The Pros and Cons of Music Lessons Via Skype or Google+

The age of virtual music lessons is here.  The computer geek music teacher is no longer the only type of teacher who gives distance lessons.  Catherine Saint Louis wrote a good article yesterday in The New York Times (With Enough Bandwidth, Many Join the Band), and the enthusiasm of responses by readers shows that this subject is one that still carries a lot of novelty and excitement.

Music teacher conferences such as MTNA’s national conference have offered technology sessions that address distance lessons for several years now.   Many teachers are doing it, and it’s filling a much-needed gap in society’s need for lessons, especially for students in rural areas who don’t have access to music teachers. I have taught students from Mexico to Tasmania using Skype.

So far, I have yet to see any complete pros and cons list regarding distance lessons, so to the best of my ability, I made my own. I feel that part of my duty to prospective distance students is to make sure they’re fully aware of all benefits and drawbacks of these types of lessons.  First, the pros!


  • Quality of the teacher:  I believe it is better to have Skype lessons with an excellent teacher than it is to have in-person lessons with a mediocre teacher. Skype gives students even more options to choose from when looking for a teacher since they are not restricted to their small local region.
  • Weekly Convenience:   Students don’t have to travel 10 or 20 minutes to their teacher’s studio.  Also, when a student is 5 or 10 minutes late, I give them a courtesy call in case they forgot, but if they live 15 minutes away and they have a 30 or even 45 minute lesson, it’s hardly worth it for them to come late. Lessons online means no missed lessons due to forgetfulness since the student and teacher can connect 30 seconds after the courtesy call.
  • Convenience of Recording Lessons: While students always have the option to record their face-to-face lessons, that never happens (at least, in the history of my teaching).  But students can easily record Skype and Google+ lessons for review at a later time with software like Evaer and SuperTinTin (audio only: Pamela, MP3 Skype Recorder, and VodBurner).
  • Immediate Practicing: (added 1/13/12) While face-to-face students must drive home before practicing what they learned (which eats up time and tires people out), distance students can practice immediately after the lesson when ideas are fresh and when energy levels are still high.  (Thanks to Joy Morin for pointing this out.)  This is an extra practice session most students will get.  The first practice session will always be of higher quality when it is done immediately than if it were done the next day, and the first practice session is the most important session of the entire week.
  • Siblings Don’t Have To Wait: (added 1/13/12) Kids can do their own thing while their siblings have lessons, while in the private studio, they are held hostage until their siblings are done.
  • Warming Up: Students can warm up at the piano before their lesson, only stopping seconds before the lesson begins.  The piano student also gets to play their own instrument.  This would let the student show off their best playing to their teacher each week instead of their worst.  (This can also be seen as a con – see below.)
  • Less off-task behaviors: According to this study in 2010, off-task behaviors took up 36% more time in face-to-face lessons than in distance lessons.  I suspect part of this might be due to an awkwardness factor that I think we all feel when talking through a webcam.  It’s harder to feel and act as we normally would in front of a webcam than it is when face-to-face. The study also finds that eye contact during distance lessons is more frequent, and this is probably for the same reason.
  • Increased student performance: The same study indicates that students spend 22% more time performing during distance lessons than in face-to-face lessons.
  • Some Problems More Quickly Diagnosed: Sometimes the technical or musical problems students experience in their lesson can be an unexpected artifact of their unique instrument or practice environment at home.  For example, perhaps the student is afraid to play too loud because of living in an apartment or because family members are asleep (both of these scenarios describe a couple students I’ve taught before). These factors would come out immediately in a webcam lesson, but it might take a few face-to-face lessons for a teacher to figure out why the student doesn’t seem to ever “play out.”
  • Don’t Have To Be In The Same Room: Students won’t need to cancel lessons because they had the stomach flu two days before (stomach flus can be contagious for up to two weeks after symptoms have passed). There is also less suffering for everyone: students won’t suffer if their teacher ate onion rings for lunch, and bagpipe teachers have the option of muting their computer speakers while their students play.


  • No ability to physically work with hands: Sometimes the most efficient way to achieve technical results with a students is to physically manipulate their wrists, fingers, elbows, etc. while their hands are at the keyboard.
  • Dependent upon Internet connection: The student and teacher must both have a fast Internet connection, and even if they do, sometimes there are days when Internet backbones are lagging, ISPs are having trouble, etc., although that’s a rare occurrence.  Family members at the student’s house (and at the teacher’s house) must refrain from using the Internet during the lesson unless the Internet connection is extremely fast.  Glitches still happen sometimes with Skype and Google+.
  • Sound quality: Even with a fast Internet connection, sound quality is not even remotely close to the quality of a CD or even an audio cassette tape recording, let alone the quality of hearing the student in person.
  • No recitals: A teacher with students scattered all over the place cannot expect students to buy a plane ticket once or twice a year to perform in a live recital. Group webcam sessions could be organized, but certainly not on the scale of 30 students and 100 people in the audience.  Videos could be e-mailed to the teacher and combined into one performance video simulating a recital, but being able to try as many times as they want to get the “perfect” recording is not the same experience as having only one chance on stage to get it right.
  • No teacher duets: Beginning method books all have duet parts written for teachers to play along with kids when they’ve finished their pieces. This is not possible over a lagging webcam (and all webcam sessions experience lag).
  • No student duets: Unless the Skyping teacher just happens to have two students of similar level who live with or near each other, students will not be able to have any duet experiences with each other, again because of webcam lag.
  • Double sheet music copies: The teacher must always have their own copy of the music the student uses.  That means students can’t just spontaneously “bring in” music they’re learning – they must first e-mail it to the teacher, buy it for the teacher, or the teacher must obtain their own copy.
  • No ability to point to student’s music: Sometimes the most efficient way to solve a rhythmic problem is to have the student “follow the bouncing pen” (teacher taps the student’s music much like the bouncing ball in some kids’ TV shows), and this would be impossible in a distance lesson.
  • No ability to mark student’s music: Sometimes teachers must do a little editing in students’ music (marking in or circling finger numbers, changing dynamic/articulation markings, etc.), and occasionally they must do a lot of editing (such as with an urtext Bach edition that has no articulation or dynamics marked).  In this case teachers would have to mark their own copy and e-mail it to the student, or if they don’t want to mark my copy (I prefer to keep my library “clean”), the student would have to e-mail the teacher their music, the teacher would print it out and mark it up, then scan and e-mail it back to the student.
  • No real-time coaching: Sometimes teachers help students count out loud by counting with them while they play, but sync issues over distance lessons will make this impossible.  Sometimes a teacher might say, “Good.  Yes.  Ok, louder now, and now peak right here on this note,” etc. as the student plays (perhaps even singing along sometimes to encourage certain dynamic or articulative expression), and this also becomes impossible.
  • Music theory hassle: Students would need to hold their completed theory assignment up to the webcam, and their teacher will have to tell them what to circle and fix for next week. Some of my students are working in The Practice of Harmony, a very heavy college theory textbook/workbook combo, and some of those pages can take a solid two or three minutes to correct (e.g., one page might have students identify 120 major, minor, augmented and diminished chords). In that case, the students may need to scan their homework each week and e-mail it to me.
  • Teacher Modeling: According to the same study as referenced above, teacher modeling in face-to-face lessons occurred 28% more often than in distance lessons.  Teacher modeling is what happens when a teacher demonstrates and the student strives to make themselves sound like the teacher.
  • Looking from a different angle: Sometimes (but not very often), I will walk to the other side of the piano in order to see what the student’s hands look like from the other side, in cases where I have to look specifically at the left hand thumb or the right hand pinky (my piano is to the left of my student piano).  Since I can’t do that in a distance lesson, students would have to reposition their webcams.
  • Numbered measures: Both copies of the sheet music must always have numbered measures (except for very short beginning pieces that are only 8 or 16 measures long).
  • No teacher accompanying: Advanced students who perform concertos will not be able to benefit from their teacher’s free accompanying in recitals, festivals and competitions – they’ll have to hire a separate accompanist.
  • Note-taking: The student must take notes in their notebook.  Younger students (and especially very young students) are slow note-takers, which would make it necessary for the parent to take notes.  Teachers could overcome this by typing the student’s practice goals each week into an e-mail to the student during the lesson (Microsoft OneNote on a tablet PC could be a good solution for this since OneNote combines writing and typing).
  • Up-Front Cost: Students should purchase high-quality webcams so that the teacher can see as much detail as possible, and should probably consider purchasing a microphone as well, such as the Yeti Blue Microphone.
  • Warming Up: It could be seen as a bad thing that the student has their lesson immediately after warming up, because almost every performance situation students encounter (whether playing at the homes of friends and family or playing in recitals) involves playing when not warmed up.  Traditional lessons simulate this experience every week.  Similarly, playing on the teacher’s piano gives students the valuable experience of adjusting to different instruments, which is what happens at others’ homes, recitals, festivals and competitions.
  • Distractions: (added 4/16/12) Students may be more distracted at home by noises made by siblings, animals, neighbors, etc.  (Thanks to Lyle Compton for pointing this out in a comment below.)  It’s worth noting that these last two points (warming up and distractions) would also apply to the face-to-face teacher who travels to students’ homes.

Both Google+ and Skype are free, and both offer the ability to connect to multiple people at the same time. This presents the possibility of going over music theory, music history, etc. with a group of students at the same time.  This is also why “No Group Lessons” did not make it onto the cons list above:  with Google+ Hangouts or Skype group calls, teachers can put together group sessions in which students can perform live for each other. That said, I think Skype still has better control over echo effects caused by having your speaker turned up past a certain volume, which makes your chat partner hear their own voice as an echo.

It’s also worth noting that piano lessons take up more “room” spatially than harmonica or oboe lessons since they involve the full length of a keyboard.  A harmonica teacher only needs to see the face of the player, while a piano teacher needs to see the entire body and keyboard from a good angle. They need to get a good view of the pedals, and the webcam needs to be placed sufficiently above the keyboard so that arms don’t get in the way of hands.

I will definitely add to this list if any reader comments point out factors I may have overlooked.

The most personally relevant drawbacks for me in giving Skype lessons are the following:

  • Draining: Everything takes more energy over Skype than in person. If the student starts playing in the wrong measure, I have to verbally describe where to start. Things that would only take a couple seconds in an in-person lesson take 15, 20 or 30 seconds when working over Skype, and this effect is felt throughout the entire lesson. It also didn’t help that I had to do a lot of prep work before each lesson, turning on the laptop on the piano, setting up the webcam, bringing up my e-mail to see theory assignments and print out sheet music, etc.
  • Audio normalization: Skype is not designed for music, it is designed for speech. Quiet speech is amplified to a normal volume, and loud speech is de-amplified to a normal volume. Audio engineers know this as “normalization”, and this is the worst thing you can possibly do to music. I can still tell the difference between piano and forte, but hearing the difference between mezzo-forte and forte, or piano and pianissimo, takes a level of conscious focus on my part that is taxing. I have to concentrate so much on the timbre of the piano instead of being able to just rely on the decibel level like we can do in real life, and this distracts me from thinking about bigger issues in the music.
  • Duplex and lag awkwardness:  In telecommunications, duplex is the type of connection that is required to allow parties to transmit audio data at the same time. Unfortunately, Skype is only half-duplex. In real life, when two people start to talk, they quickly stop and figure out who should go. When it happens over Skype, only one of the people is heard. They must finish speaking before they can be interrupted. Skype lag complicates this further, because if you need to stop someone, they get your message delayed, and because they’re transmitting, they may not get your message at all. And it’s kind of funny when both people are trying to figure out who should talk first: they both see that each other is patiently silent, so they both decide to talk. But since they are seeing an image that is anywhere between 0.5 and 4 seconds delayed, they don’t realize that they both started to talk at the same time until these seconds have passed.

Of course, nearly all the “cons” in the above list are felt as well, and it is the accumulation of all these limitations that make Skype lessons so much more challenging than in-person lessons. I especially notice the decrease in my own “teacher modeling” to students. Because of all the extra time and energy required to accomplish things in Skype lessons, I always have a sense of needing to be as fast and efficient as possible, leaving less time for demonstration. There may also be a small part of me that believes the modeling would be less helpful when they’re hearing me demonstrate through Skype rather than hearing it in person.

Having said that, I’ve done Skype lessons at a very advanced level before (with good supporting technology and fast Internet connections), as well as with an early intermediate adult, and it felt doable. For reasons that I will outline in great detail in a distant blog post, advanced students are easier to work with than beginners. Perhaps the added ease of working with an advanced student counteracts a lot of the extra energy needed to make the limitations of distance lessons work.

(c) 2012 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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35 responses to The Pros and Cons of Music Lessons Via Skype or Google+

  1. What a thorough list! I’ve only one addition to suggest for the PRO list: My students have found that they like being able to practice right after the lesson while things are fresh. I used to do this at college at the suggestion of my professor. Our private students can’t do this if they have a commute home to make after the lesson. But Skype/Google+ students can!

  2. Lyle

    Distraction, in the form of a TV or sound system playing in another room, siblings running and shouting elsewhere in the home while the student tries to concentrate, babies crying, even cooking smells drifting in to make the mouth water, pets wandering in and demanding attention or feeding, all are potential downsides to teaching in a student’s home.
    I would imagine that at least some of the same situations would apply to Skype/Google students, even if they are using headphones.

  3. Jay

    Great Article. I have been kicking the tires on introducing SKYPE and GOOGLE+ lessons to Lessons In Your Home (our in-home music school). But I think we are going to take the plunge. I guess one aspect i can’t get over is starting beginners, which we do often. I have 0 experience teaching “distance” lessons. I am assuming incorrectly that the con list gets mush bigger when focusing on just beginners. I’m thinking of aspects like:
    A. how to hold, handle, manipulate, and approach your instrument.
    B. Posture (not sure how much you can see)
    C. Feel, is there a key, pad or valve that’s sticking

    • Jay, I suspect you’re right about that. I do suspect that self-directed learners are easier to teach via Skype than beginners, so I think it’s extra critical that the parent be present, to the point where they’re almost taking lessons too. Of course, self-directed learners are also easier to teach in person than beginners too. 🙂

      • Beverly Holt Guth

        Chad, thank you for taking the time to create this marvelous infolist! I’m just thinking about trying this, and will look into the Google method. I just know that you’ve taken a lot of the rocks out of the road for a teacher just starting to try this out!
        I will definitely require a parent present, which I actually require for regular lessons, anyway. I think I’ll actually try it with a teacher friend first, too!
        Beverly Holt Guth

  4. Jim Mara

    thanks for the extensive and informative list. I am a student and my teacher has moved to the US. We will try online teaching and hopefully it works. It is possible when playing an electrified instrument to plug an output from the amp (using the effects loop) directly into the mic input of the laptop. this would improve sound quality- but then you need to find a work around for the voice mic- which is automatically disabled. thanks again.

  5. Dan

    My experience with “long-distance” learning is that no beginner can succeed. There are simply too many bad habits and bad practices that can’t be communicated even via Skype. The only success I’ve ever had with teaching folks at a distance was with those that already played pretty damn well and were able to follow directions.

  6. Penny

    Hmmm…what about a combination of half live and half Skype? Do you think that’d be more doable and realistic to achieve?

    • Hi Penny, even doing all Skype lessons is “realistic to achieve” – it’s just a matter of opportunity cost for you and your students (i.e. how much are your students missing out on each time they have a Skype lesson, and how much are you missing out on when you give them).

  7. Pingback: Singing Lessons Via Skype or Google+ - Celeste Siciliano

  8. Jack Propps

    Now tell me, [ before this semi pro adult, begins taking again next tuesday via sype] Does the few second delays ”mess with the inter-action” between out of state teacher and myself/. It just seems like we interupt one another be the question/

    • That last part of your message doesn’t make any sense to me – perhaps resubmit your comment and I’ll take a stab at answering it… Also please be more specific about what you mean by “interaction” – talking? Playing? What are you asking specifically?

  9. Sarah Macey Kubus

    What kind of webcam do you and your students use? Do you have problems with lag or with choppy frames?

      • kelly

        thanks for the pros and cons list. I’m moving to Germany soon and looking to keep a few of my piano students. I’m going to invest on the cam and mic you recommend.
        Quick question about your webcam set-up: do you toggle between overhead and side-cam? What is your ideal placement?
        Also- what is your mic placement like with the Yeti?

        • Wow, good luck on the move to Germany! That’s quite a move. I thought moving across the country from Reno to Pittsburgh was a big deal…

          I don’t toggle between overhead and side cam, but that would be awesome if I could. I’m sure there’s an easy way to do that, but I just haven’t looked into it.

          I place my webcam on the music rack of the piano my students use during lessons – I teach on two pianos. My piano is to the left of the student’s piano (so it would be “secondo” in a two-piano piece). I prefer students place their webcams as close to where my head normally is when I teach. We get used to certain views of things, and I think it helps our intuition to not have to change our point of view.

          I think the Yeti can be placed just about anywhere. I place mine on top of my piano.

  10. Derek

    A really helpful analysis of pros and cons, thank you!

  11. Derek

    I have had trouble with Flute sounding as though it’s blowing overtones on Skype, and dropping out, causing me to have to abandon the call in the end. Moreover, the time lag means I cannot play along as accompanist in Full Duplex. That said, I am able to do Half Duplex successfully for most purposes, such as for a Piano less and no problem with anything involving Orchestration, Composition, Music Technology.

    For Music Tech, I’ve found it’s essential that the student use a mobile device so it can swing round to show the computer screen, and other parts of the studio. Can be tricky if they’ve not got Skype on their phone yet, or their wifi is slow, and I’ve spent hours getting this going, that cannot be charged for. Obviously it’s necessary to use screensharing for detailed computer work, since the resolution on Skype is too fuzzy.

  12. Phillip

    Awesome list. I teach piano and voice online and have a lot of trouble with the voice lessons because of the audio normalization as well as the fact that while they are singing I can’t sing or play piano at the same time and actually hear anything they are singing. I keep hoping for someone to write some better software of fix Skype.
    On the other hand piano lessons are great and like you said it’s really difficult to hear the difference between p and mp or f and ff.
    It was good to see this list to know that it’s not just me having these issues.

  13. Nazmun

    Nice List. Thanks.

  14. Laura

    Great list as I’m thinking about trying this. Another “pro” that I’m hoping will be the case. . .Continued lessons with the same great teacher you started with. I’ve have a student whose family will be making a military move. He has Aspergers Syndrome, so establishing the social connection was the challenge for him. He is 12 so totally into technology. . .so we’ll give it a try.

  15. Anita E Kohli

    Am considering teaching Skype lessons and have a question. Do teachers need to be extra careful when taking on Skype students, in respect to their practise committments? I’m guessing it’s much harder to handle the non practisers here, cos they tend to have more problems with rhythm and technique?

    • I’d say that everything that is a problem in normal in-person lessons is amplified when giving Skype lessons because of the extra challenges of communication, inability to play with the student, inability to point to their music, etc. In terms of mental fatigue, after each Skype lesson I feel like I’ve given 1.5 normal lessons. But since my Skype students have generally been adults, non-practicers haven’t really been a problem – adults tend to beat themselves up when they don’t practice, so you know they’re already doing their best to make time for practicing but can’t always manage.

  16. Heather Perrin

    Do you have to have two webcams, one in the laptop and a second USB one? – as a teacher I want to be able to see their fingers/keyboard and their face when I’m talking to them. Second questions – other websites mention an app called Music reader where you can annotate and both of you can see the same music. Have you or anyone used this yet?

    • Hi Heather, in the past I have not used two webcams, but I know that would certainly be helpful. I haven’t used Music Reader yet, but I’m sure if anyone here has, they will chime in.

  17. Hi Chad again,
    Well after all that over-thinking it, over-researching it, I have a pupil in the US (I’m in the UK – he wanted to carry on with me) so I had to take the plunge. All that worry! Whe it cam down to it, all we ‘re using is my laptop on a high stool, and he is using a tablet hitched onto a goose-necked holder attached to an ironing board. And everything works fine – no headphones, no speakers, no extra webcams. Oh, all that worrying I did! I find that it takes me more time both before and after the lesson – any music we might want to do I need to think ahead and have it scanned and emailed. Any duets I have to play and record the duet part so he can play along at home – and not playing duets live is a BIG miss, I must say; I use them so much in face-to-face lessons. And I write up all the lesson notes and email them – in a face-to-face lesson I’m writing in the pupil’s notebook as we go along. But apart from those things, the sound is fine, the not-talking-at-the-same-time is getting better, I can see his fingers and if I do need to see the LH little finger, say, I ask him to re-position. Mother is there all the time – but always has been, so that’s a big help. In response to Jay’s post (about five years ago!) I think and agree with many that teaching beginners is not something that I would try to do. I do spend a lot of time in face-to-face lessons moulding little fingers, helping wrists and arms float etc and I think putting all that into words and demos over Skype would be just too difficult. Maybe with parent there…but it does sound very tricky.
    To be honest, I don’t enjoy it as much as a face-to-face lesson; possibly because of the talking thing. I think I like to have a banter and a joke and it’s harder over Skype. But it’s working great with minimal equipment. Thanks again for your article.

  18. Ronald Touchton

    Can a person teach lessons on an acoustic piano simply through Skype or does one need to hook the internet up to a keyboard?

  19. Thank you for you share on your experiences with Skype. Have you tried using Video Exchange for the modeling aspect of your teaching? The sound of the piano would come through much better.

    • No I haven’t, and actually I can’t find any information on “Video Exchange” using Google.

      • Try
        You can email your student a free link for files up to 2GB. For more than that you pay a fee to join. The student can download your video and keep it on their device and watch it from there. The link takes them to the site where they can download it. The student can then email you a link back with their video. For the free version the only catch is the email recipient needs to grab the video using the link right away. The video goes away on the site after a few days.

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