Joanna Funk

music, gardening and my dog

So What’s Good About Online Piano Lessons?

I am often asked, how do I find teaching piano online? Is it difficult? Is it impersonal because you aren’t physically with the student?

People can’t imagine that I can sit in my music studio and teach somebody far away, without it feeling cold and distant. But actually, it’s very personal!

I have an iPad at one the end of my piano. The student has something similar set up at their home. It’s like I’m looking through a window right at the end of their piano.

I can see their fingers, I can see exactly how they practice at home. I can even see their cheat sheet 😃.

Is that a cheat sheet? (Image with permission from the parent.)

Seeing how someone practises at home is very important

Seeing how someone practises at home is very important. Some students have acoustic pianos and digital pianos, and they will sit on piano stools which are the correct height for the instrument.

Other students have keyboards, which are sometimes on stands, dinner tables or a desk, and they will sit on dining chairs or desk chairs.

The first time I call them on FaceTime or greet them in Zoom, I see them in their home and can address their piano set-up with their parents. It’s one of the most important things I can do for a student.

Maybe little Johnny’s keyboard is too high, and he’s playing with his arms in a “begging puppy” shape. Either the keyboard needs to come lower, or he needs a higher chair so that he can sit upright with his arms relaxed by his side. When his hands play the piano keys, his forearms should be parallel to the ground.

Of course, if his chair is raised, his legs might start swinging and his feet don’t touch the ground, and I will see that too. That means he’ll either be straining his back as he balances on the chair, or he’ll be leaning on his hands as they rest on the keyboard, and that’s not good for playing. He’ll need one of those step stools for when little kids are learning to go to the toilet. And most households have one of those around.

Piano lessons online vs lessons in school

Teaching piano in a school, 30-minute lessons are booked back-to-back. For a piano teacher, it’s efficient compared to visiting people’s homes. But the quality of the lesson is affected by some factors.

Students can turn up late. Sometimes they forget to come, so you have to look them up and call their classroom. They also forget their lesson book and have to use mine. It’s easy for half an hour to become a 20-minute lesson.

You teach over noise. It might be the racket when one period ends and students are going from one location to the next.

it might be having to teach over the school intercom 💥📣, pausing frequently for announcements for someone to please come to the main school reception immediately with your belongings etc.

Parents don’t know how piano lessons are going in school. I used to write very detailed instrumental reports because it was my only chance to communicate directly with parents.

Here’s what happens in an online piano lesson with me.

Here’s what happens in an online piano lesson with me. Lessons start on time and students get a full lesson. I might FaceTime a student, and I call at 5:00 pm. They are there waiting for me. We start the lesson and go right to 5:30 pm when I sign off and call the next one.

It is quiet. Students are relaxed. Sometimes they’re in their PJs or onesies. They might be in a closed-off room, or the piano might be in the living room. The most background noise you get is the sound of cooking, and that’s fine! That also means a parent is around and can hear everything going on in the lesson. I love that! I love parents to be involved. I want them to know what their child is learning and to be able to hear me communicating with them. Also, if they have any questions they can just talk to me right there, or arrange a time to chat.

I know all the parents of the children I teach online. Even though there is the opportunity for direct communication, I have recently decided to write reports for them too. This is just a value-added, in case I think of things that haven’t been addressed, or perhaps I want to discuss something privately with them.

People think because you are not physically there to show someone a good hand shape and fix their fingers, they can’t learn to play with a nice technique.

People think because you are not physically there to show someone a good hand shape and fix their fingers, they can’t learn to play with a nice technique.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit.

It’s true that being able to just physically show a child how to have a relaxed hand shape is useful. But really, some children will naturally have more relaxed hands and fluid fingers than others. For those that press piano keys more like a machine than an instrument, it takes way more than just moulding their hands into the correct shape and saying: do it like this. They just aren’t going to remember what you showed them by the time they get home! You need to imprint an idea in their mind, something to help them remember what to do!

An often-used image goes:

— Okay, I’m putting a baby mouse into your hand…

— You better keep a nice, relaxed hand, because you don’t want to hurt your mouse!

— Pinch your fingers together a little bit and show me your knuckles – make a little knuckle mountain for me! Now there’s space for your little mouse in the centre of your hand.

— And your fingers are a bit close together so your mouse can’t run out between your fingers.

— Lastly, no way do you rest your hands on the wood of the keyboard, otherwise …. squish! No more little mouse!

That’s an idea a child can imagine when they’re at home, and you can definitely show them all that online! After all, they can still see you and hear you, and you can show them with your own hands as you are describing the idea.

Clear and expressive communication from me is essential. I reach for their imagination. If someone doesn’t understand how to play softly, which is a complex action of both pressing down a key while also pulling back, I might say:

Play like it’s a secret — you don’t want anyone else to hear it, just me! Shh… can your fingers tip-toe?

If someone plays Für Elise to me and it’s note-correct but a bit mechanical, and they don’t understand what you mean by play with feeling, I might say:

Imagine you are playing it to a baby, and trying to help them sleep. Play it like a lullaby.

To play music is to tell a story without words. Every phrase is a sentence, what is it saying?

In our online lessons, I have a piano and my students have a piano. They can watch me play a new song and maybe hear it again, which is very helpful when learning something new. But I insist that they follow the notes while I am playing. I don’t want them to learn by ear with me.

I do think learning by ear is a great skill, and I encourage all students to work things out on their own — work out a favourite anime theme or computer game theme. That’s massive work and requires loads of effort! Anyone who does that work will definitely be better for it. It’s hard, inspired work and proves that they enjoy playing music.

Okay. This blog post is becoming quite long. I will stop here. The next post will be The Downside To Lessons Online — what aspects I wish were better. The post after that might be about Theory lessons.

To finish, every student will meet my dog Wookie. Sometimes he sits on my lap in theory lessons, and of course when I’m not teaching. There’s no way I can play classical piano when he’s with me like this, so I just reach around some iReal Pro chords trying not to move too much. ☺️

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About Joanna

Joanna is British Australian. She worked mainly in financial news in London. In her forties she moved to her parents’ birthplace, Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, where she became a pianist in a hotel and wrote a blog about musicians. The blog became a book before Joanna came to Australia in 2012. In this blog she writes mostly about music, gardening, and trips to Sabah. Oh, and Wookie the Havanese.

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