If you’re like most musicians, when you hear about online music lessons your first reaction might be to scoff and think it is a bad thing, but it doesn’t have to be. The sudden need for teaching and learning to go online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has put many teachers (and students) in the difficult position to shift their methods, which includes moving applied lessons to an online format.
As a teacher your responsibility is to provide an effective, quality education and to ensure adequate progress of all of your students. This holds true for in-person and online students.
The secret to teaching good online lessons is to be already teaching good in-person lessons. Teaching online lessons requires that the teacher have a strong and varied vocabulary for describing musical concepts and nuances, embouchure, aspects of sound, and more in order to deliver information through the internet. You do not need to have an overly complex or expensive setup to have successful lessons. Many students (and teachers!) will not have the resources to go overboard. Familiarity and ease of setup will mean accessibility for more students.
The following tips will help you set up to have successful online lessons:
- Devices. I prefer to use my iPad, but some people will use computers, other tablets, or smartphones. The student should set up so you can see their upper body, hands, and face, and they should be in a position to be able move around to be viewed from different angles or to come closer to the camera for embouchure work. The teacher should be set up similarly.
- Apps. There are so many apps/platforms to use. I would recommend testing a few apps that are familiar to you and your students. Check for the sound quality with the devices they have. For me and my students, we primarily use FaceTime, which can only be used between two Apple devices. The HD audio quality (between two newer/current devices) is impressive and has done well for me and teaching. I have also found Skype to work well for students with PC’s. As of this writing, FaceTime has been far superior to Zoom, even with the “preserve original audio” setting enabled.
- Connection. Your connection will be fastest and most stable with a wired connection directly from your device into your router or ethernet port. If using WiFi, set up as close to the router as possible. Most people will use wireless out of simplicity.
- Free up bandwidth. Ensure no other people on either end of the lesson call are streaming movies or games, doing big uploads/downloads, or even scrolling Facebook. These things can slow your connection.
- Internet Speed. Check your internet speed and have your students check theirs. Go to www.speedtest.net on the device being used for lessons. Both parties need at least 2Mbps for upload speed, but preferably more if there is anything else going on on their network at the time.
- Headphones. Teacher and student should use wired headphones or earbuds, preferably without with the mic on the cord. Headphones will keep the sound from cutting out and provide a quality sound right to your ear. I use and recommend the Sennheiser HD 598, open-ear headphones for classical music. If using earbuds or headphones, you will want to only cover one ear so you can hear yourself play.
- Microphone. You should be set up 2-6 feet away from the mic (unless yours states otherwise) and play facing the mic. Some people may need an external mic – the Blue Yeti is popular. I use Apple devices and the internal mic works well for me. Most PC users will fare better with an external mic.
- Metronome/Tuner. Students will need their own metronome and tuner separate from the device they are doing the lesson call on so that the teacher can also hear it. I prefer to have my students use their tuner with an external speaker (wired speakers are more compatible with apps) to simulate playing along with another instrument for intonation studies.
In addition to the lesson, I recommend having students send weekly recorded assignments, which can be done from a smartphone or computer. This way you can hear the student without any interruption from the internet. I have my students do audio recordings sent to me via text or video recordings uploaded as “unlisted” via YouTube.
For many music students, the quality of their private lesson directly affects their future – their ability to pass auditions, their degree programs, their livelihoods. These students need their teachers and their education to continue. Successfully shifting to an online model can be manageable and can work similarly to in-person lessons with the exception of playing together. When implemented successfully, you will not be able to tell the difference between a teacher’s online students and in-person students.
Answers to some of the most commonly asked questions:
Q: Can I play along with my students in lessons?
A: No, at least not in real time. Sound moves through the internet close to the speed of light, which is not instantaneous. The delay is called latency. As musicians, we respond to the nuances of timing, which means that playing together where it sounds together at the same time in both places is not possible. You can get an idea of the latency by adding both parties’ “pings” together from the Speedtest, although keep in mind that the connection is inconsistent in that regard.
Q: How can my students practice repertoire?
A: For my students playing standard repertoire, including those taking in-person lessons, score study is a part of the lesson and additionally, some fantastic collaborative pianists have uploaded recordings to YouTube of themselves playing the piano part only for people to practice with. We love Jiung Yoon’s recordings on YouTube and his handle is Color Is The Piano. You may also have a pianist that would love to do some work during this time record piano parts for you.
Q: The connection is not good and keeps freezing and cutting out. How can I fix it?
A: Double check your setup and your student’s. You need to be close to the router, not a wifi extender. A wall or two between you and the router can slow the speed significantly. Run a Speedtest. You need at least 2Mbps upload speed. More is better. Restart your device. Also, restarting your router from time to time might be helpful. If either of you is using a computer, quit the internet browser and any open apps that might be using bandwidth. Many routers are limited in the number of devices that can be connected to them and that includes not just phones and computers, but also gaming systems, TV’s, smart home devices like Amazon Echo, thermostats, lights, doorbells, security cameras, and more. Having many smart devices may slow down your connection significantly. If you are using wireless, try to use 5GHz instead of 2.4Ghz. 5GHz will usually yield a more stable and lower latency connection. If you are buying a router today, it is worth considering a WiFi 6 router to help give broader coverage in your home. Wireless mesh systems are a good alternative.
Q: How can I stream my sound uncompressed? I want the best sound.
A: All sound that goes through the internet is compressed as it is not possible within the bandwidth constraints of most people’s upload speeds to transmit uncompressed audio. Compressed sound takes away something from the sound – it could be highs or lows – mids are usually preserved. Apps deal with compressed sound differently. Also, noise cancellation features and ambient noise reduction affect how an app processes and compresses the sound. This may be part of your device (mic or computer/tablet/phone) or part of your app. Consider different apps and/or microphones.
About Christina Condon
Christina Condon maintains a competitive flute studio in Centerville, Ohio and now Odessa, Florida with her students placing at the top of their school ensembles, regional honor bands, and orchestras. Her studio flute ensembles have been recognized for their exceptional skill and use of extended techniques. With 18 years of experience, online lessons were integrated over the years and she has successfully adapted to teaching online while still seeing those students intermittently for in-person lessons. Christina’s flute students have sat principal flute in the Dayton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Springfield Youth Symphony, and Middletown Youth Symphony, and also played flute/piccolo in the Tampa Metropolitan Youth Orchestras and in the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra (rotating seating). They have also won and placed in several national flute competitions such as with the Central Ohio Flute Association and National Flute Association and have been accepted into music programs at schools such as the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, the University of North Texas, and the Ohio State University.
In addition to her private studio, Christina performs flutes/clarinets/saxes for musical theatre, assists band directors with their sectional needs for winds, and has previously taught as sabbatical replacement for the University of Dayton and assisted with the New Horizons Band. In her free time, Christina enjoys her athletic outlet with cycling and inline speed skating with her husband Bill and they provide a cushy life for their furry felines.