During a recent tour at the Bell Homestead in my hometown of Brantford, Ontario, Canada, I came across an interesting fact. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell set up a demonstration of his new invention, the telephone. He arranged for friends to play a melodeon and sing over a telephone line in order to show that sound could be transmitted over the telephone wire. The connection was from their home in Brantford to Bell’s residence in nearby Tutela Heights, Mount Pleasant. This was the first time in history that the sound of a musical instrument was conveyed from one geographical location to another locale through telecommunication.1 Little did Bell know that almost a sesquicentennial later, music would be filling the air of video-conferencing platforms over the internet connection, the successor of the telephone.
With the dawn of the millennium, there has been noticeable interest in synchronous online music lessons, especially for piano instruction.2 Just ten to fifteen years ago, the thought of this new lesson environment would make many teachers shudder. Many wondered (including myself) how could it be possible to replicate the intricate dynamics of a one-on-one in-person lesson over a digital connection? However, with the advances in technology, the creativity of talented teachers, and open-minded students and families, the popularity of online lessons has grown exponentially in recent years. This is particularly relevant now with the current situation of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Teachers across the globe are learning how to adapt to this lesson setting in order help their students continue their musical studies. There is also a growing body of academic research related to this educational environment.3 This innovative lesson setting is definitely here to stay and I think it is important for us to be familiar with this lesson format and the characteristics of successful online piano teachers.
Several years ago, I started teaching online piano lessons when I moved from Ontario to Florida. The arrangement was a temporary one in order to help my students in Ontario transition to a new teacher. However, the experience sparked my interest in this area of instruction and how we, as teachers, can make it an effective learning environment for our students. This past year, I viewed videos of expert online piano teachers. These individuals reserve a considerable amount of their schedule for online instruction. I observed their effective pedagogical techniques and determined how they successfully communicated to make meaningful change in their students’ playing. I have distilled the information I gathered from these observations and my experience teaching online to eight key characteristics that are notable in effective online piano instructors. By identifying these positive traits, we can all work toward being successful teachers in this new learning environment.
1. Understand the nature of the lesson setting
It is important to recognise why individuals choose to teach online. Some valid reasons why teachers might want to explore this lesson format include widening their market of potential students, offering more flexibility to parents, and motivating students through the use of technology. Additionally, awareness of the advantages and drawbacks related to this lesson setting will help instructors make the necessary accommodations needed to ensure the experience is a positive one for their students.
The advantages of online teaching include:
Instructors can expand their studio offerings for interested students and families and reach clientele beyond their immediate geographic location.
Students have a greater number of instructors they can choose from. They are not restricted to those in their local area.
Students who may live in remote areas and might not otherwise have the opportunity to work with a qualified teacher now have more options.
Busy families may find it convenient that they do not have to travel outside the home for lessons.
Since teachers are not physically present for lessons, students may take more ownership of their music learning and become more independent.4
Teachers engage in self-reflection and pedagogical development as they adjust to this new setting.5
While online music lessons have grown in popularity, it is also essential to recognise the drawbacks of this lesson setting:6
The lack of physical presence may make it difficult for both teacher and student to adjust. Teachers who are naturally more tactile when discussing the physical aspects of playing an instrument will have to make accommodations.
It can be difficult to build a personal rapport with the student due to the interaction through virtual means.
If there is no MIDI connection used (teacher and/or student use acoustic piano), latency, causing a delay of sound means that teachers will find it difficult to coach their students as they play. Additionally, it is impossible to play teacher/student duets.
It can be difficult to truly evaluate tone quality in online music lessons.
2. Pay attention to the setup of both the teacher and student
Whether you and your students are choosing to use laptop computers, tablets or mobile phones, it is important that the camera captures the full playing apparatus of the individual (especially the student) so that posture can be observed. An adjustable music stand like a Manhasset (which you may already have in your studio) can serve as an excellent stand for a digital device so one can experiment with the height and angle of the camera. Affordable stands designed for tablets are also available. I would not advise using mobile phones since the screens are much smaller and it will be more difficult to view the video image with the necessary detail. However, if that is the only device available, it can be a helpful tool for getting started. It is necessary to emphasise to parents that involvement in their child’s music education will still be needed, even with online lessons.
Young children will need help to properly set up the equipment and parents still have an influential role in daily practice. If the teacher and student are using digital pianos, the use of a MIDI connection will allow both parties to hear the other person’s playing through their own MIDI device or computer, rather than through the video-conferencing platform. This leads to hearing the sound of the other party’s digital piano more clearly. Finally, it is imperative to set up accounts with multiple video conferencing platforms (e.g., Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, Zoom). That way, if the connection is not stable with one program, the teacher and student can quickly switch to another program without wasting time.
3. Be organised
Just like traditional lessons, it is important to keep a record of what takes place in each session and what the student has to practice. Storing lesson assignment sheets in a shared cloud folder or using one shared Google document are just two paper-free options. Recording online lessons is an added bonus feature of this lesson environment. Since a camera and microphone are already available at both the student’s and teacher’s location, recording the lesson takes little effort. These video files can be stored in a shared cloud folder or can be uploaded to YouTube as unlisted links that can be included in the student’s digital assignment notebook. Reviewing a recording once or several times during a week will certainly help a student retain the topics covered in the lesson.
4. Help students become more independent
Online lessons can provide opportunities for students to take more ownership of their learning. For example, with the basic setup of laptop/tablet device, instrument, and no other digital applications, students will annotate their own scores. This can lead to a deeper understanding of concepts such as articulation, dynamic contour, and formal structure.7 Also, as students watch the recordings of their lessons during the week, they will be able to observe themselves in the instructional setting and detect aspects about their own playing they may want to change.
5. Use vivid descriptions and analogies and remember that modelling/demonstrating is an important part of teaching
In order to compensate for the lack of physical presence, vivid descriptions can help students internalise artistic ideas and understand the physical motions necessary to overcome technical challenges. Students may find these imageries helpful in performance as they will have something tangible to latch on to. This will improve their memory of the repertoire. I observed this approach while watching a video of an instructor teaching her student how to play scales. The student was playing with a “pokey” type of sound and the individual notes did not flow together well. Wisely, the instructor suggested that the student “float” her scale so that her physical touch at the piano would not be as strident. Also, the teacher advised the student to “play with vowels rather than consonants.” In the English language, consonants have stronger and harder sounds, and imagining vowels helped the student to remove the edge from her sound.
6. Be effusive with your enthusiasm
As mentioned earlier, it can be difficult to establish a personal rapport with a student through online lessons. Young children, in particular, will find it hard to feel a connection with the teacher. Therefore, it is important to provide even more encouragement in this lesson setting. Students need to know when they are making progress and they will benefit from the ebullient positive reinforcement of a teacher.
7. Address body alignment and a healthy playing technique
Although the teacher and student are not physically present in the same room during an online lesson, it does not mean the physical aspects of playing the piano should be avoided in the instructional dialogue. Ensuring that students are playing with a healthy piano technique should remain a paramount concern for any online teacher. Therefore, it is important for instructors to ensure they have a full view of the student’s playing apparatus, from head to toe. A view of the student’s facial expressions can provide useful non-verbal insight for the teacher regarding how the student is comprehending instructions and explanations. A student’s face can also provide information about any tension he/she may be harbouring. It is also necessary to ensure a student is maintaining proper posture at the piano including flat feet, seating position on bench, distance between bench and piano, etc. The teacher is able to address body alignment by carefully watching the video image of the student. Both parties may need to adjust the angle of the camera throughout the lesson so that the teacher can demonstrate proper body alignment and check that the student is following up appropriately. It is also possible to set up multiple cameras, simultaneously, at different angles. This arrangement will be most advantageous when discussing body alignment.
8. Improve your technological setup as you gain more experience
Once you have mastered the basic setup of an online lesson, consider enhancing your students’ experience by using apps such as Superscore, ForScore, Home Concert Xtreme, and iRealPro. There are also a number of external webcams, microphones, and speakers that can heighten the video and sound quality. At some point, individuals who find that they do a bulk of their teaching online may want to look into using multiple cameras capturing different angles of them at the piano, giving students a multi-dimensional experience. If you and your student are both using MIDI capable devices, it is absolutely necessary to use Internet MIDI by Timewarp Technologies.
Distance learning is occupying a significant role in our educational settings and the music world is now embracing this development. Now more than ever, it is important for us as piano teachers to adapt and adjust with these new ideas and technologies while maintaining our standards of excellence. In addition to the research articles cited here and the related research that can be accessed through the bibliographies found in these publications, there are several online resources that provide very practical advice for those interested in exploring online lessons.8 Incorporating the skill of effective online piano instruction can enhance our pedagogical toolkits and make us even more versatile and fully informed about our ever-changing learning environments.
The Bell Telephone: The Deposition of Alexander Graham Bell, (Boston: American Bell Telephone Company, 1908): 121-125; No author, “Three Brantford Sisters Sang Over Early Telephone,” The London Free Press, March 5, 1947.
Synchronous lessons refers to real-time interactions using video conferencing software like Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, or Zoom. Asynchronous lessons refers to interactions that are time shifted through the use of pre-recorded videos exchanged between teacher and student. Kristin Shoemaker and Gertjan van Stam, “e-Piano, A Case of Music Education Via e-Learning in Rural Zambia” (Presentation at Web Science Conference, Raleigh, NC, April 26–27, 2010.
Mario Ajero, “Random Access: Helping Out Piano Students Online,” American Music Teacher 64, no. (August/September 2014): 45–47; Richard J. Dammers, “Utilizing Internet-based Videoconferencing for Instrumental Music Lessons,” UPDATE: Applications of Research in Music Education 28, no. 1 (August 2009): 17–24; Keith Dye, “Student and Instructor Behaviors in Online Music Lessons: An Exploratory Study,” International Journal of Music Education 34, no. 2 (May 2016): 161–170; Pamela D. Pike, “Online Piano Lessons: A Teacher’s Journey into an Emerging 21st-century Virtual Teaching Environment,” American Music Teacher 65, no. 1 (August/September 2015): 12–16.
Diana T. Dumlavwalla, “Transitioning from Traditional to Online Piano Lessons: Perceptions of Students, Parents and Teacher,” MTNA e-Journal 8, no. 3 (February 2017): 4–20.
Pamela D. Pike, “Improving Music Teaching and Learning Through Online Service: A Case Study of a Synchronous Online Teaching Internship,” International Journal of Music Education 35, no. 1 (February 2017): 107–117.
Brenda Hunting, “Setting up for Skype Lessons,” Piano Pedagogues: Solutions and Resources for Pianists (website), November 14, 2019; Shirley Kirsten, “Technology in the Piano Studio,” Arioso7’s Blog, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California (blog), November 14, 2019; Tim Topham, “Online Piano Teaching,” TimTopham.com (website), November 14, 2019; View videos on YouTube created by Shirley Kirsten: youtu.be/VhfRTde-ZWE; youtu.be/dly2rdkC3-M; youtu.be/6tlIfxBRBk4.
By Diana Dumlavwalla. Diana Dumlavwalla is on faculty at Florida State University’s College of Music as assistant professor of piano pedagogy. She serves as an examiner for the Royal Conservatory, is president-elect for FSMTA, and has performed across three continents. Diana is the recipient of the 2018 MTNA e-Journal Article of the Year award.
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