How to Conduct a Successful Virtual Music Lesson
We live in a digital age, where technology is ever-evolving. Almost everything is accessible virtually, and music lessons are no exception. If you are new to conducting your music lessons via virtual platform, fear not. Below are some helpful tips to take away some of the stress of navigating this digital landscape, and successfully conducting virtual lessons.
One of the most important things to remember when conducting music lessons virtually is that this is not an in-person experience. Ultimately, you have to approach a virtual experience with a different level of engagement for your students. The barrier of technology can inhibit how receptive a student might be to the concepts being applied. Since we don’t have control over the student’s environment, we have to find ways to keep them focused – and that can be very challenging.
Here are some of the things that you can control:
Maintaining a calm and upbeat attitude can help you get through what may be a frustrating experience for both of you. Try to be patient with your students and yourself. It will make the experience better for both of you.
Your Environment (aka Presentation & Setup)
Setting up a teaching space that is welcoming and free from distractions can have an impact on how your students remain engaged throughout the lesson. Later in this article you will find some details on how to create this type of environment for your students.
Your Lesson Plan (aka Content)
Have a clear outline of how the virtual lessons are going to go. Make sure that you are comfortable with the pacing, but also with the possibility of divergence. Much like in-person lessons, being able to improvise is a powerful tool.
As you venture into a virtual teaching environment, expectations of your students, yourself, and the lesson have to dynamically shift. There may be a period of adjustment when working with your students, particularly if you have worked with them in person. Treat each lesson like it is your first with each student. Navigating a digital sphere can be challenging in and of itself, and giving yourself and your students room to find a healthy rhythm is essential.
Make sure that your communication is as clear and concise as possible. Since students will be taking your direction to make notes and reminders, make sure that your instructions are thorough so that they don’t miss anything important. Also, it’s critical to prepare supplementary materials in advance, like printed or handwritten sheet music. This will both save time and allow for the student to ask clarifying questions so they can use practice time effectively.
Location, location, location. Where we choose to host our virtual lessons has more impact on our students’ focus than you would think. Consider it a “stage” of sorts, and you want to be at the center. The space should be neutral—like your living room or studio—and devoid of distractions. Having a solid wall behind you, with minimal decoration, is ideal. Try to avoid conducting virtual lessons in rooms that are cluttered, because they clutter might cause a distraction. Also try to avoid teaching with any windows behind you, as they will just wash you out and/or make you like a shadow person to the student. Take some time to look at your space with fresh eyes, and think about what energy you are trying to create.
The beauty of the modern age is that almost everyone has access to the tools needed for a successful virtual lesson. That being said, technology is a fickle beast. Often we are at the mercy of bandwidth, an individual’s hardware, or whether or not they have updated to the newest version of software for virtual interfacing. Again, variables abound when it comes to video interactions.
You don’t need a Spielberg-style setup, or even a fancy webcam in order to get the most out of virtual lessons. If you have a newer phone or computer, you can easily get away with rigging them so that you can easily interact with your students. It can be as simple as taking a laptop and placing it where your face and hands can easily be seen.
Here are a few camera placement examples, listed by instrument, that can be adapted to suit your needs:
Piano: An elevated side angle is generally most helpful. Also, positioning a second camera over the keyboard using a boom stand or camera arm, if available, allows for the student to easily view your range of movement.
Guitar: A front-facing camera is optimal. If available, adding a second camera with a closeup view of the fretboard can help delineate proper finger placement.
Drums: An elevated side view from the right side of the floor tom is generally the most helpful; however a secondary front-facing view could be functional, if positioned high enough.
The most important part of music lessons is…you guessed it—sound quality. Again, you don’t necessarily have to get too fancy here. Most newer computers have great built-in microphones; it is really more a matter of altering the settings in your software so that your microphone doesn’t automatically adjust itself. Another great option is to wear headphones and encourage your students to do the same. This will eliminate any echoing/reverb that might make hearing yourself or your students difficult.
Though written for students, here is a fantastic and detailed article about preparing for digital lessons: Setting Up for Skype Lessons.
Preparation & Materials
Nothing bungles up a virtual lesson faster than not being on the same page (pun intended). When interacting virtually, it is crucial for both student and teacher to have the same materials in front of them. Not only for ease of interaction, which is important, but to make sure you are both literally on the same page. Just imagine how much time is wasted trying to navigate through materials when you are on two very different wavelengths.
When it comes to sharing materials with your students, preparation is a key. Notes and examples should be written in advance and scanned so that they can be shared either through a window or sent via the platform. That way time is not lost on note-taking and file-sharing.
If you don’t currently have access to the same books, a great option would be to scan some supplemental materials and send them as PDFs to your students. Offering some guiding materials that provide the same kind of challenges can easily bridge the gap until the student and/or teacher can acquire the same music. Many of the major music publishers offer digital versions of their works for about the same cost as their printed books. Using shared windows or split screens is a great way to follow along with your students. Having virtual access to these materials can make sharing music that much simpler.
Ah, content! The meat of your lesson. This is where your lesson plans will diverge (a little bit) from in-person interactions. For the most part, your lessons will be very similar; however, we are going to implement segmentation. Breaking your approach into sections allows everyone to stay focused on the task at hand.
If you have a 30-minute lesson, think about it in 5 minute increments. You can go from concept to concept quickly, and it will give you time to welcome the student, go through warm-ups, and work through tricky parts of the music before focusing on core concepts. Segmenting your lessons can assist with transitions, especially when you are not in the room to facilitate a more natural experience in person.
After it is all said and done, we want to ensure that students have the guidance to practice on their own. Assigning homework transforms in the digital space, primarily because you can send PDFs and YouTube videos and a whole host of other content. Skype, Google Hangouts and Zoom are great forums to send students homework and/or follow up afterward to make sure that their lesson notes are clear. Though not as simple in FaceTime, you can always send an email to your students with assignments, and clear up any confusing information.
There you have it. Some basic tenets for conducting successful and engaging virtual music lessons. Much like this article, there is a wealth of information for teachers online. Good luck to you, and have a great (virtual) lesson!