The Remote Classroom 2021 Pt.2
Round one of this look at virtual teaching drew a very positive response. This sequel offers many bits of professional wisdom most would never be privy to.
By Bill King
First up, righteous thanks to all who participated in round one of Remote Teaching. The feedback and shared responses have offered our readers an open door to other possibilities and problem solving. Pt. 2 is equally compelling and has many bits of professional wisdom most would never be privy to. Let’s roll.
I’ve been doing all my Humber private lessons online and it’s actually been okay. I use Zoom for the lessons and that works fine once the students tweak their audio settings. I use a Zoom Q2N video recorder as my webcam.
I also have an app on my laptop called Loopback, which acts as a virtual mixer. Any audio source that I have goes through this mixer so I can play the drums, and the student hears them through my recording setup. I can also play along with audio tracks and they hear both the drums and the track at the same time. And I wear a Shure headset to talk to the student.
It all works really well. My students have also stepped up to the plate and bought interfaces and at least a couple of mics for their drums.
Instead of wi-fi, I use an ethernet cable connection which is the fastest and most stable. As long as the student has a pretty fast internet connection, we’re good, with few freezes or glitches. The only thing we can’t do is play together at the same time, because there is a time delay. But I think that soon there will be software for that too. I have all my Finale files of drum exercises and charts as PDFs now, so I can send them during the lesson. Of course, in-person lessons would be better, but I really don’t mind it at all.
I was thinking of it originally as something that might help teachers working from home to integrate a few cameras and have the best sound possible so we can keep the students engaged and reduce Zoom fatigue. I don't know how much of this material might help the students, but I did include screen shots of both the Zoom web site's Settings, as well as those within the Zoom app itself.
I have gone out and bought an EpocCam HD and can confirm that it works well as a 2nd webcam, whether wired via USB or via your local wifi network. You can get 10' Lightning>USB cables from Wal-Mart that are much better made than the ones from Apple.
I think now would be a good time to remind students to have whoever is paying for their internet see if they are eligible for an upgrade. My previous modem was about four years old, and my connection speed was slow. It turned out that if I upgraded my modem from Rogers, that I could get 1) unlimited data 2) a (roughly) seven fold increase in my upload and download speeds and 3) I saved $15 per month!
As a general guideline, wired connections are better than wireless, especially Bluetooth. A good resource to test one's internet speed is here: www.speedtest.net. Thanks to Alan Poaps for that one!
I LOVE teaching online! And was doing it before covid-19 hit. I’m teaching only on Zoom right now, and I know there are other platforms coming up. Sure, there are some drawbacks, mostly tech, but once a teacher deals with those and allows her/himself to “move ahead yet again,” it’s advantageous. I do not teach in a classroom situation so generally am one on one, but I am also doing masterclasses and online concerts, which are so important to keep the students engaged and have a goal to work towards. At first, I found it a tad more tiring than in-person teaching but now that I’ve settled in and worked on the tech, I find it exhilarating.
If there was a “survival of the fittest” time, this is it for both teachers, students and artists wanting to stay relevant in this new world of music performance! It will never completely go back to what it was. Teaching online, I believe will always be part of the future, even if one does both online and in-person. It’s surprising (and wonderful) to see how quickly singers (especially the younger ones) adapt and actually want to make it work for them, especially when you hold a master class, and they see their competition and hear how well some come across and how badly others do because of an inadequate set-up.
They quickly get inspired to get a better audio, and video set-up right away! And hey, some people just can’t afford to go out and buy any gear right now, and I tell them that’s totally fine - we’ll do what we can. The amount of gear one needs is very minimal. I will leave most of the deeper gear talk to others that are way savvier. Being very far from being a ’tech mind’, I am extremely lucky to have my partner, Glenn Morley (composer, producer, a tech genius) to help set things up for me. If you’re like me, you have to seek out someone to constantly walk you through this stuff, if online help isn’t enough for you.
I tell students and the other teachers at my Big Voice Studios, all teaching from their home studios, that you can’t go back to the “old you”. If you want to compete in this new virtual world, you have to keep up. I’ve got to hand it singer/songwriters who are coming up with marvellous ways of getting their songs out there and some are actually making some money with concerts, recording sales. For the musical theatre performer, almost the only thing being done right now is self-tapes for auditions, so their ability to do the very best recording is absolutely critical - best tracks, lighting, and creating a magical world far beyond the boring bedroom they may be in.
For those who don’t accompany themselves, they learn very quickly to put in the time to research the best backing tracks, piano accompaniment tracks, karaoke or guitar - in the right key! This is a bit new for some. Sites like www.karaoke-version.com are fabulous or of course YouTube, (not actually legal to use for commercial recording) or any other number of sites are invaluable. I make them do the research themselves (learning to take responsibility!) or sometimes I’ll guide them to decipher the best-sounding one. In the lesson, most students don’t have the knowledge to play their accompaniment track through the same device that they are doing the Zoom lesson on so that the teacher can hear as well, (just learning that myself), so they can just play it on a separate device such as an iPad or phone and let the mic pick it up. Some will attach that device to a small speaker to give it some ambience and better volume.
I have a USB Yeti mic which is hung upside down from above, positioned on a sturdy “RODE Professional Studio Boom - PSA1” swing arm, which is safely clamped onto the lip of the top of our Roland V-grand piano and can be swung in many directions. I just let that mic pick up my piano sound instead of the piano going directly (although I do create piano accompaniment tracks through direct recording for many of my students at no extra cost, for their practice purposes). Especially important, is that I wear headphones and that the sound coming from the student’s end is only going into my headphones, not feeding back into that mic. It also makes it a tad easier on the other people in your house, not hearing them sing out of tune (haha), although I’m certainly warbling away.
Yes, there’s the damn time lag and I’m about to learn the platforms that can eliminate that. But that has created something new for me and for the student. You tell them to not talk at the same time, to wait until you’re finished, and then speak or sing. It’s easier when doing exercises. I just play and sing the little exercise and then have them do it - yes, without you playing the piano! Let them “own” the exercise - it’s good ear training!
How many teachers play along with the singer, which, again, has them listening too much to the piano, and using it as a crutch. When we work on a song, I’ll have them sing it once through with their instrumental track (or their own piano or guitar) and then we break it down line by line, instead of struggling with finding the right place on the track. Take a line, have them do it a cappella (first make sure you’re in the right key), show them how to improve it by doing it yourself, and making suggestions, then have them do it again - a million times in a million different ways if necessary! Then, after you’ve worked on a few lines, have them put the track back on and sing it to the track.
In terms of working on rhythm, I’ll often have a singer sing the song a cappella to just a click track or metronome in order to drill the groove and rhythm into their bodies. I get them to pull up a metronome from their end (they need it anyway when they’re practicing alone). And of course, sharing your screen on Zoom is a great and important addition, to show them videos or music or lyrics.
Let’s talk about actual performance for an online audition or something to post in order to share your ability as an artist. The singer should decide their POV (point of view) - who their audience is, and whether they are looking straight into the camera or whether they are doing it as a concert, with 500 people out in front of them and they turn slightly sideways, singing it out to an imaginary audience.
Something that I worry about is that many singers are making themselves exceedingly small all of the time due to the fact that they are in a small room, slumped over a guitar or piano no one else is there and the energy is very low. That may work very well for some intimate songs (although the singer still has to keep their audience in mind), but if you are doing a kick-butt song, stand up, push into your legs, stick your butt out so your energy is leaning ‘forward’ to your audience and SING! You must trick yourself into doing that by putting that audience of one million in front of you.
And then, of course, there is the decision as to what kind of mic to use to emulate a ‘live’ performance - hand-held, on a stand, etc. etc. If you’re using a USB mic, it’s a little trickier to make it look like a live performance in front of a real audience. After all that, it’s true that some of the best performances are done without any extra mic or another tech at all, other than singing into the internal mic on the computer or phone. That’s usually only because their performance is so great, it surpasses all and is not due to a good tech set-up.
It always amazes me how little attention musicians/teachers, in general, pay attention to lighting and background. I work on my iMac which is sitting on top of my Roland V-Grand and I am sitting at the piano. I have a Chinese screen behind me that I pull out each day and that’s only because I want to hide the mess in my kitchen which is right behind me in my open concept house!
If I were teaching piano, I’d probably have another camera showing the keyboard as well, although I do coach singers on better accompanying themselves. I recently purchased a ring light, (with different stand heights). And yes, I get dressed decently and put on some make-up, so I don’t look like a ghost. It makes me feel ready for work. I want to honour the student - that their time with me is important to me. Also, the student really needs to SEE YOU - your inflections as you speak or show them exercises or a way of dropping your jaw, or the ‘intent’ in your eyes. I can also stand up, move back a bit to show body engagement, arm and hand movements if working on performance techniques. And the camera should be at eye level so they’re not looking up your nostrils or down at you. What you (and your student) have behind you on the screen is essential. If there is a bright window behind, it can obliterate your face. The more they can see you, the more engaged they will be. And you need to see them as well.
I make sure that both I and the student are not on the “speaker” view on Zoom but on the “gallery” view which shows the singer and myself at equal size. That’s because I’m a big believer in making (yes, making) the student actually look into their screen occasionally to watch themselves, as they do an exercise or line of a song. They usually hate it (some can’t do it at all) but I make them do it. They quickly get over it that self-loathing, and when they get used to it, they learn to become their own teacher, their own producer as they lovingly correct themselves. And that is so easy on Zoom.
Being able to record the lesson on Zoom is one of the best features. I have always recorded lessons (used to be on Garage Band) and send them right away to the student for their practice purposes. They can hear you nattering away at them each day, reminding them of certain things you worked on in the lesson. This is so much easier on Zoom. You can either send just the audio version or you can send the video version as well (although I threaten death if they put it on social media - the private lesson is a sacred time). I’ll send the video version only if I feel that in that particular lesson, it will help them to see how bad or, sometimes to see how well they did something. The recorded audio becomes their practice tool, although I tell them to stop and start the recording, so they aren’t just singing along to themselves. They need to repeat that exercise or that line of the song in real-time.
Of course, it’s important that the teacher, as well as the student, be shut off from the rest of the house and the family, including barking dogs, all of which can be heard over a USB mic. Otherwise, a part of you will always be worried that someone is going to come in, which’s much more difficult with a full household. It may be time to re-structure the rooms in your house - or move!
Having said that, I was working with an R&B/rap artist who had a sick grandfather in the house, so he went down into the laundry room with just his iPhone with no stand for it, and sometimes a terrible connection and we made it work, with the other tenants coming in and out of the laundry room. He was fearless and highly motivated. I loved that!
I find that I am a much better teacher when teaching online. I’m not quite sure why that is - maybe because I realize the effort that they themselves are putting in is greater, or I’m further away from them. Or maybe just because I am grateful that they are spending the money to do this at a time when so many are hurting financially.
Having said all the above, none of the greatest techs in the world can ever replace masterful technique on your instrument, stunning sustained tone, all earned through hard work and repetition, plus an insatiable drive, and attention paid to “creating magic” in every note and word of every line that you sing. All of that only grows by adopting the dedication of an Olympic athlete, attention to detail, and a huge desire to create the magic that elevates the human spirit with your gifts. If ever there was a time to work on mastering your instrument, now is it! Just imagine what a great artist you’ll be when you finally hit that “real” audience again.
So it's Saturday late afternoon, and I'm writing this coming off a full day of teaching kids piano. Saturday is "prime time" for teaching piano, so it’s a stacked day from 9:30 am until 3 pm. Teaching online has a variety of challenges. With the older kids, say 10 or 12 on up, it’s not too bad – their attention span is longer, and I can tell them what markings to put on their scores without my having to show them. With the younger kids – 6 on up – it’s a whole other thing. In-person, I can quickly demonstrate on the upper register of the keys how to do something and they can copy me quickly,
Online, I have to describe, or move my iPad stand to the keyboard, bend the grip device forward, and flip the camera view so they have a bird’s eye view of the keys so I can show them. I’m glad I can do that, but it does take up that much more time. I also had to buy the same editions of everyone’s music to follow along and duplicate all markings, so I know what I told them to fix. When I have a few kids learning the same pieces (as is common in the preliminary stages) I have to put their initials next to my markings, so I know what I told whom. Then I have to show it to them, and on my selfie view, it’s all backwards, so I have to place my finger right under the marking, and hold it up to the camera, finding my finger so their eye can gravitate quickly to it.
In person, when a young child acted up at the lesson – it happens sometimes – one stern word from me, and it stops. The parent is rarely present, which I prefer, so as not to divide the child’s attention (and trust me, they’re grateful for a short break to grab a coffee). Online, however, it’s trickier being a disciplinarian when they’re on their own turf. One student bolted from the keys, deciding the lesson was over. Now, I prefer if the parent is nearby, to get the child back to the keys.
I was raised by a Japanese tiger mom, so all my students are familiar with the “ADG” (Asian Death Glare) and I use it a lot less right now. These kids are going through a rough time. I am more gentle, more patient, and extend my expectations, considering. they’re spending a lot of time online and missing their friends. I have stuffed animals and fun sound effect buttons to make things a bit more fun. I communicate more than ever with parents, encouraging them to keep me posted on their children’s mental health in case they’re having a bad day – I will go easy on them during the lesson. Playing duets is different too – there is always a delay, so sometimes I record my part in a video and send it over for them to practise. Duets are important – it encourages listening to another while focussing on their own part.
My sense of humour is crucial during these times! I always greet my students with a big smile, ask how they’re doing, and we talk about food a lot. It seems to be a comforting, everyday thing, to discuss what that they had for breakfast and what they’re going to have for dinner. I feel extremely lucky I can continue my work online, and I am grateful to every one of my students – they force me to get it together, and be there for them, which is less time worrying about myself!
While there is no substitute for playing together and hearing music in person, I’ve really come to enjoy online teaching. I started at the beginning of the pandemic, and although it was difficult at first, I feel like this entire time has been very fruitful for both me and my students. I certainly have learned how to use technology in creative ways, create great looking slides with animations, and structure my online lessons in new ways.
This experience even inspired me to start an online music-education business (www.MusicArtsCollective.com) alongside fellow artist-mentor Jodi Proznick, who lives in Vancouver. Through our workshops, lessons, and recorded content, I’ve learned so much about teaching and collaboration. I’ve also been lucky to connect with students from around the world, including the Philippines, the UK, China and more. I know that for me, Jodi, and all our students, teaching/learning online has been our life-line and way to stay sane and focussed during this difficult time. I’ve never been more thankful for technology.
1) I know what my job is. It's mental health support. Together we breath and sing and yell and scream and dance. All online.
2) I know a lot of kids look forward to spending time with me. I'm the "other teacher" who has time to talk to them and offer some stress release. The homeroom teachers are amazing and work their asses off, but they can let their guard down with me a bit.
3) I can be silly with them and make them laugh.
4) Parents are grateful that I exist
1) I get a massive headache from using my computer all day
2) I can't tell if a kid is really engaged. Are they looking at me or at Minecraft?
3) I can't hand them an instrument. To me, that's the most frustrating part.