The 2021 Covid 19 crisis has forced all of us in music education, as in many other fields, to adapt to new circumstances. Luckily I started teaching online seven years ago, offering my services to students around the world. Although realistically, my clients have been restricted to the English speaking world, as I’m not very good with other languages. Although I’m making progress with Maltese, but that’s another story.
For years I have been using Skype for online lessons, and I continue to do so for those that prefer it. It’s just so convenient, and very easy to start a call. Recently I have been using Zoom, which has superior audio options, although it’s secure meeting IDs and passwords make setting up an online lesson a little fiddly compared with Skype.
Some clients don’t have an available computer, so for those I offer FaceTime and WhatsApp video, so that they can use their smartphones.
The limitations of the internet mean that it’s impossible for us to play music together. There are elaborate software systems that claim to reduce the time delay (latency) down to virtually zero, but these usually paid-for systems can be cumbersome to set up and use. So I get around this limitation by creating mp3 backing tracks, that I email to the client either before, or during the lesson. I use an amazing software package called Band In A Box to help with this.
Previously, I was getting through reams of paper each month, by printing chord charts and scores of the lesson material, but now all I need to do is export my Microsoft Word document to a PDF, and then I can easily email it to the client along with the mp3 backing track.
To make my lessons as clear as possible, I have invested in some powerful hardware items. My laptop’s built-in camera isn’t as high quality as I wanted, so I’ve added on a full HD 1920x1080p webcam. For the audio, I’m using a large capsule condenser mic, powered by 48 volts of phantom power which derive from my Focusrite Scarlett audio interface. Simply put, this provides studio quality audio, far better than the tiny microphone built into my laptop. And rather than rely on WiFi, my laptop is wired directly to my internet router, via my ethernet network. My broadband service is the fastest currently available in the UK, and is usually very reliable. I’ve only had two hours of downtime in the past year.
Of course, a lesson can still be made challenging by the client’s technology, but this is beyond my control except that I offer advice about how to get the best out of the available technology.
I have noticed that during the lockdown, many of my clients have achieved faster progress than usual. Maybe they have more time to practice? Also, many of them want to stay with the online lessons when lockdown ends. Think of all the travelling time they’ll save and it makes sense.
Another advantage is that my business has become cashless. All lesson fees are paid directly into my bank account, making income easier to keep track of.
For those clients that want to do exams, well for years I have been offering filmed performance awards, as an alternative to face-to-face graded exams. The crisis has forced the examining boards to adapt, and they now offer filmed graded exams. A new service that I offer is advice and coaching on the best way to film your exam performances at home.
So what could have been a show-stopping problem has been solved, thanks to modern technology, and the willingness of the vast majority of my clients to adapt.