The New Normal? Reflections on Remote Music Lessons

By Miranda Wilson

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (with apologies to Jacob Ochtervelt)

I was an early adopter of remote music teaching, so when the you-know-what hit the fan a couple of months ago, I knew I wanted to do something to help teachers who hadn’t taught using a videoconferencing platform before.

Musicians are a smart and resourceful bunch, and after a few initial freak-outs, most studio teachers I know adapted well and are now confidently teaching over Zoom, Skype, or another online platform.

It’s made me reflect on why I started doing it in the first place, back when “pandemic” was a word you only found in dystopian sci-fi/horror movies. I wish I could say I was an entrepreneur and a pioneer, but I wasn’t really. I first taught a lesson over Skype because a reader of this blog wrote to me about five years ago asking for one. I was surprised, but I thought “Why not?” In reality, not a lot of people are going to come and visit a small college town in Idaho for the pleasure of a lesson with yours truly, since the location (though wildly scenic) is a bit hard to get to, so it seemed like an opportunity to interact with more learners.

Once I’d figured out how to use my technology to best advantage (see my tech recs in this post at Strings), I decided this could also be a good way to recruit out-of-state students for my college studio. When you’re a high school student considering auditioning for a music degree, your choice of studio teacher is of the utmost importance, because the relationship is an intense one. You don’t just have lessons with the teacher, you also get career mentoring, academic guidance, and emotional support. So of course a college-bound high school student would want to know as much as possible before making college decisions, because if it’s not a good fit, they could be in for an unhappy four years.

Things grew from there. I never aggressively recruited remote students — it was more a case of people who’d read this blog or my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, contacting me because they hoped I’d help them. Because I already have a full-time job, I never planned to take more than one or two remote students, but then interesting people from all over the world started writing to me and asking for lessons. State law forbids me to teach private students on the university campus, so I set up my home studio with the microphones, speakers, and cameras that I wanted. It worked great and I loved it.

So when the pandemic started and everyone was panicking, I was ready to help. I taught a bunch of teachers in several countries what I’d learned about how to do it well, including sharing a sample letter they could send to their studios so they wouldn’t lose students.

An example of communication between a piano teacher and her studio

Now that everyone’s doing it, I wonder if we can start a conversation about whether it’s really inferior to in-person lessons. Having done both types of lessons for a long time, I can say that the only thing I really miss is working with a student to improve their tone projection in a large concert hall. It’s hard to find a substitute for that experience when you’re teaching sound production.

But other than that, I can tell everything I need to know from a screen. If you are intently watching and listening for the things you must watch and listen for, you can do this.

Besides, remote teaching has certain unbeatable conveniences.

  • No one has to commute. We all save time and money, and have more scheduling flexibility.
  • You can work in the comfort of your home, if you didn’t already.
  • You can teach students from all over the world, often fascinating people you’d never otherwise have met, and once you’ve figured out time zones and schedules, it can work beautifully. In fact, if you keep odd hours, you may like it more than teaching someone who lives in your time zone.
  • If you get sick, you won’t give the illness to your students, or vice versa.
  • If you are an introvert (or if your students are), you may even prefer remote lessons. I know I feel very drained by the end of a long day of in-person teaching, but I don’t feel the same when it’s done on a screen.

Before everyone was doing this, there were a lot of naysayers who thought remote lessons could never be any good. But it simply isn’t true. To be sure, you can’t touch a student, but I never use pedagogical touch anyway because I dislike being touched and I also dislike touching people. Most of my teachers touched me in my lessons, and while it wasn’t traumatic for me (I loved my teachers!) I don’t recall anyone ever asking my consent to be touched. Sure, you can ask a student for their consent to touch them, but frankly, the relationship tends to have a power imbalance that makes it hard for them to say no. Why put a student in an uncomfortable position? Teachers should, I believe, adapt their pedagogy so that they can teach a student how a technique should feel on description and demonstration alone. It is not easy to teach someone how to feel something they’ve never felt, but it makes you a better teacher.

There are, of course, challenges. For me, the hardest thing to figure out was how to teach a beginner to tune the cello. Luckily, there are many excellent online videos on the subject, so with the aid of some of those and a free tuner app, we muddle through.

But as for the rest, it’s perfectly manageable, and only a little harder than teaching a student who’s in the same room. For example, you can easily see if a student is holding the bow incorrectly, or has a poor sitting position. You can ask the student to move around so that you can see them from different angles, and you yourself can demonstrate from different angles. You can hear, and fix, intonation problems. You can hear if the student is producing an overtone-rich sound. You can hear if the student has musicianship problems with rhythm, counting, and so on.

Thanks to technology, you can do everything you’d need to do in person.

  • Music theory, literacy, and musicianship: simultaneously use apps on phones during the lesson.
  • Sightreading: use Zoom screen share.
  • Accompanying/ensemble: use Jamkazam.

What I wonder now is whether this becomes the new normal. One day this pandemic will be over (oh please, oh please) but we might not return to the old normal. Maybe the new normal — working from any location, teaching students from any location — will be the standard way to teach music lessons. I for one would welcome that, because I’m an international person and I love to meet other international people. If they speak French or German, I’ll probably insist on practising my language skills on them. (I won’t inflict my Italian on anyone right now, but I’m working on it.) We are no longer constrained by location.

What have you learned from teaching, or receiving, remote music lessons? I love to hear from readers, so please share your thoughts in the comments below, or join in the discussion at my Facebook page.

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


2 thoughts on “The New Normal? Reflections on Remote Music Lessons

  1. I really feel the pros more than the cons with online teaching.
    I think my favorite pro is that i can be with my pets all day and practice in between lessons.

    At the moment, although some efforts are being made to start going back to “normal”, i do feel that online lessons are still the most practical for students and teachers. The biggest obstacle being social distance and masks, i think if i had to keep this protocol in person my voice might be hoarse by the end of the day.
    the other bugaboo being hand washing/sanitizer routines away from home. i think my hands might crack (well.. my left hand especially the hard callouses on my 1st and 4th finger!)

    I am so pleased with the upgrades to technology we have had in the past few years that definitely make this all possible, no?
    I admit i was a longtime online class-naysayer, but have ended up one of the very few offering lessons online in my area, and taking new students online, and now feel like i’d gladly continue it, if students ask for it after shelter-in place is long gone .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s