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How Music Teachers are Adapting to Work Online

A year since the pandemic struck, we assess how teaching music online became a “new normal” in this longer-read feature.

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By Gary Walker Published: 01 April 2021 | 4:05 PM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:32 PM

“The first days of lockdown in March, my whole world exploded,” says Craig Crofton. For both the Bristol saxophone teacher and the two-thirds of MU members who derive income from teaching, the past 12 months have been a case of ‘adapt or die’.

After Covid forced live venues and studios to close their doors, music lessons became a crucial revenue source. But with an ever-shifting picture of national and local lockdowns, schools and music hubs struggling to interpret government regulations, and a lack of financial support, teachers have had to migrate to online provision.

For those not already equipped to teach remotely, it’s been a steep learning curve, with teachers having to – develop new practices, comply with online safeguarding and guidelines from schools, master software such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, cater for students with learning difficulties, and address the concerns of wary parents. Already struggling without touring income and missing out on furlough payments, many have also faced a costly race to kit out home teaching spaces.

But from a community of resourceful creatives comes hope, with social media groups springing up to share resources, support and information. Those who have been able to adapt are enjoying a wealth of new opportunities. It seems the world of music education will never look the same again.

The left behind self-employed music teachers

“Self-employed teachers have suffered in at least two ways,” says Chris Walters, MU National Organiser, Education, Health & Wellbeing. “The Government’s guidance has been changeable and often inconsistent. We’ve seen fluctuations between different things being allowed and not allowed, often not making much sense.

“We have lobbied the Department for Education to get these inconsistencies ironed out. Many schools have taken a cautious approach and restricted access to music teachers. When you’re self-employed, you don’t get paid if you can’t work, so the MU has worked with schools and employers to show online teaching can be done in a way that’s safeguarding compliant.”

Having never taught online, the loss of all in-person work was a hammer blow to Crofton, but he moved quickly, buying a USB mixer and audio interface and fitting acoustic panelling to his spare room.

Yet just being an experienced teacher is no longer enough in the digital age. He stresses the importance of reaching out to the music community for skills he didn’t have – website design, digital and social media marketing and SEO.

“I thought everything was finished,” he explains, “but I set up the Bristol Musicians Support Facebook page, so people could exchange ideas, techniques and equipment. We had 150 people joining every day, and within a week I knew what I needed to buy, and some approaches and techniques I’d never used.”

For those entering this brave new world for the first time, it has meant rapidly reshaping methods developed over years. While ensuring he was complying with safeguarding rules and handling his students’ data appropriately, Crofton encountered shorter attention spans from children suffering from screen saturation due to home schooling.

“One technique I’m using that’s been so successful is giving students tasks to record and send back as little audio files,” he says. “I send the tasks on WhatsApp, or if they’re minors a WhatsApp group with their parents or a shared Dropbox folder. I will then give feedback. I had one student who had a severe dislike of seeing herself on the screen. So I recorded a short 20-minute personalised video lesson each week and sent them to her father, along with the PDF lesson material. She’s getting on well like that.”

Guitarist Martin Taylor was an early adopter, teaching online through tuition platform ArtistWorks since 2010. He offers pre-recorded lessons and hangouts, and the chance for students to upload videos of their playing for expert feedback. Having filmed tutorials everywhere from airport lounges to dressing rooms and hotel bathrooms, online makes up the bulk of his teaching. He advocates short, punchy sessions and setting students exercises to take away.

“I’d never taught, I could barely send an email, but I gave it a shot,” he says. “At first, I was giving my students too much information, moving them too quickly. You have to teach each student according to their experience and capacity to understand. For a lot of people, bite-sized chunks work best. If you go into a two-hour lesson with a list of things you want to learn, you might come out completely overwhelmed. You can manage the information better with online teaching.”

Learning new skills in a remote teaching set up

Another musician embracing digital delivery for the first time is contemporary vocal coach Tara Wilcox. When her live work with The Wandering Hearts dried up, she claimed Self Employment Income Support and funding from PRS for Music and Help Musicians, but remote teaching was vital. “I’ve seen huge improvements in the students, it’s been wonderful,” she says. “I’ve had to become more tech-savvy, I’d have said ‘Zoom what?!’ a year ago. Music teachers like myself have branched out into services like pre-recorded warm-ups that people can access or a series of exercises that can be purchased for people who want to study in their own time.”

Despite this sense of positivity, the shift online has brought challenges. Latency is the number one issue, along with audio and video quality. And that’s assuming students have an instrument and internet-connection at home.

“Ultimately, it’s not as good as a face-to-face lesson,” says Greg White, a drummer and educator who found himself furloughed by two of the primary schools he teaches at. “You can make it almost as good with certain levels and topics if everyone’s well kitted out on both ends. You don’t have a proper angle of the kit and ideally you need to see their face and hands. I have to imagine a little bit what I’m hearing, and the sound from the students’ end can be poor. Parents don’t have time to read up and buy specific gear.”

Crofton runs a two-PC system for optimum results, but admits the situation isn’t ideal. “It’s really hard, especially with sax, to get an idea of intonation, dynamics and so on,” he says. “I always send students a YouTube link about audio settings for Zoom and allow for extra time on the first lesson to get it sorted together. Another disadvantage is not being able to play at the same time, it’s that old devil latency! Concentration and attention spans are not as good for online teaching either.”

Digital poverty in education sector

The effects of digital poverty are being exacerbated across education by Covid, too, and are particularly acute in music, with MU members reporting significant drop-offs in student numbers in deprived areas.

“I’m very worried about that,” says Crofton, who wants to see the introduction of a universal basic income. “There’s always been a divide between haves and have nots with access to music. With Covid, it’s intensified to the millionth degree.”

“The students who don’t have a kit at home, I just haven’t seen them,” agrees White. “I teach at two private schools and two state schools and, as you’d imagine, the kids in the private schools are more likely to have access to kits. I’ve been teaching some children for two or three years and they still don’t have a kit – arguably they never will.”

Against this concerning backdrop, many musicians have found themselves surprised by the positive impact of their digital awakening and are looking to the future with renewed optimism.

“I didn’t believe there could be any benefit to online teaching when in-person was possible,” says Wilcox, who has picked up new students in Scotland and the US. “It’s not something I ever thought I would do. How wrong I was! The advantages are plentiful and surprising. Studio-based teaching has its benefits, but due to the more formal setup of Zoom coaching, I actually feel students get distracted less. There’s a real focus that comes with being at a screen for an hour that doesn’t always happen in person.”

“Many people assume that teaching online is a poor alternative,” says Walters, “but a lot more is possible than schools and parents might realise. We’ve published a wide range of free guidance on our website, covering how you can teach individuals, choirs, ensembles and even whole classes. Even duet playing in real time is now possible with the right tech setup.”

Other positives include an increase in numbers of students who might be too shy or embarrassed to attend an in-person lesson, snow days no longer meaning cancellations and, crucially, what was a local marketplace becoming a global one. Taylor urges other teachers to see this as career-changing moment to be seized – as he did 11 years ago.

“This is a great opportunity,” he says. “Nothing stays the same and the reason the human race is still here is that we’ve always adapted. I have students in 60 countries. I could never have done that any other way. This way, you can get across borders.”

It seems inevitable, then, that we’re looking not at a temporary adjustment born of necessity, but permanent changes to the ways teaching is delivered. “I think that’s quite likely,” says Crofton. “I’m certainly going to carry on a blend of online and in-person after Covid. I had a perfect student, who moved to London, I was really sad to be losing him, and then I realised we could continue online. I have another who’s moved to Toronto. The number of great students who’ve moved away and I wished I could have carried on teaching them. Now that doesn’t need to happen.”

Embrace New Opportunities

It’s also important to recognise that opportunity has not knocked equally for all teachers. For many caught between employed and self-employed status, government support, guidance and training has been seriously lacking. It’s those members who will need help as the pandemic stretches deep into its second year.

“The way Covid has affected musicians has depended on where you were before it bit,” says Crofton. “If you were in a good place professionally, financially, mentally and emotionally, you’ve probably been able to adapt. If you didn’t have that stuff sorted, it can be really disheartening. It makes my heart sink to think how it’s affected some people in our trade.”

“The pandemic has revealed how insecure self-employment can be for musicians,” says Walters. “We know that many music teachers in schools are engaged under what we’d call fake self-employment. Teaching is their regular job and they’re managed as if they were employees, but without the benefits and stability of employment. Education about the differences between employment and self-employment is needed.

“We’ve developed a guide to employment statuses for music teachers, to be published in the spring. We are planning to accompany this with free training. It’s so important that music teachers know their rights.”

Top 5 Tips for teaching music online

1. Safeguarding should be your first priority. Be careful with your online profiles and messaging, dress and act professionally, and use a neutral background. Read our advice for safe teaching online.

2. Get familiar with more than one app. You might prefer Zoom, but your school might specify Microsoft Teams, and your private pupil might only have WhatsApp video.

3. Many music education organisations and companies have published free online resources for the pandemic. Check out these recommendations from Music Mark.

4. Pupils with additional needs, disabilities or learning difficulties may find the online interface more challenging. Read this guidance from Drake Music, a charity for music education and disability.

5. Online teaching can feel more distanced and less human, so make sure you leave time for a chat – with parents (if appropriate) as well as pupils.

Making the leap

Accelerated into action by Covid, Rhiannon Jeffreys set up Starling Music Academy and was awarded a £5,000 grant from the Prince’s Trust and Young Innovators Programme for transforming music theory teaching and providing bespoke digital learning.

The idea, she says, is to help students pass music theory exams through individually tailored courses, freeing up time in their regular lessons. The programme “recreates some of the good parts of in-person learning, with the convenience of being online” and creates jobs for musicians.

“I found it important to create a pleasant workspace,” she says, “and set myself breaks and boundaries. I’ve implemented a ‘no teaching emails at the weekend policy’ because I realised I was on call seven days a week.”

“Music is such a human thing and I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were learning from robots. My students have adapted very well. I haven’t found that their attention spans are different with online learning. Without online teaching, both musicians and music students would have suffered even more than they have already, and for that I will always be grateful.”

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Gary Walker

Gary has been a journalist for 20 years, most recently editing Long Live Vinyl magazine. He’s hopelessly addicted to reverb pedals and Gretsch guitars.

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