” Similarly, Giselle took classes on the psychology of music education. “It’s really interesting to learn about the way the brain works when learning music—these courses really helped me in understanding and teaching my students,” she agreed.  


Overall, both teachers had a great time in their four years at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Nikki reflects on her time there, realizing that “studying music in university exposed [her] to all the different kinds of music beyond just classical. Learning classical piano can be a really lonely process, and there can be little exposure to other kinds of music. In university, however, you meet new people and they all have various projects outside of “classical” or “jazz” music that they study. [She] loved being exposed to various mediums through which musicians express themselves!” Giselle agrees with her and reflects back on her time there as well. “It was definitely a cool experience to study music. It definitely came with a lot of work though. There were difficult, research-heavy courses that I took, but also some super fun ones, like Japanese Taiko Drumming. Nikki and I often spent time together in between classes to grab coffee and complain to each other about how tired we were,” she remembers, laughing, “But at the end of the day, we were always proud of our hard work and the musicians that we have become.”  


Although their last year of university ended rather abruptly due to the pandemic, Nikki and Giselle are proud music graduates from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. The pandemic did not come without hardship for most piano teachers, Nikki and Giselle included. Over the course of one weekend, piano lessons had been put on pause and school had been shut down. All teachers, not just music teachers, were to make a hasty switch to virtual teaching. Amidst final essays and online exams, Nikki and Giselle continued to be committed to their students—they encouraged students to continue with their piano lessons online, created new lesson approaches and plans for virtual learning, and even continued preparing students for piano exams. Even when Toronto entered Phase 3 and in-person lessons resumed, both teachers were careful in keeping their distance, wearing their masks, and always sanitizing their hands. “Ultimately, I love my students,” says Giselle, “I love working with them and watching them grow. It’s encouraging not only for them, but for myself as a teacher when I watch them improve and nurture their love for music.”  


Giselle and Nikki continue to work as teachers at Upbeat Piano Studio and occasionally get together to drink coffee and play piano duets. Both teachers have room for new students and are available to teach new students—adults and children—during the daytime and evening. All new students are welcome! 

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