Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. But Fernando Meza was having difficulty seeing one the day three months ago he heard that his percussion classes at the University of Minnesota had been indefinitely suspended.
The culprit, of course, was the coronavirus.
"It seems like an eternity ago," he says. "It was a shock to my system, and I knew it would be a completely different situation than we'd ever dealt with before."
Meza is associate professor of percussion studies at the university, and face-to-face contact with his students is central to what he normally does on a day-to-day basis.
But how could instrumental lessons be delivered without an expert tutor in attendance? How would students get the real-time advice and nurturing they need to become better musicians?
Meza had no immediate answers to these questions.
"I really didn't know at that point exactly what I was going to do," he says. "But I knew we had to do something."
Before long a new idea was born a "virtual studio" connecting Meza and his students on the internet, where they can see and talk to one another on a regular basis.
"Before the COVID crisis we would meet together once a week in person for a percussion studio event performing, masterclasses, things like that," Meza says.
The "virtual studio" takes that activity online, enabling Meza's class of 15 to hook up on the Zoom video-conferencing application, talk percussion, and sift ideas for dealing with the difficulties of being socially distanced musicians.
Meza was initially uncertain what the reaction to a weekly Zoom meetup would be. But he need not have worried.
"The students were very excited about the idea," he recalls. "It was surprisingly easy to set it up."
Key to the success of the "virtual studio" has been the formidable network of contacts Meza has accumulated in his decades-long career as a percussion teacher and performer.
"The whole idea behind it was that I would organize a meeting with a guest joining us from somewhere round the world," he says. "So I reached out to a bunch of my fellow percussionists, and they have all been very gracious in joining us for an hour and a half or so to share their expertise."
The "virtual studio" has so far hosted guests from Greece, Norway, Canada, Japan, Brazil and Germany, including solo performers, chamber musicians, orchestral players, composers and educators.
"We've had some very respected marimba soloists, Broadway drummers, and ethnic percussion players," Meza says. "We even had my colleague Carlos Camacho, who's director of the School of Music at the University of Panama, so that we also got a little bit about administrative work."
And although guests can play online for the students and give technical tips, Meza feels that the true value of the Zoom meetings lies elsewhere.
"The time that we spend with these people has been really more on a conversational than a performance basis," he says.
"The opportunity for students to ask questions about whatever came up was to me the most valuable component, because it really allowed them to get to know the individual behind the artist they were talking to."
The "virtual studio" initiative has been overwhelmingly popular, enabling students to swap experiences and bond professionally at a period when normal social interaction is impossible.
Meza quickly upped the number of weekly sessions from one to three, and he has plans to make aspects of the experiment permanent beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
"From the logistical and economic side bringing somebody to Minneapolis from Greece is not so easy, because it involves months of planning, airplane tickets and hotels," he says. "But if an artist can sit at home in Greece and talk to us, that's really quite remarkable for the students, and the guests enjoy it, too."
Meanwhile, Meza is fervently hoping that life will soon return to normal on the University of Minnesota campus, and that staff and students can meet together safely.
"The current situation is difficult for the students, for sure, because nothing at all substitutes for the experience of being together," he says.
Daily rehearsals, recitals and ensemble concerts are all on hold at present, and the missed opportunities for communal learning are keenly felt.
"The students are hungry for activity, not being in the school," Meza says. "And motivation is hard to find for young musicians not participating in live events. Even though online lessons are happening on a one-to-one basis, you can't just summon up a symphony orchestra, choir or percussion ensemble to rehearse online, it's not possible. That leaves a big hole."
Meza's virtual studio has partly filled that hole, and for the unexpected doors that it has opened he and his students are grateful.
"One of our guests said something that my students and I keep quoting, that out of a difficult situation a gift can emerge," Meza says.
"The gift that has emerged from this is that my students have made contact with respected percussionists from around the world they may otherwise not have had a chance to meet. And this was indeed special for them."