Thirty minutes into the violin lesson, Anthea Kreston knew that something was wrong.
Ms. Kreston, an acclaimed American violinist, was at home in Corvallis, Oregon. Her student, Yunhe Tang, a talented 14-year-old who prefers the name Kevin, was at his home in Chengdu, in southwest China. She had been giving Kevin violin lessons via Skype once a week since last August, but today something was different. Kevin seemed lethargic, like he hadn’t practiced, and Kevin always practiced.
“He said, ‘Well, I’m not having lessons here, and I’m not going to school,” Ms. Kreston said. “And then he went, ‘Everyone’s sick.’”
It did not take long for Ms. Kreston to realize Kevin’s life had been affected by the coronavirus, even though he lived over 700 miles from Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak.
Chengdu is one of dozens of Chinese cities that are effectively on lockdown because of the virus. Schools are closed for the rest of the month and most businesses are struggling to reopen after being closed for weeks. Sichuan, the province of which Chengdu is the capital, had 436 confirmed cases of the virus as of Wednesday.
Kevin’s family remains healthy, but Kevin has mostly been stuck inside.
Ms. Kreston said she couldn’t stop thinking about Kevin shut up in the apartment, and decided to try and help take his mind off the virus. The day after the lesson earlier this month, she messaged Kevin and his family and asked if they would like to temporarily step up Kevin’s lessons at no extra cost. As long as he was shut indoors, she wanted to have daily contact with him, and run a kind of violinist’s boot camp during the coronavirus outbreak. The family agreed.
Kevin’s challenge would be to learn a new concerto — Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole” — in a few weeks, something she said would normally take 100 days. Ms. Kreston would also give him daily technical exercises to practice. She asked Kevin to record two videos a night to show he was doing the work, and send them to her.
“When you go out of that door, I want you to have something to show to everybody,” Ms. Kreston recalled telling Kevin. “This is such a gift to you,” — she added, trying to put a positive spin on having more time to practice. “You can come out the strongest player ever,” she added.
Kevin was scared when he first heard about the virus, he said in a Skype interview on Wednesday. “I just wanted to wear my mask wherever I go, even when eating,” he said with a laugh.
He realized how serious the situation was at the end of January when the family’s Lunar New Year vacation to Chongqing, a city in the middle of China, was canceled. Kevin had been looking forward to playing his violin loudly outside every day. Instead, he had stayed home, watched news reports about the virus, and became nervous.
Kevin said the nerves passed quickly. His mother, who works at a hospital in Chengdu in its supplies department, told him as long as everyone’s careful, they won’t catch the virus.
Two weeks into the boot camp with Ms. Kreston, he is feeling much better, but longs for the outdoors. He is able to go into his apartment’s yard to play basketball, but he misses swimming and playing water polo and board games with friends.
“I feel bored!” he said while jumping from foot to foot as if filled with energy to burn.
Although he is “still very worried about Wuhan,” Kevin said is not so concerned about his own city. He doesn’t even worry about his mother, who has spent a lot of time recently buying masks and protective clothes for the hospital. “We’re often joking she’s the most dangerous person in our home and we should keep her in the bathroom,” he joked.
Kevin’s improved mood has a lot to do with the daily violin lessons with Ms. Kreston, he said. The two of them don’t just share videos back and forth, but also emoji messages about his violin playing.
Kevin now practices four hours every day, and he said his technique has improved and his sound has become more beautiful. Ms. Kreston said she gave Kevin the Lalo concerto because it was passionate at points and sad at others. Kevin could use it to tap into his feelings, even complicated ones about death and loss.
“The virus is terrible,” Kevin said, “but music gives us the confidence to overcome.”