A Music Teacher’s Journey in a Socially Distanced World
As COVID-19 spread throughout the country and small businesses like ours were forced to close their doors, I began to ponder how we might weather this storm. Up until now, our business had been based on private lessons taught face-to-face at one of our studios, or in the student’s home, with teachers and students in close proximity. However, the new world of social distancing would no longer allow this kind of person to person contact.
Completely discontinuing lessons until our studios could reopen was not a viable option for us or our teachers and staff who rely on the income Philly Music Lessons provides. We also knew the importance of consistent practice for developing musicians. It was important to us to help our students continue their musical growth despite this new obstacle.
So the next logical step was to move lessons online and hope that our teachers would be able to deliver the professional and personalized instruction our students expect.
I admit, I was nervous about the idea of online lessons being as effective and enjoyable as in-person lessons. When something has been done a certain way for so long, it’s hard to imagine an alternative. However, before I even taught my first online lesson, reviews started to come in from the students who had tried them.
I was pleasantly surprised: Students of all ages and skill levels were trying online lessons, learning, and having a great time! One student trumpeter was impressed by how well their teacher could coach their pitch and intonation via FaceTime. A pianist couldn’t believe how well they could see their teachers keyboard to help them learn new musical passages. Another student was grateful that a weekly session could provide some normalcy during such an uncertain time in their lives
My First Online Lessons
A few days later, it was time for my first online lesson. Although I knew other teachers had succeeded in this new format, I was a bit nervous. There was a tangible learning curve due to the slight latency that occurs with video conferencing software, and the fact that audio can’t go both ways at once. I quickly realized that this would force me as a teacher to be more clear and concise than I was used to. Still, I could play a passage and listen to the student repeat it. I could also very clearly see and hear whether the student was playing it correctly or not.
I taught a handful of guitar lessons over Skype that day and learned more about the limitations and possibilities of this new medium. It was not possible to play together with a student in real time, so each lesson became more of a back and forth conversation than a jam session. I could still offer information specific to each students’ goals, just as I did in person.
I later discovered a partial solution to this issue by giving students pre-recorded tracks to play along to. It takes a little bit more preparation than a normal lesson to provide the experience of playing along with another musician, but the result is just as good!
The Wonders of Screen Sharing
I started out using Skype as my main platform, however, one of my students wanted to try Zoom. I quickly learned that Zoom didn’t even require the student to have an account. They just click on a link that the teacher emails them and they can take the lesson right from their browser.
I also discovered Zoom’s options for screen sharing. It enabled me to use an iPad or iPhone to write out exercises or lessons. I could easily incorporate a second camera focused on my instrument. This was a game changer.
Now, I write out practice material for my students during the lesson in real time, and I can show them how to play the piece with a closeup view of my hands. They see the information pop up on their screen just as if I were writing it on paper and a music stand. The only difference is this is more organized and easier to read without any of my bad handwriting on it!
I began to view the creation of these lesson documents as an art in and of itself. I could email complete, organized materials to each student during or after each lesson. However, I realized that sending so many emails back and forth could be burdensome. If only there were a better way . . .
A Shared Folder
This was immensely helpful with organizing my online lessons. I invite each of my students to a shared Google Drive folder. I upload documents directly to the folder and the student receives them instantly. Instead of searching through emails for lesson notes, the material is sorted into subfolders, making sure that each lesson is documented properly.
Even better than a physical folder, I can add materials between lessons to keep my students prepared. It’s easy for the student and teacher to know exactly what material is in there. And best of all, there are no papers getting folded, torn, or lost.
The final piece of the online lesson puzzle: I can give my permission for students to record important moments or even entire lessons! At the end of a Zoom call, recordings are exported as video files, so students can rewatch their teacher performing a piece of music or demonstrating a new concept anytime.
Overall, I’ve found that online lessons can superior to in-person lessons in many ways. The inability to play simultaneously is offset by how organized and clear online lessons can be. All of the lesson materials are documented using the shared folder and video recordings. Between lessons, my students know exactly what they need to work on, which makes for more effective practicing.
During such a hard time for the world at large, the surprising effectiveness of online music lessons has been a small bright spot for our teachers, students and parents.