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Online group teaching and ensemble work is challenging due to the limitations of technology – but solutions do exist. Such solutions will never replicate real ensemble playing, but they can provide a reasonable alternative.

They can also broaden what music teachers, schools and music services/hubs are able to offer, which may be necessary if social distancing remains in place for a long time, or if the resumption of extra-curricular music is delayed.

The following guidance aims to help music teachers set up and run group online music sessions. Although the guidance is specific to Zoom, many of the processes and tips are universal and can be adapted to whatever software you are using.

Firstly, please see our Teaching Music Online guidance, which covers the basic principles of online teaching, including safeguarding, privacy and security. What follows addresses the specific practicalities of group teaching online.

Setting up for your first session

Zoom settings:

Under your settings tab (in your browser, where more options appear, rather than in the app), ensure the following are selected:

  • Un-tick ‘Allow participants to join the meeting before the host arrives’. You don’t want the children to be in the classroom without their teacher.
  • Tick ‘Mute participants upon entry’. It is much easier to start the session with everyone muted so there isn’t a big cacophony of sound at the beginning.
  • Un-tick ‘Allow meeting participants to send a message visible to all participants’ and ‘Allow meeting participants to send a private 1:1 message to another participant’. Tick ‘Prevent participants from saving chat’ – this will help safeguard you against any unnecessary/unhelpful chat between pupils during the session.
  • Enable the waiting room. This means you can let everyone join the meeting in one block rather than individually. You may want to enable an audible notification if someone enters the waiting room so you know to let any latecomers in.

You should also put some thought into:

  • Recording – as Zoom only lets you record to your computer or your personal Zoom cloud, it is advisable not to record the meeting for safeguarding reasons. This matches with the MU’s existing advice on recording one-to-one online sessions, which we expand on here.
  • ‘Allow participants to rename themselves’. If the participant doesn’t have a Zoom account, their Zoom name may appear on the screen as the type of device they are using (e.g. iPhone, Galaxy). If they are on their parent’s device, it might show their parent’s name. It can be helpful therefore to allow participants to rename themselves, although this might take some managing to ensure they don’t abuse it.
  • Breakout rooms – this can be helpful for small group discussions, but they won’t be able to play music together in time (due to latency – see below) so this option might not be too useful in practical music sessions.
  • Virtual background – a green screen is useful if you want to cover up what is behind you on the video image, or if you need to display an image behind you such as a company logo or a photo relating to the content of the session. If you are using Zoom on a tablet, the green screen function works well against any clear background (it doesn’t need to be green). If you are using it on a computer, you will need a green sheet behind you. These are available cheaply online. The participants might enjoy using this function for themselves, though it could be a distraction.

Equipment you’ll need and equipment that may be useful

It’s perfectly workable to use only a laptop or tablet to facilitate a successful Zoom session. However, the following equipment is also useful:

  • An external microphone will ensure good audio for your instrument and speech.
  • Headphones will eliminate any feedback and help you hear the participants better.
  • An audio extension cable will ensure you can set up further away from your screen/camera so more of your body is visible when teaching your instrument.
  • An external keyboard and mouse will allow you to have complete control of all the functions while seated away from your computer/camera.
  • An external webcam is probably better visual quality than your built-in front-facing camera on your computer.
  • Lighting – ensure your face is well lit. This could be as simple as using angle-poise lamps or positioning yourself facing a window. Studio lights are available cheaply online.
  • Backing tracks need a separate device to play them.

And this equipment is optional but useful:

  • An additional camera – set this up showing a different angle of your instrument (e.g. an overhead shot for a keyboard to show fingerings).
  • Green screen – useful for the virtual background function.

Some equipment checks you should think about before your first decision:

  • Setting up your space – make sure everything you need for the session is within reach. If you’re using the virtual background function, check any resources you’re using are still visible on the screen. Some reflective surfaces, such as metal, may disappear.
  • Camera position – make sure your hands on your instrument are visible, and be aware of what is in the background.
  • Share screen function – it’s simple to share PDFs (e.g. for lyrics or photos) and video examples. This can be a valuable resource during the session. However, this function shares the whole of your screen, so close any unrelated tabs beforehand.

Considering the timing for your session

If the Zoom meetings are replacing your usual whole-class music sessions, you might be bound by the timings given by the school. However, two considerations are:

  • It’s important that you allow at least five minutes between each session, as the next class will not be able to enter the waiting room and will just get a message stating you are in another meeting. Also, a five-minute breather gives you a chance to reset everything (both technology and instruments) ready for the next class.
  • Consider keeping session to 40 minutes – concentration lengths are often shorter for children at home than in the classroom. Also, 40 minutes is the maximum length of a meeting on a free Zoom account.

What to do before the session starts

  • In your Zoom meeting invite, include a safeguarding statement (this might be your employer’s, or your own if you are self-employed) as well as what participants will need to provide (e.g. instrument, music, a quiet space).
  • Have the pupils get any instruments and equipment (e.g. music stand, pencil) ready before they join the session.
  • Ask pupils to download metronome and tuning apps if relevant to the level and style of music you are making. Ask individual instrumental teachers to teach children or parents how to tune instruments – or you may wish to cover this.
  • Ask pupils to warm up and get into an appropriate position for the visuals and sound – e.g. brass instruments should not point directly at the mic.
  • Five minutes before the start time, go to the Zoom preferences tab to test your mic and audio. Also check your camera angle to ensure everything you want the pupils to see is in shot (and anything you don’t want them to see is out of shot).

Leading the session

  • Start your meeting promptly to help embed expectations for time keeping, pupil concentration and discipline, and to avoid them hanging about in the waiting room.
  • Tick the setting option that stops them being able to unmute themselves, which will give you greater control.
  • Ensure ‘original sound’ is turned on – otherwise Zoom assumes anything that isn’t speech is background noise.
  • Start with a warm-up activity that involves everyone. Use a pre-recorded loop – it’s a good way to engage everyone at the beginning of the session and allows time for latecomers before any new material is taught. Dropbox and Google Drive are handy for storing and sharing loops and backing tracks. Be mindful of security preferences and only share the essential minimum.
  • Make good use of backing tracks. Due to latency, it’s not possible for all the participants to play in time together. Therefore, whenever there is any group playing, make sure everyone (apart from you) is muted to play along to the backing track.
  • Only unmute individuals to hear them play, and never unmute groups. Again, due to latency, they’re not going to sound in time. It’s obviously important to hear each person, but it can be quite daunting for the child to play solo on front of their class – so be sensitive and ask for volunteers rather than picking on individuals.
  • You will need to be aware of the background noise at each pupil’s house – it might not be possible for them to be in a quiet space, so you might hear a lot of unexpected noise when you unmute them.
  • ‘Gallery view’ and ‘speaker view’ – depending on the activity, vary these throughout your session. ‘Gallery view’ is where everyone can see thumbnail images of everyone in the meeting. The speaker is highlighted by a green box around their image. With ‘speaker view’, only the speaker is visible on the screen. You should demonstrate how this function works to the pupils at the beginning of the first session as this is a function they can control. You might want to say at certain points during the session, ‘Please can you press speaker view as I want to show you a close-up of the instrument hand position,’ or ‘Please can you press gallery view so we can all see each other as we play along to the backing track.’
  • Spotlighting – this is similar to speaker view where only one person is visible on the screen, but it is controlled by you (the host), not the participants.
  • Finish the session with a couple of minutes of everyone unmuted so they can wave and say hello. They might not be getting much opportunity to see each other as a class.

To consider:

  • Record a backing track with several instruments playing the same part – for the children it will sound like there is more than one person playing.
  • Send the pupils the backing track as an MP3 and ask them to record themselves playing along to it. You could add this to your backing track for the next session so that the backing track sounds more authentic.
  • Be aware while planning sessions that the pace of learning might be slower than with face-to-face sessions.
  • Audio quality will vary from call to call and person to person, so it might be hard to hear nuances in tone. You may need to vary your usual teaching methods.

Editing a performance together

As anyone who has been online will know, many musical ensembles have recently been recording themselves performing together online.

To do this, send out parts to your pupils with backing or click tracks. Pupils can then record their parts with headphones on and send you their videos.

Editing the videos to make a virtual orchestra is a lot of work, but the pupils love it. Here is just one example – an edited video performance by Wandsworth Music Philharmonic, sent in by a member.

Practise your skills

A lot of these tips take practice. Be aware that the class can see your face all the time. Practise multitasking – talking while clicking through different functions to help maintain the flow of the session without any awkward silences.

Lastly, enjoy exploring how to be creative using this medium.

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