The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on online music teaching. Here, Alicia Lyons, R&D Director at Online Music Exams, surveys a range of music teachers about their online work… with some surprising answers!
If you’re like a lot of music teachers right now, the call of online teaching is becoming too loud to ignore. Whether it’s that phone call from your mother, who without fail, always has another example of a ‘friend’s friend of a friend’ who is now so successful at online teaching that she’s having to turn students away, or whether it’s seeing that beloved table in your music room which once so proudly wore a coffee cup stain as a symbol of it’s dedication through endless lessons now look so sadly clean…online teaching is calling you and you’re curious to know more.
There are many articles out there which give great advice on how to set up your online lessons and there are enough success stories to toast to that will convince even your accordian-playing Grandma that now is the time to embrace the revolution of online teaching. Instead, I hope to give you a little insight into how music teachers have had to adapt their teaching style when switching to online lessons, and tips they may have so that you too can enjoy a successful online music practice.
Listed below are my favourite answers to questions I asked a handful of online music teachers, some of which inspired and surprised me. I hope these words bring you some comfort and a spark of excitement to continue on your journey into online teaching.
What is the best tip you can give to prepare a music teacher making the shift from teaching in the physical to the online realm?
‘You need to do what you don’t with human contact. You need to absorb all the problems that are happening in that lesson that normally wouldn’t happen in a face-to face lesson so that you don’t cause too much disruption. For example – connection. It might be that you can’t quite hear everything going on, so you must use intellect. You need to understand that the sound might not be as good a quality as you’re used to in traditional lessons. So it’s crucial that you make allowances. If you try and be a perfectionist, it won’t work, as you’ll disrupt the lesson too much and it will make the pupil feel like it’s not working.’
How do you communicate well without showing?
‘It’s important that you improve your explanation skills when teaching online. It’s very easy in a normal lesson to get into a habit, one in one out, routine, we become a little lazy at times as we have the luxury of showing. However in an online lesson, if you don’t explain things well to a student, they won’t be able to do it.
‘I never use a piano in a lesson. As that’s just ‘monkey see monkey do’. If you can explain to a child, then they then start thinking for themselves and that is the best way for a student to learn, as then they progress so much quicker.’
What’s something that you’ve found hard to explain to a student in a lesson?
‘When first teaching a student where middle c is (on the piano) and how to hold their hand. Some people get the pattern on the piano immediately but others simply don’t and you may even have to tell them the difference in colour between black notes and white notes. Sometimes they may even need to count up or down until they reach middle C. The trick is to find a way to explain something physical in the quickest way possible. You need to treat everyone as if they know absolutely nothing, as if they don’t even know that they have two hands and 5 fingers and you need to be quick at improvising. I once got a pupil to ask their mum if they had an orange in their house so that they could put their hand over it – to explain how they needed to have their hand in a curved position when playing the piano.’
How has teaching online helped you become a better teacher?
‘I have learnt the benefits of teaching without physically showing. I’m no longer worried about visually seeing someone play. My senses have become more attuned. A classic example is the C major scale – I can tell if they’re playing the correct fingering – e.g 123, 1234 or 1234, 123. Even if the image isn’t good, you don’t need a visual to teach successfully, especially at higher levels. I’m also a lot more patient and I have learnt how to explain things much more quickly and simply.’
Would you say that teaching online is more relaxed and therefore it’s easier to teach than in the traditional physical environment?
‘Both teacher and student can be in the comfort of their own homes, which of course is a very convenient situation. There are no stresses about being late and rescheduling is easy. However, some students don’t fair well online and that’s because it can be a lot more intense and focused. In a traditional teaching environment, you can easily get into small talk, whereas online, small talk is minimised and they are there for one reason and one reason only. It’s important to be aware of delay too when teaching, as otherwise you may have a situation where you may alert a student to a note they played wrong, but by the time they hear you, they’ve moved on to another note and then it can cause frustration on both sides. To keep the environment as relaxed as possible, it’s really important to be aware of delay and to be patient.’
Is there a favourite video platform that you use to teach?
‘It doesn’t make a difference which platform – you have to go with what the student uses. The screen sharing functions in Skype, Zoom and Google Hangout is a really useful tool if the student is using a tablet or laptop.’
What do you love most about teaching online?
‘There are fewer barriers and more opportunities. Apart from the obvious bonus of being able to teach from the comfort of your own home, you can teach people from all around the world, at all times of the day. The flexibility is insane when I think back to how I used to only teach on week-days in after school hours between 4pm-8pm.’
What do you like least about teaching online?
‘You can’t play duets due to the delay and sometimes the internet connection can be bad. However if you can afford the data, then 4G is better…wi-fi can sometimes be unstable.’
What has been the biggest eye-opener about teaching online?
‘You get to see what the student’s practice environment is like, such as out of tune pianos or sometimes a student might not have a piano stand and will be playing a keyboard piano on their knees. It helps you to be more mindful about the impact this may have on a student’s progress and how you can adapt your teaching style.’
Are parents more involved with online music lessons? Is this good?
‘A parent will often sit in for the first few lessons and it’s much easier to speak to the parent if there is an issue with practice for example, which makes communication and progress at home run more smoothly.’
Is it harder to track progress teaching online?
‘Keeping a log of progress may feel harder at first if you’re used to writing in practice books. Try creating a shared document link to send to students or parents which can be updated each lesson (Google sheets is a good example). You can write down exactly what was covered during the lesson as well as what needs practicing with even links to YouTube etc…
‘Alternatively, you can get a student to write in a homework book and this can be good because if they’re writing it, the homework is reinforced in their memory.’
Can you give me a final handy tip for ‘newbie online music teachers?’
‘If you can, have a phone and a laptop ready. I have to switch between both as one might overheat which can drastically affect the connection. Oh and also, I keep notation software open and can show or highlight sections of music being learnt that might need focus. Adding fingerings, picking directions etc… is a breeze and can often make the lesson run far smoother with less confusion.’
This article first appeared on the Online Music Exams website in 2020