By now a great many private music teachers around Australia will have become very familiar with using Zoom or similar apps like FaceTime and Skype as a means of teaching their students during these difficult months brought on by COVID-19. Suddenly these have become the only choice with social distancing in force.
But how have these apps been working in practice? And are there ways of optimising them for teaching instrumental lessons and singing?
Many teachers have found that after a short adjustment, lessons conducted online can work surprisingly well (see here and here). Experience suggests that they work ideally with adult students but can also be successful with older children who already have some ability at autonomous learning. For younger children who depend on physical demonstration, it can be challenging to make any headway unless a parent is willing to step in to help supervise the lesson by directing the child’s attention and assisting them through the steps that are involved.
Singing seems to be the hardest thing to teach because it is so very a whole-of-body experience that really requires the teacher and student to be in the same room. Teaching posture and breathing for a singer over a screen device is a big challenge, but as these aspects are important also in instrumental teaching, there are always going to be limitations.
The biggest downside is sound quality. While adequate for speech, one quickly finds how limited bandwidth, compression and dropouts frequently make videotelephony and teleconferencing apps frustrating to use for music teaching purposes.
One can optimise Zoom’s audio settings to help overcome some of these problems (see how to do this here), but this will still not prevent latency problems that create a time lag between devices communicating with each other.
A solution is for the student to record themselves and send this to the teacher ahead of the lesson. Yet here again the quality of the recording will be limited by the microphone inside one’s mobile phone, tablet or computer. To obtain better results and reduce latency, real-time performance sharing software can be used such as Jamulus, eJamming, and JamKazam.
Good equipment set-up can help too, with a quality external microphone, headphones and webcam – although of course students will probably not have such ancillaries on hand.
‘Virtual lessons’, as they are sometimes called, may never be anywhere as good as in-person learning, but the benefits they bring are nevertheless valuable in maintaining routine and continuity at this time. Besides, they can be something the student really looks forward to while people are spending many more hours at home.
The website Stave It Off is helpful for teachers looking for more students, and for students searching out music teachers. Having begun in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, it maintains a large directory of music teachers Australia-wide and aims “to connect potential students, be they lapsed musicians, complete beginners or experienced amateurs, with some of the best freelance artists in Australia for online lessons,” says its website.