A Palo Alto high school student has developed a new, and melodic, way for parents to keep fidgety and stir-crazy kids occupied during quarantine.
Inspired by a successful songwriting class she hosted with her local elementary school (as well as living with her restless and frustrated 10-year-old sister), Julia Segal, 17, came up with a creative, musical solution to fill the time.
Her creation, dubbed Quarantunes, organizes musically talented teens who are willing to teach free, online music lessons in exchange for optional donations to medical efforts fighting the spread of the coronavirus.
Initially, Segal envisioned recruiting friends and classmates to become teachers for a local organization that mainly catered to the Palo Alto area, but she quickly realized that "there are kids everywhere in the country that are looking for ways to be occupied."
Propelled by word of mouth, newspaper coverage and social media, Bay Area teens informed friends living in other parts of the country about Quarantunes, and the organization's rapid growth quickly exceeded Segal's expectations.
"I thought there was an extent to which it could grow organically," she said, "(but) people from other countries (joined)," including teens from India, Russia and Spain.
Since its founding in early April, Quarantunes has more than 130 teachers who collectively offer more than 5,000 lessons to 500 students. And, perhaps even more impressive, the organization has raised more than $25,000 in donations, all of which benefit the CDC Foundation.
The response from teachers and students alike has been overwhelmingly positive. Quarantunes has provided an opportunity for teachers to give back to their community and has allowed children to become invested in learning music, rather than being glued to computer games and Netflix.
"This whole experience has been fulfilling and lifesaving because I now have time to do the things I need to for work and my kids are occupied," said Margarita Golod, a Bay Area resident whose two children take lessons from Quarantunes teachers. "It's been good for my kids to see this example of young adults who are positively influencing other children and families."
Teenagers who volunteer their time are happy to share their love of music and express gratitude for an immensely rewarding experience. For piano teacher Tyler Liu, an incoming University of California, Berkeley freshman, "it's a great opportunity to give back to the community and make kids feel happy about checking out music."
Madelynn Hardke, a voice teacher from Oakland, added that "even if you aren't able to be there in person, just being able to sing with somebody makes kids so excited about learning music."
Beyond helping children grow their passion for music, teachers are developing a newfound appreciation for their own musical experiences and the teachers that helped them.
"You take for granted how much you've learned," said Liu. "When you teach it, you have to find new ways to express that."
To be sure, getting Quarantunes up and running required hard work, and it hasn't all been smooth sailing. Early on the biggest challenge, Segal said, was not having a system in place. Much of the work, including scheduling and texting teachers for headshots, was done manually by Segal and Lisa Kopelnik, the organization's chief communications officer.
"We were the marketing team, the communications team, everything all in one," said Kopelnik. "Julia and I would wake up at 7 (a.m.) and go to bed at 11 (p.m.). The first couple weeks were crazy; we were emailing hundreds of schools, music programs and making sure all the lessons were running smoothly."
Chief Operating Officer Naama Bejerano, who will be attending Stanford University this fall, is responsible for the organization's logistics. She said it took time to establish smooth communication among board members and teachers, especially as Quarantunes grew beyond the Bay Area.
"Communicating with people when they live all over, teach different things and have different availabilities was initially a challenge," recalled Bejerano. "That wasn't something we thought of at the beginning." And many of the problems that arose were not the sort of things that the high school students running Quarantunes had encountered before.
"One teacher quit without any notice," Segal said, "so we had to reassign 20 students, but there were not enough teachers.
"There had been a lot of points where we had to stop and think how to prevent this situation from occurring (again)," said Segal. "Each of the obstacles served an important purpose as learning experiences that were necessary to running an organization."
Over time, systems were put in place to keep things running smoothly. Quarantunes adopted a policy that requires teachers to provide two weeks' notice before quitting, while an online schedule app, called Picktime, eliminated the need for manual scheduling.
Since establishing a strong foundation, however, the focus has shifted towards ensuring accessibility for all students, as well as scaling the organization to become a truly national or, perhaps, international platform.
"For me the most important part was to ensure that all students have equitable access, regardless of financial barriers or barriers in terms of disability," Kopelnik said.
"A lot of times music lessons tend to be accessible only if you have the money," added Bejerano. "By breaking down those barriers, making pay optional and opening it up to all students, Quarantunes is able to spread music in a time like this."
Allison Briscoe-Smith, an Oakland-based psychiatrist whose daughter takes songwriting and singing lessons with Quarantunes, praised the platform's accessibility as a "mini revolution of providing high-quality training and instruction to kids who might not get it."
Another key factor in Quarantune's accessibility is its instrument donation program, which delivers musical instruments to students' homes if they meet financial requirements and live within an hour of Menlo Park. Several Bay Area music stores have also partnered with Quarantunes to donate instruments for free; while teachers and students are also given the option of donating old instruments.
And furthering its goal for every child to have access to the platform, Quarantunes also trains teachers to work with children with different abilities, with instruction by an expert in special education.
What began as an idea shared between friends has blossomed into a full-fledged organization that caters to children around the world. Currently, Quarantunes is scrambling to find enough teachers for its influx of students, but the hope is to serve thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, of young people interested in music.
Quarantunes currently offers a range of lessons including piano, strings, wind and brass, as well as songwriting composition. And thanks to overwhelming interest, the organization started offering lessons in other art forms such as drawing and painting. But the group's biggest lesson goes beyond any specific instruction.
Quarantunes proves "that young people are able to address big problems," said Briscoe-Smith. "Every kid involved is an activist working to solve this big problem about COVID-19."
For more information, people can visit quarantunes.site.
This article was originally published July 27 by the Bay City News Foundation.