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Jumping into online teaching

In this first-hand account, Rick Finlay - professional drummer, teacher, and vice-chair of our Executive Committee - charts the ups and downs of moving his teaching practice into the online world.

By Richard Finlay Published: 01 April 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:30 PM

Pretty soon after all this kicked off, my social network was full of musicians planning to switch to online teaching. 

In a typical spirit of generosity, loads of them started sharing tips and advice about tech setup and about teaching methods. As did various industry bodies. So much so that very quickly I could see that digesting all that advice and testing all those platforms could stall me into inaction. 

So I made a very quick decision to go for Zoom – I could see that musicians were finding this worked well for the particular audio demands of teaching, especially a loud instrument like drums.  

Getting things started

I picked up some advice on tweaking the audio settings for better results, and then sent a briefing email round to all my students inviting them to try it out with a 15-minute test lesson for which I would not charge. 

There was some essential advice on the MU site, some of which I incorporated into my invitation. 

To my delight many of my regular pupils were keen to have a go. For the younger ones, their parents jumped at an opportunity to engage their kids and keep the creative juices flowing. My adult learners were already pretty tech savvy and happy to maintain our working relationship. 

Making tweaks to my usual working methods

I realised that I was going to have change some of my usual working methods. Here at my studio I have two drum kits and we can play together – latency in the connection means that simultaneous playing, or even a count-in, are out of the question. 

Nevertheless, in my head we were going to have superb audio and video connections and it would be like watching the best educational videos right here in my own world! 

I have a great setup at my home studio with good lighting, great gear, headset mic and mic’ed up drumkit – but I hadn’t spotted that my students would not all be on nice laptops with webcams.

About half of them are taking their online lessons on a smartphone or tablet, propped up precariously on an adjacent music stand. The audio settings on these devices are less tweakable, so we have struggled a bit with compression and automatic limiting of the mic at their end. 

At first this makes for a tiring lesson, because the flow is quite interrupted, and the sound and sync from the student’s side is not always great. However, I am rapidly adapting my methods, making sure I am engaging the student by asking for their responses, and giving them time for that.  

Getting comfortable with the new online world

I plan my lessons carefully and use lots of my own written material, so that gives me a chance to send out accompanying documents in advance by email, which the student or their parent print out in advance of the appointment.  

I can also attach documents to the “chat” pane in Zoom, but realistically many students do not have a big enough screen to read from that in the lesson. 

So far I’ve been able to maintain about 40% of my teaching income and I’m confident I can grow this in the coming days as my students get more comfortable with the new online world.  

As fellow MU member and online maestro Steve Lawson said, “Take a deep breath, set yourself the task of acquiring specific skills each day, and go back to school. This is a marathon not a sprint.” 

Support your music teacher

During these complicated times, we’re celebrating the music teachers who shaped our lives, and musicians and learners to do the same through the #SupportMyMusicTeacher hashtag.

Is your music teacher the best? Has learning an instrument changed your life? Is it making social distancing a little bit easier right now?  

Let us know on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #SupportMyMusicTeacher. 

Thanks to

Richard Finlay

Drummer, percussionist, teacher, MU activist

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