A Teacher's Perspective on Teaching Virtually
originally published for Music Maker Workshops on April 21, 2020
Virtual Lessons During the Pandemic
It’s been over a month since Music Maker Workshops has transitioned over to virtual lessons online, and within that time there has been a lot of learning, a lot of adjusting, some stresses, and some interesting challenges for me and my students. While this has been a good solution, I wanted to offer a teacher's perspective on teaching virtually, to all of you so we can be even more comfortable teaching (and learning) online.
As a teacher, I am so thankful for the opportunity to keep teaching my students amid this pandemic. I am grateful for the amazing and hard-working staff at Music Maker Workshops for making this possible (they were so amazing to make the transition possible within twenty-four hours of the decision to move to online). As well, my students have all been incredibly kind and accommodating to both the situation itself; and of my evolving knowledge of how to teach virtually. Ninety-five percent of my student base stayed on to take lessons, which I am very thankful for, and I appreciate the opportunity to keep on teaching lessons. While acknowledging how incredible this has been, I wanted to do a bit of a write-up this week on the good, the bad, and the ugly of teaching virtual lessons during COVID-19, and what silver lining we can look to as a result.
My hope is that some of my insights might help other teachers with their teaching or show students the realities of learning music online (what they can expect, what might help). So without further ado, here are the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Teaching Virtual Lessons.
Provides a Solution
This can’t be understated. Virtual lessons provide a way for me to keep interacting with my students, for me to continue helping them grow and evolve as musicians. In addition, it allows me to keep working as a teacher for Music Maker. While teaching virtually isn’t ideal, it is the best alternative given the current circumstances. Students (and Teachers) Can Feel Comfortable in Their Homes
A lot of my students have stressed to me how nice it is that they can be at home while learning. Some of them feel more comfortable playing on the piano that they practice on (allows more continuity from lessons to practice). Plus, parents love that they don't have to leave the house to transport their kids to lessons. It's definitely convenient. Luckily, I have access to my home studio and the area where I do most of my work away from teaching, so I feel very comfortable in my own space. Luckily I have everything I need (keyboard, microphones, trumpet), and I feel very relaxed teaching from my space.
Easier to Use Technology in Lessons
Through Zoom, it can be a lot easier to incorporate technology into lessons. Say I want my students to go on a teaching website like teoria.com or musictheory.net, all I have to do is type the link in the chat and they can click away to it. Applications like Musescore (music notation) and Synthesia (Guitar Hero-style music learning) can be easily downloaded.
Additionally, I can screen share my screen to listen and learn music, show students the exercises I have on my computer, and more. The integration of technology is smoother now that both me and my students are using computers.
More Variety in Lessons
During the quarantine, I’ve used this time to ask my students what they would like to focus on in music, and we have decided to pivot towards those things. Usually, students have to focus on school assignments, regional and all-state auditions, or recital practice and don’t get the chance to be curious. However, now there is a freedom for us to move into new directions where students have a vested interest.
For example, I have a french horn student at the moment who loves to make song arrangements and medleys from movies. Because he doesn’t have to do all-state auditions, we are now working on a Star Wars medley for brass quintet.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with focusing on school band, etudes, audition preparation. However, with fewer restrictions, some of my students have even more freedom now to learn anything they want in music from me, whether that is music theory, song arranging, songwriting, or more. Now is the time to be creative and curious.
This is a big one for sure. While Zoom is pretty good most of the time, there are moments when it can be very annoying. From audio glitching to freezing of the video call, occasionally lessons will have to be rescheduled due to these issues. It can be frustrating at times. Zoom is the best alternative at the moment though, and Music Maker Workshops has provided some tips from improving audio quality in the settings of the app. Solution: As for internet freezing, if you can help make sure that during the lesson other members of the family keep their internet usage to a minimum (if they are able to) to keep freezing down.
Lower Quality Instruments at Home
Home equipment can be a double-edged sword. While it is nice to be at home, some students don’t have access to the same level of equipment they would if they came to the studio (especially drummers and pianists). Unfortunately, some of my piano students are playing on keyboards that are lower quality, don’t work properly, or pianos that are out of tune with my own keyboard (though luckily I’ve found a way to adjust on my end). It is important for students to have proper instrumentation for at-home practice. Though, having that equipment may not be affordable or available. Solution: For me as a teacher, when I have a student playing on an instrument that isn’t quite up to the task, I try to find creative solutions to still be able to practice and play the assignments. If a certain keyboard can't play a note, for example, just have them say that note out loud every time they hit it and they'll remember that key even better. Confines help creativity, not hinders it.
Due to the lessons over the internet on a computer screen, potentially, students can get distracted. Whether that be by playing with the virtual background feature or whiteboard on Zoom or just in general not being able to focus as much without being in the studio, it can be difficult at times to have a very focused lesson.
Solution: I’d say to counteract that, make sure to be as engaging as you can be as a teacher and as a parent and remove all distractions from the room that they are doing their lesson in. It’s essential to establish that, even though you are at home, it is still music lesson time.
As well, sometimes I will give-in a bit and spend some time on the Zoom whiteboard with students or showcasing goofy backgrounds of my own. It helps make the lessons fun while also giving the student time to get it out of their system so we can work.
The Mental Stress
The situation at the moment is unprecedented, and there are times when I can tell both my student and I’s thoughts are preoccupied with what is going on. Whether that manifests as worry on the face of my high school senior who won’t get to have his graduation ceremony, or an unnatural calm from my hyperactive piano student, or a tired look, I see it.
As a teacher who loves my students, it can be tough to see them all going through this, and in turn, I take on some of their burden and worries (gratefully).
Finding it Difficult to Stay Motivated
Without a school band, some students don’t know why they should be practicing. Without concerts or auditions, it can seem unclear. Like I said, I’ve done my best to pivot my lessons into being a more creative and music curiosity-satisfying environment rather than as help for school band, but even then, I can see it is difficult for my kids to keep practicing.
MMW is, fortunately, is offering a virtual concert series in May, which has helped motivate my students. But despite this, it is essential to find ways of keeping students interested in music in addition to performance.
Maybe they would like to learn their favorite song, or talk about the circle of fifths (I have one piano student who loves music theory), or learn cool and wacky techniques. Whatever it is, those things are essential to figure out, student by student, to keep lessons exciting and relevant.
Loneliness and Isolation
One of the worst parts about teaching online is the isolation, no question. It’s that moment every day when you finish your last student and they click out of the meeting, and you realize that you’ve just been sitting alone in a room for five hours in front of a computer screen. A drastic departure from being at the studio, surrounded by other teachers, staff, and parents, and also seeing my students in person. Sometimes it can feel really isolating and disconnecting to only see my kids through a computer screen. Thankfully, the studio has free Cabin-Fever Busters and other workshops which are a great way to connect with other students and staff during the week. I was fortunate enough to do one last Thursday (Jazz Sampler) and it was just a blast hanging out with all the students who came in to talk about music and jazz. Just being able to log-in and see each other is a highlight, let alone all of the other interesting things you get to do within a workshop. If you're feeling a bit lonely, try logging in to one.
The Silver Lining
For me, it is all about keeping connected, staying expressive, and recognizing the importance music has in our lives. While it is important to be socially distanced, I do feel how difficult it is at times. It's easy to just lay down and feel disconnected and isolated. But that’s what I shouldn’t be doing. I should be relishing the chance to see my students still and have the opportunity to engage with them.
Belonging to a Community of Musicians
We must stay connected now more than ever.
And it’s not just about me, of course. Engaging with my students allows me to keep their spirits up, stimulate their minds, and give them something to keep them moving forward. Something to keep them excited and joyful. And that something is music.
Music and art will always be important in everyone’s lives. Music can make you laugh; music can make you dance. It can make you cry; it can lift you up. At its grandest, it can move the whole world forward, and at its most intimate, it will keep you company on those rainy days when nothing seems to be going right. It’s music and art that reminds us of the important things about being human.
And that’s why music is essential and that’s why I take pride in being able to continue teaching it despite these difficult circumstances. Let's Keep on Dreaming Our Dreams and Making Our Music
“We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers, And sitting by desolate streams; — World-losers and world-forsakers, On whom the pale moon gleams: Yet we are the movers and shakers Of the world for ever, it seems.” -Arthur O’Shaughnessy