Online Music Lessons: Who’d Have Thought It?

Over the past five months, both teachers and students have necessarily made the transition to online music lessons. I think we can all agree it’s been a huge learning curve. None of us could have predicted how 2020 has panned out.

I know I’m not the only teacher who has found the transition hard. I’ve suddenly found myself not able to do what I’ve done for nearly 20 years. A lot of us have agonised over whether our online lessons are effective. We’ve questioned whether we’re still providing a good enough music education. We are aware of the limitations, though they are perhaps more obvious to us as teachers than they are to our students.

I for one know how much I’ve valued the support and understanding of my own students and their families. As we reach a time where some teachers are able to resume face-to-face lessons, many of us not in a position to do that will inevitably find ourselves edging closer to the comparison trap.

But, for many of our students, online music lessons have proved a positive and rewarding experience. I’m very grateful to one of my students, Martyn Proctor, for sharing his experiences. I’m sure these are echoed more widely.

Sometimes, we need reminding, as teachers, that however unsure we feel about online music lessons, our students do value them. They have opened up avenues and possibilities we might not have previously considered.

Plus, if you’re a student, and you’ve been a bit wary about trying your music lessons online, I hope this gives you some reassurance and encouragement to give it a go!

Online Music Lessons: A Positive Experience

The choir I belong to had sensibly suspended singing back in February, as growing appreciation of the issues around the coronavirus started to become clear. It was not long before it also became clear that the singing lessons I was having with David, at his splendid purpose-built music haven, could not continue as before. Depressing – I’d really started to get into learning, practising, understanding and perhaps even improving my singing. I’d found these sessions – training, practice and an appropriate amount of “banter” thrown in – really enjoyable and very motivating. Did this mean no more singing for the foreseeable future?

David then came up with the idea of virtual sessions, using Skype. Could that be an answer to help me weather the frustrations of lockdown I wondered? Happily, the answer has turned out to be yes indeed – and in some ways, the lessons have advantages that I’d not anticipated – so let me share my experiences, particularly as we worked out the best ways of doing this.

Teaching online music lessons

Some singing friends I chat with have expressed uneasiness with being seen on someone’s screen and ask if it can be done with just audio. Well, yes, but why? Sitting at home, facing David, and seeing him play the accompaniment and point things out in a score is pretty natural and something we’d all do without question if in a room together. So, what on earth is the sense in turning off video on a virtual lesson? There isn’t any! Granted, if you’re there in your pyjamas, it could be a tad embarrassing – but as a principle, I would humbly recommend that attending music lessons whether online with video or in person at his studio, is generally something worth moving on from pyjamas to day-wear for…

For my first lesson, I loaded up Skype, checked my camera and speakers were working, tried a short test call (that Skype does easily) and sat waiting. Bang on time, David turned up, there in front of me, clear and chatty (and far easier to hear than on a phone) and together we marvelled at this wonderous new world! He kicked off with playing some scales and asked me to sing them back, and it felt the easiest thing in the world. We chatted about some music theory, then I took out some music I’d previously been working on with him (She’s Like the Swallow as it happens) and, after a hand with pitching the opening E, off I went. Clearly, David could hear this easily, as he was able to give good feedback and helped me understand that my goal was to get the notes, words, timing and dynamics all going together. At the same time. Talk about demanding…

Online music lesson in progress - a student perspective

One of the things you realise though, is that there is a tiny mysterious internet “lag” between us both. It’s not a problem in a face-to-face session, but try it in a choir, and it’s catastrophic!

For my next lesson, David emailed me some sheet music to practise, and the next lesson was really good – my inspiration and motivation was high! He also suggested I invest in a book, dispatched promptly by Amazon, which included CDs to support my practice between sessions. 

I have probably had 7 or 8 sessions like this now, and to be honest, it feels remarkably normal. However, there are a few unexpected advantages. Firstly, I spend 10 minutes beforehand warming up and practising scales and doing a quick run-through of the latest pieces – instead of jumping in the car 30 minutes beforehand (in case of traffic). My 30-minute lesson now takes up just 40 minutes of my day – and not the 90 minutes it used to. That means I can book a lesson in a lunch break, or on a working day now. Fab. This makes it easier to book available sessions, and easier to get into a rhythm of lessons, feedback and growth.

Online music lessons - a student perspective

I am now finding that my singing, and my confidence in singing, is improving and I’m really enjoying it. At a time when many other hobbies and interests are constrained, it’s great to feel like this and to really look forward to these sessions as much as before.

If you haven’t tried it, then fire up the PC, download Skype (FaceTime or Zoom) and book yourself in. I am sure you’ll love it.

Martyn Proctor
Bass (in training)

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