Coronavirus has upended the lives and livelihoods of musicians around the globe – and one consequence has been the rapid growth of online instrumental teaching. Charlotte Smith looks at ways in which dedicated technology can enhance the experience without breaking the bank
One of the many repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the move from in-person to online instrumental tuition. For some, the compromises of remote learning – from intermittent internet connections to sound latency – have been difficult in the extreme, and the day that normalcy resumes cannot come soon enough. But for others, online teaching has provided new opportunities to expand teaching practices, to access students in remote locations and to design personal education programmes. Despite advances in treatment, tracing and vaccination, it’s clear that the pandemic will continue to place restrictions on our lives in one form or another for some time to come, and that one of its lasting legacies will be an exponential growth in digital activity across all sectors. How, then, can we make the most of this brave new world of online education?
One basic way to improve the digital teaching experience is to invest in equipment to boost visual and audio quality. Teaching through a screen, without the immediacy of being in the same physical space, is difficult enough without being able to hear and see as clearly as possible how the student is progressing. And while laptop, tablet and mobile picture and sound have improved greatly over the last ten years, one or two extra pieces of dedicated equipment can make a world of difference.
‘Back in March 2020 we were caught very much off guard,’ says violinist and Manhattan School of Music Contemporary Performance faculty member Todd Reynolds, whose online academy, Amplify This, focuses on helping students make the most of recording and streaming technology. ‘Everyone was thrown this ball of fire and how to juggle it was really the question. All of us had Apple or Windows devices with internal mikes and cameras. But I realised immediately that I had to get my act together, as I was going to be spending so much time online – so I went about looking for the best software and hardware to enable me to do that.’
On the most elementary level, making sure the internet connection on both the teacher and student side is as stable as possible is a must. ‘It’s always better to plug your device straight into the Ethernet connection rather than relying on Wi-Fi, which often isn’t reliable,’ says double bassist Danny Ziemann, who has developed his own online teaching and coaching programme during the pandemic. ‘I’ve had situations where my internet has started to cut out when I’ve been doing a webinar for 300 people. That can be very scary!’ String teacher and author Celia Cobb agrees: ‘Buying an Ethernet cable and plugging my laptop directly into the modem has really helped with the connection, and I’ve advised my students to do the same, especially when there are multiple people in their houses all competing for bandwidth at the same time.’
It’s also important to find the video platform that works best for you. ‘There are a number of powerful communication platforms available for web training,’ says long-time distance teacher and violinist Mary-Elizabeth Brown. ‘Among the most popular are Skype, FaceTime, Google Duo, Adobe Connect and Zoom. Choose something you’re comfortable with, pick a backup program just in case you run into technical glitches, and don’t worry too much about all the bells and whistles. I strongly prefer Zoom because of its stability, capacity for easy screen sharing, and waiting room features (whereby students can sign in and wait on standby for their lesson, instead of the teacher having to end one call and initiate another), but I also use Skype and FaceTime as necessary.’
Ziemann shares Brown’s preference for Zoom: ‘I like it because they keep evolving to incorporate the needs of teachers, and I’ve never had issues with voice and video being out of synch.’
Reynolds goes a step further: ‘Zoom is really the only platform that allows true bidirectional communication, as you can turn off its “automatically adjust microphone volume” setting, which normally mutes your microphone when others are speaking,’ he says. Zoom’s Original Audio setting prioritises sound over video by disabling the platform’s noise suppression function, designed to filter out extraneous sounds in noisy environments. And in response to requests from major music schools such as Yale and Peabody, in September 2020 Zoom also introduced a High-Fidelity Music Mode, which disables echo cancellation and post-processing, and gives a 48kHz sampling rate. ‘This function,’ notes Reynolds, ‘is designed specifically for playing music and for studio environments with higher-quality microphones, speakers or audio interfaces.’
Clearly, when talking about instrumental teaching, sound and picture are of paramount importance, and there are several ways you can enhance your device’s capabilities without spending a fortune. One question that’s often asked is: if the teacher invests in added equipment will this go to waste if the student is using less than pristine audio and visual devices at the other end?
‘From the teacher’s perspective, having good equipment, with quality audio and video on your side, is always helpful for the student,’ says Ziemann. ‘It’s a lot to do with presentation and can really contribute to the teaching environment if the student can see and hear clearly what the teacher is saying and demonstrating. It makes students more confident and comfortable, and they feel better about their experience.’
‘But,’ says Reynolds, ‘it’s also very important for the student to have at least some audio-enhancing equipment for the teacher’s benefit, as without it, the sound coming through to the teacher won’t be of good quality.’
Both Reynolds and Ziemann agree that it’s better for students to prioritise their audio equipment, because instrumental teaching is fundamentally about sound. ‘Cameras are secondary,’ says Reynolds. ‘Yes, image is important, but we’re dealing with violin pedagogy, so the most vital thing is sound.’ Indeed, Ziemann would encourage all teachers to give a lesson with their student’s camera turned off. ‘My guess is that most teachers would end up making the same assessments with or without the camera. I think we default to our eyes, but our ears are the most important indicator of what’s going on,’ he says.
Although Ziemann and Reynolds use fairly expensive cameras and audio equipment themselves, they don’t insist that their students spend similar amounts. ‘In every aspect of our lives there is a cost and those costs are variable,’ explains Reynolds. ‘My own microphone is a Shure SM7B, the type that you see most public figures using to broadcast podcasts and so on, and it costs around $400. I also use several different audio interfaces which plug into my computer, and which cost around $2,000 each – the model I’m using now is a Fireface UFX by German company RME – but that’s because I’m a recording artist and producer. As a student you could use an equally effective microphone for around $100, like the Shure SM57, or the standard SM58 vocalist mike you see being used onstage around the world. These cheaper versions will sound perfectly clear, perhaps a little less cushioned, without that chocolatey low-end tone, but they’re not bad at all.’
Ziemann has also plumped for higher-end equipment because he has a studio in which he does a lot of mixing – a Universal Audio Apollo Twin X interface worth $900; Shure SM7B and Schoeps MK4/CMC6 microphones, collectively worth around $1,600, to capture his bass better, and for recording and live gigs; and Adam A7x Studio Monitors. ‘This quality set-up isn’t necessary for most people and is definitely unrealistic for students,’ he says. ‘A cheaper interface that I can recommend is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which costs around $150, and the Audio-Technica AT2020 microphone, which costs around $100. But in fact, you might prefer to sidestep the interface altogether and go for a USB microphone, which plugs straight into the computer – the AT2020USB+ Microphone costs $150 and is perfectly good.’
Whether you decide to bypass the interface depends on the complexity of your recording and streaming needs. For those using more than one microphone – for example, one for your voice and another specialist pickup mike attached to your acoustic instrument – or alternatively a mike for your voice and an electric instrument which can plug directly into the interface, the extra expense may well be worth it. But if you intend simply to capture your voice and instrument in a single microphone, a USB model will eliminate the need for any further mixing technology.
In terms of improving the visual experience there are certain steps teachers can take to present a more professional backdrop for their students. ‘Refining your environment can greatly improve the experience for everyone involved,’ says Brown. ‘The good news is that you probably already have all you need for a makeshift studio at home: a quiet room away from outside noise; a blank background wall for fewer distractions during lessons; and an office lamp with a directional light to recreate a well-lit studio setting so your students can see you clearly.’
Ziemann uses a Panasonic Lumix GH4 camera with a 12–35mm lens, which he can twist to produce a full-frame perspective if he’s wanting to show his double bass for demonstration purposes. This cost $900 second hand, but he also recommends the Logitech C920 camera for students and teachers on a budget, which he also uses himself as a second camera, and which costs just $100.
For Reynolds, having the ability to flip quickly between screens is of paramount importance for demonstrating different platforms and technologies, and for sharing documents. ‘This really makes a difference to the fluidity of the teaching, and that’s important to me because I’m a performer and that’s my aesthetic,’ he explains. For streaming presentation purposes, he uses a monthly-charged Mac-compatible program called Ecamm Live, which allows him to change smoothly between cameras, to use different overlays, to adjust brightness, and to share, switch or split his screen, all from a single control panel.
Certainly, the ability to share documents or music digitally – complete with the teacher’s annotations – has become far more important since the pandemic has forced us apart. The days of a printed score to which the teacher added fingerings, bowings and instructions with the humble pencil seem a distant memory. Reynolds recommends the Apple-compatible forScore, which allows him to annotate music with his Apple Pencil before sharing with students via Dropbox or Google Drive. If the student also has forScore, they can simply download the document from a shared folder straight to their device.
Cobb also uses Google Drive to share documents. ‘This is something that I think has benefitted my teaching and that I hope to be able to continue with when we’re back in person,’ she says. ‘Children and parents can easily access my practice notes and also write their own comments if there is anything that needs clarifying. It means no more “Sorry, I forgot my notebook” and no more trying to decipher Mrs Cobb’s appalling handwriting!’ In terms of sharing musical annotations, Cobb has found the Genius Scan app to be quick and easy. ‘When we’re back in person, I plan to use it on my iPad so that I can have my own copy of the children’s music on my own stand,’ she says.
Music sharing apps such as Tomplay and Enote also have the functionality to share musical scores with annotations between student and teacher. ‘Our Intelligent Sheet Music app, which contains a library of thousands of works from the Baroque to late Romantic era, lets users create, update and share separate Annotation Layers,’ says Enote content marketing manager Rory O’Maley. ‘So teachers can mark up scores over screenshare with their students during an online lesson, then share the annotations with them as either an annotation layer file (for students with Enote) or a clear PDF (for those without).’
But it’s not just score sharing that has presented new challenges during the pandemic. Perhaps the greatest test for teachers and students has been the problem of sound latency. Brown explains: ‘Latency is a word that comes up frequently when people use video conferencing software. In short, it refers to a short period of delay (usually measured in milliseconds) between when an audio signal enters a system and when it emerges. Latency can be made worse by buffering, for example. On the internet, sound travels in one direction, changing direction as the speaker changes. This means playing simultaneously with your student is not possible.’
Headphones can help with this issue, by cutting out background noise which may cause your streaming platform to try to compensate by regenerating the sound. But playing together is still not currently within the gift of most available technology (see page 14 for new developments in this area). How then to provide accompaniment and chamber opportunities for your students?
‘Sometimes I’ll share music through a program called Loopback,’ says Ziemann. ‘It acts as a virtual mixer on your computer, so you can plug in the output from different programs like Spotify. Sometimes I’ll make play-along tracks for my students, which I then upload to Loopback. From there they can be played through Zoom like a virtual microphone and mixer. So I can play backing tracks through that program for my students.’
Cobb has found similar workarounds. ‘I’ve really missed duetting with my pupils during the pandemic,’ she says. ‘So I’ve used iMovie a lot to make virtual duets, which I’ve uploaded to YouTube so that my pupils are able to play along with me online.’
Programs like Tomplay have also helped to make up for a lack of live accompaniment. Indeed, Tomplay co-founder Alexis Steinmann reports a significant increase in the number of downloads of the company’s interactive sheet music and backing track app by schools, conservatoires and independent music teachers during the pandemic. ‘The feedback we are getting from schools and teachers is that Tomplay is a great way to keep their students motivated, by offering them the possibility to play along with other musicians without leaving their home,’ he explains. ‘For example, we have produced “on-demand” Grieg’s Holberg Suite (bit.ly/3gK4eLc) for Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, US. The goal was to offer the students the possibility to practise the piece at home, since the school was closed and they couldn’t gather to practise.’
This limitation aside, the message from those who have embraced online teaching is loud and clear – instrumental teaching, no matter the form it takes, is what you make of it. Like it or not, Covid-19 has changed our world, and online interaction may well become the dominant way to communicate with those outside our local radius in the future.
‘When I look at the arts, there are so many similarities with the world of business,’ says Reynolds. ‘There are people who used to travel every week to raise money for commerce, and in the future this simply won’t happen, as digital communication is now so powerful. For the arts, too, there is no going back to the old normal.’
For Ziemann, this sea change is a not-so-hidden opportunity. ‘Online teaching puts more pressure on the teacher,’ he says. ‘I have found my teaching has changed exponentially since I’ve gone online because I can’t rely on what I see right in front of me. I now have to listen differently and to empathise with the student – so my teaching has improved. I like this challenge, and when the pandemic ends, I will definitely continue with online teaching, as I have found that this model is the reflection of my best work.’ Surely a lesson for us all.