Toronto musician, hard-hit by pandemic, offers pay-what-you-can music lessons

When the pandemic hit, Naomi Higgins suddenly found herself with a whole lot of time on her hands.

“No venues were open anymore,” the U of T graduate told Global News one afternoon. “You can’t have gatherings, you can’t have shows. Obviously, you can’t really play with anybody, either.”

With her steady income as a musician and cruise-ship entertainer snatched away by the lockdown, Higgins was left wondering what she could do — that is, until she figured out there was one way to keep the music going.

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“I remembered when I used to teach music lessons, how much I enjoyed it,” Higgins said.

“So I thought, that’s something I can do. But then I thought, who can afford it right now? It’s a pandemic — nobody is making any money, nobody has work. Then I thought, ‘Pay what you can! Then anybody can afford it!’”

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And so, her “pay-what-you-can” online music lessons service was born. Higgins took to the streets of Toronto, putting up posters and posting a kijiji ad heralding her pandemic special. Her mission to make music accessible to everyone, not limited to just one instrument or genre.

Higgins has enough talent to throw a one-woman show.

“I teach saxophone, flute, clarinet, a bit of ukelele and beginner piano,” said Higgins, listing them off.

“I’m starting to get my brass chops together, so I’ve taught some beginner trumpet and trombone lessons as well. … I can teach the jazz style and improvisation, I can teach theory, I can help with exam preparation.”

It didn’t take long for the inquiries to flood in to Higgins — and with them, deep gratitude.

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“Every lesson, I get, ‘Thank you so much for doing this,’” Higgins said. “Especially during the pandemic, it is easy to wander and get lost and be uncertain. But having something like music lessons to ground you and work towards … can give you that purpose and motivation. It can open up all sorts of doors.”

A poster on Ossington Ave., advertising Naomi Higgin’s pandemic special: ‘pay-what-you-can’ music lessons. Anushka Yadev/Global News

As with everything these days, learning to play a new instrument on Zoom hasn’t been without its challenges — like the occasional reminder to students to unmute themselves, among other things.

“Being in a different place from your student is very, very hard,” Higgins told Global News.

“It’s difficult to get across sound, especially with woodwind instruments. … Even with the best microphone set up in the world, you’re not going to get the same kind of sound as you would get in person. You also can’t play with students online because of latency and lag, so that’s a hurdle.”

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Naomi Higgins conducting one of her ‘pay-what-you-can’ music lessons on Zoom. Global News Screenshot
Naomi Higgins conducting one of her ‘pay-what-you-can’ music lessons on Zoom. Global News Screenshot

But for Higgins’ saxophone student, Eleni Alexander, the hurdles are a small price to pay for what these lessons have given her in her time of isolation and need.

“I watched myself, every single lesson, light up like a child and connect with the harmony and the music and the notes,” said Alexander, who decided to pick up the saxophone again this past summer after a hiatus dating back to her high-school days.

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A difficult year away from her family in the U.S. and the recent loss of her beloved dog have made the pandemic in Toronto particularly tough for her to get through. But Alexander says the lessons have provided a much-needed outlet.

“It has been a weekly break from my mental or emotional stresses in my life. … I wouldn’t be playing saxophone right now, if it wasn’t for Naomi and her willingness to work with me, genuinely, on a ‘pay-what-you-can’ rate.”

For Higgins, there’s no greater harmony than sharing the gift of music and opening up endless possibilities for others, no matter what their economic background.

“It gives people the ability to pursue their passion and pursue their dream and feel a sense of accomplishment,” Higgins said. “The more people who can feel that, the better.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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