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5 Things I Learned from Teaching Piano Online

These are strange times we're living in. It's interesting to think about how we might reflect on this many years from now -- What will our children will remember most about it? What will we have learned? How will we have changed, both individually and as a culture?

There's a lot of uncertainty, but if Italy and Europe are any indication, it really is time to get serious about social distancing. Last Friday, our studio made the decision to convert to an all-online lesson format until further notice.

At Academy of Sound, we are fortunate to have a school model already in place to protect our staff and students from the spread of infection -- online video chat lessons.

So, the good news is, video chat lessons are not new to us. We've used them on bad-weather days, and for students who've moved out of the area. The tough part is, not everyone is familiar with the format. It will be an adjustment, during a time where we're already stressed and experiencing uncertainty, with big changes to our everyday lives.

I started teaching online several years ago, and grew to really enjoy it. Here are five things I've learned from teaching piano online:

  1. The initial setup can be frustrating. Technology, while growing more advanced all the time, is still not perfect. There can be connection issues, lag, video cutting in and out, trouble getting your phone or device to stand up to get a good angle, and more. Thankfully, most of the time these issues are only troublesome on the first try. Sending and accepting that invite to connect, getting your camera set up, finding a good pair of headphones, and learning to work with the lag rather than against it, are all things that we get accustomed to. Be patient with yourself and your device, especially on day one.

  2. Once you get going, it's kind of cool! As stated above, most of the issues will be evident right at the beginning and then you'll work through them and it will be fine. Once you get to that sweet spot where lag is minimal, and you can see & hear your teacher (and vice-versa), it's easy to marvel at the fact that this is even possible!

  3. As teachers, we get a lot of insight. As a school where the students come to us, we don't typically see the environment in which our students are practicing at home. With online lessons, this all changes. I've discovered all KINDS of unexpected little things that made it possible for me to make suggestions to parents that make their practice areas exponentially more productive! I've observed things like a bench being too high or too low, being in an area of the house with high traffic/noise/distractions, an out-of-tune piano (video chat tends to exaggerate this, BTW), or SURPRISE -- no instrument at all!! It's not that we're being judgmental, but there's a lot to be gained from having a good practice area and instrument. Having this window into our students' practice spaces can open up communication about easy ways to improve the space, which in turn makes it so you're getting better value out of your lessons!

  4. We get more done. It's interesting how when you're using a video chat format, and you're forced to take turns and be patient, you can cruise right through some things. You also tend to skip some of the pleasantries normally exchanged while walking into the lesson room and getting set up. When you're online, generally the student is already set up when you connect, giving you 5-10 minutes of extra lesson time! This one was really unexpected for me, and has made me much more confident in offering online lessons as a regular option (even when we're not in the midst of a worldwide pandemic). I can almost guarantee we will be productive -- maybe even more than in person!

  5. The focus can be pretty amazing. When I'm teaching online, I choose my words more carefully so that I communicate the necessary information efficiently. I avoid being long-winded because at any point the audio could cut in and out, distracting from the point. If I can say something in one sentence: "Try the crescendo in measure 16 again" rather than "Alright, let's go back to the second line where you see the crescendo in measure 16 and let's play into that starting at measure 14 to really feel the dynamics..." we're going to get right to focusing on measure 16. (Side note: dynamics are difficult to hear via video chat, but with the right camera angle on the student we can at least tell if they're applying the right technique.) With the "taking turns" that has to happen when online, students tend to listen better, respond more succinctly, and follow the directions. I've had some real breakthroughs with students online, and in my opinion this is due, in part, to the concentration it takes.

I'm happy that we have the online option so that music lessons can be something that remains continuous in a time when everything seems to be closing, cancelled, or postponed. I hope that music can be an outlet, for stress, fear, uncertainty, and any other feelings that come up surrounding the spread of CoVID-19.

Take care, stay home, and be well.

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