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17 minutes reading time (3378 words)

How do you use technology to facilitate long distance instruction?

How close to your student do you sit during a piano lesson? How close do you sit to your computer screen when using your computer?

Imagine that you typically sit about two feet from your computer screen. Further imagine that when you sit at your computer you are talking to someone, face-to-face, on your computer screen, and the other person is also sitting two feet from his or her monitor. Although the two of you may be thousands of miles apart, your computer conversation makes it seem as though you are sitting only four feet apart, looking at each other through a rectangular window.

If you were teaching a lesson, would you be sitting four feet away from your student or even further?

The point I am making is simply this: when we are in the same room with a student, we feel as though we are very close to our student. This is just as true when we are sitting right next to the piano as it is when we are sitting across the room. In both cases, we perceive that we are close to our student and our interaction with the student is natural and personal.

Remarkably, we can achieve a similar sense of close proximity when we are hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. Are you intrigued? Read on!

Note: also invite you to visit the online version of this article at www.claviercompanion.com. The online article will include engaging video clips that demonstrate long distance teaching in action. Observe how technology can enhance approaches to polishing a piece through critical listening, sound modeling, and creative exploration. 

An analog teacher in an increasingly digital world

by Jennifer Snow

As teachers we are constantly looking for opportunities to develop, grow, and explore. Being primarily an "analog" citizen, my work with long distance teaching has certainly been one of the most exciting aspects of my teaching career. Long distance teaching is changing the face of our profession, and it will open opportunities for more people to engage in the wonders of music making.

The only thing you have to fear is fear itself!

My first experience with long distance instruction took place in 2004 when I was living in Canada. At the time, there was an experimental collaboration between The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers) away. When I was asked to teach a pedagogy class and conduct a master class using the Internet, I panicked! How can this possibly work? What will I do? How can I interact and connect with students who are In another location?

My younger brother didn't hesitate to inform me how "old fashioned" I sounded. In his words, "It's as if you are in the same room together!" That thought reminded me that we often fear new technology and modes of communication simply because we have not explored or experienced them.

Accepting the challenge, I used a high-speed Internet connection, video conferencing, and a Yamaha Disklavier piano to conduct an exciting and rewarding class that involved performance, pedagogy discussion, and reflection. During the class, the students and I spoke to each other using microphones while viewing each other on a computer monitor. After just a few minutes of communicating in this way, the awareness of the microphones and monitors evaporated, and we connected across the Internet with our ideas and musical energy.

Two pianos functioning as one

The most exciting moment occurred when the two Disklavier pianos connected to each other for the first time. When the piano was played in Toronto, the performance data (key, hammer, and pedal movements) was sent through the Internet to the piano at Acadia, which reproduced the performance exactly as it had been played. The immediacy of the piano connection enabled us to assess and work with the sound acoustically, eliminating the need to listen to the long distance performance using monitor speakers.

Indeed, the ideas flowed as if the students and I were all in the same space. The technology enabled us to play for each other, engage in critical listening and sound comparisons, and ultimately to solve musical problems. We explored a variety of musical details, including tonal range, balance, and phrasing.

My imagination was on fire, inspired by so many possibilities. The prospect of students having access to teachers from around the globe was thrilling. In addition, it became obvious to me that the possibilities for teacher training, student networks, and peer connections are endless. 

Long distance teaching can be addictive

Following this initial experience, I was hooked. With a broadband Internet connection and enthusiastic students, I began exploring other long distance teaching opportunities. In addition to piano teaching, I was able to explore classroom teaching using video conferencing and class teaching from UCLA. In the last year, I joined a group of teachers who are part of a team that is testing a forthcoming Disklavier Mark IV feature from Yamaha called Remote Lesson. This provided me with new avenues of exploration.

As in my first experience with long distance teaching, the Remote Lesson feature connects two Disklavier pianos directly- or even more than two! The immediate acoustic and touch connection of the pianos, the advancements in personal video conference, and readily available broadband Internet connections have enabled us to teach long distance from our own teaching studios.

Generally, for video conferencing I use Apple's iChat (www.apple.com/ichat). Skype (www.skype.com). and, most recently, ooVoo (www.oovoo.com) with a high-speed, broadband Internet connection. I typically use either a built-in or separately attached webcam for video conferencing. An additional, second video camera is also beneficial and can be used for a second view.

Two camera angles are preferable as they provide both a face-to-face view for establishing a personal connection and a second, side view (long view or close-up) that shows the student's physical approach to playing. Beyond the immediacy of the video, what always amazes my students when they first participate in long distance instruction is seeing and hearing the piano in their space when it is played from a remote location. 

Connected across a long distance, the student is fully engaged, as if we are in the same room together.
Audience members at the VMTA state conference observe a long distance lesson. The full view (bottom corner) provides an opportunity to view the student as well as listen to her sound production.

Working with a remote student

Over the past year, while working with a 14-year-old intermediate student, I have experienced the impact of long distance teaching. The student, who studies with a fellow teacher, lives over 3,000 miles away and we have never met in real space. The first introduction was "face to face" on a computer screen where we made an immediate connection. The student and I related personally as if we were in the same room, enjoying a flexible and natural flow of conversation.

Beginning with a performance of a "work in progress," this student played my piano, which sounded clearly and was nicely synchronized to the video. Using the long camera view, I listened to and observed her playing as if she were in my studio. After this initial performance, we began to work on the piece.

With my laptop computer positioned to the side of the music rack on my piano, I could look directly at the computer screen and address the student in detail about specific problem areas. We worked on the left-hand ostinato, pedaling, balance, and the right-hand phrasing. Often, we would play a passage back and forth listening to and evaluating the sound and technical approach. Frequently, the student would choose from two or three performances and discuss why one was stronger than the others. This self-evaluation and critical listening encouraged her to make personal musical decisions. We would even "high five" each other on the screen when she achieved her goal!

During subsequent lessons, my long distance student displayed well-motivated practice with clear improvement. We continued our work on polishing the musical details and giving her performance more security. For the student, it was a "regular" lesson with focus, concentration, and enthusiasm. Her main teacher reported that she exhibited a renewed sense of motivation as well as fresh ideas and approaches for working on her pieces.

Long distance teaching has unique challenges and benefits

When using the Internet to teach, you quickly discover that there can be a very slight but perceptible delay that challenges you to adjust the pacing of your speaking, listening, and modeling. As a result, the technology demands that we be efficient, clear, and effective in our teaching. Despite these challenges, I have discovered that we can find ways to transmit our passion and energy through sight and sound to create a sense that we are in the same space. Once we "lock in" with our student, the focus shifts from the technology to the musical interaction.

Long distance instructional technology can be used in many different ways, and I often group them in three areas:

• applied instruction 

• teacher training

• peer networking

In applied instruction, you can work with students, including adults, to conduct effective piano lessons, masterclasses, and group lessons. For many young students, this sort of use of technology is the norm, providing another sensory focus for their concentration. From a teaching perspective, the use of modeling, questioning, and self-reflection is very effective, and the technology allows for a great deal of discovery learning for the student.

The benefits for the students are many. In addition to having an entire network of teachers available, the primary teacher can engage in team teaching activities, performance opportunities, and a broader range of ideas for the student to explore. And, there are many opportunities to work with groups. It is exciting to observe students enthusiastically interacting with others who are thousands of miles away. I have observed their discussions, peer evaluation, assessments, and general engagement to be focused, intense, and immediate.

In addition to the wonderful applied teaching opportunities, the range of possibilities for teacher training and professional development are outstanding. Pedagogy students have the opportunity to work with students at different colleges and universities to build their teaching skills and exchange ideas and information. Using long distance technology, students have the opportunity to work in team teaching situations with other teachers, receive expert assessment, engage with students of different levels and backgrounds, and connect as pedagogy students to discuss and explore ideas.

One of the most valuable aspects of long distance teaching is reaching a broader community of students and fellow teachers. These peer-to-peer experiences are rewarding for both students and teachers. Not only can our students form social networks and practice together, but we, as colleagues, can reach out beyond the solitude of our studios and collaborate.

Transcending geography

The interconnection of music is reflected in our new ability to "transcend geography." No longer will a student have to drive long distances in heavy snow to get to a piano lesson, practice alone without the free exchange of ideas and concepts with friends from around the world, or wonder if they are the only one dealing with a certain challenge or musical issue.

As piano teachers, it is essential that we become aware of the world and how our students communicate and interact. By embracing opportunities to utilize these new tools, we are encouraged to explore, develop, and imagine the possibilities for an exciting musical future, and in doing so we move our profession forward.  

The nuts and bolts of long distance teaching

by Stella B. Sick

Old ideas improved by new technology

The concept of long distance instruction is not new. There are accounts of correspondence courses from as early as the end of the nineteenth century. Long distance instruction can serve many purposes, including lessons for busy adults as well as educational opportunities for those who would not otherwise have access to music lessons.

In a way, the overall purpose of long distance instruction-a desire to have access to expertise and knowledge that may not be easily available where one lives-has not changed; however, the tools now available for distance instruction have undergone tremendous development and continue to evolve. New gadgets, computers, cameras, fast Internet connections, and the ingenuity of teachers shrink our already small world.

Stella B. Sick teaches a long distance lesson from her studio.
The student's view of a long distance lesson.

Can I really teach long distance?

You may ask, "How can a piano teacher use long distance instruction? How complicated is the technology? Is it affordable? Will technology rob the student-teacher interaction of its humanity? Will the quality of teaching be compromised?"

These are important questions. After all, when we teach, we don't focus merely on whether our student played the notes and rhythms correctly. Posture, hand position, tone quality, and phrasing are all very important issues that need to be observed and demonstrated by a teacher. The visual aspect of teaching as well as the so und production are very important. Luckily for us, we have access to new tools, ranging from free to quite expensive, that address all of these concerns and make remote teaching not so remote (forgive the pun). 

Necessary equipment

A personal computer, either Macintosh or Windows, along with a high-speed Internet connection (DSL, cable, or fiber optic), constitute the basic requirements for getting into the business of remote instruction. You either need a computer that has a built-in microphone, speaker, and camera, or one that has enough USB or Firewire ports to allow you to plug in external devices that serve those purposes. In general, laptops are better because you can move them around conveniently. 

You may already have such a computer, one that you currently use for email, keeping records, and similar tasks. By adding additional, free video conferencing software, you can change that computer from a glorified typewriter to a modern telecommunications device. 

Choosing a video conferencing program

I have used three video conferencing software programs, all of which have very attractive features: Skype (www.skype.com). iChat (www.apple.com/ichat) and ooVoo (www.oovoo.com). All three provide free, computer-to-computer video conferencing. Skype and ooVoo are available for both Macintosh and Windows. iChat is a Mac-only program.

With ooVoo it is possible to have up to six people participate in a video conference. This multi-person option requires an upgrade to ooVoo SUPER and costs a bit extra, but the free version allows up to three people. iChat is excellent; it can connect as many as four people in a video call. Unfortunately, this program is exclusive to Macintosh computers, which automatically excludes people with Windows machines. (yes, iChat does connect to AOL Instant Messenger for Windows, but AIM offers such a small video window on the PC that using AIM is rather impractical for teaching.) iChat comes with the Mac operating system and takes just a few minutes to set up.

My personal favorite is Skype because of its high quality of sound and video and cross-platform compatibility. I sometimes use it for short consultations with my private students between lessons. Last spring I taught several sessions of my Introduction to Music classes at Hamline University from different parts of the country. On one of those occasions I was in Denver, CO, attending the MTNA convention. My class at Hamline in St. Paul, MN met at 8:00 a.m. (7:00 a.m. for me in Denver), and I was tickled that I could teach my class while still wearing my pajama bottoms! On another occasion-again using Skype-I was able to bring a guest speaker to my class (none other than George Litterst-the editor of this column). Skype enabled me to expand my horizons by allowing me to travel to MTNA in the middle of the semester, and it also expanded the horizons of the students, who got to hear a guest speaker from across the country.

Teaching using any of the video conferencing programs is an extremely attractive option, because it is so "low tech" and inexpensive. If you already have a personal computer, webcam, and broadband Internet connection, there are no added costs. There is no compromise in teacher-student interaction; after a short adjustment period you will feel like your student is right next to you. 

Internet challenges

There is one serious drawback to using video conferencing software alone, however. The sound of the piano is noticeably distorted by the computer and the video conferencing software. This happens for two reasons: (1) The microphones and computer speakers are not intended for high fidelity sound reproduction. (2) Even worse, the sound is compressed to levels that are fine for speech but inadequate for music. As a result of these factors, the piano sound becomes noticeably crippled, and when you work with advanced students, the minute details of phrasing and dynamics get lost in translation.

Currently, there are two additions to video conferencing that circumvent this problem. First, there is a Yamaha Disklavier Mark IV piano. Disklaviers have always been capable of capturing performances as MIDI data and then acoustically playing them back with amazing accuracy. The newer Mark IVs are the first Disklaviers that have built-in, Internet-capable computers, and they are able to transmit MIDI data over the Internet in real time. 

Although it has not been publicly released, I have had the opportunity to use and test a forthcoming Mark IV feature called Remote Lesson that makes it possible to connect two or more Disklaviers over the Internet. When a student plays one Disklavier, MIDI data that describes the exact movements of the keys, hammers, and pedals is transmitted over the Internet to the other Disklavier, reproducing the exact performance with a delay of less than a second! Combined with video conferencing software, Disklaviers and Remote Lesson create a long distance instruction experience that is virtually indistinguishable from a "live" lesson.

As a happy owner of a Disklavier Mark IV, I have conducted a number of such lessons, in which I taught students who were thousands of miles away. Also, a number of my students have had an opportunity to play their pieces for teachers across the country. Both as an observer and a teacher, I was amazed with the level of finesse with which a teacher could convey concepts. All the aspects of a traditional lesson are available: verbal communication, facial expressions and body language, demonstration on the piano, et cetera. There is a second option for owners of MIDI instruments, including digital pianos and earlier vintage Disklaviers. Internet MIDI, a software program published by TimeWarp Technologies (www.timewa rptech.com). connects any two MIDI-capable keyboards so that they communicate with one another over the Internet. All you need is a personal computer (Macintosh or Windows) and a MIDI-to-USB cable to connect your keyboard to the computer. What makes this option particularly fun and attractive are the different viewing modes in the software that facilitate the teaching of theory by providing the immediate visual demonstration of chords and scales.

Quality results

In all of my experiences teaching long distance, I never felt that the teaching was compromised. By the same token, I did not feel that the technology, by itself, made me a better teacher. What the technology did broaden was my horizons and those of my students, providing a wider variety of performance opportunities.

With more and more teachers online, we are creating something truly invaluable: a global body of knowledge and expertise that can be available to all. So, even if you are not ready to buy the most expensive gadgets available for remote instruction, the basic components are accessible to everybody and can be readily incorporated into your pedagogical repertoire. 

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