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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Sandford

Online Music Teaching: 6 things I have learnt so far.

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

2020 has been quite a year hasn’t it? Writing this today, I’m just about to enter my 8th consecutive week of teaching online due to the ongoing situation with Covid-19. While there have been many niggles and gripes with moving all of my pupils online, ultimately I’m super grateful. I’m grateful that my job involves no risk to my health while there are heroes going out every single day during the crisis to look after others. I’m grateful because, due to some amazing technology, I’m still able to do my job from the safety and comfort of my own home when others cannot and are facing financial stresses. That being said, I thought I would write a quick post about the things that I have found the most interesting and challenging about doing this job online so far.

1. Screen size matters:

For the first couple of weeks of teaching I was pretty pleased with my technology set up. I invested in a tripod for my phone to actually host the online lessons and this left my laptop and tablet free so I could call up various resources etc. It all looked rather atheistically pleasing too. However, hours of squinting at a relatively small phone screen every day started to take its toll with regular headaches and general irritableness by the end of the day. I finally relented and moved onto using my laptop for teaching. As well as the benefit of a bigger screen which seems to be gentler on the eyes, I now also had the added feature of being able to ‘screen share’ meaning that I could pull up pdfs, resources and videos at a touch of a button for the student on the other end to see. Win win.

2. Factor in breaks, often:

When teaching pupils in person I wouldn’t have thought twice about teaching for perhaps 3 or 4 hours straight without a break and I assumed I could do the same with teaching online. This wasn’t the case. I found that I would tire pretty easily after a long stretch of teaching to a camera. I I think most of this came from having to sit in the one spot for too long (in normal circumstances I tend to move around my teaching room a lot). I’ve settled on a timetable now that allows much more time for me to get up and move around between lessons even if that's just to walk across the room to make a cup of coffee. My teaching days may be a little longer, but I finishing them feeling much more fresh than I had been now that I’ve introduced regular breaks.

3. Sound quality isn’t great:

This is a pretty obvious one and a complaint that I have heard regularly coming out of my mouth and the mouths of other teachers since beginning online lessons. Judging the sound quality of an instrument over any video conferencing software is pretty impossible. I have a few students who are big into their online gaming and have super fancy gaming headsets and the microphones on these, when positioned correctly, can greatly enhance the sound quality so it’s definitely worth asking if your pupil has something like this. On my end I use a little external microphone (Zoom MV88) which means that when I model something for a pupil, they can hear something that is at least better than the built in microphone on my phone or laptop.

By far though, the best way around the sound quality issue that I can find is to have students record themselves during the week and and send you the recordings. Even a voice memos clip recorded on a phone is immensely better in terms of audio quality than a live performance online. This means you can listen to this prior to a lesson and have a much better idea about what you’re dealing with when it comes to the student’s tone and then discuss in lessons with greater effectiveness.

4. Use the parents:

Like many brass teachers I spend much more time than I’d like fixing various instrument related problems during my lessons time, particularly sticky valves. This problem hasn’t gone away since moving online and in my first few weeks I certainly spent far too much time trying to coax stressed and confused parents and students through fixing their own instruments. Since sending all of my parents a couple of very quick videos on some basic maintenance they have been absolutely brilliant in either making sure that instruments are in good working order prior to the lesson or that they are on hand to fix anything should it go wrong during. In lessons with particularly young children where parents are sitting in on the video call, remember that they probably feel like a bit of a spare part being there. I’ve found trying to get them as involved as possible, for example pointing at bar numbers for the pupil or being ‘judges’ of a performance and awarding marks out of 10, greatly enhances the experience for everyone involved.

5. Find a creative outlet:

As with many instrumental teachers, I am also a performer and during this time of isolation all of my concerts are cancelled. I absolutely love teaching but am used to a life where performing and teaching are side by side and compliment each other. Now that I am unable to perform in public until life gets back to some semblance of normality, I have had to find new ways to keep myself inspired and, as a result, help inspire my pupils. One idea came from one of my student’s parents who suggested I get my younger pupils to vote on their favourite song/movie soundtrack from a given list each week and I would record it for them. Each week I have arranged their winning vote for trumpet ensemble and recorded an acapella-style video for them to enjoy. This has not only been hopefully fun for them to watch but given me a great outlet to put some creative energy into and keep me inspired.

6. The musical community is an incredibly generous one:

Something that has been pretty breathtaking since this crisis occurred and we all went online is the sheer amount of content that artists are willing to put out there for free. The fact that this is against a backdrop of many performers facing real financial instability is all the more impressive. The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall is now completely free with many top orchestras doing something similar. In the brass world, so many artists are freely sharing their knowledge to help others: some highlights that I have particularly enjoyed are the Canadian Brass’s live interviews on Facebook, Sarah Willis’s live ‘Horn Hangouts’ and Pickett Mouthpieces’s artist interviews. There are many more out there too. Perhaps the best resource that has come to light during this time, and one that every music teaching should read, is trombonist Christopher Bill’s Guide to Remote Music Education. Christopher has been teaching online for much longer than most and he has some amazing ideas, both traditional and non-traditional, to give the most in your online lessons.

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