Tuesday, September 18, 2012

804 Miles to My Next Lesson: Teaching Piano Lessons Online via Skype

Tuesday is a wonderful day in my studio, for many reasons. One of the primary reasons is that I get to teach a terrific student who lives 804 miles from me! Thanks to online videoconferencing tools such as Skype, teaching lessons via the Internet is becoming more and more popular among teachers all over the world. 

My friend and mentor Steve Betts recently blogged for the Clavier Companion Blog (check it out if you haven't already!) describing some of his experiences teaching online piano lessons. Here I'll share a few of my own experiences and hear from you about yours!

1. It is important to identify what kinds of students are potential Skype clients. The students I am teaching is four years old (she will be five next month), and we are using Alfred's Premier Piano Course, Level 1A. H is responding well to this series for many reasons: she is reading at a 3rd grade level, she is very independent, she follows directions well, she is intrinsically motivated to learn and loves learning, she is home-schooled by her mom, a former elementary school teacher, and her mom sits with her during each lesson to help out if H needs it. Parental support is essential, and H is blossoming because of it. So far, H has been the ideal Skype client! 

2. It is important to follow a specific protocol for introducing new concepts and pieces. For H, as well as other beginners, I must create extremely detailed practice steps to use during the lesson and during the week, since I am not there in person for a hands-on lesson. My questions must be very clear, and I must wait until she has finished playing or talking before I speak or play, because she can't hear me otherwise. For each page in the Lesson Book, I create a list of questions and instructions for H. For example, here are questions I ask her and directives I give her as we begin learning "Treasure Map" (Alfred's Premier Lesson Book 1A page 8), after we've talked about the title of the piece, going on a treasure hunt, pirates, and other things that 4-year-olds love to interject:
  1. Listen to the CD and tap your fingers while saying finger numbers.
  2. Say the words while tapping your fingers.
  3. How many groups of notes do you see?
  4. Are they moving higher or lower on the page?
  5. Will they move higher or lower on the piano?
  6. Which hand plays?
  7. Which fingers play? Wiggle the fingers that play this song.
  8. Will you need 2 black keys or 3 black keys?
  9. Find your Hand Position (look at the small keyboard on the page).
  10. Touch the notes that you will play. Remember to move lower for each group of notes.
  11. Play the song and sing the words, then play along with your CD at the Practice Tempo first (track 5), then the Performance Tempo (track 4)!
These questions and statements can change greatly from week to week, based on the things she begins to notice on her own, as well as the things that need extra review. 

3. It takes longer to teach concepts and pieces online than in person, so focus and flexibility are especially important. One of the reasons for this is because I have to lead her to complete tasks by giving her these detailed instructions, and it just takes longer! I email a copy of the assignment/task sheet to H's mom Heidi before each lesson so Heidi can follow along and be sure H stays on task through the lesson. Often, I plan too many things to be accomplished in the lesson, because it does take longer to communicate concepts online, so I make changes to the assignment sheet and email the updated copy to Heidi after the lesson.  Additionally, I must remember that H is only four years old, and she has a short attention span, as most kids that age do, so we usually work for 15 minutes, take a break while Heidi and I chat, and then work for 15 more minutes. Of course, it helps that Heidi is a close friend of mine, so we always have plenty to talk about!

4. It is important to introduce new concepts using "larger than life" visuals (as part of the Sound-Feel-Sign-Name sequence). When I am showing things to H, I must remember that bigger is better with regards to what she can see on her computer screen. The visuals I create for her are 8.5x11 so that she can easily see not only the sign or symbol, but so that she can also follow along as I point to something such as a rhythm pattern or series of notes. For example, after H experienced hearing a quarter rest within a series of quarter notes, and repeated clap-back patterns I clapped with quarter notes and quarter rests, I showed her a giant picture of the quarter rest, then told her its name. These giant flash cards make it much easier to convey information within the lesson setting, especially with a young child.

This is a more recent photo of my Skype student performing in our spring recital. 
We met in the fellowship hall of my church, used my laptop and the church's 
projector and speakers so everyone could see and hear her, and she performed
live via Skype from the sanctuary of her church. Her mom set up her laptop
so that we could see and hear her performance clearly. What a fun recital!

5. Additional items of importance:
  1. I use an ethernet cord rather than depending on Wi-Fi for lessons so that our connection is as strong as possible. 
  2. My laptop power cord is plugged in during online lessons.
  3. I have my student use iTunes to play the CD tracks for her lessons so that she can clap along and say finger numbers, words, count beats, etc. 
  4. We have our webcams set up so that our hands and faces are visible. I set mine up on a music stand, raised up above the piano, with the webcam facing somewhat downward so that H can see and understand my demonstrations and see my face as well as books and materials when I am working with her. The photo makes me look very close to the piano, but in reality, I am not as close as it seems.
  5. I use H's name very frequently during the lesson to help maintain her focus and attention.
  6. Because H's lessons are at her own home, she often asks to show me drawings she has made, or a new toy she has received. I allow her to do this, sometimes during our break, and sometimes after the lesson, because it is very important to her to share things with others.

Do you teach online lessons? What are some of the most important (and often surprising!) things you have learned? I'd love to hear about them!

Do you know someone else who is interested in learning to teach music lessons on Skype? Use the sharing buttons on the left or pin the image below to let them know about this article.


  1. Great post Melody! I'm sure I will refer back to it again and again.

  2. Thanks, Jennifer! After re-reading it today, I realized that I need to refer to it often myself! :)