Online piano lessons Take 2

I’ve been teaching online for six weeks now, here’s the first post about that. Since then I’ve changed my set up entirely to something much easier. I’ve also worked out what to do if the internet is crawling. I really like teaching this way and will continue to do this post-Covid, combined with a day or two in school.

Where to place the tech?

Did my students need to see my keyboard from the side, using an iPad? What about a second view, by sharing my phone screen. I tried positions using my music stand, and a movable “arm“ which holds tablets and phones.

I even set up a microphone because I was losing my voice shouting – my students seemed so far away! They said it was unnecessary, so in the end the mic was for me, making me sound loud to myself so I spoke gently.

Using a mic

I discovered how I actually teach

I like to see my students hands and wrists, and their posture. But I don’t need to really see their fingers if they have achieved a soft, round hand shape and relaxed fingers. I don’t watch to know whether they are playing correctly. I have copies of their music, and I can hear whether their notes are correct.

I am truthful with them and I probably demand it back more than I realise. If I don’t like something, I tell them (it’s most often timing, I can’t abide bad counting and lost rests etc) and we fix it together. I won’t let it slide so we’re stuck until it’s right. But it’s my job to help them get there, so they shouldn’t be worried if it takes a while. I think in their hearts they know if something is wonky, and by jumping on it I hope it gains their trust. I want them to be faithful to fingering. It’s not hard to hear if they aren’t, since fingering facilitates changing hand positions, and you can really hear if that doesn’t happen smoothly!

One day a little kid was up close in his screen trying to see my fingers while I played a phrase for him. I said:

I want you to read your music while I play the notes slowly – follow each note with your finger. You don’t need to see what I press. You can work it out yourself. You’re a music detective cracking a special code of dots. What will it all sound like?

That was a complete game changer. I realised I didn’t need to show a view of the keys. I moved the iPad from the side of the piano and placed it like sheet music. It’s like a window into my student’s room. They like it and so do I! It feels like I’m there with them.

Above is a Zoom meeting on my iPad, showing my room like a selfie view. When a student enters the meeting, their room will fill the main screen and my room becomes a small window. They see the opposite of this. We can then choose a “gallery view” which will place us in equal-sized windows side by side, and I prefer this.

Of course, students should see you play to have a level of expectation for themselves. Then I just move the iPad to a side view. I always play examination pieces for them, so they can choose which ones they like. Also, I want them to hear that simple music played well is beautiful, like the Preliminary Grade and Grade 1 exam pieces. Hard is not better if it is not played well.

No duets for now…

I really miss playing duets. The internet just doesn’t handle this. I am thinking about what to do for an “online performance” in the future. I suppose it will be recording video and making a video collage. More learning for me.

Playing duets is one of the best things about piano lessons

With young kids, the parent places a phone on a tall stand so I look over the child’s shoulder. I can see their hands and their music (although I have their book open at my end). Very good, Mum! I do have to keep telling them they don’t have to turn and look at me when I’m talking, it’s not being rude. Just listen to my voice.

No dude, that is not going to work…

I started using ear phones which improved sound quality. Similarly some students wear headphones or earphones, connected to their laptops or tablets traditionally or via Bluetooth. But I had a wire draped across my keyboard and occasionally reached for a coffee and jerked the iPad. My son asked me if I wanted a gadget or something for my birthday, because he knows I’m entering the Apple world. I hit him for AirPods Pro. Now I hear everything beautifully. Microphone gone. External noise gone. Cables gone. When the postie knocked at the door, I dashed from my seat; nothing spilled or crashed and I could still hear my student playing. Marvellous.

Be specific

I can’t point to the middle of a piece and say, “Let’s start from here”. It has to be, “Let’s go from bar 17, keeping the right hand as legato as possible, and try and remember that those left hand notes are tied across the first two bars.” That’s if the bars are numbered. One of my students has an old version of Für Elise which has no numbered bars, and it’s an absolute nightmare. “Okay we’re going from the second page, third line down, second bar…”

But I don’t mind this! It’s excellent training in verbal expression, to be as accurate as possible, and efficiently so. Also, my students have to concentrate, I watch them receiving my instruction and adjusting accordingly, often in slow motion! It’s great! The lesson is much more efficient – at schools, students turn up late, there’s all this faffing around getting books out of bags, I have to sign their attendance diary etc. Online, the lesson is maximised from start to finish. At least after the first week spent learning how to enter a meeting and where to place laptops and enable audio video etc.

“You don’t need to see me”

Once in a while the internet connection is too bad to continue. Maybe a parent is also in a work conference, and the piano starts to sound like one big, sonic yawn. When this happens I’ve started to switch the video off at my end. I tell the student I can still see them, but it’s not necessary for them to see me, as long as they can hear me. I think this might not be possible with the youngest students. But for older ones, this has worked. If necessary we can both turn off video, and that’s even better for the sound. A few lessons have been completed very satisfactorily that way, with us both coming back to video just to say goodbye. It is undoubtedly so much better to see each other, but if push comes to shove, there are other ways to make it happen!

I did speak about my experience transitioning online at an Arts Dinner online event, organised by the Scenic Rim Regional Council and South West Queensland. (There’s a YouTube video of the event, and I start speaking at 1 hour 31 mins.)

At the time of writing, it looks like schools are returning for Week 6 but I intend to remain mostly online for now. Keep being safe, folks.

UPDATE: For those of you interested in moving your business online, WordPress is hosting a free Webinar which I encourage you to check out. If you’re in Brisbane it’s at 3.00am, but hey, Think Global: it’s hardcore and exciting.

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