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Teaching the Flute Online

Julianne Ensley | March 2014

    Online learning is becoming a viable option for music lessons. While in-person lessons are still the optimal choice, online lessons can allow a student to study with a teacher in a geographically distant place. Last year I relocated to another state, and two of my particularly dedicated flute students have continued to study with me via Skype. When I travel back to their area, we have an in-person lesson which allows me to evaluate their flute playing in a way which cannot be done online.

Computer and Internet
    After setting up a Skype account, schedule a lesson time. To allow for the possibility of a lost connection, schedule a 40 minute time slot for a 30 minute lesson and 70 minute time slot for an hour lesson. Depending on the make and model of the laptop, the microphone and speakers may not be of sufficient quality for a music lesson. Separate microphones and speakers made specifically for Skype usage are available at most discount stores. They plug into a USB port.
    A high speed internet connection provides the best results. While slower connections can work, expect some broken or distorted connections. The internet speeds for both teacher and student affect the amount of communication lag time. This lag times makes it impossible for a teacher and student to play at the same time. Often, a student and I will accidentally talk over each other when we thought an exchange was complete.
    If there is a bad connection, disconnect and place the call again. Do have the student’s phone number at hand as you may be able to finish the lesson over the phone or set up a new time to continue the lesson if you cannot be reconnected via Skype.

The Lesson
    Both teacher and student should select a quiet location to set up their laptops and music stands. The teacher should adjust the screen so the camera captures the face and shoulders. Select a background that will not look cluttered to the student. Good lighting on the face improves the quality of the transmitted picture so a student can correctly interpret a teacher’s facial expressions and embouchure demonstrations. 
   Students should place the music stand slightly off to the right of the camera on the laptop. There is less sound distortion if the footjoint end of the flute is pointed away from the microphone in the laptop. Students should be several feet back from the laptop so the teacher can see the upper two thirds of the student. Good lighting improves the overall picture quality.
    Both teacher and student should have a notebook and pencil at hand. Ask students to jot down notes and practice suggestions during the lesson. Teachers can make more detailed notes and practice assignments to later scan and send as a follow-up to the lesson via email. I keep a notebook to review what has been assigned at earlier lessons. 
    At the appointed time have the student call the teacher. The teacher answers with the video prompt. The teacher and student should have discussed what music will be worked on at the lesson so the correct music is at hand and no time is lost finding it. If music is new or unfamiliar to either, then it should be scanned and sent in an email before the lesson time.
    Besides the time delay and the inability to play with students, there are some sight and sound limitations with distance lessons. Since you cannot see the whole flutist on Skype, it may be difficult to assess overall posture. To assess embouchure you may need to ask the student to reposition in relationship to the camera. Slight nuances of sound are hard to detect, so unless you are very familiar with a student’s personal sound and have a game plan to develop it in a certain way, you have to use a much more general approach to this area of study. Dynamic changes also are often leveled out by Skype.

Positive Aspects of Online Teaching
    A teacher can offer lessons to a much greater number of students using the internet because students do not have to be geographically close. Since lessons are set to start and end at very specific times, there is no time wasted with unpacking and packing up. Other benefits include the loss of travel time to and from lessons; students do not have to be driven to lessons, and neither the student nor teacher has to go out in inclement weather. For teachers who travel or tour frequently, fewer lessons are missed because teaching can continue on the road.

What You Can’t Do Online
    In addition to the previously mentioned technical limitations, I was not able to offer recital opportunities for students who studied via Skype, nor was I able to attend their concerts and auditions. Accordingly, I adjusted my tuition rate slightly since it had previously covered the expenses I incurred in providing performance and competition opportunities for them when we lived in the same area.

Payment and Paperwork
    If you know the students and their families well, have them send a check at the beginning of the month for the month’s lessons. For new students or those who may take only one lesson, set up a PayPal account. 
    Teaching online improved my teaching in several ways. I had to listen much more closely since I did not have the usual sensory advantages of an in-person lesson. My mind had to fill in the gaps when the sound stream was inconsistent while a student played. I learned how to focus more closely during the lessons so that I could give an accurate evaluation of a student’s progress. Combining technology with the occasional in-person lessons provides the best of both worlds for both teacher and student.