When schools in England closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many teachers had to transfer their curriculum online. For instrumental music teachers, it was possible to continue lessons with relatively little upheaval, using Skype or other means of video call. Some musicians have been teaching in this way for some time but for the rest there were quick adjustments to be made.
As a piano teacher myself, and not having had much experience of teaching through technology, I had to quickly trial the various options, decide which one to use, and then let parents know how lessons would work from then on. After a quick internet search I came across The Curious Piano Teachers, who had put together a brilliant webinar on how to make the transition to online teaching. The video went through lots of questions and technical advice, but most of all it was useful for the conviction, from founders Dr Sally Cathcart and Sharon Mark-Teggart, that online teaching could work, and be a viable substitute for piano lessons as we understand them.
Nearly three months into online lessons, with the prospect of traditional piano teaching not yet on the horizon, I’m reflecting on the experience. I also contacted Dennis Ng, piano teacher and founder of the Guildford Music School, to ask about his thoughts on the transfer to learning online.
There have, inevitably, been some technical glitches to do with set up or connection but, on the whole, these are now infrequent. Ensuring laptops or other devices are charged up is an obvious point but important. Dennis notes that it’s impossible for teacher and student to play duets online, often an enjoyable part of the lesson and excellent for ensemble skills. Also, any written work needs a little more organisation than usual.
However, he has found that there have been unexpected benefits of teaching online, and I agree with him. There’s a need to use precise speech when referring to the music a student is learning, identifying bar numbers rather than pointing to the music, and I’ve found that younger children enjoy finding the exact bar and note on the page; it’s a bit like a treasure hunt. Older students are writing in fingering and directions themselves, and this may be more effective than the teacher scribbling pencil markings on the music. Dennis notes that new ways of working have encouraged different approaches, such as filming part of the lesson to aid practice. (Although this could be done before, he says, it’s easier when teaching through technology already.) He has also found that one outcome of lockdown has been that his students have had more time to practise, and so have made more progress.
There are further differences, I’ve found, between online lessons and traditional ones. The pace, for example, is often quicker. Whereas in traditional teaching, a discussion of a piece might fly off into talk of other music, I’ve found some students talk less in a video call, and so the focus is very much always on the practical; playing the pieces or scales in question. One issue in lessons with more advanced students is that a certain amount of pianism is lost, although this can be worked around by the student recording their performance and sending it to their teacher rather than playing live.
After approaching the prospect of online lessons with a certain amount of scepticism, I now believe it’s a valuable substitute for traditional means of teaching. With a little adjustment from both teacher and pupil, students are continuing their musical learning and ensuring this important part of their lives is still present.