By Miranda Wilson
The coronavirus pandemic is jeopardizing more than our health. Now that most concerts and gigs are canceled for the next two or three months, musicians have abruptly lost income we were counting on to pay our bills. The current need for social distancing is disastrous for music, a profession that relies on bringing people together. Under these circumstances, it’s vital to keep our private teaching studios open for business, and that means figuring out how to teach remotely.
If you’ve only ever taught face-to-face, making the switch can be daunting. Social media is abuzz with questions: “Do I need extra equipment?” “How much does teleconferencing cost?” “How can I teach effectively using a screen?” Fortunately, remote teaching can be both easy and cost-effective. You probably already have all the things you need to get started.
- A laptop computer with built-in webcam, microphone, and speakers, or a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet
- A videoconferencing app such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet Hangouts
- A reliable internet connection
Your students will also need a device and an internet connection. If they’re attending school or college, they may be able to check out school-owned devices if they don’t have their own. Internet access doesn’t have to be a problem either now that several telecommunications providers have announced plans to keep low-income groups connected during the pandemic.
Getting Set Up
Most videoconferencing apps offer a free version, though you’ll need a paid subscription for advanced features such as multi-caller meetings. Skype is the best-known platform for computers and mobile devices, though many teachers prefer Zoom because the student can click a link to join a meeting in a browser without the need for downloading software. Students and teachers alike may already be familiar with smartphone apps such as WhatsApp and Viber, both of which work well for lessons. All the apps all good, though in my experience Zoom has the best sound and picture quality, and the shortest time lags.
You can tell a lot about a student’s playing even through the speakers of your smartphone, but some teachers want more than a bare-bones setup. These reasonably priced accessories can enhance your remote teaching experience:
- Headphones: AKG’s N60 noise-canceling headphones offer exceptional sound quality, and their Bluetooth capability means there’s no wires to trip over.
- Microphone: The Blue Snowball USB mic is ideal for bowed string instruments.
- Tripod: You can go low-tech and attach your phone to a music stand with duct tape, but for a less precarious option, Staples sells a flexible cell phone tripod for under $5.
- Laptop stand: If you’re having trouble satisfactorily positioning your laptop camera and screen, a laptop stand such as the Rain Design iLevel can safely adjust it.
- Webcam: If your computer doesn’t have a camera, even the cheapest Logitech webcams do a great job.
You might find that you love remote teaching and want to keep doing it in the future. In this case, consider investing in some fancier equipment. A USB audio interface such as the Scarlett Solo 3rd Generation connects with your computer, your headphones, and your microphone for clarity and depth of sound quality. A good ribbon mic such as the sE Electronics VR2 works well for up-close stringed instruments. If you find that switching between playing and talking causes sound distortion, try using a headset for talking and the ribbon mic for playing.
First Steps in Teaching Remotely
- Teaching space: If you haven’t taught remotely before, spend some time setting up your space. If you’re worried about the appearance of your surroundings, Zoom allows you to insert a “virtual background” so you don’t even have to tidy up.
- Visibility: Adjust your camera so that your students can see your head, torso, arms, and as much of the bow as possible when you play, and ask them to do the same. Have students turn around occasionally so you can check their bow holds, shifts, and other techniques from different angles.
- Optimize sound: Experiment with the settings on your devices and apps. Background noise filters may garble the sound, but some apps let you disable this feature.
- Adjust your communication style for the time lag: Before anyone starts playing, agree on a set of hand signals you’ll use during the lesson. Instead of verbally interrupting the student’s playing, put up your hand. Replace “Good job!” with a thumbs-up. Students won’t be able to play in time with your metronome, so make sure they have their own to use during the lesson—and ask them to turn its volume up.
- Teach kinesthetically: Since you can’t use pedagogical touch, find ways to explain how techniques should feel. “Make your hand into floppy chocolate pudding!” is more memorable than “relax.”
- Ask for help: With younger students, have a parent stay in the room during the lesson to help with technology and tuning the instrument.
- Communicate assignments online: Instead of writing in a student’s notebook, type notes during the lesson and email them later. Most apps allow students to record lessons to watch later, but be sure to check FERPA regulations first if you work in a K–12 or college setting.
While much can be accomplished in a remote lesson, some tasks pose problems. You almost certainly won’t be able to play duets or accompany students on the piano. To compensate, send students a recording of the accompaniment and have them play alongside the recording during the lesson. Ensemble teachers may prefer to postpone rehearsals for now, but with a paid app subscription, the group could still meet for another shared musical activity that keeps them motivated.
Keeping Up Morale
This pandemic is uncharted territory for all of us, and we’re not the only profession in trouble. We musicians can show solidarity by sharing practical and emotional support as we figure out this “new normal.” Even if sharing physical space is impossible for the time being, thanks to technology we can still share music. We’re all in this together.