Canadian Music Trade - In Depth

Sharpening Your Approach to Online Lessons

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Canadian Music Trade.

By Samantha Corbett

There’s no doubt that music connects people in unimaginable ways – especially now, when finding, sharing, making, and learning about music has never been easier.

Opportunities abound for those offering online lessons, and while that’s become the default solution for countless teachers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been and will remain a viable and valuable option for many.

So regardless of whether your lessons have been forced online recently or you’ve been teaching remotely for years, we’ve complied a few important tips to help you sharpen your skillset and overall approach to online lessons.

Adopt a Growth Mindset

A positive perspective is everything. Kathy Sanz, the president and CEO of the Center for Fine Arts Education in Tallahassee, FL, makes it clear in a recent NAMM webinar on the subject that the most important part of teaching music online is adopting a mindset that not only allows the students to grow, but also the teacher.

Sanz says that online teaching should be seen as a tool to enhance the human connection during a time of isolation – and a means of investing in professional development for an individual teacher or entire program.

This is an opportunity to add to or enhance your skills, to try new approaches to teaching and learning, and potentially generate new revenue streams. Teaching online may feel limiting to those used to in-person lessons; however, there are actually fewer limits to what you can do, with whom you can do it, and how in the online space – and that means plenty of opportunity for progress and growth.

Make sure you’re approaching your online lessons with the same eagerness and enthusiasm you would in the studio, if not more. People will pick up on that energy, providing more opportunity for growth. Teachers know there’s nothing better than seeing a student succeed – except maybe when the teacher and business are keeping pace with the progress.

Solidify Your Set-Up

It doesn’t take much to assemble a competent set-up for your online lessons; all you really need is a good internet connection and a device with decent AV pickup and playback. But keep in mind that connection with students is the key, so anything you can do on your end to improve the experience will go a long way. The students are investing in learning, so teachers should be investing in their delivery.

Mike Risko, co-owner of Mike Risko Music School in Ossining, NY, advises in the NAMM webinar that you not stress out your students or their parents with regards to their set-ups; as long as you have decent enough visuals and can communicate seamlessly, your bases are covered. That said, you can of course suggest some simple and price-conscious ways of augmenting their system – especially if you offer such equipment at your store.

Other considerations will depend on the style of lessons or level of the student. Some instructors may want two camera feeds: one showing the hands on the instrument and one for the face to connect and communicate. One particularly challenging scenario is drumset, though Risko reports their students have been successful with using the camera focused on their hands, even if they don’t have another camera for their face.

Another tip, especially for student vocalists, is to ensure that the student’s camera is set up to see their upper body, not just their head, so the teacher can watch for posture and breathing techniques.

Risko also recommends purchasing a bit more gear for better audio, such as USB mics and a good pair of headphones. Teachers should leave the opportunity open for students to invest in equipment but make clear that it is not necessary.

He highlights the importance of presenting yourself well on camera, along with little to no distractions in your environment. When your whole lesson is on a screen, the student will be focusing on everything in the frame, so keep it clean and professional to focus the attention on you.

Teaching private lessons online is quite effective, though group lessons can also translate to this format, where students can play in succession while taking in shared instruction. It can be overwhelming and chaotic if there are too many – especially if there are connection hiccups that make things harder to follow, so Risko suggests keeping group lessons to a manageable number – five or less – and never having people try to play in sync with one another.

As for the optimal videoconferencing platform, the options are many – even dauntingly so. That said, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 crisis, there are almost as many credible resources comparing the various platforms and their advantages unique to teaching that it shouldn’t be too hard to find a solution that’s well-suited to your particular needs.

Prioritize Engagement Over Assessment

John Mlynczak, the managing director of Noteflight, highlights the importance of having the student want to engage in the activities, lessons, and tests – especially when teaching online. He says it’s easier to expect a student to behave and focus their attention in a lesson where you can physically help them do so, but there are creative means of engaging with people in the virtual environment. It’s easy to share external video and audio to keep things interesting, and the screen-to-screen connection is conducive to things like puppets or silly costumes. It’s just a matter of leaning into your growth mindset and figuring out what’s effective.

He recommends keeping it simple. Teachers should use resources that are basic enough for the student to follow and understand. “Focus on one idea, one concept for a lesson and the assessment should be [based simply on whether] the student was engaged or not.” It can be as simple as having them record themselves or share music with their parents – whatever it takes to help the student practice, learn, and most importantly, enjoy playing music.

Mlynczak notes this also helps the instructor learn how to better engage students in general, because “if you can engage over a screen, you will most definitely be able to engage in person.”

Stay True to the Student

The student’s success should be everyone’s prime objective. Success is rooted in engagement and development, and those are rooted in the understanding that every student learns differently and in their own way. If you’re putting their needs first, though, whether there’s a metre or a mile between you, everyone’s well on their way.

Mylnczak mentions later in the webinar that instructors need to consider their “digital citizenship” – essentially, the way we interact with and treat each other online – because teachers have the ability to structure lessons in a way that students can collaborate, share, and compare. If you’re doing a great job, others might take notice. (Again, growth mindset!)

It’s also important for the student to focus on their own abilities, their own goals, and their own success. Be aware enough to identify the students who may feel discouraged when collaborating and provide them with ample support and encouragement. Letting the student dictate the pace (even if they don’t know they’re doing it) will help them progress. They won’t feel overwhelmed; instead, they will be more comfortable engaging in the various activities.

Set and stick to a routine for each lesson, which will help everyone prepare and keep pace. Planning and preparing ahead of time is key, so ensure your week-to-week goals are realistic considering everybody’s circumstances. The main thing to keep in mind through it all is that music is supposed to be fun.

Mylnczak recommends having the student restate and reconsider their goals regularly so that they understand what they’re working towards and what’s expected of them. It also enhances communication and engagement, as everyone’s sights are set on the same target.

Overall, the best way the students learn is when they can devote their complete attention to the lesson, see that they’re making progress, and feel comfortable approaching their instructor with an assurance they are supported.

If the student is engaged, on target, and having fun, that’s the pinnacle of success.

Samantha Corbett is a freelance writer based in the Niagara Region and a former editorial assistant with Canadian Music Trade.

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