To say this last month has been a learning experience for me would be putting it mildly. Like many of you, I would never have dreamed that I would be running a 100% online piano studio at this point in my teaching career.
However, that is exactly what I have been doing for the last six weeks, and I have to say that I think lessons are going pretty well! I am grateful that technology has made it possible for me to continue working with most of my students at a time that face-to-face lessons just aren’t possible. And I am thankful that my studio families have been such good sports throughout this process as we have all learned how to make online learning a positive experience for everyone!
With that being said, I have found that some things seem to work better for me and my students in this new online format than others. So, today I would like to share my own personal list of online teaching “do’s” and “don’ts.” Curious to see how this list stacks up with your own experience teaching online? Read on for more!
1. Do use this time to review and celebrate what your students have accomplished this year.
Instead of focusing on the things that you didn’t get to do with your students this spring (like festivals or public performances), look at this time as an opportunity to review and celebrate all the progress your students have made this year! I have found that online lessons have been a great opportunity for me and my students to review concepts like music vocabulary, rhythm, and music theory. Part of this has been out of necessity--it is important in this online format that students are able to be more independent in their practicing and to find and identify concepts in their pieces quickly.
However, I have also made a point each week to have my students go back and review one or two old favorite pieces of music. I want my students to sit down at the piano and play for their own enjoyment during this time and to reflect on all of the fun music that they did get to play this year. Encourage your students to build a repertoire list of their favorite pieces from the past year and to share this music with family and friends online. I am sure your students’ grandparents would love getting a private concert via FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype right now!
2. Do give your students short, clear instructions on what you would like for them to do in the lesson, including where to start and stop in the music.
Is it just me, or do things seem to take twice as long in online lessons? Guiding students to the correct spot in their music, making sure they have the correct starting note and are using the correct finger, getting their attention to double-check a note or rhythm...an activity that might take seconds to do in a face-to-face lesson can take minutes when we are working together online.
I have learned that breaking instructions down into very small steps is really helpful. For example, instead of saying, "Can you play the B section of your piece?" I might say:
- Can you find the B section at measure 9?
- What is the first right hand note? What finger should start there?
- Now play measures 9, 10, and 11, then stop.
Giving students one instruction at a time, and giving them a clear stopping point so we can discuss the section before continuing, saves much time and frustration for both of us!
3. Do continue to incorporate your favorite off-bench games and activities in lessons.
Now that I am more comfortable with the technology and the process of teaching online, I am finding that incorporating more off-bench activities and games into my online lessons is helping me to keep my lessons fresh and fun for my students--and for me, too! Some of the activities I have been using:
- Screen sharing the website musictheory.net to do theory exercises.
- Creating Jeopardy-style review games to screen share during our lessons. The website JeopardyLabs.com has been a great resource!
- Using the Zoom whiteboard to play “music pictionary”--I draw a musical symbol and students have to find it in their music and tell me the measure number it is in.
- NoteRush--this is my students’ favorite iPad app, and I have found it still works online! I just hold the screen up to the camera and my iPad can “hear” my students playing the correct note on their piano at home.
- Flashcards: I’ve dusted off some of my pre-iPad flashcard sets and we use these to name notes, clap rhythms, identify key signatures, identify chord inversions, etc.
- Call and response activities work really well in an online format, too. Have students “copycat” a rhythm by clapping it back, listen and echo a simple phrase on the piano, improvise an “answer phrase” to a short pattern you play on the piano…any activity that allows you to take turns with students, as opposed to playing together, can work successfully online.
My Online Teaching “Don’ts”
1. Don’t introduce new music that is far above a student’s current playing level.
For now, I am finding it works best for my students to focus on reinforcing concepts they have already learned and to introduce new concepts sparingly and in pieces that are easy to play. Most of my students are elementary to early intermediate level, still learning how to practice independently, and are doing online lessons for the first time ever. While I have been impressed with how well everyone is handling the transition to online lessons, I’ve also been careful not to overwhelm my students by introducing music with multiple new concepts right now.
2. Don’t be surprised if it is difficult to fine tune details such as pedaling and dynamics.
I have found that sound quality in our lessons can vary widely from student to student depending on their equipment (computer, tablet, or phone), their piano, and our internet connection. Since the switch to online lessons is a temporary one for me (my semester ends in May), I am not asking my students to invest in equipment like microphones and external speakers that would improve the sound quality, since we would only be using them for a short period of time.
So, for now, I have accepted the fact that we probably won’t be able to polish things like dynamic contrasts and pedaling right now in the same way we would in an in-person lesson. I am totally fine with that, since I am finding there are plenty of other concepts to work on, as I mentioned above! Adjust your expectations accordingly--and keep in mind that you can always re-visit pieces in the future, when lessons resume in person, to address any details that you can’t work on right now.
3. Don’t take it personally if you have a difficult lesson.
We are all going through an emotionally draining, incredibly stressful time right now. Many of my students have been more tired, irritable, and emotional than usual--and guess what? So have I!
Don’t take it personally if you have a difficult lesson. Whether it is due to an overly stressed-out student, a technology snafu, or a communication issue due to the online format--we are all experiencing difficult days right now. Don’t take it personally, and don’t beat yourself up.
Remember, each time we connect with our students online, we are providing them with an emotional outlet and with support and encouragement. We are a friendly face for our students at a time that they might be feeling especially isolated. So, even if a lesson doesn’t go as well as you had planned--it is okay! I think the most important thing we can do right now is to keep connecting with our students and to help them continue finding joy in music during this stressful time in their lives.
What do you think? What things are working well for you in your online lessons right now? Do you have any “do’s” and “don’ts” to share? I would love to hear from you in the comments!