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Teaching Music Online – A Complete Guide

Advice for musicians

Advice for musicians

Find out how to transition to virtual music lessons, from choosing the right platform to organising your diary.

Teaching Music Online – A Complete Guide

As life settles into a new normal during the Covid pandemic, music teachers across the country have moved their lessons online. Thanks to the internet, they've been able to continue supporting themselves as well as their students' continuing development.

Online teaching has also proven a useful stop gap for the UK's gigging musicians, most of whom have been out of work since March.

You can't beat face-to-face lessons. But with the right equipment and good planning, it's possible to make a success of it in the virtual realm.

Here's how to get started as an online music teacher, in 9 easy steps.

1. Choose your hardware

Devices

Unless you have no other option, always opt for a laptop or desktop PC or Mac computer rather than a phone or tablet.

Aside from the larger screen size, desktops and laptops have superior built-in microphones and speakers. They'll also allow you to connect an external mic if you wish.

Headphones

A pair of high quality, over-ear headphones are an essential for both student and teacher – you'll get a better sound from these than your built-in computer output. They'll also help avoid feedback issues, which are especially likely if you're using an external microphone.

Microphones

Your computer's built-in mic (input) should be sufficient for most lessons, and expanding your set-up further may cause more issues than it solves, especially for the non-technically savvy.

But if you're likely to be working heavily in tone quality and production (perhaps more likely in classical music or jazz), an external mic is recommended.

External mics will likely capture the sound of your student's instrument or voice with greater subtlety, than a "tinny" built-in computer mic. Ultimately this will allow your student to be more inspired by, and more easily emulate, your sound.

Ideally, your student would also use an external microphone, allowing you to listen to, and feed back on their sound with greater accuracy.

A USB microphone is the easiest and cheapest microphone you can add to your set-up. You can plug these directly into your computer or laptop without the need for any mixer or interface.

XLR microphones are on the whole better quality than USBs, but bear in mind you'll need additional hardware – an audio interface – to connect the mic to your computer.

Additional cameras (pros only!)

Depending on your instrument and technical competence, you might consider a second webcam.

This will allow you to cut between your head/body, for instruction, and your hands/instrument, for demonstration. On a piano, the demonstration camera could be an overhead mic capturing a birds-eye view of the keyboard. On a guitar, the camera could be trained at the fretboard.

A simple shortcut on your computer keyboard will allow you to cut between the two cameras at will.

Teaching Music Online – A Complete Guide

2. Choose your platform

There are several great virtual teaching platforms out there, and they're all free to use.

If you're working for a school or a music academy, they may choose for you or have a system in place already. Similarly, your students may have their own preference, so it's good to have experience with at least two or three platforms.

The most popular video call platforms are: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Skype.

If your student doesn't have a preference and you need to choose one, there are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Some apps require both users to have accounts.
    At the time of writing, Zoom doesn't require the student to have an account, making it the easiest to access - just send your student the link.

    Both you and your student will require an account if meeting on Skype and Google Meet. Facetime requires both parties to use a Mac computer.

  • Call length is restricted on some apps (unless you pay).
    At the time of writing, Skype has no limit to call length. Google meet has a 60 minute limit. Zoom is limited to a measly 40 minute calls, in the free version.

  • Some apps have a "record" feature.
    This is a really useful feature and a major bonus of online calls. Your student can watch back your lesson afterwards.

    At the time of writing, all the Zoom, Skype and Google Meet let you do this. Facebook and Whatsapp don't currently have this feature built into the app, but it's possible using 3rd party software.

  • Some apps are better for audio than others.
    In our experience, Zoom is the best for audio due to its highly customisable audio settings. Enable "High Fidelity Music Mode" and "Use Original Sound".

    Zoom also comes with an "Echo cancellation" setting which suppresses background noises. This is ideal for conversation but will result in sound from an acoustic instrument cutting in and out. Disable this setting.

    Zoom can also pick up a stereo signal. This might be useful if you intend to use two external mics. You can then split say, voice and guitar into left and right. Other apps, such as Skype, can only pick up a mono signal, but this is fine in most contexts.

Once you've decided on a platform, send an email to your student well ahead of your lesson date, with instructions on how to download and log into the platform. This will help minimise delays.

    3. Optimise your connection

    The most frequent problem encountered during online lessons is an interrupted wifi connection.

    Make sure you have a strong, steady connection before calling your student.

    If you don't have the best connection in the world, here are four ways to improve signal strength and bandwidth:

    1. If possible, plug your computer direct into the router using an ethernet cable, rather than using wifi.

    2. If this isn't possible, move your router closer to your teaching room, or get an extra signal booster if that's not possible.

    3. Close any other apps you're running on your computer, such as Spotify or your browser, as these can eat up bandwidth.

    4. Consider asking anyone else in the household to stay offline for the duration of your call. A family member streaming in the next door room will probably kill your call.
    Teaching Music Online – A Complete Guide

    4. Prepare your space

    Consider how your students will be able to hear and see you best.

    • Tidiness. Arrange and tidy up your workspace so you have a clean, professional space to work in and present to your students (and their parents!)

    • Lighting. Ideally hold your lessons in the daytime, in a room with ample natural light. Lighting a room artificially is more challenging. You may need to experiment with more than one white light source to avoid creating shadows.

    • Background. Go for as neutral and uncluttered a background as possible – a wall behind you would be ideal. Some platforms, including Zoom, offer a choice of "virtual backgrounds" which can be useful if you need to hide a messy room. Be aware that you'll need a reasonably high-end system in order to use virtual backgrounds, or it'll seem like the background is constantly shifting position behind you.

    • Camera position and angle. This will take a bit of experimentation. Unless you're using an additional demonstration webcam, your camera will need to capture your whole body. But place it too far away and your student will struggle to see your fingers.

    It's also worth having a chat with your student or their parent/carer about their online set up, prior to the lesson.

    Ask if they can find a quiet room so they can hear you clearly, and how to position the camera so you can see their face and their hands while they're playing if possible. If not, it can be tricky to keep an eye on their technique.

    Teaching Music Online – A Complete Guide

    5. Book your lessons

    Lesson length

    Switching to online lessons could be a big adjustment for some students, especially younger children! They may struggle to concentrate for long periods in a virtual lesson, so consider starting with shorter lessons if this is a problem, and explore work scheme ideas suitable for primary music lessons.

    As mentioned above, you will need the paid version of Zoom if you're planning on holding lessons longer than 40 minutes. Skype will allow unlimited lesson length.

    If you're meeting a student for the first time, it's a good idea to schedule an extra 15 minutes at the front of your first session, to allow time for technical problems and to adjust to the new way of learning.

    It's also worth factoring in at least 15 minute breaks between students. This will account for any delays in the previous lesson due to technical difficulties (as well as allow for that all important cup of tea!)

    Organising your diary

    Find a way of keeping track of lessons that works best for you. This could be inviting students to lessons in your online calendar, or by sending invites within the platform you're using, such as Zoom.

    There are other booking systems available such as 10to8 which can make things easier by minimising the back and forth via email to agree a lesson time.

    Cut down on admin by booking lessons in blocks of 5 or more and sticking to the same time every week. You could ask students to pay up front for each block, which means you don't have to chase for each individual payment if they're forgetful.

    In addition, they'll be less likely to cancel last minute if they're already paid up. It's up to you if you enforce the cancellation fees!

    Set your shared calendar events to automatically send out reminders when you think they're helpful, for example half an hour before the lesson, or the night before to give them a nudge with their practicing!

    6. Plan your lessons

    Having a clear plan for each lesson is a great way to help both student and teacher stay on track.

    Try to send over any materials your student will need in advance of a lesson sheet music or exercises, or you can share this within your video call on some platforms.

    If you're following a syllabus, they may have some online resources in place for you to use, for example Rock School have an app available.

    If not, make sure your students have ordered the book(s) they need in advance so you can follow along together.

    You could even send over material termly to cut down on admin if you're planning a block of lessons in one go, or you could set up a shared Dropbox or Google Drive folder to make sharing materials with each student quick and easy.

    Send them any backing tracks they'll need to use, and consider getting them set up with a metronome app if you're going to need this.

    Teaching Music Online – A Complete Guide

    7. The first lesson

    Tuning

    One of the most useful things you can do in the first lesson is teach your student how to tune their instrument properly. You won't be able to help them with this any more, and a badly tuned instrument, along with the time spent waiting for them to tune, is going to have a negative impact on the entire lesson.

    Spend some time on this in the first few lessons, to help them become a self-sufficient tuner.

    If they play guitar or bass, ask your student (or their parent) to buy a tuner online in advance of the lesson – send them a link to one you'd recommend, if it's helpful.

    Setting goals and incentives

    State the objectives of the lessons at the outset, to help keep things focussed. You could set goals each term or half term, and work towards them each week.

    Setting goals and acknowledging your student's successes at regular intervals is also a great way of generating student loyalty.

    Give your younger students an incentive to practice. Offer 5-10 minutes of something fun at the end of each lesson, such as learning a favourite song, in return for a well-executed exercise.

    Above all, find out what your student is most motivated to achieve, and work towards this. This might be passing an exam, mastering a specific technique or learning how to play a specific song or style.

    Don't forget to encourage your students to play expressively, even though they're just in front of a computer screen.

    8. Widen your advertising

    As there are no longer any geographical limits on your pool of students, widen your net! You can recruit a student from anywhere in the world, so incorporate this into your advertising.

    Make your own promotional videos using the Zoom record feature. If you're planning to feature any students in your video, make sure you get their/their parents' permission first.

    Then use the internet to let everyone know you're an incredible teacher! Exploit all possible ways of recruiting more students: social media, classified ads, tutoring directories, blogging, or SEO optimisation of your own website.

    9. Enjoy your extra time off!

    As you're no longer having to travel to schools, academies and students' houses, you'll hopefully find yourself with some spare cash and spare time on your hands.

    Use the time to fit in more pupils and invest the money in your technical set up, lesson resources and musical equipment.

    Or just treat yourself to a well-earned break.

    Good luck!


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