In the course of only a few weeks online violin lessons have gone from being regarded as an inferior stopgap measure to being a desperately needed and internationally widespread emergency solution. From one day to the next, the corona pandemic forced music schools and freelance teachers alike to make a choice: either teach via video chat or not teach at all, and so people quickly started looking for tools to facilitate lessons online.
So what should students and teachers focus on as they try to make the most of this unusual situation – and could they perhaps even learn something they can still use when things return to normal?
A) Beyond the video chat itself: tips for better online classes
Even though there may not be robust survey data to fall back on, it is safe to assume that video chats as a form of distance learning are the most common format for classes during the pandemic. Teachers and students call each other via services such as Skype, FaceTime and Zoom (to name only a few). The preferred method is usually to imitate standard face-to-face lessons as closely as possible.
As obvious and indispensible as this approach may appear to be – especially under the circumstances – it is very frustrating for many people, and not just because of the technical problems, which can be especially disruptive. To keep online lessons from being more than a less-effective version of classic lessons, you might want to take a moment to think about the remarkable conditions and opportunities that arise from virtual classes.
A few points to consider:
- Record the pieces you’re working on before your lesson and send them in advance: Even recording a voice memo with your phone often gives you much better quality than a live performance on a video chat. This not only has to do with the technical constraints of the software; Internet connections quickly become overloaded, especially when you are transferring a video at the same time. However, if students record their pieces before their lessons and send the audio file ahead via email, messenger or the cloud, it is much easier for teachers to see what progress is being made. And by the same token, teachers can offer more valuable feedback when they receive a file with a better audio quality. The video chat itself can then be used for specific points or more detailed explanations.
- Maintain a solid relationship: It is no secret that a good dynamic between students and teachers plays a major part in successful lessons. If, however, you cannot meet face to face for a longer period of time, don’t forget to leave a bit of time for personal interactions. It’s a good idea to set aside your instruments for a few moments at the beginning and end of a digital class, sit directly in front of the camera and chitchat a little in full-screen format.
- Take advantage of multimedia opportunities: Online classes offer one option that a music school’s WiFi network (if it has one at all) doesn’t usually allow for: YouTube and similar platforms may have good video tutorials or recordings of the pieces you’re studying. Students and teachers can watch them together, as it were, and discuss relevant points. There is scientific proof that these sorts of “role models” can be effective.
- Work with multiple camera angles: This tip is helpful when it comes to the finer points of issues such as hand position or bowing technique: repositioning your camera sometimes helps more than a full-screen view does. Technically speaking, one way to achieve different perspectives is if you work via cel phone and tablet simultaneously. But even if you only have one device to work with, with a bit of practice switching angles can have an impact.
B) Technical challenges in online violin lessons
The technical hurdles in trying to teach online are as multi-facetted as the software tools and devices on either end of the connection. In addition to the classic onboarding problems that are inevitable each time differently configured tools communicate, there are other constraints that can complicate matters, especially data transfer itself,
- Latency: Anyone who has tried to make music with someone else during a video chat knows first-hand that playing in sync is practically impossible. The reason for this a phenomenon known as latency, which is the delay between input and output. One good workaround has already been mentioned: sending audio files before and after lessons. Students can be sent a file with the piano accompaniment or other ensemble parts, play them over a speaker while recording their own part, and send the recording back.
- Insufficient bandwidth: For a variety of reasons, the bandwidth available to you for online lessons may not be enough to transmit video and audio adequately. Especially in rural areas, there may not be enough infrastructure for these high-volume events, whereas in cities there may be too many users chatting, playing or streaming video at the same time. You can improve the quality of the conversation immediately by turning off your camera and focusing on audio exclusively, although this obviously places even more restrictions on the lesson. If the devices or connections you have cannot be upgraded, it might also help to schedule class for times when not as many neighbors are online.
C) Legal considerations about online lessons
Last but not least, online lessons pose a number of legal issues which this article cannot cover in detail. But music schools and music teachers need to keep certain issues in mind:
- The stipulations of the European General data protection regulation: there are several points to consider here, such as storing identifying data, sharaing data (like the ones used in video chat tools which transfer communication data via the servers of the service providers) – and much more!
- Contractual questions such as whether digital lessons are even permitted within the context of a music school’s contract and whether they can be invoiced.
- Liability questions such as the security of the tools used.
This list is not supposed to scare you! It goes without saying that freelance music teachers can certainly stand on solid legal ground while offering digital lessons. As with nearly everything else, however, you would be wise to seek thorough information and consult with a professional if needed – it’s in both your own interest and that of your students.