Online Piano Lessons for the Everyday Teacher

Back at the 2009 MTNA National Conference in Atlanta, GA, I was part of a wonderful team of teachers from across North America giving a full-day pre-conference seminar on long-distance teaching entitled “Studios without Walls”. At the time, teaching piano through an online environment was not very common.

Back at the 2009 MTNA National Conference in Atlanta, GA, I was part of a wonderful team of teachers from across North America giving a full-day pre-conference seminar on long-distance teaching entitled “Studios without Walls”. At the time, teaching piano through an online environment was not very common.

Fast forward to 2017, and most places around the world have an infrastructure to make online music lessons into a reality. With the saturation of computers and mobile devices into society, students and teachers in even the most remote locations can connect with one another. While many teachers have successful traditional face-to-face lessons, the culture especially among young students is to seek information about what they want to learn online. So it is important for teachers to at least be aware of what is technologically possible to expand their teaching beyond their immediate geographic location.

When considering online piano lessons, what comes to mind first are real-time video conferencing connections using some application like Skype or FaceTime. It wasn’t too long ago that this type of communication was limited to a small part of society including people who had to be technologically savvy. Now practically every parent and even many of their kids have a smartphone that they carry around wherever they go. If your mobile device was purchased within the past few years, you probably have something that is at least serviceable in offering online lessons. If you haven’t done so already, there are many reasons you might want to use this technology even with your own traditional students. Perhaps you want to check on their progress in between weekly lessons. I’ve heard stories of teachers having a Skype session with their students and being surprised at how out of tune their students’ pianos were. That only scratches the surface of the interaction that this communication opens up.

In lieu of makeup lessons, teachers might consider these video conferences so they don’t lose out on those canceled lessons. If a student is getting over an illness and is feeling good enough to play but is still likely contagious, you can still connect with them over FaceTime or Skype so they don’t spread their germs all over your studio! This could also be a simple solution with inclement weather that makes it too dangerous for students to trek out onto the roads for their piano lesson.

The hardware that comes on most computers and mobile devices is usually at least good enough for online conversations. Built-in cameras and microphones on smartphones and tablets have continually improved over the past several years. It’s come to the point where I felt comfortable with having a live online lesson with a student where the only technology that we each used was an iPad one each end. If you experience poor audio and video quality, consider add-ons such as a higher quality microphone, speakers, or an external video camera. You will probably have more flexibility with adding this type of hardware to a computer rather than a mobile device. My most common setup usually involves just my MacBook Pro computer with its built-in FaceTime camera and microphone, and I rarely get complaints about the quality of the lesson.

One of the most significant factors in whether an online conference is decent or not is the internet speed on both ends of the call. I’m registered as a teacher at tonerow.com, a site that connects music teachers online with students. They have a bit of experience in video conferencing, and their recommendations include that the upload and download speeds should be at least 5 Mbps (Megabit per second). Internet service providers usually are generous with download speeds because they want to keep their customers happy consuming content such as NetFlix or YouTube videos. However, they’re not always generous with the upload speeds. So seek an ISP package that will give you the most bandwidth both ways if you want to provide this as a service to your students. You might want to include a small technological fee if you don’t already among your students to offset the costs. You could at least justify a raise in your tuition with implementing anything that sets you apart from all the other local neighborhood teachers. Regardless of the internet speeds, make sure both parties limit any other internet activity going on in your studio or students’ household when connecting through a video conference call. In 2014, I recorded a comparative test between Skype, FaceTime, and Hangouts (the three video conferencing programs that I use the most). While the technology continues to change and evolve, this gives you an idea of how some of the smallest variables can affect the quality of a live online piano lesson.

If you have poor experiences with live online piano lessons, consider time-shifted video lesson exchanges with students. This allows flexibility in recording content to share with one another at a time that is convenient for both the teacher and the student. If it is a beginner student or music that lasts less than a minute long, then these short video clips can be shared over instant messaging programs such as those found on iPhones, Skype, or even Facebook Messenger. If the video content is longer or if a teacher wants to go into more detail with a piece or concept, then consider using a video sharing service like YouTube or Vimeo to send pre-recorded content to students or vice versa. These services offer the flexibility of making them “Public” for anyone to see and search or being “Unlisted” so that only those with the link can see.

Getting familiar with a video editor to trim video content for more efficient delivery is important for any teacher seeking to utilize this platform. If you’ve never used one, experiment first with the free apps included on your computer or mobile device. For years, I used Apple’s iMovie to simply trim videos and add text to punctuate certain points in a lesson video. As I discovered that I could get mileage out of these posted lesson videos with multiple students, I switched over to a video editing program with more flexibility in recording different camera angles to make the video sometimes even better than a traditional face-to-face lesson. My favorite application is ScreenFlow by Telestream. It is a professional video editing software application for Mac computers, but it is very user-friendly to the point that you don’t even need to read an instructional manual for it.  What I love most about it is that I can record my computer’s screen simultaneously with an external webcam. This has cut the time for video editing down exponentially to the point where I can make even more valuable content for students. You can view a supplemental video that I made for Clavier Companion magazine where I demonstrate my setup using ScreenFlow and Classroom Maestro by Timewarp Technologies.

Regardless of how you decide to utilize technology to connect with students, don’t be afraid to try something new and outside of the box. It may force you to think creatively and expand your studio’s reach beyond your local neighborhood.

Biography

Mario Ajero, Ph.D., NCTM

Internationally recognized as an authority in incorporating technology in piano pedagogy and music education, Dr. Mario Ajero is frequently sought as a presenter for conferences around the world. His engagements include being a keynote presenter at the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference and a featured presenter at the Summer Summit at the Royal Conservatory of Music. His TEDx talk “Unreal Music Making Experiences with Technology” features a performance by his award-winning son and piano student, Antonio “Nio” Ajero. He has authored articles for Clavier Companion and American Music Teacher and has presented at the MTNA National Conference and National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy. Dr. Ajero is Professor of Piano at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX where he also serves as the Keyboard Area Coordinator.

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