Top tips for teaching online...

By Nicole Wilson  -  13 March 2020

In the last 6 years I have seen all sorts of different musicians and professional music teachers embrace online learning. From leaders of major orchestras and technology savvy music students to adult amateurs and 6 year olds who need to reach the right teacher for the instrument they want to learn. Although there is a growing percentage of the music population for whom learning online is no brainer, I have huge sympathy with those of use who were born in the last millennium and are often more than a little intimidated at the thought of teaching a lesson through the home computer.

The last 4 months have seen a massive surge towards online learning, with all music teachers and professional musicians having to move their teaching online some with greater success than others. The quality of an online lesson is determined by many factors including speed of broadband and quality of device.

I want to share a few tips here with you so that if you feel brave enough to try teaching online, you’ll get the most out of the lesson and stand the best chance of being an effective online teacher. For those of you who already teach online and are comfortable with it, maybe just have a peek - you never know, I might have a handy tip to make the experience even easier than you thought possible!

Broadband

It sounds obvious but check that the broadband speed you think you have is actually what you’re getting.  You can go to www.speedtest.net to run a download and upload speed. If you find that your advertised speed is way off the real one, it’s worth ringing your provider and asking why… I have had several teachers who’ve done this, the provider has apologised and they’ve received a free upgrade into the bargain. I’ve seen people increase their speed 10 fold without paying an extra penny!

Router

Your router or little black box as I like to call it, is where your wifi signal is emitted for your house or office. The nearer you are to it, the stronger your signal will be. 

But you also have the option to ‘wire’ your computer to it using an ethernet cable.

You can get all sorts of lengths of ethernet cable so even if your computer is on the second floor of your house then you should be able to find an ethernet cable long enough to connect it to the router which is usually on the ground floor. 

Amazon provide a huge selection as well as any electronics shops.

Your signal may well be more consistent it you use an ethernet cable - but it’s wise to experiment as some Cat 5 ethernet cables will not be able to take advantage of the extremely high speeds available now by some providers. If you have really fast broadband it’s worth getting a Cat6 cable… really it’s only a couple of quid and well worth it!

Don’t forget to switch off the wifi connection on your device if you want to use an ethernet cable as the default on most devices will be to use the wifi.

Just a note to tablet and smartphone users - you can’t plug ethernet cables into these, only into desktops and laptops so you may need to use the wifi or 4G .

Who else is using it?

So often I will test someone’s broadband with them to see if their signal is strong enough to get a good lesson but when I check for a second time there is a huge drop in the speed… ‘What’s happened?’ they ask in a panic. ‘It was fine this morning!’. I then ask them if anyone else is using the internet at the moment and they usually sigh and then shout downstairs to a surly teenager to stop streaming videos on YouTube. It’s always important to check who else is using the broadband at the time of the lesson and impress on them the importance of not streaming or using lots of bandwidth while you’re teaching. Your lesson is more important than their game of Grand Theft Auto…

Audio

The in-built microphones on computers nowadays are getting better and better but even so, it’s usually better quality to use a plug in mic as you can place it further from you but keep the screen close for the best view. There are new ones appearing every day but things you need to look for are a USB connection so that it can plug directly into your computer and a gain control dial - which controls the volume being sent to your student at the other end. This is really useful in online teaching as depending on what instrument you’re playing you may need to alter this for the best sound.


If you don’t have a gain dial on the microphone you can use handy tricks like placing it behind the computer or under the table! It’s best to test your audio with another party before commencing the lesson to optimise the experience.


Another really helpful thing is to wear headphones. It’s not a must and some people just hate doing it as it does change the way you hear yourself but to get the best audio, plugging in headphones is really helpful. If you wear them in just one ear, you can still hear yourself but it prevents echoes and general feedback problems. 

You’ll need to make sure the cable is long enough for you to be able to be a suitable distance from the computer to be seen properly so often my teachers will buy a cheap extension cable to give them the freedom to move properly as they play.

Some video conferencing systems enable you to alter the audio settings a bit. This often helps the audio experience a bit and disabling functions like ‘suppressing background noise’ often helps too. ( Click here to learn more about this function in Zoom.)

If you’re feeling really technologically brave you can try really super audio with sites like Source Connect Now and Cleanfeed but remember you MUST use headphones for this kind of software, there’s a terrible echo if you don’t but it’s hugely worth the effort if you can face setting it up… We’ve put together a little video to help you set up Source Connect here

Picture

Of course the great thing about online learning is that you can see your student and they can see you clearly as you play and demonstrate but if the light is not good then it can be really hard to get a clear idea of what you’re trying to show.

Firstly make sure that there is no light pointing into the camera, so if there’s a window behind you, shut the curtains or pull the blinds, use a ceiling light which cannot be seen in the screen or an angle poise lamp placed behind the computer and pointing at you not at the screen.

Most video conferencing will have your picture in a small box in the corner of the screen so you can check there if you’re looking good…

Place yourself far enough away from the computer that you and your instrument can be seen clearly. Often it helps to place a laptop on top of the complete works of Shakespeare to raise it to the right level. Don’t worry, it may seem a little Heath Robinson but your student will never know!

A plain background is helpful for the student to see your hands clearly as you play but it’s not a must - just be sure when you’re showing intricate detail that you move your hands a little nearer the screen for clarity

Software

At Musical Orbit we generally use Zoom. You can have a free account although your lesson (or ‘meetings’ as they’re called) times are limited with this if you have 3 or more people in the room.

We have found Zoom to have much better audio than Skype and there are lots of great additions including the chat facility, where our teachers write their lesson notes, which are sent to the student afterwards. You can also share files and links in this system. 

It also has a screen-share option so that you can share pdfs of sheet music during the lesson or webpages which may be relevant to your lesson.

There is the option to record your lesson which is great for the student to rewatch the lesson afterwards and hopefully do much more effective practice but also for teacher and student protection. You have the option to record straight to the child’s device or in the Cloud (be aware that child safeguarding rules prohibit you possessing a video of a child under 18 on your device so using the Cloud for this is definitely the best way!) There is a slight delay between sound and picture in the playback that usually isn’t there in the live lesson but that doesn’t stop the student remembering what you’d said in the lesson and getting so much more from your time and effort.

Final tips

Just remember when you are speaking and demonstrating, to speak clearly and finish each point with an instruction such as ‘now you try’ or ‘did that make sense?’. You don’t want to be talking over each other. Home video conferencing does not give you the benefit of being able to play a duet over the computer with someone. If one of you is talking, the other one will need to wait for you to finish before you can hear them speak.

It may seem a minefield to start with but online learning has opened up my life to a world of interesting and talented people. From children learning in the Australian Outback, 1000 miles from the nearest teacher to adult amateurs squeezing in a lesson in their lunch break from their office, I’ve been able to link all sorts of students of music with top professional players and teachers from conservatories all over the world. The internet can democratise music learning if we let it, enabling talented and enthusiastic musicians around the globe link up and learn with each other. Go on… give it a go. You might like it!

If you'd like to talk to us more about teaching online, contact us at info@musicalorbit.com

About Nicole Wilson

Principal freelance violinist in London, ex London Symphony Orchestra and English National Opera, Nicole is also a CD producer, TV/Radio presenter and founder of Musical Orbit.

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