by Robert Fisher, Catoctin School of Music
With many music studios either launching or transitioning their students to online lessons full-time during this unprecedented pandemic, it has been a season of ingenuity and adaptability under pressure for music teachers. Most instructors have faced the new reality of embracing virtual lessons, through services such as Zoom, Skype, Google “Hangouts”, FaceTime and more. With most of the world forced into a new digital lesson “revolution” over the course of only a few months, many have now seen the benefits and challenges of conducting lessons and rehearsals remotely. As musicians hone their craft on their instrument, we should consider honing our “digital lessons/rehearsals” experience as we adopt and embrace remote learning. Below are a few tips to help you get the most out of your online learning experience:
Tip #1: Even a small audio (mic) upgrade can give your lessons experience a BIG boost! Have the right tools/settings to optimize your online experience! The most important element in your virtual music lesson or rehearsal setup is your audio since music hinges around the sound we produce. Most microphones on laptops and mobile devices are perfect for speaking or rough recording of audio, however, if you want to “up your game” and improve the quality of the music/audio streamed in lessons/rehearsals, consider investing in an external condenser microphone. Many of these purpose-built microphones easily plug in to laptops (and some are purpose built for mobile device connections) via USB. You can spend anywhere from around $20 for low-end “plug and play” condenser USB mics to $200 (or even more!) for professional studio quality standalone mics. Generally, the higher end/higher fidelity you go, the more it costs, however, even a low-end “plug and play” condenser mic can easily improve the audio quality of your setup versus using your built-in microphone on your computer or mobile device. External condenser mics often have “directional” control, allowing you to switch the direction your microphone captures sound, giving you a big advantage as a musician when trying to capture and transmit a clean, dynamic sound from your instrument. Nothing beats hearing sound live but upgrading your mic for a few bucks can vastly increase your virtual lessons/rehearsal experience!
Tip #2: Sometimes it may work best to disable audio “enhancement” software/features! Most devices and streaming software come preinstalled with features that are optimized best for speaking and teleconferencing as opposed to hi-fidelity music production. Check your device settings and/or account settings for your live video streaming service to see if there are features such as “noise suppression” or “audio enhancement” options that can be deactivated. Many of these features are designed to mute or fade away low/high end frequencies dubbed as noise (the whirring of a fan, room echoes, etc.) so that a speaker on a videoconference call can be heard clearly. Perfect for lectures or conference meetings but not so much for music lessons! During a typical music lesson, a wide range of high, mid, and low frequencies are created by instruments that may become distorted, compressed, and muted by sound “enhancement” software. The very software designed to “enhance” a video conference call can sometimes make the experience barely usable for musicians! Look at your app or video streaming service account settings and see if there are any additional “audio features” that can be toggled on or off. Often, the best sound for the sake of lessons is the “original sound” coming straight from your microphone. Yes, your mic may pick up and transmit the sound of your foot tapping the beat or sound of fingers playing a key, but this is a good sign that your microphone is not only capturing all the sound created but transmitting clearly without distortion. Setting your audio to capture all sound in this way does require an adjustment in how you teach. You should consider “muting” your audio when typing as the tap/click of your keyboard may be distracting to a student who can now hear every keystroke with clarity! You may need to turn off any devices that create “white noise”, hum or background sounds that may be picked up by your mic. Any changes or adjustments required to make for clear audio during your lesson/rehearsal are, however, well worth the inconvenience of turning off fans, closing windows, or creating “quiet zones” during lesson/rehearsal sessions. Also, having a dedicated condenser microphone upgrade to your setup can go a long way in allowing you to better control your sound when you disable sound enhancement software, so these two tips go hand in hand!
Tip #3: Invest in solid connection: free up bandwidth! Remember: to see and be seen well is wonderful, but to hear and be heard well is essential! The new challenge with virtual lessons and rehearsals is that streaming can, at times, be demanding on internet connections and services. Often, both a student and teacher may have the “right” equipment and setup, but their internet connectivity is a weak point. The number one way of course to ensure solid internet connectivity is to make sure your internet service is able to handle the potential increase in bandwidth you require running video streaming services for long periods while also potentially transmitting and receiving audio/video/document files needed for lessons and rehearsal. The faster and more stable your internet speed, the more “instant” your virtual lessons experience becomes. If you hope to do any form of “live” accompaniment or multiple instruments performing, upgrading to a faster, more stable internet speed (or new internet service provider!), is worth the investment! Often, ISPs are more than willing to offer new customers their fastest or top tier speed plans for bargain introductory pricing. Though this can be a large expense, consider internet connectivity and speed a vital “utility” that is essential for a lesson! You can always “switch” to a new ISP (if available in your area) for faster speeds at a competitive price and switch again to a competitor later when another deal is offered!
In addition to boosting your internet bandwidth/speed capacity through your ISP, consider modifying how you use your video streaming service and your connected devices, if you are struggling with poor audio/video quality and connection during virtual lessons/rehearsals. Remember: ultimately, it is most important to hear/be heard above seeing/being seen. Yes, there are aspects in a music lesson and rehearsal where seeing things like posture, technique and breath control are important, however, when faced with connectivity issues during a virtual lesson/rehearsal, the audio component should be prioritized above all. If you experience an occasional “slow down” in internet speeds, consider decreasing the bandwidth your or your student is using by temporarily disabling video feeds (if a student is performing and you are listening, turn off your video feed to them as they). This can sometime free up enough bandwidth to improve your connection. If you have multiple devices/video feeds connected to a single virtual lesson, consider disabling “extra” devices if on limited bandwidth. It can be an added benefit to have more than one camera aimed at you or your instrument for lessons, but it is not worth the expense of a poor connection and degraded audio/video experience for your student! Multiple devices are nice, but only one is essential!
Other ways to free up bandwidth and decrease “lag” include:
turning off web-based apps that sync in the background during the lesson (cloud
storage apps like Dropbox); disabling any software updates during lessons;
avoiding having too many web-based apps or browser windows open; disabling
virus scans during lessons; and making sure your home-based network does not
have more devices connected and tapping into your internet connection than it
can handle (think phones, tablets, computers, smart devices).
Most of us could not have predicted how the music lessons industry would be thrust so quickly online along with the rest of the world in the span of only a few months. Music teachers around the world have risen to the challenge of embracing virtual lessons and are learning how to improve and adapt, just as they teach their students do each day with their music. These are just a few items to consider as you continue diving and developing your virtual lessons/rehearsals program. Let us continue adapting our lessons to face the challenges of our new digital “norm” as we keep the music alive!