Remote Music Lessons for the Low-Tech Teacher

By Miranda Wilson

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and it’s uncharted territory for all of us. What will we do if we can’t work or go out? We musicians are panicking over cancelled concerts, plane tickets we already paid for, and lost sources of income that we were counting on.

Most of us in the music business have multiple streams of income, so it’s now more important than ever to keep our teaching businesses up and running.

Skype Lessons: Yay or Nay?

I’ve taught private cello lessons using videoconferencing apps for years, so I can offer some advice for newbies. I know some are skeptical about the value of distance learning in music, but I’ve found it an excellent way to teach and I enjoy working with students all over the world from the comfort of my home studio.

What Technology Do I Need?

You can go as high-tech as you want, but for people on a limited budget, all you absolutely need is either a laptop with a webcam, or a smartphone. Useful extras include USB or Bluetooth speakers and microphone, but these are not always necessary. When I use a smartphone, I use a little tripod that I got from Staples for five bucks. But you don’t even need one of those if you have an extra music stand and a roll of duct tape. (I’m from New Zealand, so I believe there is nothing in life that you can’t fix with a cup of tea and a roll of duct tape.)

Low-tech home setup with laptop and (optional) microphone

Low-tech home setup with phone duct-taped to music stand, because I’m classy like that

What App(s) Should I Use?

I’ve used Skype, Google Hangouts Meet, Discord, and Zoom. They’re all usable on computers and/or smartphones. They’re all good, and all have free versions if you don’t need them for any fancy schmancy stuff. Personally, I’ve found that Zoom drops the fewest calls and has the fewest time lags, echoes, and other annoyances. But I adapt to work with the student’s preferences and technological comfort zone, so whichever they like is fine by me.

What Should My Setup Look Like?

You should make sure the camera on your device gives the student a good picture of what you’re doing. For cellists, that means being able to see you plus most of the cello, in particular the sounding point between bow and string.

You should give yourself enough space to be able to turn to the side to demonstrate something to the student, and the student should optimally be able to do the same so you can observe them from all sides.

Front view (most of cello, sounding point, most of bow visible)
Turning to the side to demonstrate bowing
Turning to the side to demonstrate shifting and fingering

Tips For Doing It Well???

  • Don’t talk and play at the same time — it distorts the sound too much.
  • Don’t interrupt the student with words because it can cause time lags and distortions. Use an agreed-upon gesture such as putting your hand up. Use the thumbs up sign a lot, it’s good for morale!
  • Have the student hit the record button, or record it yourself and send the recording to the student later. (You can do this within the app.) That way if anything was ambiguous, they can review it later. In this context, a recording may work better than the student or their parent taking notes in the lesson.

Further Tech Links

The Best Services and Settings for Remote Music Lessons

A Twitter thread on the subject by distance lessons expert Yeil Park

But…Does It Even Work???

Yes. There is no substitute for in-person lessons, because you can simply see and hear more in person. You also cannot use pedagogical touch in online lessons, but for me that’s no disadvantage because I never touch students anyway. (Bodily autonomy, consent, and propriety are very important to me.) If your internet connection and equipment are decent, you can see and hear a surprising amount, and the student can see and hear you. We all know what good vs. poor intonation sounds like, and what strong vs. weak tone quality sounds like. If you have trouble demonstrating a fingering or bowing, say it instead of demonstrating it. Take a photo of the fingering in the score and text it to the student. With a little creativity, you can overcome a great many problems. And you may even find that you love teaching distance lessons — I certainly do.

Good luck and don’t hesitate to leave a comment if you have a question or would like to share some information!

Video still from a Skype lesson with a student in Massachusetts

© Miranda Wilson, 2020. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.

9 thoughts on “Remote Music Lessons for the Low-Tech Teacher

  1. Thanks for this post. I just realized I should not be taking students at home at this time. I hope the Skype lessons will do for now. Great tips!

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    1. I’m wondering about whether I should be taking students at home too. Do you think if we maintain distance of at least 1.5m and I sanitise self and keyboard it’s safe?

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      1. I’m a therapist and I sit six feet away from my clients. But if my assumption that it’s safe is wrong, and I got the virus from someone and passed it on to the grandmother of the next one, I would have trouble llving with that. I’ve gone to entirely virtual therapy. I’m sure we’ll get used to it.

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      2. Honestly, I wouldn’t. Students will likely not want to have the lesson in person under current circumstances, so it’s worth offering a remote alternative if there’s any way you can make it work.

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  2. I’m the nerd in the other picture. I’ve been doing exclusively Skype lessons with Miranda since last summer and I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learned. Having the recording to go over makes up for what is missed in person–given the state of my memory, anyway. Don’t worry about doing it. It’s a good option.

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  3. I’ve been teaching with Zoom and FaceTime all week this past week and I’m totally frustrated! The sound is awful, it disappears regularly and there is a time delay between sound and video. By the time a student has played a phrase they sound like they are playing under water if I can hear them at all! I teach from twinkle to the concertos (have been teaching for 30 years) and have tried my computer, iPad and iPhone – as have students. 90% of the lessons I taught were exceptionally frustrating, I paid to use zoo and I’m sorry I did!

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    1. I’m so sorry to hear you had a negative experience, Tricia. Are you using headphones at all? That might improve the sound issue right away. Have you experimented with adjusting the sound settings? I don’t use Apple products so I’m not familiar with FaceTime, but with Zoom you can disable the background noise filters and I find that helps a lot.

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