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Jumping into Online Teaching: Points to Consider

Rick Finlay, aiming to answer a few questions, and arming us to "get stuck in and see what happens".

By Richard Finlay Published: 22 April 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:30 PM
a child learning to play piano online from home
Pretty soon you’ll be offering them the true value of your expertise. Photo credit: Shutterstock

It’s been great to have so much positive feedback about the original blog, so thanks to everyone who took the trouble to do that. I want to emphasise that whilst there is always room for refining both teaching methods and technical setup, the basic facility to offer instrumental lessons online is pretty much ready-to-go with many of the available platforms as is.

My point being that you should get stuck in and see what happens because you’ll learn so much from the first few sessions.

I think it is a courtesy to your students to offer short trial sessions free of charge because they should not pay for the first bits of your own learning curve, but pretty soon you’ll be offering them the true value of your expertise and I absolutely uphold the principle that the value of that is the same whether you are online or face-to-face.

Have you considered teaching students further away?

In ‘normal’ times I have a busy private teaching practice with a full diary of visiting students, so although I have looked into online lessons in the past, I’ve not pursued it – also I really enjoy the experience of working together in the same room.

But now that I’ve dipped a toe into the water of online teaching I’m going to offer it to remote pupils. At the moment my feeling is that it works best for intermediate or advanced learners, where I can offer a kind of masterclass and set some particular challenges which can be worked on between sessions. For the younger pupils and beginners there are definitely limitations.

I’ll mention here that the mechanics of invoicing and payment are easily solved. I use iZettle which not only offers a card reader which students can use when they attend, but also permits e-invoicing with card payment options. The commission is low and the electronic logging of transactions is comprehensive and aids bookkeeping.

Have you considered the limitations of students’ equipment?

The biggest problem I’ve found is the quality of audio and video on tablets and phones. Where students have a laptop I would try to encourage them, in advance of the lesson, to choose that technology. Zoom’s useful audio settings (see below) are mostly unavailable on tablets. And it’s much easier to setup a webcam on a laptop than a phone, unless the students has a mounting system.

Here’s an interesting plus for drummers – so often we have no idea about our students’ instrument setup at home. It’s been a revelation to see pupils struggling with poorly set up, over-resonant drumkits, bad lighting, no music stand, rubbish seating and so on.

And it’s been rewarding to make simple suggestions online and see an immediate result which will probably be transformational for progress in the coming weeks. Not to mention the incidental benefit of improving the listening experience for their housemates and neighbours!

How have your students adapted to online learning?

I can say without exception that they all enjoy it (maybe the novelty will wear off). The little’uns have improved their ability to listen as they intuitively respond to the lag of conversation, and the inability to hear instruction whilst bashing away/dropping drumsticks. Older musicians have that very contemporary desire to refine their tech setup to the nth degree to deliver better quality.

I make them write their own homework notes (one of my own esteemed teachers used to do that) which forces them to frame their objectives in their own words, and to absorb their practice goals more profoundly.

Do you have tips for improving the sound quality?

It helps if both parties wear headphones, although students who don’t have that option have managed ok. For the teacher, a headset mic offers better audio quality. I run that, and my drum mics, through an interface so that I can set individual levels, and I wear wireless noise-cancelling headphones.

So my intention is to offer the student a great audiovisual experience from my end, but I’ve learned to be realistic about what comes back. It’s often far from ideal, and interestingly that makes the teaching experience more tiring, but should not be an insurmountable problem.

Audio settings, where available on your chosen software platform, are important.

What settings on Zoom have you found provide the optimum sound for drums?

There are some simple adjustments in Zoom settings which both teacher and pupil should consider (where the options are available). I use the test session with each student to talk them through this – be patient and give them time to navigate the software.

To adjust audio settings (laptop/desktop version only), either click the up-arrow next to the microphone or select the option from the menu bar (‘Preferences’ on a Mac)

1. Next to ‘Test Speaker’ there is a pop-up menu to select headphones where applicable.

2. Next to ‘Test Mic’ there is a pop-up menu to select headset mic or whatever you use.

3. Uncheck the tick box for ‘Automatically adjust microphone volume’. This will prevent the inbuilt limiter shutting the mic down as soon as you or your student hits a drum.

4. If you can find an ‘Advanced’ button below that, it will take you to further options.

5. The two pop-up menus for Suppressing background noise are worth experimenting with. In most instances, I disable these to capture the finer details in both my and my student’s sound. But if there is genuine background noise apart from the instrument it may be useful to have these set on auto or

6. Regardless of the above adjustments, for the teacher’s setup it is important to check the box at the top of the advanced page labelled ‘Show in-meeting option to “Enable Original Sound” from microphone’.

7. During the lesson the toggle button for this option on the main window should read ‘Turn off Original Sound’ (meaning it is currently ON). Otherwise Zoom will still exhibit some level-limiting behaviour which can distort the sound of a loud instrument like drums.

How have you had to rethink your lesson plans?

I’ve taken to preparing my lesson plan a bit further in advance so that I can send any material for printing in advance by email. Where I used to plan on playing reference tracks in the lesson for listening or playing along to, I’ll ask a student to find them online in advance. And inevitably stuff comes up in a lesson which I can’t notate for a student there and then, so I’m sending follow up notes on occasion.

I really miss the ability to offer recording to my students, and the bumpiness of online communication interrupts the free flow of conversation so I’m learning to wait for the student to play an exercise before patiently reviewing that performance. I’m finding the to and fro of that process is less immediate and there is more need for repetition, but maybe that’s no bad thing.

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