So…the last week has been…umm…interesting. Universities and K-12 schools have shut down either temporarily or through the end of the semester, teachers around the world are scrambling to figure out how to transition their teaching to zoom or other online platforms literally overnight, and cats and dogs are mystified by the sudden 24/7 presence of their humans.

Needless to say, even as someone who started a blog largely to justify spending an inordinate amount of time playing with computers and technology, transitioning to teaching remotely has been challenging and a little stressful.

Because it feels like there are so many new things to figure out. Like, what is the best platform to use – Skype, FaceTime, Google Duo, or Zoom? Does it matter if we use a laptop, tablet, or phone? Do we need a mic? If so, what kind? What sort of adjustments do we need to make, if any, in the way we teach? And what the heck is a video exchange lesson?

I know…a little overwhelming, right? Well, fortunately, there are folks out there who have been teaching online for 5, 10, even upwards of 15 years. And many of these online teaching veterans have figured out smart, practical ways to make the most of this medium. So now seemed like a good time to seek out the advice of someone like this, who can help the rest of us figure out the most painless way to get started down this path.

Meet Tim Topham

Tim Topham is a piano teacher, educator, and podcaster, who runs topmusic.co, a popular website and resource for piano teachers around the world. He was supposed to speak at MTNA this weekend, but when the conference was cancelled, we connected and decided to put together a webinar to address many of the questions teachers are asking about how to make remote teaching an effective (and positive) experience – not just for our students, but for ourselves as well.

In this episode, we’re joined by special co-host, Met percussionist Rob Knopper, and you’ll hear us explore:

  • How important the right setup and equipment may or may not be, in order to teach effectively online (spoiler alert: you don’t need fancy gear) (3:26)
  • The biggest change you probably will need to incorporate into your teaching, when you move things online. (5:11)
  • A few very specific ways in which learning to teach online will make you a more effective teacher even when you go back to live face-to-face lessons. (10:41)
  • How the students can be encouraged to take a more active problem-solving role in online lessons, and how this can turn into more effective practice sessions during the week as well. (14:20)
  • The two basic approaches to teaching online. (16:49)
  • Importance of testing things out before your first online lesson, and a few things to put on your “checklist.” (22:21)
  • How to deal with lesson notes for your student. (26:03)
  • Is it possible to improve the audio in online lessons? And play together? (30:13)
  • What’s the best video call platform? (33:35)
  • If you’re going to purchase any equipment, what’s the first thing to get? (40:00)
  • What to say to parents who are skeptical about online lessons? (45:09)
  • Should teachers have a different rate for online lessons? (46:55)
  • Explore Skype vs. Zoom, and mic recommendations. (47:43)
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Noa:
I’m totally a technology nerd. And so, I would be happy to get into the technology side of things. But as I was starting to read what people have written about teaching online, I started wondering if the question of technology and teaching was a little bit like technique and music making. Technique is supposed to support our music making and it’s not an end in and of itself. And so, maybe rather than getting into the technology side of things first, Tim, I wonder if it might be more important to talk about the structure and workflow of an online lesson first, and then how this might be different from an in-person lesson and how technology can then be used to support the teaching process in that new format. Does that makes sense?

Tim:
Yeah, and I want to just say from the start too, that the technology shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone trying this because we can all do online lessons with the technology that we already have. You do not need to go and buy anything really. If you have a phone or laptop, you can get some software and that’s it, that’s all you need to get started. So I don’t want to concern people about the need for overhead cameras and lots of software and all that. You don’t need any of that stuff. I think I’d be right in talking today, it’s really interesting to see the poll. So we’ve got about 63% home-based teachers, 25% college and some grade school teachers as well. So, hello to everyone, by the way. Great to have you here.

Tim:
I think my focus and my approach today is going to be about doing an emergency or a quick transition to online, getting started online. So we could talk if there are questions later on about more complex technical setups. But I think to start with, it’s just about okay, how do we make the most of this period of time that is really odd and we’re all feeling a bit weird, and make the most of it by going online and how do we get started with that?

Tim:
Now, your question was about teaching workflows. So for teachers who are making a transition now to online lessons, you don’t need to change all that much about how the lesson flows. So, if you would normally have a student come in and they would do their technical work first, and then maybe play you some music, and you would give them feedback on that, that being a very simple simplistic overview, and maybe finishing the lesson with either something creative, or maybe they need to prepare for an audition, so they need to do oral tests or theory or something, that structure of the lesson can remain as it is. You don’t need to revolutionize anything there.

Tim:
What is difficult and will take time is language use and making sure that the words you’re using actually work at a distance. So, you can’t of course just kind of point to things particularly easily that students are doing and pick them up on it. You may find it hard until you get the student’s camera in the right position. And that should be something that you should do, we can come back to this later, before their first lesson. You’re going to waste a whole lot of time in that first lesson if you don’t get their set up right. So making sure it’s in a position where you can see what their fingers are doing. Otherwise, you’re going to be teaching and, where you could have just stood up out of your chair and looked over their shoulder. Now you can’t do that.

Tim:
So, how do you actually go about working out whether they are using the correct fingering in a particular scale or something like that? Maybe they need to call out the numbers of the scale that they’re using or move their camera. So it’s more, for me, it’s less about completely changing the format of a lesson. It’s more about having to really rethink how you go about explaining things. I would also say, and the people I’ve interviewed have all said, talk less and do more in online lessons. So if you can possibly demonstrate something rather than talk about it, that’s going to be great.

Tim:
And I’ve seen as a few questions about teaching younger students. The thing that is going to make younger students switch off and be a real challenge is the more you talk. So try not to talk too much. So, that’s just a quick overview. I’m sure we’ll go into a little bit more detail about things, but that’s been my approach, particularly for people who are just starting. Use the same method books, just make sure you’ve both got the same method book so you can refer to bars, sorry measures, and page numbers. And more or less, go through the process that you were doing in person, just moving it to online. And you’ll soon realize some of the things you need to rethink about how you say things and how you refer to the student’s music as well.

Noa:
It sounds like one of the things you’re encouraging is patience with ourselves.

Tim:
Absolutely. Go easy on yourselves, guys. And the other thing I’ve been hearing the more teachers have started to do this is they’re coming back at the end of their first day and going, oh, I am exhausted, this is so tiring. And it really is because at the moment, you’re worried about the technology, so there’s always this thing playing in the back of your head even if it’s working quite well. You’re focusing so much more on what’s going on because you have to be so much more attentive and switched on. You’re changing some of your language. You’re learning so fast as you go. So guys, we’re already stressed and anxious. It’s okay if it doesn’t quite work. You’re going to have lessons where the students can’t connect and it just doesn’t work. So please, let’s all give ourselves a good big hug and a pat on the back for giving this a go, and just go with the flow. It will start to get better the more you do it.

Noa:
And maybe this is actually a good time to ask, I don’t want to call it a silver lining, but are there unexpected positive aspects or benefits of teaching online that teachers can maybe look to anticipate experiencing as they get more comfortable?

Tim:
I think there’s heaps of positive that comes out of this. I would be really surprised if a lot of teachers who don’t try this stick with it, at least for a few students. Or another benefit is that you could consider it as something to add on to your business for all those home-based teachers running their own businesses. I spend a lot of my time sharing business ideas and helping teachers with their business. This is a great opportunity to diversify a little bit your studio teaching by continuing to do online teaching with other students around the world. You can teach in all sorts of time zones. You can teach students at all different levels and ages.

Tim:
And the other thing is that one of the approaches that I use in marketing that I like teaching teachers about is to find what student really makes your, what really gives you a buzz, what kind of student, and try more and more to teach that kind of student. I know you guys would be doing the same kind of thing. So for me, I love transfer students and I love teaching teenagers, that’s my jam. For other teachers, it’s preschoolers or adults, whatever it is. But you’ll find that you can find many, many more of those perfect, amazing students if you have the world as your area of teaching. So that’s why the online thing can really be a big boost to people’s business and give them flexibility and diversify that income. So I think that’s a great positive.

Tim:
Here’s a really simple one if you haven’t thought of this one. You’ll actually get to see them in their home studio and see their setup, and how good or bad it is. It’s often a real shock when you see them and they’re sitting on a pile of books or something, and everything’s the wrong height, or they’re on their bed, whatever it is with a keyboard. So, I’m sure our teachers out there are better teachers, they would have fixed this by now, but I’m being a bit silly. But you do get a chance to see where they’re sitting, how it all works, where they are in the house and things like that. So I think that’s a simple one. The students can be more comfortable, often, but sometimes, they can also be more distracted too. So just keep that in mind if there are brothers and sisters running around, or mum or dad is cooking in the kitchen and that’s right next door. Then again, you’re going to be learning these things as you go.

Tim:
And other teachers have told me the same thing, online teaching actually makes you a better teacher. It really does because it really forces you to focus on what you’re trying to achieve and the simplest most clear way to get there. So I actually, I’ve had a lot of teachers say, I really feel I’m a better teacher. Even if I go back to in-person lessons, I’m better for having done this.

Noa:
Is there any chance you could share an example of do more, talk less, and maybe these things are related? I wonder if you can share an example of one comes to mind of how something changes a little bit when you’re teaching online and how you’re a little bit more effective with your words or efficient relative to how it might have gone in a normal face to face lesson?

Tim:
Yeah. Students can start to get distracted the longer you speak. Just demonstrating what the outcome is that you want to achieve from a particular passage can be much more powerful than saying, so, what I would perhaps do, there’s a few different things you could do. In an in-person lesson you might go, okay, well, the articulation wasn’t quite right here. So let’s work on that one and we need to make sure that we crescendo and decrescendo through these two bars. You could say that. Or in an in-person lesson or an online lesson, you could say, okay, well, how was that out of 10? What could you improve about that? And let’s try and fix just that one thing when we play it through next.

Tim:
Or in an online sense, or an in-person lesson as well, you could do this, is just to go straight in and demonstrate. So you could go, I really liked how you played that, but I’m going to do it again now, and let’s see if you can pick a difference between these two ways of playing. Can you tell what I’m doing differently to how you did it? That’s a simple approach. You can use that in in-person lessons as well and I really like to do that one because it really makes them listen. The other thing is you very quickly find out if they are actually listening to themselves, which students often forget to do sometimes because it’s concentrating on getting things done right. And that’s where in an in-person lesson, recording on a, if you’ve got a digital instrument can be great because you can just play things back. A little bit harder over on an online lesson.

Tim:
That’s the kind of thing I think is important about online lessons is doing some demonstrating more and having them listen and watch you as much as you can. I’m also thinking about things like just playing a simple scale. If you’re looking for a particular, let’s say, to improve a legato playing or something like that or to correct the fingering rather than just saying, okay, we need to remember to use your fourth finger on that C sharp and the D major scale, particularly if you’ve got an overhead camera view, you could say, okay, I’m going to play this one. Watch me now and see if you can find out something that you’re doing that’s different to what I’m doing.

Tim:
I liken it to when we were kids, those black and white line drawings that had something that was, you had to pick the differences in the two of them. Kids really like that. It’s like a little investigative challenge. Simple things like that. And one thing that does work really well online is, call and response isn’t quite the right thing, but copy me or play what I’m doing by listening. So you could say, look, I’m in a A major position on keyboard, five finger pattern and I’m going to play something and I want you to try and play it back. That’s a really simple thing that you can do online that still works really well and is great for their listening.

Noa:
What I find interesting is it sounds almost like you’re enlisting the students into a more active problem solving role, which I imagine would translate into their own ability to teach themselves when you’re not in the lesson, becoming better practicers in essence.

Tim:
Yeah, and I like asking them questions rather than telling them what’s wrong. And I’m sure many of the people watching do the same thing. So to try and get them to listen to what they’ve done and to know what’s different about that compared to what they want to achieve. Now they have to then have an idea of what they’re trying to achieve. So, even with my kids, one’s learning guitar, one’s learning trumpet, before they play, I say, okay, we’re going to replay this, Mary had a little hand, whatever it is. What are you going to try and achieve, what are we going to try to improve this time? So play through once. Okay, what can we improve? What wasn’t perfect? What could we do better? The notes weren’t well articulated. Okay. That’s what we’re going to work on this time. Let’s try it again. And just keep going back to them. How did it go.

Tim:
I’m sure this isn’t my own kind of teaching. I think I’ve absorbed this from other places. But I think you can definitely continue to do that with online lessons, and it’s very effective because hopefully, you want them to do the same thing when they practice because all that time spent without us, they have to do that. Otherwise their practice isn’t going to be very effective. I’m preaching to a practicing guru here by the way, so I won’t say any more about that, Noa.

Noa:
I’m not sure if this is premature to get into but I was reading your colleague, Brenda Hunting’s post on practicing from a couple years back, and not being a teacher in that sense. This was like a revelation to me but it’s probably obvious to people who’ve already been teaching online. The idea of instead of starting off a lesson with a run through, to instead, have the student record in advance and then review that recording together as like a screen share. That made perfect sense to me but I never would have thought of that. I wonder if you can say more about that or how that works or who it works for. And I think, Rob, this is how you have taught as well. And so maybe you have ideas.

Tim:
Yeah. And Rob, you do this I would imagine mainly for older students, probably more advanced students?

Rob:
Yeah. Generally college through anyone taking orchestra auditions or college auditions or something like that. And for me, it’s not only percussion, it’s kind of more general any instrument.

Tim:
Right. Yeah. So I think you need to keep in mind that there are two approaches to teaching online. One is live face to face lessons online, and the other is a video recorded style of lesson. So they’re called video exchange lessons or asynchronous teaching, whatever you’d like to call it. So you can go one of two ways. And I think the, what I’ve been talking about up until now is live online lessons and I think they are the most effective for up to pre-college I guess kind of level students or high school students. Because unless they are really committed students and really passionate about what they’re doing, you are going to get more benefit from, in my opinion, from the face to face kind of style of teaching.

Tim:
The video exchange process works really well for adults of any level and works really well for college and more advanced level students. And so, in that process, you don’t have to connect through Zoom or any kind of platform like that. All you do is you ask the student to make sure their setup is nice and clear. They play through their piece, whatever they’re playing. And then, you can do one of two things. You can either then record yourself talking about their playing. And so you could have on one screen, you could just take a capture of the screen, so record what’s going on on the screen, and on that screen, have the video playing and then a picture of you on your webcam next to it. And then you could talk through and you could pause the video and say, okay, here’s what you need to do and you could turn to your piano and play that. So you could do that and then send them that recording.

Tim:
Or indeed, as you just mentioned, Noa, as Brenda mentioned, you could actually do that live. So you could grab their recording, and then say, okay, we’re going to connect next Monday. You come on a live session together and then you do the same kind of thing. A lot of these software platforms, I know we’ll probably talk about those later, allow you to share your screen. So you would share your screen, image of you with your piano and their video and you play through it, you could talk about it as you go.

Tim:
I think for teachers who are just transitioning during this tricky kind of period, I would at least at first go for the live face to face style lessons unless you’re teaching adults who are happy to record themselves or more advanced students. Because the other thing is that that mainly works if students are playing a complete piece or two or three rather than the just still at the infancy stages of learning a few bars of a whole lot of pieces.

Rob:
I have a question about that. Well, I have done some of those, it’s not exactly a video exchange. They’ll submit a video or audio. And then we get together in person, I mean, on video, not in person, on video, but live. I’ll screen share and play the audio and video back for them while we’re looking at the music together and talk about it that way. It sounds like it’s kind of a hybrid of the two you were talking about. I’m not sure. Have you tried that and is that, how does that compare?

Tim:
To be honest, I haven’t personally tried it. I’ve only heard about other people using that as a format. And actually, my teacher, now that I think about it, my teachers, when I was doing more upper level work, have done that for me. And I find it quite useful but I find it more useful watching the recording again afterwards because I wanted to keep stopping and then going to the piano and trying out the thing that they said. If you’re going to try one of these two methods, so you’ve got the live lessons or video recording style, if you’re going to do the video recording style, I’d probably keep it, again, keep it simple. Just ask the student to send you a recording of their playing and questions I have. Then you record separately a response to that, and then you send it back to them.

Tim:
I think that’s probably the easiest way to go rather than stressing about, okay, I’ve got a screen share, I’ve got to bring them into the screen share and show their video. It could just get really complicated. And again, I’m really conscious of teachers who are already feeling a little bit out of their depth with some of this technology stuff. Keep it simple just to start with.

Rob:
Yeah, that’s a good point. So I want to ask another question kind of just about the basic logistics of how people should get these online lessons set up. So say you have a student who wants to continue their lessons, you’re worried about what the video and audio quality is going to be like. Should you test it out ahead of time? Should you test it with yourself or a friend? Should you actually set up a separate session with the student, like a 15 or 20 minute session with the student to set up all the video and audio stuff with them? And what do they have to do and what do you have to do to prepare for that?

Tim:
Yeah, it’s a great question, Rob. And it’s easy to forget that you need to do this. So, when you’re going to go online, you need to prepare for it because particularly you haven’t done it before, the technology may be challenging at both ends. So you’ve got a two-sided issue here. So, I would recommend, if you are okay with your first online lesson with a student being quite disruptive and you might not get much done, then that could be your first lesson, just getting started. If you really want to get started and have an effective first lesson, then you need to do a test run first, I would recommend anyway.

Tim:
So, for a first step for teachers, I would choose what platform you’re going to use to do the conferencing and then get your end set up. So, everything, all these platforms have a way to test that your audio and video is working. So make sure you’re okay. And then grab a friend or family member or anyone at all really that’s not in your house and connect with them on a call. So learn how to get them a link that will allow them to connect with you.

Tim:
Then what you’ll do is you’ll be able to instantly see what’s going on at the other end and the kinds of things you’ll need to worry about for your student. And that is, most importantly, can you see their piano. So when your friend’s just doing this, you’ll be able to find out what it looks like when you’re looking through an iPad at them or a laptop, or whatever it is. And you can get them to kind of move it around. And if they happen to have a piano brilliant, you can try to experiment with different placements. So I would do all of this before you even teach that first lesson. So you have a little bit of confidence and you know how the connection works. So that’s step one.

Tim:
Then step two, is to do it with an actual student. You may need to phone them first and be on the phone while they’re getting their computer sorted. A lot of kids these days are better than us at tech. Most of them will be able to connect and you’ll be able to see them. The biggest issue is actually getting it set up in a position that will work for you to see the keys or the instrument that they’re playing now. So for piano, the standard position is, if I’m facing my piano, if I look to my right, normally at about eye line angled down onto the keys tends to be a good measure of way you want to put it. Now getting it up there, whatever it is, their iPad, preferably an iPad or a laptop because phones are pretty much too small for them to see, can be a challenge. So they need to prepare for that as well.

Tim:
So, some of these things you can actually tell the student about before you begin, and I think that’s a good idea. And you can have a generic form that you could send all the parents, all the advanced students, saying, hey, here’s a software we’re using. This is how it works, you’re going to get this link. Here’s some tips about setting up your computer. What kind of computer do you have? Do you have a laptop? If it’s a laptop, great, because the screen can angle and hold itself in whatever position you need and you can put it on a chair or a table or a stool and you’ll probably get it sorted quite easily. If you’ve got an iPad or a tablet, a little bit harder. So again, just giving them some tips and there’s plenty of resources online about letters that teachers are currently sending parents about this.

Tim:
So, I would, in answering your question, yes, definitely sort this out first. Expect that your first lesson could be a bit weird and a bit unusual and maybe not as productive as normal. Again, give yourself a pat on the back for giving it a shot. It’s okay that it’s a little bit rough to start with. You’re trying something you’ve never perhaps done before. Did I answer your question?

Rob:
Yeah, totally. Everybody has their own little checklist of things that they need to work out at their first lesson with their student or when they’re getting a new student started. And why would an online lesson be any different? It’s just that that checklist of things to remember to do is just a little bit adjusted now. You have to figure out the cameras and the mics. There’s just going to be a little transition it sounds like you’re saying.

Rob:
When I was in high school taking lessons, my high school teacher would draw out these really interesting illustrative examples of concepts he was talking about or he’d write out exercises for me. He actually had a carbon copy where he would rip off the top copy, give one to me, keep one for himself. I’m wondering how you deal with something like that, taking notes or writing exercises during an online lesson?

Tim:
A good question. So, for quick change overs to online lessons, the simplest thing, you’ve got two options, either the student writes the notes on their side in their book and you guide them or you dictate to them what you would like. Secondly, you take the notes locally and then just take a photo of those notes and send it to the parents or the student afterwards for reference. Or slightly more technical, if you have another device that you can type into, then you could write it into a Google doc and you could share that with the parents or the students. And you could just keep adding, I used to keep adding to one Google Doc like a notebook. And it would always be shared with the parent and the student and they could just keep on, just add new pages at the top. And so they could also see what was behind as well.

Tim:
If you want to get more technical with your setup, you can screen share, and you can share, so what I do is I’ll have my iPad, you can plug, for example, excuse me, an iPad into software like Zoom and get it to show up on your screen and the student’s screen. And you can annotate scores, you can write on things. You can do diagrams, if you wish, and those things can be saved or sent to the student afterwards by email. Again, keep it simple. If the student has an assignment book, then get them to take the responsibility if they’re old enough to write down the things that they need to do. If not, you do it and then just send it to them. That would be my suggestion to start with. What do you guys think?

Noa:
It reminds me a little bit of this concept of Kaizen, which some people might be familiar with. So in the context of changing exercise behavior, for instance, if you tell somebody, you need to start working out three times a week, 20 minutes a time because you’re going to die soon if you don’t start exercising, even with your life at stake, the adherence rate is really, really poor. It’s just really difficult to get started. And so, this one physician had his patients instead of exercising three times a week, he’s like, well, I know you watch Jeopardy every night at 5PM. Every time Jeopardy comes on, I just want you to march in place for 30 minutes, or not 30 minutes sorry, 30 seconds. And then you can sit back down and watch the rest of the show.

Noa:
And then after a few weeks of that, it’s like, every time a commercial comes up, just stand up out of your chair again, march in place for one commercial or two commercials, sit back down. And then after a few weeks of that, it became easier for the entirety of the commercial break. And then when Jeopardy is over, go walk to the end of the block and then back.

Noa:
And so eventually, it just cultivated this habit, where each little tiny change was so trivial that it didn’t lead to any kind of anxiety or stress about doing anything new. And I get the sense that it’s a similar thing with this perhaps where the smallest, easiest, most trivial changes that you can make from one week to the next that would enhance all your lessons eventually can start growing 1% better every week, could start leading to meaningful changes a month from now, two months from now and so forth.

Tim:
Yeah. We don’t quite know how long we’re going to be doing this for. Things will get easier, things will improve. I’ve seen some comments in the chat, there’s someone who’s been teaching for 15 years online. I interviewed yesterday someone for my podcast who’s been teaching for 10 years online. So there’s a lot of people out there who’ve been doing it for a considerable amount of time. Just keep in mind that they have had many years of practice, and they’ve had many years of investing in equipment and setups. When they started, they would have started simply. So, just avoid looking at what they’re doing and going, oh, my goodness, I need to have four different camera angles and lighting setups. You don’t, you don’t. Just start simple, that’s what I’d say.

Rob:
Cool. So I think we should kind of start transitioning over to some of the questions that people asked.

Tim:
Heaps of questions coming through.

Rob:
Yeah, Which is really awesome. So like this one, for instance, has 142 upvotes. So this first question is about tech. And I fear I know the answer already. So this question is, I’ll add a little bit to it, can you please discuss the problem of how to deal with the delay and audio cut out when playing together? If you could also give a quick rundown of what platform you generally use and if you have to adjust any settings for the best video and audio, that’d be great.

Tim:
Sure. I’m sorry about this, Carol, but you can’t play together. It’s a really simple answer. So one of the biggest differences is that you can’t do clapping exercises at the same time, you can’t play duets together. You can play a backing track and have them play along to it because there is a delay and there’s no way to avoid that, sadly. Except, if you want to go really high tech, there’s a thing called Internet MIDI, which, if you’re interested in this, have a look at what [Mario Herro 00:28:18] has done and others if you have Disklaviers and digital instruments at both ends of the connection, and you have something called Internet MIDI, you can actually play your piano if you’re a pianist, and the keys of their instrument will play in real time and make the sound out of their instruments.

Tim:
So you can play duets and things. It’s kind of freaky, it looks like it’s ghosts and things. Most of us don’t have instruments that are quite capable of this, well, a lot of us don’t. So, it is possible, but you need to use a high tech setup. And I’ve never even tried it because I think even my mind would blow. But I’ve seen it done, it’s very, very cool.

Tim:
So as for platforms, there’s lots of questions, Rob, about Zoom coming up, which I’ll try and answer. There’s a few easy ones that I can answer. So Zoom is the platform that I use. Do you guys use Zoom? I use Zoom for my podcast. I use pretty much Zoom for everything. They came along and blew Skype out of the water. Skype was just left for dead by Zoom. And Zoom have got what I think is the best connectivity, particularly when students have low connection. You’ll get the clearest audio, you’ll get the best video and it’s the simplest one to use.

Tim:
So, a lot of people are asking, some people asking questions about the free plans and 40 minutes and how many people and things. So, let me just clarify all that. You can use Zoom for free as long as there are only two people. So you and your student connected. As soon as you have three or more students, then you are limited to 40 minutes unless you pay. But if it’s just you and your student, you can do two hour lessons for free and that’s fine. And you can do it with you and I could teach Noa in a lesson separately, and then I could teach Rob in a lesson separately. And that is all on the free plan. So, that’s another reason why I think Zoom is great.

Tim:
The other reason I really like it as you guys probably do is the fact that you can just send your student a link, it looks like a web address. And they click that, and as long as I have the Zoom software downloaded, so that’s another thing that goes on your first lesson checklist, download the Zoom software, which is free and doesn’t take very long, once they click that link, they’re in your room. They don’t have to sign up for a free account or anything like that. So, I think Zoom is great.

Tim:
And there was one other part of your question, Rob, which was settings.

Rob:
Yes.

Tim:
There is one audio setting that you can use to improve things. I couldn’t tell you exactly where it is in there. Because Zoom isn’t made for music, it’s made for speech, they use something called compression on the audio signal, which can make, if anyone’s tried this, can make the instrument at the other end sound really weird, particularly if you as a teacher start talking at the same time, the software just freaks out and it sounds like, I don’t know, a theremin. So, there is a setting in their advanced audio settings where you can turn off this compression. And so I would recommend again, you try this. So when you’re connecting with your your friend down the road or your family member, play the piano and just test out these settings or get them to sing or something like that to see how it sounds.

Tim:
I’m sure there are videos out there that will show you this setting. If I can find one, I can share it with you guys or I can make one. That is an important step to, it will still work fine without it but you’ll hear sometimes the audio will go all screechy and weird.

Rob:
Yeah. Noa and I were testing this the other day. I’ve been struggling with this for like years because especially when you have an instrument that has long tones, like for instance, a sustained snare drum roll or a long clarinet tone, Zoom will pick it up as unwanted background noise. And so you’ll hear the beginning of it and then it’ll immediately cut everything out. But one thing that’s cool is Noa and I just experimented with this the other day, they literally just came out with a new update, and they added some extra audio adjustments where it can actually remove that automatic noise cancellation I guess you would call it. And we tested it out, and indeed, my snare drum roll stopped cutting out after the first half second of sound. So I’m not sure if there’s been any, there’s probably been some tutorials and articles posted about that, but it’s good news because I’ve really been waiting a long time for them to give you that feature.

Noa:
I’ll post these later because there’s a great website that goes through some of these settings and there’s also a classical guitarist who put together a nice video on some of the specifics with Zoom.

Rob:
Cool. So this question will be interesting. So Jean asks, do you have any suggestions for working with various young students online? In person, four or five year olds can be a challenge to keep their focus, and online it might be even more. So, yeah.

Tim:
Yeah, it sure is. Look, the simple answer is, I personally don’t teach this age group, so I’m going by what other people have told me. The main thing is that you need a parent in the room or a carer of some sort to guide them and be there with the child. So whereas a teen or an adult can, and even a 10 year old, for a short period of time, can focus on you remotely, a four or five year old, four or five or six year old really need someone in the room with them. So I wouldn’t try and teach online unless you have a parent who’s happy to help guide that student, keep them focused, help them be able to point to things or get off and on the bench and that sort of thing. That’s really my simplest tip about that. I can’t go more into the kind of pedagogy of teaching that age group because it’s just not what I do.

Rob:
I tried to teach a lesson to a very, very young person once and their parent had to remind me that they don’t know the letters yet and so I just was kind of lost about what to do.

Tim:
It’s really different.

Noa:
Well, the question has come up about ensemble rehearsals, and I haven’t found anybody who has come up with a great answer for how to coach quartets online or how to even make [inaudible 00:34:19] music thing through online. Have you heard of anything or come up with any ideas for ensemble based lessons?

Tim:
Not ensemble rehearsals. I’m not sure how that could work. I think given the lag issues that we’re talking about, I just don’t see how that’s going to be possible. I have heard of people doing group piano online, but I’m not honestly sure exactly how that works. And maybe they’re doing it via an Internet MIDI thing so everyone can play it together. Or maybe the teachers, everybody’s doing their own thing with their headphones on in their own space and they’re multiple streaming to multiple people at once. I’m not really sure. I can’t think of an easy way that you could get a group of, a quartet together to rehearse online. Sorry.

Noa:
Yeah, that’s fine. Unfortunately, everyone I’ve talked to in the position of having to try to continue with ensemble coachings hasn’t come up with anything quite yet. The other question that came up a little bit was about equipment. So I know that your recommendation is to just start with trying to teach as best as you can given the equipment that you already have. But for folks who are inclined to start experimenting and start investing in equipment, where’s the first place to start? And what specifically, if you have recommendations, would you recommend? Because there’s probably even multiple tiers even with that.

Tim:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. So I think being able to change to an overhead camera view is quite valuable. I think that is a good investment to make. And I would probably make that my first one. So, the simplest way to step up to that would be to have your laptop, preferably a laptop rather than an iPad for you as the teacher or a desktop computer on your side and use the inbuilt camera in that. And then overhead, put a webcam. And most teachers seem to be using the Logitech, you guys, I’m not sure if you use one of. them Logitech C900 and something. Seems to be the industry standard one. And you can mount that above you on a microphone stand, have I got one here? It’s just outside. Microphone boom stand. And if you haven’t got the connection, then just duck tape it together. Duck tape is really good at the moment. I’m sure they’re selling lots of duct and gaffer tape. Do you call it gaffer tape over there? That cloth tape?

Rob:
Yeah.

Tim:
Yeah. Gaffer. Yeah. So just gaffer tape it over the top of your head and then you can switch between those two in Zoom. So the other great thing about Zoom is you don’t need to use multiple camera software because you can just change, permanently on your screen at the bottom is a way to change microphones and change cameras. So you just flip to, okay, so I’m just going to flip to my overhead camera and then the webcam above you turns on and you play something and then you can switch back to the side one. And there’s also ways of showing split screen, the two things at the same time. That’s another, I can answer that later on.

Tim:
So an overhead view is great. And then a microphone is a good thing because the inbuilt microphones in computers aren’t always the best. So I would get something like, I got one here. And these aren’t expensive either, on Amazon, you can get good mics for like 50 or $60 that are fantastic. So this is just a USB, so one of those plugs, USB lapel mic. Really gives clarity to your speech. And I also find that these tend to pick up piano at about the right kind of volume level as well. That’s what I found anyway.

Tim:
So a lapel mic you could use, and that’s easy because you don’t need to stand for it. So that’s why I wanted to give you that as a suggestion. Or you could go For something like what Noa and I have, which is more of these condenser style microphones, which are great for picking up clear audio. But again, then you have to have a stand for it and things like that. And these are a little bit, tend to be a bit more expensive. So perhaps starting with a lapel mic could be a good one. It’s definitely going to be better than the inbuilt microphone, and then you could move up to something else if you want to keep going.

Rob:
There’s one question that I thought was really interesting. Right now, a lot of people are losing work and they might want to teach more. And also, a lot of people are home with nothing to do more so they might want to learn more and find a teacher. And there was a question in here from Hugh says, I’m currently returning to online lessons, I can’t find a teacher in my area. And so I’m wondering, do you have any advice for teachers looking for students where to find them and vice versa?

Tim:
So for teachers wanting to market their online lessons, this becomes quite different. If you want to make more of your online lessons, it’s gonna be a different marketing situation to your local area lesson. So, you now have the world as your potential piano students, which is fantastic, but you need to get the word out there. So, for most teachers who want to share knowledge about themselves as an online teacher, they’re going to start sharing videos of themselves doing this.

Tim:
They’re going to have a website, and they’re going to share content about it probably. Because people are going to be looking online, you want to make sure that your SEO is good and you’re showing up in Google searches and potentially putting advertising in Google. So doing Google AdWords. Because people will search for online teacher, online piano teacher, potentially in an area as well because they still, oftentimes they’ll say, online piano teacher, Melbourne because they feel that they will understand better in their own country or their own location, even though they could be anywhere in the world.

Tim:
So, you really have to have a good solid online presence. If you’re looking for an online teacher, then I would googling and searching for those people and having a look what is out there. A lot of the teacher directories, if the teachers are continuing to teach, they’re going to be going online now. So I’d say to Hugh, jump on wherever your local area is or state or country listings, take lessons, Craigslist, whatever people use, and go searching for teachers because most of them are going to be doing some online offerings. I’m not sure if that’s quite the answer that he wanted but that’s what I’ll stick with.

Noa:
There is another interesting question about what to say to skeptical parents who may not be quite sold on the idea of online teaching effectiveness.

Tim:
Great question. And I’ve heard that this has been a concern for some teachers. What I would suggest, and in the training that we put out for teachers in regard to business, one of the things that we really get them to do early on is set a good policy and stick to it and preferably get payments upfront for a period of lessons. So, if you have parents who are on a monthly or a term based, a 10 week program or they’ve paid upfront for the month, then the expectation would be that they just continue lessons. So, you hopefully won’t have too many parents who are just going, no, not doing this, I’m out. If they are, then what I would suggest you do is go well hang on a sec, what I’d like to do is just at least try this for a couple of weeks with your child and let’s see how it goes. And I think that is only reasonable.

Tim:
And these parents, and I’m a parent, I can’t remember if you guys are parents. We’re going to have kids stuck at home. We want them to be doing things. So, just keep that in mind. If skeptical parents say look, do you really want, would you like me to take the kids off your hands for half an hour? And they’ll be going yes, I hope so. Excuse me. So I think that’s a good approach. And just make sure that they realize that this is just the new normal for piano lessons in your studio. It’s not an option, it’s just we’re going online and come and join us, it’s going to be fantastic, we’re going to have great fun, we’re going to do things differently. Kids are going to love it. Just be as positive as you can.

Tim:
Now, there’s no doubt that some parents may not be comfortable with that for whatever reason, and that’s okay. But at least make the expectation there that they’ll continue.

Noa:
One last question that I had that some folks have been asking about is teaching rates. So, the same rate for online versus live or how do people tend to handle that?

Tim:
Yeah, good question. For this transfer period, changeover period, just keep it all the same. I’ve heard that some teachers will charge less for online. I disagree. I think it should be the same charge as you were charging before, maybe even a bit more, in some ways because you’re having to do some more work to at least get prepared for this. But look, just keep it the same, there’s no reason why it should be any less. And in fact, you’re going to be doing more work at the moment. So don’t undersell yourself, and you don’t want to then have to raise rates again. It’s hard enough getting where you were. So, stick to your current rate, that’s my simplest advice. Everyone seems to be agreeing about, Brian says, let’s all 2700 of us here agree not to charge less. That’s correct.

Tim:
I just saw Sharon’s question about teaching. I already teach by Skype. Is Zoom or another app better? I would just say yes, I’ve tried both. And the thing about Skype is it doesn’t have quite as many features. You can’t change between cameras quite so easily. And the connection, they just have not got as good a connection, particularly when people’s internet is not very good. Zoom is much more stable. That’s what I find.

Tim:
There are some other questions coming up in the chat too.

Noa:
I’m finding the interesting one about what mics to have students invest in, because Rob talks about self-recording a ton and I’ve talked about it a little bit. I feel like, the thing that I liked about the asynchronous lessons or the video exchange is that it makes recording yourself more of a central part of your own practice. I like this idea of recording centric practice, where instead of just starting to practice and then doing whatever occurs to you in the moment, doing more performance practice essentially, more practice run throughs and seeing where things really are with the repertoire that you’re working on. And then going back and listening yourself for all the nuances and details. And Rob, you could probably talk about this structure more.

Noa:
So for that kind of a practice session, having a pretty nice mic can be really helpful to the student and make it a really good learning device. And so, I wondered if you had any, and Rob as well, recommendations on specific mics at different budget levels perhaps.

Tim:
Do you want to go, Rob?

Rob:
Yeah. Well, my mic recommendations haven’t traditionally been for the purpose of online lessons, more for the project of self-recording, which is something that I encourage my students to do for polishing their music and preparing for auditions and problem solving their way to better excerpts. You should have a mic that doesn’t adjust any of the frequencies or adjust the sound at all. So like some mics are made for a bass drum, which means that they’ll pick up certain frequencies and accentuate them, and certain frequencies, it’ll push down. But you want to have an accurate representation of the sound because you want to adjust your playing based on what the listener in the audition is going to hear. Without getting too technical, pretty much any cardioid condenser mic is good.

Rob:
Basically, if you get like a $100 or $200 mic I use the Audio Technica 4040 mic, which is an analog mic. So, if you want to plug it into your computer, you have to get a converter. So you plug it into a little thing that converts it to from analog to digital, and then it goes right into your USB port. It takes you like one day of worrying about what mic you’re going to get and then you’re done and then that’s it.

Tim:
On the student end though, if this becomes a regular thing for a student and you know they’re committed for a year or so, then yes, you can encourage them to get a mic. I would go for a USB mic just to keep things simple. And Audio Technica is a great brand to start with. I think that’s a good way to look at it. On Amazon, again, less than $100, a student can get a pretty good mic that will plug into a USB port. But that means that they also need to have a laptop that they can use at their end too. So just keep that in mind. And they’ll need to have some kind of stand. So it starts getting a little bit more complex and things, but if it’s the way that they want to go and you are going to continue working with this student for a significant period of time, then that can be a great investment.

Rob:
The debate about USB mic versus an analog mic, I think a USB mic is a lot easier to use, especially for something like video lessons. I run into the problem when I encourage students to, I encourage students to record themselves from farther away sometimes at a distance, because at a distance, when you’re recording on your own for the purpose of self-recording, if you’re playing for a mic that’s right next to you versus if you’re playing for a mic that’s at a similar distance to what the audition committee will be when they’re listening to you, you’re going to make different adjustments in your playing, like spacing between notes is going to be different for somebody far away. And if you plug a USB mic and you want to put it far away, sometimes the power doesn’t reach much more than a few feet for a USB mic. So I think, Noa, in that case, you can get an extender in some cases.

Noa:
I think it’s called a powered USB extension or active USB extension, but it’ll ensure that you can go beyond 12 to 15 feet with your USB mic.

Tim:
Sonia says, mics for singers? Definitely condenser mics for singers. That’s what all the studios use, and they’re the ones that are kind of upright and you sing into it this way rather than down the barrel. We were talking about those ones before. There was a question about, would the lapel mic be good for a student? Yes. Just as they work with [inaudible 00:48:02], they can work really well at the student end as well. If they have a very large grand piano, sometimes it can be too loud for the microphone. So, I only have these smaller ones, smaller pianos here and they’re fine for that. But if it’s a very loud boomy room, then maybe that mic, actually, that wouldn’t be very good for any mic to be honest.

Tim:
And someone asked about two cameras. Can you use two cameras at the same time on Zoom? Not without another piece of software. And the other piece of software you would need to do that is called ManyCam. And in fact, I’ll be doing some videos on that coming up. So, what ManyCam does is it kind of, it works like a mixing desk. So ManyCam kind of sits here and you plug all your cameras into it digitally inside your computer. And then it becomes a camera feed into Zoom. So you switch to ManyCam as your camera and then you can split screen things. Again, this is going next level, but for those teachers who are ready to do that, that can be quite cool. That means you can have a permanent side and a permanent overhead on the same screen.

Tim:
And someone actually did ask about advanced ones. Really, I think, the most advanced you need to get, I mean, you can get crazy. I was interviewing someone yesterday for the podcast and he has five webcams at different places. He’s got one on his feet even for showing pedaling. He’s gone really into it. And so he mixes all these together with, he has broadcast software because he’s got so many cameras and inputs. These are the things that people use to broadcast the news and switch between everything. So I think that’s probably a bit overboard. Really, a side view and an overhead view, that’s what you need to get started as a next level thing if you want to move up a bit.

Tim:
And so someone said, how do I plug in more than one USB if my computer only has one? Then you just get a USB hub. So you can get a converter that goes one USB in and then gives you four ports out the other side. That works totally fine. Someone’s asking about AirPods. Avoid using Bluetooth microphones or Bluetooth headphones when you’re doing anything online live because it just adds another element of potential delay and frustration and things like that. I was about to do a webinar with someone who had Bluetooth headphones in and they cut out and we couldn’t hear him and it was a disaster. So plug things in. I know the cables get annoying, but yeah, much more reliable.

Noa:
To that end, actually, do you recommend that students use headphones while they’re in lesson and do you wear the headphones also when you’re teaching? And if so, what are the benefits, pros, cons?

Tim:
You can, I think it does improve the sound quality that you get. I think that’s a good thing. For the student, again, to get started, don’t worry about it. And Zoom, another great thing about Zoom is it cuts echoes very, very effectively. So you shouldn’t have an issue with that. If you are hearing yourself coming back through the student’s microphone, then get them to put on some headphones. But keep in mind that again, they may not have a headphone lead that’s long enough to go to their device, which is hanging up on a coat hanger over here, on a hat stand to try get the right angle. They could try using Bluetooth AirPods if they have them, see how it goes. But just be careful because sometimes it can get really messy.

Rob:
If people who are here at this session today want to learn more about you, Tim, or what kind of teaching you do or some more resources, where can they find it?

Tim:
So thank you. Topmusic.co is where I’m based. That’s where my blog and podcast is. I also have a membership for teachers where we work with them on, particularly on their business and also on their creative pedagogy. So improvising and posing and those kinds of things that perhaps we don’t always learn about in college degrees and things like that these days. It’s called Top Music Pro and that you can find out more about at my website topmusic.com. And we’ve got lots, we’re trying to really support teachers at the moment so we are focusing on online teaching this month. It was actually a focus we planned last year, just happened to be the right time. So my YouTube channel I have videos there on my Facebook and also on the blog too.

Noa:
Well, that might be a good place to wrap up and let you go get some coffee for the morning or something Like that.

Tim:
I think I might need one.

Noa:
Thank you so much, Tim, for being up early in the morning. And if you had any last words, we’d love to hear them.

Tim:
Pleasure. No, it’s been really great. Thanks for inviting me. Thank you guys for watching. Thanks for all the teachers who are here. You guys do incredible things with your students. You work incredibly hard. I know this is a really weird anxious kind of time for all of us. So, hang in there. We’re all here to support each other. Give this a shot, see how it goes. I think many of you will enjoy it.

Notes

More online teaching tips and resources from Tim

From quick tips you can implement today, to next-level strategies if you’re looking to take the next step, the following videos, podcast episodes, and articles will help you continue down this path.

Tim tells me that there will be more on this topic coming out in the weeks ahead at topmusic.co.

And if you’d like more workshops, webinars, and individual support with online teaching (and other aspects of running a teaching studio), check out Tim’s TopMusicPro community.

* * *

Still not happy with Zoom’s audio?

Psst…if you’ve adjusted the advanced settings, and still find yourself wanting better audio, there is one more thing you could do – if you’re feeling a tad adventurous, and are using a laptop and external mic.

It takes a minute or two to sign up for the free service and do some initial setup, but after that, this audio hack is pretty quick and painless and only adds a couple steps to the process. If you want to check out some audio samples to decide if it’s worth it or not, I wrote up a quick tutorial here: Optimizing Audio for Online Music Lessons

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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