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Our New World

Our current pandemic has us all teaching in new ways. I have long thought of online learning as an opportunity, a way to indulge in creativity. It represents, however, a significant challenge when it becomes forced upon us in times of global strife. We are all accustomed to conventional in-person weekly studio teaching. In-person teaching is “synchronous,” meaning that your dialog with your student happens in both directions—from them to you, and from you to them—simultaneously. Even when sharing a weekly in-person lesson with a student, there was always the question: what happens after the lesson? I have long advocated that videographic interventions provide a tool to address this problem.

As you rapidly confront the need to re-tool everything you do and to bring it “online,” the transition can be confronting. The ostinato of your lesson routine is disrupted. You lose the comfort of the student exchange at the front door; of getting the student settled at the piano; of chatting with the parent; of asking about the week; of stretching your legs as you move about the room. Now you are tied down between piano, camera, and screen, and you lack the opportunity to be “you.”

You will see threads on social media about which conferencing software handles music best; you will see valid discussions about how to optimize your settings for music. Even if you get your own settings just right, you’re still going to have to deal with the limitations of the setups of each  one of your students. Don’t be afraid to “play director” with your students to get the camera angles and audio settings that you’re going to need.

Even with technical issues sorted through, the age-old problem remains: what do students do in-between their lessons? This is heightened with the unfamiliarity of video-conferenced lessons, but we can use that same video technology for other, really effective, interventions.

A strategy that has considerable popularity right now is for students to record their own performances asynchronously, in-between lessons, and to share them with you. “Asynchronous” refers to a type of instruction where the delivery of the content and the consumption of that content happen at different times.

Modern smartphones have surprisingly decent microphones and cameras. Your students can produce easily-shared recordings of greater musically-acceptable quality than is apparent in a “live” video-conferencing setup. Review of these videos can be part of your weekly lesson.

You can make videos, too. Short videos, explaining small-bite concepts, can reinforce ideas and strategies that you have initiated during regular weekly lessons.

Your students are almost certainly already voracious consumers of online video content. Moving into their online world can feel intimidating: the creation of content for consumption by connoisseurs is confronting. Fortunately for us, much of the culture of online video is very “rough and ready.” There’s some appeal in videos that don’t necessarily meet TV production standards. Additionally, you are simply trying to connect with your students between lessons, and your students won’t necessarily have high expectations for the video production prowess of their music teacher. Any successes you have will be a “win.”

Planning Your Videos

Your videos only need to be a few minutes long. Pick a single idea: it could be the teaching of a single scale; it could be strategies for playing a particular kind of passage; it could be an introduction to a particular piece of music that is a routine part of your syllabus. You will thank yourself later when you have produced a video you can use for more than one student.

Great topics for videos are the little teaching speeches that you give so often that you know them by heart. We all have techniques, concepts, ideas, and pieces that we introduce repeatedly. These are excellent ideas for videos.

For any one piece, you might make several videos, to deal with the different concepts, ideas, and stages of learning that might be involved. You might make one to demonstrate figuration in the left hand of a piece, but another to show direction and voicing of the melody. You might have discussions about aspects of analysis and theory. You might want to draw connections between a piece of music and poetry, or the visual arts.

A word about copyright is important here. The minute you point a camera at a score, or the minute you post a recording of a piece of music, you are entering a world where copyright matters. The easiest solution to this problem is to make sure that you don’t make recordings that raise this particular issue—don’t point your camera at published materials, and don’t record works that are still under copyright.

Right now, online videos are a “wild west” of copyright violations, fair use, and legitimate public domain use of materials. Given that, when I produce a video, I have typically put quite some effort into making it exactly the way I want it to be, it would be horribly depressing to have it suddenly taken down due to an infringement notice.

Facing the Music Technology

Being on camera can feel intimidating. Take the advice you give to your own students: start slowly. Begin with teaching material with which you are extremely comfortable. Removing worries about content allows you to be comfortable being on camera and dealing with technology. Fortunately for us, technology has gotten a lot easier to use. There are some compromises between a smartphone’s results and what you might achieve with a professional camera, but the power in your phone is pretty stunning. Using technology with which you’re already comfortable is a key to success. That comfort will allow you to focus on content. It is not necessary to grapple with high-end cameras, expensive microphones, and complex editing software.

I would recommend obtaining a cheap mobile-phone tripod, which is superior to the surprisingly popular solution of propping one’s phone up against the cheek of the piano and shooting an awkwardly close side angle. A remote shutter button, which connects via Bluetooth to your phone, can allow you to eliminate the need to reach over to your phone to start and stop the recording. I’ve made several videos where I keep my remote button slightly out of the shot, and I subtly press that button in order to start and end the clip that I am shooting. This convenience saves significant amounts of editing time.

Audio improvements can be achieved with a cheap lavalier microphone, and perhaps a microphone you can point at your piano, too (a “TRRS”-style microphone will typically do the job). Audio technology works, however, a little bit like the world of wine—you can get fairly cheap, acceptable options, but there is the possibility of rarified expensive outlays for high-end results if you want to spend the cash. I recommend restraint.

Familiarity Breeds Success

You do want to make sure that you have in frame only what you wish to show. Much of your setup time for shooting any video is making sure that the shot shows just what you want it to show. It can be embarrassing to unintentionally exhibit your piles of unpaid bills or personal items. Make very short sample videos so that you can practice different angles to see what works for you. It is unwise to post a video publicly until you’ve had a chance to view it at full size. It can take several tries before you find what works for you.

Avoid being demoralised by the learning curve: getting comfortable making videos is like being in the practice room: some of what you do isn’t going to be very good. It is best to be prepared up front for the idea that you’re going to get better over time, and that practice will help you get better. Shooting well can be time consuming, particularly if you start to get obsessive about results. This is true even for those YouTube stars who look at such ease, but who in fact do significant amounts of preparatory work and editing.

I don’t think “YouTube-star” work burdens are necessary, but you do need to be accepting when a video does not come out the way you want it on the first try. Very few people can achieve this.

If you are shooting so that your face can be seen, please make sure you’re really looking at the camera. If you’re using your cellphone to shoot, then you will be able to see yourself in the phone’s screen. Don’t look at yourself: if you do, you’ll look “shifty!”

For the same reason, if you’re shooting short videos of just a few minutes, don’t use a script. Instead, make bullet-point notes of your main points, and tape those up in big type behind your camera, so that they are in your view as you speak. The more you are in front of the camera, the more you’ll be comfortable going ahead with talking points, and without a script.

Be yourself: don’t assume some kind of public-speaking persona. Try to strike the same tone and manner you have during lessons. In your years of teaching, you will have developed a rhythm for explaining ideas, a manner, a mood, a mode of teaching that works for you. Of course, it’s one thing to assume your standard “mood” when there’s a real live student responding to you in the room. It’s a whole other thing to assume your standard “mood” when there’s no one there other than the dead eye of a camera lens, and the distracting image of yourself off to the side.

When I am on camera, I tend to work super-hard to visualise a specific student, and to work hard to teach to him or her. This might be a real person, or it might be a composite of several people with specific pianistic problems I’ve encountered in the past, but it is really important to converse as if there is a real, individual person at the other end of the line.

In presenting concepts during a real-life lesson, you have the advantage of gauging the student’s reaction, of measuring their understanding. You might know when they have “got it” by a quick nod of the head. You might see a glimmer of understanding in their eyes, or in the wrinkle of their nose. In person, we have all these cues, so we revise and extend explanations until we see understanding.

In asynchronous video, redundant additional explanations can become a distraction. Use your pedagogical experience. Pick your top two ways of explaining something, and use those. Explain clearly, and get to the point. Illustrate as effectively as you can on camera. Video offers the opportunity for your students to rewind. If you are efficient, effective, and clear, your students may well want to watch your videos more than once.

Be prepared to experiment with different camera angles. There are times when you might want to shoot your hands from above, or from the side. When explaining the pedal, you might want to shoot your feet. There are times you might wish to point your camera at a piece of paper, and just explain some theory. You might want to shoot props: I had fun once making a video that demonstrated a piano action model. It can be entertaining to experiment with camera angles in search of new pedagogical possibility.

Remember that what matters above all is your love of communicating about music and teaching the piano to other people. Use of video allows us to do this in new and exciting ways. Playing around with video, microphones, and cameras—using them to advance our piano teaching—allows us to engage in new ideas about incorporating technology into teaching, while still serving our main professional pedagogical mission. It gives us the chance to “play” while at work.


By David Cartledge. David Cartledge is Co-Chair and Associate Professor in the piano department at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Teaching both applied and academic courses, he champions innovative and effective pedagogy.

This article first appeared on www.ClavierCompanion.com.