A switch to online classes because of the covid crisis has enabled an acclaimed music centre in North Wales to provide lessons around the world.
Among the tutors at Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (William Mathias Music Centre), which has bases in Caernarfon, Denbigh and Ruthin, is internationally renowned harpist Elinor Bennett who is now teaching one of her young protégés 7,500 miles away in the Welsh colony of Patagonia in Argentina.
The long-distance tutoring through the medium of Welsh is a dream come true for talented teenage harpist Helen Green who loves the lessons with her music idol.
The centre has managed to continue to conduct 65 per cent of its one to one lessons since the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Within a week of going into lockdown in March, the lessons moved online – something that also allowed the centre to extend its reach well beyond its traditional heartland.
Some face-to-face lessons have now resumed but centre director Meinir Llwyd Roberts revealed the virtual lessons are here to stay for those who are unable to attend lessons in person.
That’s music to the ears of 15-year-old Helen who said: “I feel so lucky that we have the technology to do this. To have Elinor as my mentor is a real privilege, a chance to learn so much. It’s the second-best thing to having her in the room. She’s an extraordinary teacher, an amazing harpist.”
The trans-Atlantic connection is one of the remarkable achievements secured by centre which is working hard to keep music lessons available and its teachers in work through the pandemic.
The live lessons take place online through the video communications platform Zoom.
Elinor said she immensely looks forward to the fortnightly lessons with Helen and enjoys catching up with news in ‘beautiful Patagonia’ which she has visited three times.
She said: “The miracles of modern technology have been hugely beneficial during this difficult period for musicians worldwide.
“Despite this we’ve struck up an exciting connection which Helen and I look forward to every two weeks.
“It takes great preparation on both sides to make it work and we have to factor in the three hour time difference but so far the lessons are going fantastically well.”
Elinor holds an OBE and has performed with the English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as giving regular recitals on BBC radio and television. Her past students include the former Royal harpist Catrin Finch, now a renowned classical musician who was official harpist to Prince Charles from 2000-2004.
Elinor said she would not be able to mentor Helen so easily without help from Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (CGWM) of which she is a long-standing supporter.
CGWM was established in 1999 to improve access to instrumental and singing lessons for the North Wales community and provide a work outlet for self-employed music teachers.
It encompasses 42 freelance tutors who offer individual and group tuition to more than 500 people on a weekly basis across the board from pre-school to pension ages.
These are normally in-person activities at Galeri Caernarfon, or satellite centres at Theatr Twm o’r Nant, Denbigh, and Capel Tabernacl, Ruthin and in the wider community.
Face to face activities were put on hold during the summer lockdown and recent Wales firebreak. But helped by funds from the Arts Council of Wales’ stabilisation fund made possible by The National Lottery, and the willingness of tutors to adapt, most of its music projects were transferred online
CGWM director Meinir Llwyd Roberts said: “There’s no question we’ve faced unprecedented obstacles sustaining musical education provision during the pandemic, but we’ve succeeded in adapting all our regular projects to offer some online provision. It’s opened our eyes to opportunities for using this as a method of delivering activities in the future.
“Face-to-face lessons are the best option and we can’t wait to be able to return all our projects face to face but in some circumstances where this isn’t possible the online facility is a great alternative option. We’ll be continuing to offer it in the long term, post pandemic.”
“One only has to look at the remarkable example of Elinor and Helen to see how music education really can transcend boundaries whether they be geographical, physical or emotional.”
Elinor was put in contact with Helen and her music loving family by another of her former students Esyllt Roberts de Lewis, who grew up in Wales but moved to Patagonia to teach.
After they met Esyllt recognised Helen had great potential and would benefit from more advanced tutoring. Esyllt contacted Elinor to ask if she could recommend a good mentor and was thrilled when Elinor took on board the task herself.
Helen and her mum, a violinist, were delighted.
Elinor said: “Helen is such a keen, self-motivated student, a real pleasure to work with. She was improving noticeably after just five sessions and is currently preparing to join a virtual online performance with other CGWM students. We’re hopeful of arranging it soon. She has also taken part in a music festival in Buenos Aires.”
Patagonia is a Welsh-language colony on Argentina’s border with Chile first inhabited by Welsh settlers in the 19th century. It is the only part of the world other than Wales where Welsh is commonly spoken. Helen lives in Gaiman, near Trelew, in the Chubut area.