It sometimes seems everyone I talk with is learning to teach online. Our local university has restarted after spring break with online classes. Professors have been busy setting up their teaching and work spaces at home. Studio teachers are also setting up virtual studios and figuring out ways to connect with their students and keep them progressing.
As I write this preparing for an afternoon and evening of lessons, I am reminded of things that I enjoy about virtual lessons. Don't get me wrong, I miss meeting with my students in my studio, but there are several things that I really feel benefit both me and the student as I teach them in this new way, even if it is only temporary.
Seeing the student in their space tops the list for me. I get to see the instrument they are practicing on. It is fun to see its capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. I see how it is set up. I might have suggestions for the student they never even thought of. I can help a student who thought he had a keyboard without a damper pedal discover that it really is capable of having this pedal and purchasing a usable pedal would be a very small investment. I see what my students use for a bench and how it fits them. We talk about position a lot as we learn technique. Habits are formed at home. Sometimes it is the littlest discovery and suggestion that can make the biggest impact.
Another student has an electric keyboard with a lot of fun sounds. They explain how their child can only practice with the piano sound and use the fun sounds after practice. While I respect this discipline, I incorporate the fun sounds within the lesson and encourage their use in purposeful ways. There's no reason learning can't be fun, and if it will motivate the student to play their pieces with a fun sound as they practice, I'm all for it!
Another benefit is the fact that physical walls have been removed as we create a virtual space. I used to have contact with my students only at their lessons and in that physical studio space. With virtual lessons, I'm sending emails between lessons and they send messages to me. I have an advanced student who has texted me twice in the past week with great questions regarding her music. My students are learning more when it doesn't always have to happen in the scheduled slot.
I'm trying to be more creative as I want to keep students engaged. I'm creating videos and online theory practice. I'll utilize these tools long after the quarantine is lifted and I'm motivated to make more and keep growing in creativity.
Sometimes it takes something that really shakes up our routine to make us better teachers and to think about the things we do. Virtual lessons seem to have done that for me and I think I'll come out at the end of this a better teacher.
Piano lessons during a pandemic present a unique challenge that most of us as piano teachers would never dream we would face. But, here we are in March of 2020 and this is a very real and serious situation and we are all practicing our social distancing. It might be easy to think we’d just put lessons on hold for awhile and get back to regular lessons as soon as we get this all behind us. We’d assign music and hope our students practice, perhaps checking in with them once or twice while we’re off.
I don’t like that idea. I have chosen to do everything I can to keep lessons going. Of course, there is a personal financial reason to keep lessons going and the income coming, but much more important is the impact this makes on my students. I’ve seen the loss of progress and discouragement that can come from a student who has taken the summer off from lessons. In addition, this is a great way to keep something that is a normal part of the student’s life going in a time where everything else is shaken up. It is healthy—therapeutic—and good for both the student and the teacher.
I’ve taught virtual lessons before but only for extreme situations such as a major snowstorm or illness. I’ve never taught lessons this way for an extended time, so this is new territory for me.
There are many platforms to choose from and the three most notable choices are Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom. Each of these platforms are very good and have their own pros and cons. I chose to give my students and their parents the choice as to which platform. Zoom has features that make it very easy for me, but I want it to be very easy for the student so we don’t get lost in the technology and the lessons go smoothly. In my studio, most of the students and families chose FaceTime. In fact, almost all chose FaceTime because it was already on their phone and they were somewhat familiar with it. Only a couple chose Zoom and no one chose Skype.
Teaching a virtual lesson takes a little more preparation up front as you get your own resources and plans together. Remember, you may need to carry a bigger part of this “conversation.” Ideally, you have a copy of the their music already, but in some cases, I’ve needed to ask the student to send me a photo or scan of the piece they are playing. I try to prepare ahead with my lesson plan to make sure the lesson feels very engaging as if we are together in my studio.
Anything you can teach in your studio, you can teach through FaceTime. I demonstrate on my piano and I’ve found I’m watching things like technique and proper position and setup even more carefully. These things tend to jump out at me more through video than sitting in the lesson.
The sound through these platforms is quite good. I’ll ask the student if they can hear the dynamics and articulations I’m showing them. They’ve said they hear it and as I hear them attempt the same thing, I can easily tell they are hearing and understanding what I’m asking of them.
As with any lesson, I try to keep things fast-paced and not dwell on one thing too long. While I work harder at keeping the student engaged, I have not had any trouble with that in the virtual lessons I’ve taught so far.
In face-to-face lessons, I really depend on the lesson notebook I ask each student to have. Since we no longer have that luxury, I am relying on email instructions. I pay close attention to the words I use to be very clear about the assignment, and I am sending the instructions to the student or parent and in some cases both. I use mymusicstaff.com for studio management and their attendance notes function makes this very easy and the message I sent to the students is right where I need it for the following week.
One of the challenges to address right away with the student is where to put the phone or tablet to record. I’ve told each of them that as much as I like looking at their faces, it is more important for me to see their hands and the keyboard. Some use chairs or a table to use as a stand for the phone. Others used music stands. One simply propped the phone at the end of the keyboard. All were able to creatively find a way that I can see well. Most of them have found a way that I can see both their hands and face!
I personally use an iPad held on an iPad clip that connects to a microphone stand. I am careful that they can see both my face and my hands. I want them to feel as if we are together for good conversation, but I also need to demonstrate even more than I might in the studio.
Another observation I have from my first week of “pandemic lessons” is to allow time to talk and relate just as we would in the studio. Every lesson, I ask my students to share a little of their week. It helps me to get to know them and we can relate together well. Often times, I’ll share something from my own week. Especially in these times that can be alarming and scary for a student, I need to allow them to talk. It is encouraging to know we are going through these times together.
What about the exceptions? I do have a student who simply cannot make this work. I’ve encouraged them to keep practicing and we will communicate through email. While I’d prefer to meet, this will simply be an exception. I have another student who is very sure their WIFI connection will not support this. For a situation like this, we are using email and sending videos and audio files to keep working together.
A colleague of mine had a great suggestion to ask students to record a practice session so I can see how they are practicing. In turn, I will record a practice session of my own to give them. Perhaps the most important thing I can teach my students is how to practice!
What if the technology stops working? I had that happen in a lesson last night. The student’s WIFI connection was weak. We tried to keep things going, but it was too distracting to have the video continually locking up. I simply ended the live virtual lesson and sent them instructions through email and we will correspond just as I would if a student did not have WIFI to do live streaming.
My primary goal is to keep something consistent in the lives of the students in this time of unknowns and changes. It will benefit them as musicians and build our teacher-student relationship as we navigate these times together.
Piano Teachers: You may have never planned to teach virtual lessons from your living room, but this is a great time to give it a try if you’ve never done so!