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27 April 2020

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How to set up for a successful online music lesson (Skype / Zoom)

The following post is written by a guest writer, Sindre Kaupang, Co-founder of  Duett the contents of which, although not being directly the opinions of MusicOnline UK have been thoroughly checked and endorsed as good practical advice

Online lessons have exploded in popularity over the past weeks. As we all know, the reason for this is the global pandemic crisis which has forced most social activities to be done online. This includes music tuition. This post is written for everyone who is teaching or receiving music lessons online. In this post, I’m going to share the 4 most crucial elements that can make or break the success of an online lesson.

Let’s jump straight in.

1. Choose the appropriate setup for the instrument you are teaching

Let’s start with the most important factor - your camera angle and setup. The setup you need depends on the instrument you are teaching. I am going to talk you through the three most useful setups that you will most likely need

Here is something to keep in mind before we start. It’s generally better to use a laptop for online lessons rather than a tablet. A tablet limits the camera angles you can choose from. For example, it is difficult getting a tablet to point in a downwards angle, and you might sometimes need to do that. It’s much more convenient to use a laptop with an in-built webcam on the top of the screen, which can easily be tilted in the direction you want.

Guitar setup

Guitar instruments and other similar instruments that you place on your lap are the easiest and most straightforward instruments to set up. The setup is relatively close to a normal video chat. You can think of your position to the camera in terms of three main views.

1. One that shows your whole upper body. This is useful for most things that don’t require you to show much detailed fingering.
(Note position of laptop)

2. One which is a bit closer and focuses on the interaction between both hands.

3.And one really close up. Use this to show detailed fingering and to demonstrate technique. This is particularly useful for young children and complete beginners.

Make sure you sit in a way that makes it easy for you to move between these positions in the same lesson.

Violin setup

The violin is also pretty easy to set up. The best camera angle I have found for this is one where the camera is quite high up and points slightly downwards towards you. You need to make sure the camera angle is high so that students/your teacher can see your fingers. Like this:

If your camera angle is too low, your hand will cover your fingers so that your student/teacher can’t see them.

A music stand is a great way to position the webcam the way you want it to be. However, most music stands cannot be adjusted high enough for the violin. To get the webcam up to the desired height, I usually place the music stand on a table, like this.

A chair also does the trick.

Piano setup

The Piano is the most demanding instrument to set up correctly, so I will include a bit more detail about this setup. In my opinion, you should have two camera angles when teaching the piano online.

If your student/teacher only sees your profile, they are not seeing enough detail.

You need a second camera angle where your students/teacher can see the keys properly. The best angle I have found for this is an overhead view.

Let me explain these views a bit closer.

The main view

I usually place my laptop on a music stand. If you don’t have a music stand like in this picture, you can also place your laptop on a table nearby.

Your students should set up their device in a similar way. Tell them to put something under their laptop or device to get it a bit higher up. If their camera angle is a bit higher so that it points slightly downwards towards the keys, you can see what their hands are doing a lot better.

Your students should only need this single camera angle. As the teacher, you normally do not need to see more than this. Tell your student or their parents to set up the webcam so that you can see your student’s face and both their hands in the same shot.

The overhead view

It can be difficult for your students to see what you are playing on your piano if you are only using the profile view. That’s where the overhead view comes in.

For the overhead view, I would recommend that you use your phone or an external webcam. The benefit of using your phone is that it saves you from buying another device. But if you have a lot of piano students online, it can be worth investing in a webcam, since it gives you the most flexible way to achieve this setup.

Here are some ideas to achieve an overhead view.

Tripod with horizontal smartphone mount

The most straightforward way to set up an overhead view is to use some sort of stand that you put behind you or next to you, with something horizontal that goes over the piano keys. A tripod with a horizontal bar like this one and a smartphone adapter mount, like this one, is a good way to achieve this.

If you have a lot of online piano students, this kit can be a good investment that will save you a lot of time and hassle. It has a 360° ball head which allows you to easily adjust your phone in the angle you want. Something else that is really nice about this kit is that you have the option of attaching a DSLR camera or an external webcam to it instead of your phone. If you want to use a webcam for the overhead view, just make sure you get a webcam that has a tripod mounting hole, like this one.

A great alternative to this is to use a selfie stick attached to a tripod. That will achieve the same result. It will need to be one with a 1/4 inch thread to attach to the tripod like this one

This is a great option if you want to use your phone for the overhead view.

Microphone stand with boom and phone holder

Another alternative is a mic stand with a boom. Normally you would need a special adapter to hold the phone but this one comes with a phone holder included.

Achieving the rest of the setup

Now that you have your devices placed in the right position, there are just a few more things you have to do before you are ready to teach.

First of all, if you are using a webcam as the overhead camera, you can easily connect it to your laptop with a USB cable. From the settings of the video chat software you are using, you can select what camera you want to be enabled. During the call, you will manually have to change between the two cameras depending on what you want your student to see.

On the other hand, if you’re using your phone, tick off this list, and you’re good to go:

1. Call from two different accounts
To have both cameras enabled in the same call, you need to use two different accounts for yourself. One account which you have logged on to your laptop with, and one which is logged in to your phone. Right before the lesson, simply start a group chat where you call your students and your other account. Your student will then be able to see both your camera angles on their screen, like this:

2. Mute one of your mics
As soon as you have started your call, you need to mute the mic on one of your devices to avoid feedback and echo.

3. Turn off one of your speakers
You also need to turn off the speaker completely on one of your devices. I usually turn off the sound on my phone. Even if you have the sound turned completely off on your phone, some sound might still come out. The way I solve this problem is to insert some headphones into my phone. This will remove all feedback and echo from your end.

That’s it for the setup!

What software should I choose?

Because of the current climate, this question takes on a whole new meaning. What factors actually play a part in your decision about what video chat platform to use? 

I think there are mainly two questions people are asking themselves when making up their mind about this.

“Should I use a different service than what most other people are using to avoid overloading this company’s server?”

This is a question a lot of us are asking at the moment. From the research I have done regarding this, there is very little to find. It seems that no one else has written much about this online or asked the same question. I also think it has more to do with the internet server capacity in general as opposed to the server for one single provider. Because of this, I am assuming that it doesn’t matter what platform you use for this specific reason.

Zoom is a really popular platform for online lessons. I prefer to use Skype, but I use Zoom with some of my students. Even though Zoom is really “crowded” at the moment, this has not affected the connection or video/sound quality for me.

“Is one platform really better than the other, or does it mainly depend on my and my student’s internet connection?”

Teachers who provide academic tutoring online might need features such as screen-sharing and note-taking software. Since music tutoring doesn’t need that many fancy features (unless you’re mainly doing music theory) we mainly need to consider sound and image quality. This should be the deciding factor for which platform you choose.

I have tried Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts. My suggestion to you is if you are experiencing problems with your favourite platform with one of your students, try a different platform with that student. Skype was very slow and laggy with one of my students. We switched to Zoom, and that worked really well.

For piano lessons, I prefer Skype. The reason for this has to do with the dual camera setup that I like to use for online piano lessons. In this particular setup, three accounts need to be involved. That makes it a group chat, and Zoom has a restriction on 40 minutes for group chats in their free version. With Skype, group chats are free.

Hopefully, this gives you enough info to make up your mind.

3. Getting ready

Online lessons might require you to get more things ready before the lesson than you normally would for regular face-to-face lessons. Getting everything ready before you start your lesson is important so that you’re not faffing too much around during the lesson.

Let’s have a look at what getting ready might include.

Asking your student to send you a picture of the material you need for the lesson

This should be done the day before by the latest. And this should usually only be done in circumstances where you can’t avoid it, like in the situation we are facing today with the Coronavirus crisis.

Ideally, you would have a paper copy of the same sheet music as your student. But the fact that you had to do online lessons might have caught you by surprise. And perhaps you haven’t had the opportunity to obtain the same sheet music as your students yet. In this case, they might have to send you some pictures of their sheet music before the lesson.

Remember that this is only for you to refer to while you’re doing online lessons or until you can get hold of a copy of the original sheet music yourself. To avoid violating copyright laws, make sure you use it for only this purpose and delete the pictures afterwards.

Sending material to your students

Do this no later than the day before the lesson. This might be a pdf file or a high-resolution picture of some material only you have that you want to use in the lessons. Again, make sure that you are not violating any copyright laws if you do this.

Get all the sheet music and material ready before the lesson

If you have sheet music digitally on your computer that you want to use during the lesson, open up all the files you need before the lesson starts. Also, position the open files on the screen to where you need them to be to easily read them during the lesson.

If you end up having to move around lots of windows and tabs on your laptop during the lesson, it is better to have a separate laptop or tablet with the digital sheet music and use the main laptop solely to view the video of your student.

Set up your equipment

Position your device(s) in the correct position before the lesson, and get the camera angle in the right position.

Also, get a glass of water ready for yourself on the side.

Get this ready before the lesson starts

All of this should be ready 5-10 minutes before the lesson is due to start. Getting this ready ahead of time will calm you down so that you can confidently focus on delivering your best teaching during the lesson.

4. Communication

Here is something which is important to be aware of. This can easily be missed if you are new to online lessons.

Have you ever noticed that the sound drops out now and then? More importantly, have you noticed when it drops out? Or maybe even why?

Sometimes, when you are speaking or playing your instrument, and the person on the other end starts speaking, you can only see their mouth moving. However, no sound is coming out of their mouth. A couple of seconds after you have stopped speaking or making any kind of sound, the sound from the other person comes back.

This has happened a lot with me and my students. When one person speaks, plays their instrument or makes any kind of sound, it stops the sound from coming out of their speaker. The speaker seems to be interfering with the microphone. It is as if the sound waves cancel each other out.

Even sounds you are normally not aware of, like your student banging their foot against the piano stool, can be enough to stop the sound you are making from reaching them.

Do you see why this can be a problem?

I have two suggestion for how this can be solved.

Using a headset

People usually solve this problem by using headphones or a headset with a built-in microphone. This should cause the speaker and the microphone to interfere less with each other.

You can’t influence the setup of your student too much, but you can change what you are doing yourself.

A workaround

If using headphones does not solve this issue for you, there are ways you can live with this problem.

Here is an easy solution to this. Talk to your student and make it really clear that only one person speaks or plays their instrument at a time.

If both you and your student are aware of this sound issue, it can improve your communication and therefore the quality of the lessons. It is particularly important for children to get an understanding of this since it might seem like a weird problem for them that they will just ignore. If you explain the problem to their parents, they can help you communicate this to them.

You might find that the easiest solution is to implement some “golden rules”:
  1. One person speaks at a time.
  2. Wait until you see that the other person's thought process is finished before you start speaking.
  3. Be silent while the other person is playing their instrument.
It might seem like an effort to follow these rules, but you will get used them quickly. 

And perhaps you think following these rules will be a hassle for your young students? Let me give you another outlook on this. Being a bit more attentive to how they communicate can have some really positive benefits for children. The extra focus that is needed in order to communicate clearly will sharpen their listening skills and concentration. These are crucial skills to train at a young age.

If there is one good thing that will come out of all these online lessons, it is that.

Are you a teacher looking for more students?

MusicOnline UK is currently looking for experienced teachers to join their brand new listing service. In light of these difficult times, it is currently free for teachers to register.

If you are an experienced, professional teacher looking to sustain the life of your tuition business, make sure you use this opportunity while it lasts. Click here for more information.

Written by Sindre Kaupang, Co-founder of Duett.


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