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’ve given some piano lessons quite successfully via Skype and Google+, and when I relocate to a different city in June 2012, I will be giving distance lessons to any of my current students who are interested.
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. (Note: according to the study referenced above, touching hands occurred less than 1% of the total duration of face-to-face lessons.)
- 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. Having said that, I feel that I’m still able to judge tone quality acceptably well.
- 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. (Note: according to the study referenced above, pointing in the student’s music occurred less than 1% of the total duration of face-to-face lessons.)
- 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. (Note: according to the study referenced above, marking students’ music occurred less than 1% of the total duration of face-to-face lessons.)
- 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.
I’m starting to prefer Google+ Hangouts over Skype, although 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. Google+ is still free, and Google+ Hangouts offer the opportunity to connect to multiple people at the same time (Skype conference calls require a subscription). 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 conference calls, teachers can put together group sessions in which students can perform live for each other.
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.
Update on 10/9/12: Theory Versus Practice
After giving Skype lessons for a couple months to a family of three students (2 hours per week total) who really wanted to stick with me after my move across the country, I must say that I’m less of a believer in Skype lessons than I was before, especially for young and/or beginning students.
My Skype students took a break in August, and I was promised a phone call in September to re-establish lessons. After a week of no phone call, I was 99% sure that they were looking for another teacher. I called them, and my suspicion was confirmed. The mother told me that despite not having to commute to a teacher’s home, it was just too draining and complicated to handle. The family loved me so much as a teacher that they absolutely dreaded giving me the news. Fortunately, the mother was quite relieved to hear that the feeling was mutual and that I wanted to help them find a new teacher. We both agreed that Skype lessons weren’t worth it.
Here are some more specifics for my readers:
- Draining: Everything takes more energy over Skype than in person. If the student started playing in the wrong measure, I had to verbally describe where to start. Things that would only take a couple seconds in an in-person lesson would take 15, 20 or 30 seconds when working over Skype. I felt as if I had taught for 3 or 4 hours even though it was only 2 hours of teaching.
- Connection erosion: My students and I both had very fast Internet connections, we both had a top-of-the-line Logitech webcam, and my students had a very nice microphone. Even with all these advantages, there were always at least two or three times when the video and audio started to erode, to the point where we had to hang up and reconnect.
- 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 could still tell the difference between piano and forte, but hearing the difference between mezzo-forte and forte, or piano and pianissimo, took a level of conscious focus on my part that was truly painful. I had 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 distracted me from thinking about bigger issues in the music.
- Duplex and lag awkwardness: In telecommunications, duplex is what happens when both parties are transmitting data at the same time. 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 were felt as well, and it was the accumulation of all these limitations that made the lessons feel truly debilitating and draining. I especially noticed the decrease in my own “teacher modeling” to the students – because of all the extra time and energy required to accomplish things in Skype lessons, I always had a sense of needing to be as fast and efficient as possible, leaving less time for demonstration. There may also have been a small part of me that believed the modeling would be less helpful when they’re hearing me demonstrate through Skype rather than hearing it in person.
I also tried Skype lessons with a more advanced student who had a mediocre webcam and mediocre Internet connection. I stopped the lesson after she played one page of music and said I simply couldn’t do it. Skype actually utilizes speed manipulation technology, and there were several times when her tempo changed noticeably even though I knew it wasn’t her actually changing the tempo (I could tell because it was only for a few bars, then the tempo went back to normal). These conditions make it impossible to be certain about tempo stability, phrasing/rubato, etc.
Having said that, I’ve done Skype lessons at a very advanced level before (with good supporting technology and fast Internet connections), 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