By Miranda Wilson | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 hit music students hard. Under strict stay-at-home orders in the spring semester, many college professors suddenly found themselves using technology in unfamiliar ways. Frustrations ran high as students and educators alike dealt with glitches and sound-quality distortion in lessons. As a cello professor myself, I can report it was a steep and unexpected learning curve. While many universities have announced plans to resume face-to-face instruction in the fall [at press time], we know we might have to return to remote learning.
Students are understandably concerned and have a lot of questions about how lessons are going to work. “I only have an old laptop, the Wi-Fi in my dorm is terrible, and my parents already told me they can’t afford to replace my devices this year. Last spring was rough and I’m worried fall won’t be any better. Help!”
There’s a difference, though. Back in March, we had to pivot to remote music lessons on short notice. Since then, we have had time to prepare ourselves and our technology for another lockdown. As an enthusiast of remote music lessons, I’ve found that with a few cost-effective adjustments, professors and students can have a great experience without having to buy a new computer.
For starters, it might surprise you to learn that the difference between a good and bad remote music lesson can be as simple as a reliable internet connection. When videoconferencing software glitches, the likeliest culprit is neither the device nor the platform, but the Wi-Fi. The solution? Just connect your laptop to your router via an ethernet cable, at a cost of about $8. If you live with others, you will of course need to negotiate the use of the room where the router is located. If this means running a cable into another room, get an extra-long version—Vandesail makes one I like for about $20. (Make sure to secure your cables so you don’t trip on them.)
Router doesn’t have ports? This is more difficult, since you’ll need to plug the cable into your modem, cutting off internet for other members of the household. Sure, you can get around the problem by paying for an unlimited mobile data plan for your device, but that’s expensive. Instead, for the cost of one month’s data, you could replace your old router with one that has enough ports for everyone, like the well-reviewed ASUS RT-AC1900.
Once you’ve sorted out your connection, the rest is much easier. Even an ancient, cranky laptop can run Zoom well, and your school’s IT staff can advise you on ways to prolong its life. Most laptop microphones are fine for remote lessons, but if you need an upgrade, the Blue Snowball iCE is the best budget USB microphone I’ve tried (it’s about $50).
Speakers are another matter, as you may want more sound than your computer’s built-in speakers can produce. If this is the case, try some budget USB speakers (you can get a decent pair for $20–$30) or headphones, which most people already own. If cords annoy you, you can use wireless headphones, but be aware that they can cause a time lag in videoconferencing. Enacfire, however, sells a pair that are well-reviewed on Amazon for about $50 (the E60 Bluetooth V5.0 Wireless Earbuds).
You’ll also want to dial in your videoconferencing settings. On Zoom, disabling the platform’s background-noise reduction and enabling original sound will solve most issues with time lags and other distortions. Use the apps for Zoom and Skype rather than the web-browser versions, as the services work better that way. Chromebooks cannot download apps, however. If you can’t get videoconferencing to work satisfactorily on your Chromebook, don’t despair—a mobile device such as your smartphone could be the way to go. A combination tripod/selfie stick such as Blitzwolf’s BW-BS3 (about $25) helps position the device so that your teacher can get a good view of you, but in a pinch you can (carefully) duct-tape it to a music stand.
Still frustrated? Know that help is at hand. Anyone affiliated with a university can consult the IT department, and many schools will loan laptops to students who don’t have them. Internet providers are helping low-income people, including students, stay connected. You probably know a friendly tech enthusiast or computer-science major who’s willing to help you troubleshoot. In most cases, a couple of cost-efficient tweaks to your existing setup will make all the difference. Everyone involved is hard at work to find ways to improve the remote music-lesson experience as we learn, grow, and navigate this strange new landscape. Together, we’ll make it work.