Over the last couple of years nearly all music teachers have had to teach their students via online lessons. Some teachers love it, others hate it, but it’s a way to keep music in our students’ lives when we can’t see them in person. I’ve been giving online lessons for nearly two years now, and here are a few tips of things I found helpful.
Preparation is the Key
I find it’s worth putting in a bit more preparation time for online lessons than I would normally do for face-to-face teaching. The main reason is that it’s very easy to lose the attention of your student on screen while you are searching for something, especially with younger children. Therefore, I have a lesson outline for each student which includes the pieces we will be doing, games, and materials for aural skills. I always jot down an extra activity, for “if we have time” so I have plenty of material ready for the lesson. At the start of each teaching block, I then go through the lesson plans for those students and check I have everything ready to hand - music, games, instruments, and screen share documents open.
I also prepare a bag of games and activities for each student, which the parent collects every six weeks or so from my front porch, so then we have all we need for the lesson!
Switch It Up!
I divide the lesson into many short activities - the student playing a piece they have been working on, learning something new, listening to a piece, technical skills, and tone development. I then intersperse this with games, especially for note reading skills, or to develop rhythm reading and keeping a steady beat, plus aural skills, and coordination activities. I don’t write a detailed plan, but attached is an example of a lesson timeline, showing how I might apportion time in a 30 minute lesson with an 8 year old flute student.
I always start the lesson with a brief chat, asking the student about how their week is going, or what they’ve done recently, then I go straight into a warm-up exercise. At the end of each lesson, I ask the student to tell me what they will work on for the next week, making sure they have understood what we have done.
Interestingly, I’m finding we often can fit more into the lesson time, as the student has their instrument and music already unpacked, and I have all my music and games ready.
Parents to the Rescue
Prior to the pandemic when I taught only in person, I wasn’t overly keen on having parents at the lesson. I often found they distracted the child, or they would sometimes want a lengthy chat at the end of the lesson when it was time for the next student.
However, with two years of online teaching, my attitude has changed! I really appreciate the help parents give in lessons. They can help younger students (and their flute) stay in front of the screen, they can jot down reminders for practice, and they can help kids identify left hand or right hand, or particular fingers, saving me a lot of frustration! Of course, my older students can manage on their own, and I think they benefit from writing their own reminder notes, rather than me doing it for them.
One big bonus of online lessons is that we can see where our students play at home, and check that everything is set up correctly. I think music stands present the most problems – they are often non-existent or at the wrong height, and for piano students their stool/chair sometimes needs adjusting to a better height. Piano teachers can also hear if the student’s home piano needs tuning, and I heard of one teacher who discovered that their student had no piano or keyboard at home; the parents thought the child could just attend lessons at the teacher’s house!
Some online lesson platforms claim to have zero lag, but in reality, it’s down to both our own internet connection, and that of the student. Unfortunately, the time lag means that it is rarely possible for students and teachers to play duets together in online lessons. You can of course play along together, but it won’t sound great. All the ensemble books I’ve written for flute, violin, clarinet and saxophone have free recordings on YouTube, including the duets and trios, and I’ve found these really helpful in online lessons. The student can play the backing track at their end (on another device) and play along with the other part/s. This way they get a sense of playing with others, and you can hear clearly how well they manage their part when others are playing, and how well they stay in time and in tune.
Similarly with accompaniments for instrumental pieces. I ask the student to play with the backing track at their end, so they can hear how their part fits with the accompaniment (great for F2F lessons too for instrumental teachers who don’t play piano!). Between lessons, students can play with these backing tracks to get to know the accompaniment for their pieces, and get a sense of performing the piece, maybe even recording their performance.
Look after yourself
Teaching music is fun, but let’s face it, teaching online is extremely tiring. Much of this is from eye strain, staring at a screen for hours. Self-care is important, taking time to stand up and stretch, look into the distance and using saline eye drops can help. If you wear glasses, I’ve found computer glasses are great (filter and focal distance adjusted for screen use), and you also can adjust the blue light filter on your computer screen.
Overall, I think I’m now more flexible in my approach to teaching, as, like everyone else, I’ve had to think of different ways of doing things. Even if you have returned to teaching in person, online lessons can still be useful as a backup, for example when a student has a cold but is well enough for a lesson; then they’re not sharing their bugs with you!
I hope you’ve found this helpful, and if you have any further suggestions for online music lessons, I’d love to hear them, so please add them in the comments below. Best wishes for your teaching.