Have you been exploring the idea of teaching piano online so that you can teach from home and never have to worry about time-consuming commutes or exploding gas prices again? Did you actually enjoy the fact that quarantine forced us all to teach online, and have you been wondering how to create a more permanent online setup?
If so, read on!
I’m a seasoned online instructor who’s been teaching through videoconferencing technology like Skype and Zoom since 2015. That means I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I have a host of tips to make your transition to online teaching as seamless as it can be.
I currently run a successful fully online studio that includes classical piano performance, collaborative piano, music composition, traditional music theory (tutoring college students and offering graduate placement exam prep), historically informed music theory and composition through partimenti, historical improvisation, and yes, coaching fellow teachers who are transitioning their studios online.
You’ll be getting some tips here that are normally reserved for my enrolled coaching clients!
Essential Equipment (that you must have...)
These items are, in my opinion, the minimum requirements for a successful online teaching experience—I’ve tried to narrow them down in consideration of teachers with little space or who are working on a tight summer budget.
- A reasonably powerful computer (or a large tablet) and a way to plug it in during your lessons—videoconferencing is a notorious battery-life killer.
- Super-reliable internet—even better if you can find an Ethernet cable (remember those?) and plug it directly from your computer into your home’s router.
- Internet reliability can be dicey if you live in areas with frequent storms that knock the power out. If you’re relocating, it may be worthwhile to look for newer housing developments with underground wires that trees can’t knock down.
- Something to place your computer/tablet on that gives a good side view of the piano. I use a music stand, adjusted to lie flat so the laptop can sit on it.
- An instrument at concert pitch—depending on your region, that may be A440 or A442 (roughly), unless you’re teaching period instruments. If your instrument isn’t tuned to the same standard as your student’s is, your student will quickly get disoriented during demonstrations, even if they don’t have absolute pitch. Of course, if it’s the student’s instrument that’s out of tune, you have less ability to do anything about that!
Helpful Equipment (that I strongly suggest...)
The following items are, in my opinion, extremely helpful to teachers who want to create a successful online learning experience for their students. If your budget and space allow, I’d recommend investing in all of these, particularly if you have the time to scout for a few deals secondhand.
- External USB microphone—I have a Blue Yeti, which is one of the more popular ones. This gives the student better sound from my end and keeps me from overusing my voice. You might also go for headphones that have a built-in microphone (which goes into my next suggestion).
- Good headphones, and possibly headphones with a built-in microphone if you expect to do more talking than playing. This will prevent vocal strain. I prefer an external mic with my Beats headphones plugged into that because I play quite often in my lessons, and a headset microphone wouldn’t pick up the piano as well. That said, I have a student who tends to sound very quiet in speech (compared to her keyboard) and her volume vastly improved when she started using her headset headphones—it still picks up her keyboard well enough.
- Extra webcams that can provide bird’s-eye views of the keys and side views to show arm position and alignment (if your laptop does not).
- Until recently I actually didn’t have a full bird’s-eye camera—I had a Logitech C920 on a boom stand that provided a hybrid angled view at the stand’s highest possible position. As soon as I added a Logitech Brio to my arsenal and installed it as a bird’s-eye webcam, several of my early-stage adult students commented on how much easier it was to follow my alignment and performance demonstrations. If you teach only advanced students online, you may not feel as strongly about this, but it’s a fairly rare teacher who can be that selective about their students’ levels!
- If this sounds daunting, a phone on a gooseneck clamp, signed in as another Zoom user, worked for me during quarantine. It did drain my phone’s battery quickly, so for long lesson blocks it wasn’t great, but it was better than not having a bird’s-eye view when I had beginners who were, in my opinion, too young to do well online.
- Gooseneck holders for those extra webcams.
- I use phone holders with clamp closures that don’t damage the after-market finish on my piano. Mine are about 39” long and I do wish the bird’s-eye camera’s phone holder were a bit longer, but it works overall. (Webcam-specific gooseneck holders, in my experience, aren’t long enough to get the angles a piano teacher needs.) And with the gooseneck “hose” being adjustable, you can refine the angles pretty precisely. My side-view camera can be adjusted downward to serve as a pedal-view cam when needed.
- A backup power and internet option for a computer or internet failure.
- If you’re lucky enough to be on an unlimited-data phone plan, you can make your phone a hotspot and teach that way. I don’t, so in emergencies or when I know an Internet outage will be long term (like when we had to have part of a wall outlet rewired to accommodate the modem’s power needs), I’ve traveled to the studio where I do some in-person teaching and taught from there. I also keep my studio on the small side so it’s not impossible to schedule make-ups.
- Some sort of light for your face—I have a cheap ring light I found on Amazon. Sometimes I won’t use it if I’m teaching a music theory or partimento lesson for which I expect to spend the entire lesson sharing my screen for analysis activities.
Optional Equipment (that you can pick up if you have some extra cash or needs...)
- A USB hub if you have too many gadgets for the number of USB ports your computer has.
- A MIDI hookup to the computer if you have a digital keyboard—some programs will light up the keys as you play them, and that can be a fun teaching aid. I don’t personally like these programs, but they can be fun and good for those who teach pop-based lessons without notated music.
OK, now you have an idea of equipment needs, and you’ve hooked everything up so your setup looks great. Now what do you do? I’ll go through some videoconferencing and other programs I find essential or helpful so that you can decide which are right for your studio. I’ve particularly emphasized programs that are free or have free tiers in order to be considerate of all budgets.
Programs To Try
- Zoom (there is a free tier)—this one is probably the gold standard because, well, everyone was forced to use it in 2020 and probably knows their way around it.
- Anyone can sign up for an account that allows for free meetings of up to 40 minutes, and paid tiers that remove the meeting limit are reasonably priced.
- I have an institutional account through my lecturer position at a university, which also gives me a permanent link that my students can bookmark.
- For music lessons, make sure Original Sound is turned on by both you and your student. Otherwise, on poorer connections especially, you may feel that the student sounds “underwater” or there is a periodic “whoosh” sound.
- Forte Lessons (free!) if you don’t have Zoom access or the ability to purchase Zoom plans.
- Forte is free and browser-based, currently compatible with Chrome and Safari browsers.
- OBS Studio (free!) for multi-camera views if you have multiple cameras.
- Google Sheets (free!) and extra paid storage for student files and notes if you need it
- I do not use MMS or those other management programs; they tend to be more targeted at kids and that’s not my studio demographic. I also like having complete flexibility with payment timing and prorating for students who enroll mid-month.
- (Almost) everyone knows how to use Google Drive and Google Sheets—so, like Zoom, it will make that part of the online transition easier for your students.
- iPad or comparable tablet for additional screen sharing when teaching theory or score reading.
- When I need to share the iPad screen to hand-annotate a theory assignment, I simply log into Zoom as another user on the iPad and share my screen from the iPad.
- An iPad can also be used to launch fun music learning apps like Note Rush when the student does not have the app themselves. Certain apps are iOS only, and that was a big motivator for me to choose an iPad when I was shopping for tablets to use for score-reading at the piano, since none of my other devices are Apple.
- PayPal tends to be most popular option for payment and works throughout most of the world. It’s free to set up a business account. Other options are Venmo Business, Square, Stripe, Zelle, and, for students whose countries block PayPal access, TransferWise has worked well.
While we’re here, I’ll throw in a note about other music-customized videoconferencing apps that claim to have better sound quality and connectivity than more widespread programs like Zoom: keep in mind that other programs may promise better connectivity, but it won’t happen unless the student also has high-end equipment and a fast internet connection. Programs cannot fix that. Any platform’s connection is only as good as what the equipment on both sides will allow. In fact, if I learn that a student’s primary computer is a Chromebook, I’ll actually suggest that they log in using a phone or tablet, since Chromebooks tend to cause such serious connectivity issues on Zoom.
The Intangibles (the characteristics a good online teacher needs to have)
- Really strong verbal skills—you can’t physically touch the student’s hands/arms, so you need to explain what you want them to do.
- Top-tier aural skills—you can’t always see what the student is playing and need to hear every aspect of their playing in order to correct them accurately and in a timely manner. A few of my students have been able to set up bird’s-eye camera views, but they are generally techie types with a lot of computer knowledge. In the majority of cases I simply have to hear everything that they are playing and how it differs from the final product the piece requires.
- Good vocal health and the ability to maintain it—you will end up overusing/pushing your vocal mechanism if you are not used to teaching online because you’re compensating for sound issues. This is also why I recommend an external microphone.
- A fairly animated personality, at least when teaching—it’s a bit harder to pick up one’s mood and energy when you and the student are separated by a screen, so an enthusiastic demeanor is even more important when you’re creating a comfortable learning atmosphere online. It’s a little like stage acting that way, when a distance has been placed between you and the audience.
Other Tips & Principles I Find Helpful
- The student also needs good equipment and internet—sometimes a lack of access to these things can’t be helped. I have had students in the mountains, relying on shoddy satellite internet, or in rented practice rooms using phones because they live in a major city and time zone differences require them to log in late at night. We just make the best of what we have.
- Because there’s a bigger burden on the student understanding verbal explanations for often abstract concepts, I find that online lessons are far more successful with students ages 10 and up, at least with my teaching style (which is pretty traditional as far as piano teachers go). I’ll do the occasional online make-up with a younger child but require the parent to do a ton of helping. In my experience, small children really need the aspect of physical touch, especially for technique development. I have friends and colleagues who do teach younger children online, but their lesson structure tends to look very different and they may also define “successful” differently than a more traditional teacher like me does.
- If your Internet or your student’s just can’t handle live lessons, you could either create pre-made videos or do a Marco Polo-type video relay—you make a video, the student makes a video and sends it back, etc. (This is not ideal but can work when teacher or student is traveling and has inconsistent internet, too.)
Need some guidance? Please feel free to get in touch—as I mentioned, as part of my studio offerings I enroll fellow teachers looking to transition their studios from in-person studios to fully online studios, coach you on your setup, and offer marketing advice. I really believe that online instruction is the “wave of the future” in some aspects of pedagogy and I’d love to share that with you!
Sign up for Forte and get a free Blue Yeti microphone after you teach 3 lessons on Forte (minimum of 30-minutes) before Sept. 1, 2022. To participate, enter the promo code NICOLE at www.fortelessons.com/promo.