The outbreak of the Coronavirus has left a lot of people struggling to navigate a heavy transition to an online musical world. It's natural to feel frustrated by this, because music is by nature a collaborative endeavor. Even when it seems we are just playing by ourselves in lessons, there are so many things we do as teachers to play WITH our students. If you're not playing with your students on a regular basis, do more of it! Duets might seem like a waste of time to an educator focused on technique, but matching their teachers' sound, even subconsciously, creates a solid foundation in sound quality for any student, and my #1 question from band directors is how to get a better sound for their students. Unfortunately, online video chat platforms create a "lag" of a fraction of a second, making it nearly impossible to actively play duets with our students. There are ways to adjust time settings on a computer based on the distance of the student from the host of the chat session (interesting concept, but a lot of math involved), and the commonly suggested "mute the mic" on one side of the chat doesn't allow for musicality from both musicians or assessment from the teacher, and only works for easy pieces that don't change tempo. There's also the issues of internet connection speeds and device/camera/speaker quality. Here are some tips to optimize your experience teaching bassoon online.
1. Understand your student's home setup. When we teach in personal studios or even in a school, it is a "neutral" space; as teachers, we have some control over the environment provided for the lesson. When students are forced to have lessons online at home, it takes away our control, and some of theirs! I've had students set up lessons outside because their parents are in meetings, causing their device to overheat in the sun. I've had students with their parents in the room because they don't have access to a metronome other than their parent's smartphone, which impacts their confidence since their parent is sitting next to them! Take the time to see how your student is doing personally, be patient when they get frustrated and try to redirect negative emotions, and be more flexible with your expectations of their mental state than you usually are.
2. Understand your student's technical situation. A PC or Laptop are ideal for use in online lessons as they create significantly less lag and usually have a better quality internet connection. On ANY device, computer, smart phone, or tablet, the built-in microphone and camera are usually less than ideal-- unless you built and customized the computer yourself. Understanding if something your hearing is your student's fault or the computer's fault -- and then figuring out which connection, yours or theirs, might have been the problem-- is a waste of time. Even if this student is brand new to you, a good teacher will be able to tell if their student is having issues, or if it's just a computer glitch. Even with the best equipment, the internet does some weird things to sound. Solutions:
3. Find alternative ways to play duets. With the situation of lag, it's going to be nearly impossible to play duets over a video chat platform. Instead, try modeling more for them than you normally would. Teaching over video chat platforms, I feel very much like a conductor-- they can't hear me talk when they're playing, so I have to fit all my words into a small space. Sometimes it's just better to show than explain. Play it your way, and you'll find most students do very well at imitating your sound.
4. Create a system of PDF sharing. In a normal lesson, I take notes for my students in a notebook they can take home. In an online setting, I still take notes, but it is in my own personal notebook, and I send them a PDF of this directly after each lesson. If they are playing music you don't own, like a band assignment or a solo they found online, make sure you get a copy from them before the lesson, otherwise it's very hard to coach them on music you can't see! A great app for scanning from your phone if you or your student doesn't own a scanner is called "Genius Scan." The full version is about $5, enabling you to directly email PDFs from the app to your student from your phone. Google Drive is great if they know how to use it, otherwise ask them to create a 3-ring binder they keep all their printed assignments in.
5. Take full advantage of online resources! Right now, kids are bored and frustrated! Try to make lessons more fun by sharing online resources with them. I commonly use full performance videos for orchestral excerpts, ask them to look up videos they like, or mention online resources for technique like masterclasses, summer workshops, and more! I even created an online scavenger hunt for interesting musical nuggets, and a bingo board of activities that are interesting and challenging, yet riddled with easier activities for my beginners to feel accomplished as well. I'll try to share more of these resources on my website as they develop!
6. Don't forget to stay positive!
No one really knows for sure when we will all feel comfortable going back to in-person learning, but for now we can take full advantage of the technology at our fingertips. It is amazing how far we have come that these things are possible, and it's just plain fun for me to rise to the challenge of adapting to a challenging situation and making something positive out of it. All of my students are rising to the challenge of practicing with focus, consistency, and empathy for their own unique state of mind and personal living situation that may have changed. Not everything is able to be under our control right now, but being able to guide students to a better quality online musical experience is certainly a step in the right direction.
Ariel Detwiler is an active freelancer and teacher in the Twin Cities. Ariel has a DMA in Bassoon Performance with an emphasis on music education, and actively works with band directors in Minnesota and Iowa to create a positive image surrounding the bassoon.