Online Violin Lessons: Questions & Answers
Skype has its advantages and disadvantages when compared to in person lessons. My goal, where possible, is to abolish the disadvantages completely; and where it is not possible, to continually find ways to lessen or mitigate the disadvantages to such a degree that the overall balance swings in favor of Skype lessons in terms of the student’s experience, progress and preference.
Here are some common questions and concerns about the disadvantages and some of my strategies to mitigate them.
I begin with technical questions and then address the five biggest concerns about online lessons.
• What does it cost to set up Skype?
Skype is 100% free, and so are calls between Skype users. Please install or update to the lastest version for best video results.
Webcams and mics: Most newer computers/laptops/phones will already have a built-in camera and microphone that will work fine; otherwise, you can purchase an acceptable webcam for as little as $20 (or you can spend more for higher quality webcams).
For internet, you will want a high-quality broadband connection: minimum 1.5 Mbps or faster.
If concerned, here are the system requirements for Skype.
• Is there lag with Skype?
If my student’s internet connection is strong almost never. (With 90% of my students I never experience lag.) If their connection is not strong there will be lag 1-3 times per lesson lasting 3-4 seconds. On the rare occasion that the connection drops, it’s okay — stay calm and simply call me back. (Have your phone handy just in case there is a lasting connectivity issue.)
Things you can do to foster a strong connection:
Instead of using wi-fi/wireless, access the internet directly (i.e. “hardwire”) by plugging an ethernet cable into your computer and the router.
If you are using wi-fi, try to be close to the modem. Also, ask others not to stream movies etc. during your lesson, restart your computer before each lesson, don’t have any extraneous programs open or software running, e.g., don’t have an anti-virus scan scheduled during a lesson. These suggestions will allow your computer resources and internet capability to be available for Skype.
• How much experience do you have teaching violin via Skype?
I have been teaching violin via Skype since 2010, upwards of three thousand lessons in total. I myself have taken lessons via Skype from four different teachers, and presently study with a violin teacher who resides in New York, while my daughter takes cello lessons via Skype as well (many of which I have sat in on). For the past five years I have researched, developed, and fine-tuned my approach to overcome the inherent limitations of online teaching, and am now at the point where the progress of my online students equals that of my in-person students.
• What are the limitations, or perceived limitations, of Skype and how have you overcome them? What is fact and what is myth?
1. Lack of personal connection between teacher and student: Part fact, part myth.
While everyone would prefer to be in the physical presence of a friend or teacher, I find I still have a deep connection and many heart-warming moments with my students while on camera. Sharing, love, kindness, kinship, happiness, and inspiration—the most important things in life—are conveyed and experienced through the heart.
It has always been my goal, whether in person or on camera, to be totally present to my students during a lesson, and I am keenly aware of its importance in online lessons. And even though I am on camera, I am still a human, and a lot of personal warmth can be conveyed and experienced between us.
2. I will lose the benefit of hearing you play in person, as well as playing along with you: Part fact, part myth.
While there are definitely shades and subtleties that are easier to hear in person, you become attuned to hearing over Skype and within the realm of that sound you can still hear dramatic differences in dynamics, feeling, and tone quality. As a Skype student myself I can easily hear when my teacher demonstrates dramatic opposites—more or less richness, more or less emotion, more or less depth—and can be taught and inspired by these fluctuations.
It is similar to listening to a recorded performance of Beethoven by, for example, The Budapest String Quartet. While it is not the same as a live concert, these recordings are still deeply moving and inspiring, and contain an unmistakable depth of musicality, sensitivity, and soulfulness—more than most artists ever achieve in a live performance.
And while I cannot play along with a student due to slight transmission delay which prevents dual synchronization, one person can synch with the other. For instance, I can play a piece or passage on violin, or its piano accompaniment, and the student can play right along with me. The limitation here is that I can’t hear them, but they can hear me, and follow my nuances and cues, so this is something we can do when they are struggling with rhythms, pitches or dynamics etc. and need some guidance.
To further mitigate this limitation, I make “practice recordings” for my students wherein I play their piece, or a difficult passage of their piece, to play along with during their weekly practice. This is very similar to playing along in person, with the added benefit of being able to use the recording over and over again, and play along with me many times throughout the week!
I also make practice recordings of the piano accompaniment—which most violin teachers aren’t able to do—which allows my students to collaborate with and experience the fullness of a piece through a different instrument. Usually students just learn the violin part of a piece (one half of the whole), and rarely experience it in the way the composer intended, with the violin and piano together. With a recording of the piano accompaniment a student can experience the true art and musicality of a piece again and again. Even years later!
I also insist students practice with a metronome, and encourage them to play along with quality recordings of their piece. This is an accompaniment in itself with many musical benefits, and from there it is an easy transition to playing with a live accompanist.
Finally, playing “copycat style” during a lesson (I play a little, they copy me, imitating correct pitch and tone quality) makes them more independent, helps them listen more carefully to themselves, not just me, and requires that they figure out how to make their sound match mine.
Considering this topic—playing along with the student—is considered perhaps the biggest drawback of online lessons, the above strategies go a long way to lessening one of the inherent limitations and concerns people have about Skype lessons.
3. If you can’t touch a student you will have trouble making corrections and imparting technique: Myth.
Creative use of descriptive language and demonstration as well as specifically targeted exercises are just as effective as manipulating through touch. While touch is nice, I have not encountered a case I could not correct through the webcam in the same amount of time.
4. You can’t point to a starting point on the sheet music. This will waste a lot of time: Myth.
In orchestras (or quartets), for example, the conductor will say, “starting from bar 32” or “begin at rehearsal letter A.” I do the same thing. This trains them to be more musically aware and more independent and ready for ensemble playing, and is much more efficient and professional in the long run. It doesn’t take long for students to become adept at this.
5. Tuning my instrument on my own will be too difficult: Myth.
Teaching a student to tune their violin is exactly the same process in person or via video. I teach students to tune via verbal instruction because learning to do it themselves, learning to listen to their sound, is a skill they need to acquire and master. It doesn’t take long for most students to become proficient. In the meantime the student can use “fine tuners” or “perfection pegs” to assist until they have it mastered. The only exception is young children, in which case I teach the parent to do it until the child is ready.
• What are some of the benefits of Skype?
Focus: Several recent studies have shown students are more focused and attentive on camera/online than in person. I have observed this in my own students as well. I notice less time is wasted, and that our time is spent more efficiently.
Technically: If they choose, students can record the lessons, both the audio and video. I can make practice recordings and transfer them to you during the lesson for immediate use post-lesson. There is instant access to online tools and materials which assist the learning process.
Logistically: No driving (saves time, gas money), no fighting traffic or the weather, you are in the comfort of your own home (can eat supper or hop into bed two minutes after your lesson!), if you move away I can still teach you.
• Can violin lessons via Skype work for kids?
Absolutely! I have taught many children under eight on Skype with great success. For younger children, having a parent present is crucial to help the child understand what is being asked, to help adjust their form and posture at my request, and to help walk them through the practice instructions during the week. As mentioned, I have noticed that on webcam all students tend to have better focus, and it is most noticeable in the younger ones, who seem to be enamored with the “TV” aspect of online lessons.
• Should the parent be present?
Most definitely for children under 8, and older than that, as needed. I will give detailed practice instructions that most students can easily follow by themselves, but every child and situation is different. As they become older, it is generally better for the student to be completely alone in a quiet room for the best sense of focus and attention.
• How do I get started?
Just send me an email detailing your background in violin, your specific goals, and your schedule availability. From there, we will set up a complimentary consultation to meet each other, answer quesions, check the connection and walk through the best webcam/lighting angles and set-up.