As many of us are moving online to continue fulfilling our work and school obligations, we are seeing that hobbies and special interests have transitioned as well. As private music educators, we are all navigating this digital landscape to the best of our ability. Conducting virtual music lessons is easier than you might think, and it only requires some thoughtful preparation to be successful.
Virtual Lesson Preparation: What does it look like?
You might be asking yourself, “How does preparing virtual lessons differ from working with clients in-person?”
Most notably, you are physically distant from the student, which challenges how you engage and communicate with one another. A number of factors can contribute to the success of executing lessons virtually, but here are a few major ones:
When setting up your virtual studio, make sure that your backdrop is professional and devoid of distractions. Where we choose to host virtual lessons has more impact on our students’ focus than you would think.
- Use a neutral backdrop: A wall with minimal or no decoration is a great option, as is having a bookshelf behind you. Any room or studio that is neat and well organized is a great place to conduct lessons.
- If all else fails, use the “blur background” function: This places the student’s attention directly on you and what you are trying to demonstrate.
- Don’t place yourself in front of a window: Due to the fluctuation in natural light, it can make it difficult for your students to see you.
- Avoid conducting lessons in your bedroom or bathroom: These rooms are not an ideal place for a number of reasons, professionalism being chief among them.
Though a two-camera setup is often the ideal—so that your students can see both you and a close up of your hands—you can often get away with solely using the camera that is built into your computer. Below 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, either over the ride or the hi-hat, is generally the most helpful; however a secondary front-facing view could be functional, if positioned high enough.
As far as sound quality is concerned, you don’t need a professional setup for your lessons to be effective. Most newer computers have a built-in microphone that will work just fine. Make sure that you reconfigure your software settings so that your microphone does not automatically adjust. Wearing headphones will also help isolate sound for better overall sound quality, and it will eliminate reverb. Using a set of headphones with a microphone placed near your mouth, is a great way to keep the sound/noise limiter from noise cancelling due to high decibel levels.
Virtual Lesson Expectations
When venturing into a virtual teaching environment, expectations of your students, yourself, and the lesson have to dynamically shift.
- Communication: In an effort to explain techniques or key concepts, you might have to find creative ways to illustrate these points. Walking them through certain actions step-by-step might help your students find their way when you are not there to demonstrate. Clear communication is key.
- On books and sheet music: It’s crucial that you possess a physical (or digital) copy of any of the books or pieces of music that you’re using with your students. Having students scan or take pictures of book pages or sheet music during the lesson is not only inefficient, it also looks unprofessional. If you are not in a position to purchase those materials, you can focus on other concepts—like music theory or strengthening technical skills— that meet similar goals.
- Prepare supplemental materials in advance: This will eliminate lag time and ensure optimal productivity in the lesson. Make sure that you send supplemental materials prior to the lesson. Doing so gives the student the option to print/review the materials before working with them in the lesson.
- Screen sharing is your friend: Instead of asking your student to locate a specific page or measure number, and waiting for them to find that section of their music, you can use the screen sharing function to draw attention to key areas without disrupting the flow of the lesson. If you want to get really fancy, you can set up your phone as a document camera, or digital overhead, so that students get a live feed with real time images.
- Don’t show up empty-handed: Your students can’t be expected to do all of the heavy lifting in their lessons. Though being able to improvise is an important skill to have, you should not rely on improvisation solely as a means to conduct your lessons. Having concrete goals or an outlined lesson plan will only aid the progress made by your student in and out of the classroom.
Virtual Lesson Content & Materials
One of the more complicated things to contend with when teaching virtually is student engagement. When you are not physically present to bring your student back to the task at hand, it can complicate the teaching process. The way that you approach lesson content can have a huge impact on maintaining student interest.
Lessons will get stale very quickly if you spend too long going over a single concept. Breaking up a lesson into smaller chunks can aid in fighting educational ennui. This makes the lesson feel like time is flying, and the student will feel like they are getting more out of the process. Also, make sure that you have all examples at your fingertips, ready to be shared. By eliminating the downtime of transitions, you don’t entertain the possibility of the student getting distracted.
Preparing content for virtual lessons doesn’t have to be overly complicated. You just have to reframe your current curriculum for a different medium.
We all know that theory is foundational in music education, but you might be wondering how best to execute theory objectives in a virtual lesson format. As we move to a digital platform, so do most of our materials. In order to make transitions as seamless as possible, having examples and curriculum readily accessible is paramount.
Ear training is a fundamental part of refining overall skills as a musician. Luckily, developing aural skills is one of the easiest ways to enhance lessons virtually. A great thing about not being in physical proximity with your students is that they will go into ear training exercises without visual cues. This makes it much easier to understand their deficiencies in recognizing key concepts. You might also see accelerated progress, particularly since your students will only be able to rely on their ears. Here are some great ways that you can explore ear training with your students virtually:
- Identifying Interval and Chord Qualities: Learning how to identify interval and chord qualities is a great way to build a valuable skill with your students. This can be as simple as playing a chord, arpeggiating the chord, and playing it again in order to help the student understand the chord structure. To help with interval identification, you can give students a common association for each interval type. There are some awesome suggestions in this video: How to Remember the Interval.
- Name That Song: This is a fun guessing game, and a sly way to teach music form and themes. Play through the chord progressions of a song, either without the melody and/or identifying embellishments, and have your students figure out the piece of music. This is something that you can use as an exercise in lessons, or you can give them the chord progressions and have them figure it out on their own as a homework assignment.
As music educators we understand the importance of sight-reading: it helps our students build facility with their instrument, and it also strengthens their understanding of music fundamentals. Though we have transitioned to a virtual platform, the process does not have to change that much in order to be successful.
Shared windows or split screens are a great way to provide sight-reading samples for your students. This is a great way for you to follow along as they sight-read music, and it can help you make corrections in the moment. Certain video-conferencing software also offers a drawing function, which can allow you to circle passages or add notes. This might help draw attention to difficult passages or illuminate specific concepts that you are trying to cover with the sight-reading exercises.
One major caveat: When it comes to sharing music, it is best to err on the side of caution (and honoring copyright laws). Before disseminating materials, especially those not created by you personally, check with the publisher or distributor to make sure that you can legally share the materials.
Music History and Appreciation
Virtual lessons provide an excellent platform to dive into music history and music appreciation. Video and listening samples are easy to find, and adding them to your curriculum causes less disruption than they might during in-person lessons.
Before sending anyone links to musical examples, make sure that it is on a universally accessible platform and—perhaps, most importantly—that the material comes for a safe and reliable source. YouTube and Vimeo are great options for sending videos, and they are both easy to access and commonly used.
Virtual Lesson Resources
Here are some resources that might be helpful as you navigate conducting lessons virtually:
Post-Lesson Follow Up
After all is said and done, it is really important to make sure that your students have all the tools they need to practice efficiently. Preparing for the next lesson, though somewhat out of your hands, is still in your control. As we are all inundated with emails and information, particularly right now, reach out as soon as possible after the lesson is completed in order to keep goals at the forefront of your student’s mind.
Make a point to send a follow-up message to the family with goals clearly outlined for the student. Though this will typically include homework assignments, adding helpful notes as well as complimenting your student’s progress can help to keep your students motivated to practice outside of the lesson. Also, consider recording all or part of your lessons so that students are able to review key concepts. Recordings can be emailed as soon as the lesson is complete, or you can take time to isolate the most pertinent concepts for independent study. This can be especially helpful if they are preparing for an audition or a performance. Ultimately, making sure that they have as many tools available when they practice will ensure that you can continue to build on their progress in the next lesson.
Beyond selecting materials and scanning examples, preparing for virtual lessons is also about being present in the moment. Lessons don’t always go to plan, but preparing for every eventuality—as well as being flexible— will only make navigating virtual lessons a more seamless process.
This is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to addressing general preparation. For more insights into these concepts, feel free to review the article, “How to Conduct a Successful Virtual Lesson.”