Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teaching by skype

Photo by re_ality

This month, I moved from California back to the UK after nearly nine years, and brought my American husband with me. It’s been a huge change for us both, with many lists of “to do”s to handle. One aspect of my life that is different this time is that I won’t be starting my business from scratch in the UK.  I’ll be taking my life-coaching clients with me— we already use phone and video skype, so my business can be undertaken from just about anywhere.

What I wasn’t expecting though was that one of my piano students would want to continue to work with me by skype. He’s a talented 11-year old pianist, currently working on a Bach Invention and a Chopin Mazurka, and he’s told his mother he doesn’t want another teacher— he wants to stick with me.

I’ve never taught piano by skype before. I know that some teachers do it, but so far I have not been keen. There are so many aspects to consider. For example, if my student focuses the webcam on his arms and hands, how will I be able to tell if his back and neck are relaxed, and he is breathing well? How will we communicate if he can’t see my face— will he have to crane down and peer in at me occasionally? If we move the camera back, will I be able to tell at such a distance if he’s using the correct fingering? And what about sound quality? Surely it can’t be very good. Plus, I’ll have to have my own copy of each of his pieces and refer to bar numbers. He’ll need to write in his own notes. It seems very complicated.

And yet this is a student I’ve had for three years, and we’re very attached to each other. I’d be delighted to continue to assist him. So I’ve told his mother that I’m willing to try it, and we’ll see.

Have any of you tried teaching by skype? Do you recommend it? What tips can you offer?

About the Author

Valerie Kampmeier
Valerie Kampmeier, M.A., brings decades of performance experience as a successful classical pianist in Europe to her piano teaching and her life coaching practice for musicians. She also writes about living a creative life on her blog.
A gifted p... [Read more]

14 Comments

  1. Yiyi Ku

    Hi Valerie,
    Glad to know that you are settling well after your big move! I absolutely share your concerns regarding teaching piano by Skype, which is why I have not tried it either. I feel that to be successful, first of all the lesson duration will have to be longer than normal, to allow time for camera adjustment back and forth and other technical issues – this means either the teacher is willing to give the extra time, or the student is willing to pay for longer lessons. In terms of sound quality and detecting subtle tone variations, both parties must have good quality microphone. My feeling is that for beginners to intermediate level students, it could work well, but for advanced students, the challenges may not be so easily overcome. I do feel the success rate is higher with students you already have an affinity with, so there is already trust, respect and personal connection, all of which is vital in a healthy teacher-student relationship. I would imagine it would be very difficult to establish such a bond with new students via skype, particularly young ones. I would be very interested to see how it works out, so please keep us posted! Good luck!

  2. cato

    As a dire pianist I may not be the most qualified to comment. It seems a very interesting aspect of modern attitudes to all sorts of education.. My nephew has ancient Greek coachings on skype: I don’t know if they had met face to face but there seemed to be a raport. But the aural perception for a music teacher willl surely be less asured if second hand. Though many preselectionns seem to be done on sound files or dvd’s these days. I wouldn’t be happy teaching singing one to one over this interweb thingy.
    Maybe you coulld develop an app automatically to assess the posture of said student…
    Good luck with it anyway!

  3. Valerie Kampmeier

    HI Yiyi and Cato,

    Thanks for your supportive comments and ideas. Yes, I definitely have reservations, but I’m willing to try skype in relation to this student, and we will see. I agree that it could be more difficult to establish a rapport, although I do have life coaching clients on skype, and I’ve been amazed how close we have become. My major reservation is about sound quality, which is not so much an issue in terms of speech (which is why even ancient Greek could work)!
    I will report back…

  4. Jonathan Harnum

    You might consider a tool i’ve found helpful for students whether remote or right there in the lesson with you. It’s a smart pen made by livescribe. It records audio as you’re writing text and text is linked to the audio so if you click on a note you’ve written, the audio occurring when you wrote the note will play. The resultant file can be posted online and viewed privately by those you invite. This is a great tool because the student gets to review the lesson and the audio taken with the pen (I know, it’s odd, right?) is often better than the audio that comes through skype. A review of the pen and examples and links can be found:

    http://intentionalpractice.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/a-pentastic-practice-tool/

  5. Phil Johnson

    I’ve done a few lessons via Skype. It’s not my favorite way of doing things. But it has allowed me to do a makeup lesson every so often while I’m on the road performing.

    It takes a little getting used to. And getting angles right and such like you said. But after the first lesson you’ll have it figured out. I will usually just spend a little extra time during that first lesson.

    The part I don’t like is that it’s difficult to play with your student, duets and such. Skype works like a speaker phone where it cuts off the other person while you’re speaking and vice versa.

  6. Valerie

    Jonathan,
    That sounds amazing! I will definitely check it out. Thanks for sharing.

    Phil- it’s reassuring to hear of your experience. I know what you mean about the speaker phone effect. I’ve found that in (verbal) coaching sessions if we both use an external mike it doesn’t happen, but I’m not sure if that will be possible in this case. I will definitely update…

  7. Melody

    Those of use who were not born with a “mouse” in our hands (LOL) are amazed at this incredible technology. That you can teach via skype is a testament to your love of teaching AND to the dedication of your students!
    Congrats!

  8. Tracy Morris

    I’m glad we’re having this discussion. I’ve been considering offering lessons via Skype as I’ve had a few students move away wanting to continue lessons with me.

    Phil – Are you using external headphones and a condenser mic during your Skype lessons or the ones built into your laptop?

  9. Valerie Kampmeier

    Thanks, Melody- I’m hoping it works well!

    Tracy- yes, I’m intrigued as to how it will go, and I’d like to know about the mic situation too.

  10. Edna Bloom

    It seems to me that I have read articles in Clavier magazine and now Clavier Companion about folks teaching piano remotely in places such as Alaska or from USA to sites in Africa. It might be worth seeking these reports for a take on what has been done so as not to have to re-invent the wheel! I’ll be so interested in how your venture goes. Hope you will be able to follow through on posting some updates.

  11. Michael Omer

    Hi Val,

    So you’re back – fantastic! When can we meet for that other coffee? 🙂

    Skype has been wonderful for me in the past year, as I have been doing a US kids TV series writing, recording and producing from HERE!

    I was able to audition singers, in real time at my Steinway, and when we had the recording session in Philadelphia, the studio was able to patch me right into the cans of the girl in the recording booth, so I could run the session from here – via Skype. Am doing season 2 of this show, and have another session scheduled for tomorrow with one of the artists to set keys – again over Skype.

    All the music was of course uploaded to a server in the US, and was pulled down by the post-production team in Michigan!

    Try the lesson thing – you might be surprised! – it’s a meeting of minds which will help your student after all!! Meanwhile do Tweet me [@michaelomer] check out and post to my blog too!!! http://michaelomer.typepad.com/

  12. Valerie

    Hi Edna- that’s a great idea to check out. Thanks!

    Hi Michael,
    Wow, that’s amazing! This will radically transform the recording world. Thanks for your encouragement, and for sharing your experiences. I am following your blog with interest… and yes, let’s have coffee one of these days!

  13. Brian

    It sounds like a pain! I know how students, and they need personal attention and interaction that a tube cannot render!

  14. Curious

    The sound: Skype is a very poor medium for audio quality. The handoff/2 way communication we have with older phones is sadly absent. So go for a better system. You can get HD audio now with VOIP (voice over internet protocol) companies for very little cost. Many have free calling if you’re on the same service. That actually may be the key to all of these audio problems.
    The mic: If the instrument is digital why mic it at all? Just take the USB/digital signal and transmit that. Zero distortion, no? Their voice will need to be done normally but you don’t need high quality for that. For acoustic pianos it might be better to use 2 mics: 1 for the piano close to the strings (at the top of an upright maybe) and 1 for the voice. A wireless mic would give total freedom. It could be close to the mouth so it picks up little else like dreaded background noise, the bane of any voice communication.
    Camera perspectives: They may be the most challenging. You want one close to the fingers and one for body posture. The latter may not be as important with more advanced students. Using a built in camera of a phone/tablet/laptop is ludicrous. People need to really analyze situations if they want to get real fluid solutions that work.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.