I originally posted this article on Medium, but have now removed it from there. If you have considered taking your services online, you might be interested in the essay below.
I Became an Online Piano Teacher Because of COVID
Now I am living the dream
Teaching piano is a lovely way to make a living, and I’ve been at it for eight years. I’m my own boss; I decide who I want to teach and choose which days I work. Still, it’s work in the gig economy — no paid holiday, no employer superannuation contributions, no sick leave. In short, no work, no pay. That’s it.
Covid crushed my business model.
In Queensland, Australia, schools switched to homeschooling in March 2020, so I couldn’t teach in schools. I also stopped going to my students’ homes, not wanting to become a super-spreader myself.
I looked to the online world.
Could I teach online? My students’ parents might be open to online piano lessons since homeschooling was imposed on them, and everyone had to learn how to use Zoom and Teams apps. I thought the kids would probably like it because it’s tech.
At that time, I was driving around 500 km a week. Imagine being free from that? My fuel and car maintenance bills would plummet. (Incidentally, when I first started teaching, I operated at a loss while driving almost 1000 km a week. Queensland is a big place.)
My imagination ran wild. How cool would it be to have students from anywhere in the world? Maybe I would do shifts in the middle of the night and have whole days to myself! I would be my own time zone!
It was time to invest in myself. I bought my first iPhone and the largest iPad. Now I had FaceTime and learned how to use Zoom and Teams.
I was excited! My first foray into the world of Apple was like entering a parallel universe of the aesthete — everything was the same but so much finer.
The technology was fantastic. The connectivity between my devices was seamless, and carrying my entire music library in the cloud made me feel like an enlightened super geek. I loved it! Students who wanted to work on a pop song texted a PDF before the lesson. I opened it in my iPad and voilà — we were ready to work on it.
As a sole trader, I wrote off all my work-related purchases. By the second year of Covid, I had added AirPods Pros and an iMac to my teaching arsenal. It turns out my behaviour was pretty typical as Apple’s quarterly earnings received a massive boost from work-from-home-related sales.
The quality of the internet is key to my ability to work, so I asked my provider for the best service they could give me in my area. It isn’t super sexy — I’m in the Queensland countryside, and even in the urban areas, Australian internet is pretty poor by world standards. But it was enough. This year I also have a mobile wifi modem as a backup if the NBN is down.
All my private students came online, and several ones from school.
There was some trial and error: where to place the phone, tablet or laptop. The side of the piano or keyboard is best — students can turn to the side easily and see me, and I can see their hands as well. For louder sound, I connected my phone to a good Bluetooth speaker. It must have a microphone so that they can hear you. I use this one. A few students started with laptops, but all have moved to phones and tablets.
If I wanted to show something in detail, I held the phone. For example, if a student is learning to play a scale for the first time, I hold the phone in my left hand and change the camera from selfie-mode to standard mode. With my right hand, I play a scale slowly to demonstrate thumb-under going up and finger-over-thumb coming back down, keeping the phone close to my fingers so the student can see what I’m doing as I describe it.
I made an unnecessary purchase, though. I bought a long camera arm to attach to a tripod stand. For instructional purposes, I thought it could stand behind me and extend a camera/phone over my head to video my hands. But so far, I’ve never used it for piano teaching, only for sharing keys notes with my reggae band.
I learned that I needed to communicate precisely: to play to my student and encourage them to listen to me while following the music in front of them. I learned to be very clear and respect the to-and-fro rhythm of internet communication.
Listen to me — now you try.
As they play, if you hear things you want to correct, make mental notes and address them at the end of the piece.
Articulate well and watch and listen for the response. Be mindful that there will be some lag; interjecting often or speaking as if you are in the same room will not be productive. You will each miss what the other is saying, and ideas will be lost as you speak over each other.
It’s hard with younger ones. I care about learning to read music notation. I don’t let kids just copy what notes I press. Written music is a rich language to be respected, and I only teach those willing to learn to read.
I once caught a kid peering right into his phone to try and see my hands.
“Nuh-uh! Listen and follow the notes in front of you. Don’t try and see what I’m playing!”
To keep my young students engaged, I am pretty animated. But I must feel they are working — I am not entertainment.
I think video is less critical than audio, although with young students, it’s impractical to remove the visuals. When there has been bad connectivity, I’ve just made a regular phone call, and the student has put me on speakerphone. The lesson is very satisfactorily and probably heightens concentration and aural skills since you are both keenly using your ears! Food for thought, isn’t it?
I hear everything, good and bad. I don’t need to see a student’s hand to know if they lifted their wrist at the end of a phrase.
I didn’t know I could do that, but you discover as much about yourself as about anything else in new circumstances, right?
Of course, the initial technique is important: just as walking properly is a precursor to running well, pressing keys with raised wrists and relaxed soft fingers is necessary to play with feeling. I watch intently and engage parents when a child is learning the first steps. That’s something I definitely couldn’t do in schools.
Eventually, schools re-opened, but teaching piano face-to-face had become a minefield. I taught in a soundproof music studio where the windows remain closed, and like everywhere else, wearing masks, using hand sanitisers, and the sweet aroma of Glen 20 became the norm.
At the beginning of 2022, the outlook continued to be uncertain. Queensland schools would open slightly later to avoid the anticipated peak of the Omicron spread. Some schools began with homeschooling. Some schools delayed onsite instrumental teaching.
I didn’t want to feel like a leaf tossed around in the wind, at the mercy of every new Covid-related situation.
I decided to remain 100% online permanently.
My private students have embraced online lessons. But school students? It was an unknown. I didn’t know how many students would remain with me, but I prepared to operate at a loss until I could grow my numbers.
In February, I’m happy to say that I have enough students to remain online indefinitely. I am safe to continue this adventure and explore fun opportunities, like teaching internationally or servicing those who want to learn but don’t have access to physical piano teachers.
I am now living the dream.
I love the early mornings because I’m not fond of the sun. To me, every day in Queensland is a day on the beach! Too hot! I lived for the weekends when I would wake at 5.30 am and get out into the garden with a big cup of coffee to be out in the cool misty morning.
Now, I do this every day! I open my eyes and know I’m going to spend the first hours of the day in the garden watering my flowers or digging and weeding and just being outside. Later I might blog, do admin or chores, or do the band’s reggae homework. Then move on to the acoustic piano and practise until my piano lessons start at 4 pm.
I save money.
My car costs have dropped, and I love to wear scruffy old clothes at home, except when I am online. I even wear less sunscreen (I spend a fortune on sunscreen).
Teaching online means you communicate with parents directly. You enter their homes, teach their children in PJs, parents hear their child’s lesson. I encourage their inclusion. This is a post I made on LinkedIn a few days ago.
This week I had my second lesson online with Jack, a Year 2 student. Last year I taught him in school. His dad said he wanted to stay with me, so we used FaceTime for the first time a week ago.
Yesterday, I asked Dad: “Are you busy when Jack has his lesson?”
Dad said: “Actually, I’m sitting right outside the door listening to what’s going on.”
I asked Jack: “Should we let Dad join? He can learn what you are learning.”
Jack said: “I teach my dad already!”
(Note to self. Dad sits with Jack. Awesome.)
“Well, you can learn together then. But Jack, don’t be a scary teacher to your dad because I’m not a scary teacher, right?”
So Jack’s father watched how Jack reads and counts, and saw when I told Jack to sit up straight and lift his wrists.
“And keep those fingers jelly-jelly! The music will sound prettier.”
I noticed Jack’s feet weren’t touching the ground. I explained they need to be on the ground otherwise Jack will use his hands to lean on the keyboard for balance. Maybe find the old footstool kids have when they first sit on the toilet?
Dad said he could lower the keyboard stand and the adjustable stool.
“His forearms need to be parallel with the floor,” I explained and demonstrated so that he could see.
Jack and Dad ended up with two new songs for homework, plus a game to associate animals with low and high notes (bass and treble clef).
“Where on the keyboard would you play a song about a grumpy old hippopotamus splashing about in the mud?” (Said in my gruffest low voice.)
Online is a great way to teach. Perhaps what I miss most is playing duets with my students. I can do it online, but only if they are confident and play with the correct timing because I can’t adjust to them. They can play to accompany me while I sing their line. This way, they know where they are. But I have to ignore what comes back because they are delayed by several counts, and I really have to block it out!
As a value-added to my offering, I will probably make occasional home visits to the students that live within driving distance. But the business is definitely online now.
Are there things I miss about face-to-face teaching? Of course there are. I would love to supplement online lessons with a few home visits a year. But we are in a new way of living and earning, and I want to explore what communication and technology can offer now.
If you haven’t considered delivering your service online yet, I urge you to look at it. Similarly, if you are looking for lessons in a subject for yourself or your child, being taught in the comfort of your own home might be the way to go. If you have questions, please feel free to ask in the comments. I also have a contact page on my blog.