By: Courtney Gayle Morgan
I'm not old enough to remember when the internet was new. However, the founding of AOL and the release of the first Windows operating system both occurred the year I was born, and I definitely remember when they really took off about a decade later.
At the time, I absolutely hated the internet. Windows wasn't hard for me to learn to use at all because I grew up using an Amiga, but I hated sitting there waiting for dial up when I could have already found the information I wanted in a book. I was in high school before the internet really seemed all that useful to me and college before I used it on a regular basis for anything but email. I've been equally resistant to other new technologies, from smart phones to DVDs to GPS. I was so frustrated about having to Google how to start the new dishwasher that I nearly gave up. I like tradition, I don't like changing how I do things when the current method works for me, and I'm very cautious about trying new things. All that is to say, I should have been one of the last people to embrace online music lessons.
The first time I used a webcam, it was 2005. My roommates the previous school year had been international students, and they used Skype to talk to relatives. So I tried it a few times to talk to my parents and sisters, figuring I might have a better experience than my roommates since my family was hundreds of miles away instead of thousands. No such luck. The video often just stopped working part way through the conversation, so it really wasn't all that different from talking on the phone since it was audio only either way. And we had a "fast" internet connection on both ends.
That same year, my sister had to make a tape for her orchestra class at school, and she was having trouble getting her violin tuned and generally wanted some feedback. So I helped her over the phone. I happened to be in my school's performance hall at the time, having arrived very early for an orchestra rehearsal. My section leader overheard the conversation, and after that we were joking about the absurdity of teaching a violin lesson by phone. I still believe that would be a bad idea, but teaching lessons by video with the technology we have today is a different story.
I took my first online class in 2007, and that's when I discovered it works so much better for me than sitting in a two-hour lecture, mostly because I can give my eyes a break when required and control the lighting and temperature and everything else that makes me comfortable while learning in my own environment. I completed my graduate degree entirely online.
In 2012 or 2013, I tried Skype again, this time because my brother-in-law was in the Navy and it was pretty much the only way I could see him, my sister, and my niece. The video freezing and other issues were less common, but they still happened.
In 2014, my sister and discussed and dismissed the idea of teaching violin lessons online. It just didn't seem doable given what both of us had experienced while trying to use Skype. It was fine for conversations, but it just wasn't feasible for music.
In 2016, one of my students was moving because his father, who is in the army, was being transferred. He begged his mom to let him continue lessons with me, both at home and in lessons. We were reluctant because neither of us had much faith in the technology or that he would get the same benefit from such an arrangement, but finally we gave in and tried FaceTime. It's not my favorite application for online lessons. Since then, I have used Skype and Zoom, and I prefer the latter. But we were pleasantly surprised about what we were able to accomplish in lessons without being in the same room. If I couldn't see something, we could move the camera, quickly proving that it wasn't any different than walking around a student to get a different angle in lessons. It didn't freeze on us once during that first attempt. We have had tech issues, but I'll get into why that isn't the issue I once thought it was later. We agreed to a one-year trial. That student is still taking lessons with me four years later.
Several months into that first arrangement, I started accepting other online students and eventually actually marketing online lessons. It's been slow and difficult trying to convince people that it works. The most common concerns I hear:
All but the first and last of those concerns have proven to be non-issues in the years that I have been teaching online. The first can be fixed with Zoom. The recording and screen sharing options allow me to compensate when we can't make a duet work by recording my part in advance, connecting my iPhone to my laptop, and then playing the video while the student plays along. Also, it's not always impossible to play together. I once allowed one of my students to talk me into doing an online lesson with a friend who couldn't be there in person because they were working on a duet. So I was in one student's living room while the other joined us through a phone propped on a music stand. I told them up front that if I couldn't hear them playing together just as if they were in the same room, it wouldn't work, but it turned out that we didn't have any trouble at all.
The last concern regarding children not paying attention is a problem in person, too. Kids have short attention spans. You have to work to keep them interested, and parents have to help enforce the expectations that they stay on task and be respectful. But watching TV or playing with their tablets for hours isn't an issue for kids, so it's not true that they can't pay attention or that they won't be comfortable with the technology. They are more comfortable with it than adults, actually.
These are the actual obstacles I have faced with online lessons:
While I don't think they are better than in-person lessons because on a social level I just don't think it's good for humans to never directly interact with other humans and all online services make it easier to be a shut-in, here are some advantages I believe online lessons have over in-person lessons:
Whether you are a teacher or a student, and whether this is a short-term arrangement to practice social distancing or a long-term arrangement for any other reason, you probably don't need to worry about all of the things you think you need to worry about. At the very least, try it before you decide it won't work for you.