The Learning Potential Of Online Lessons

March 12, 2020, 10:00 AM · Around the world, teachers in every field are being asked to transfer their course content online. In the midst of an already concerning and stressful time, this is an added stress for those of us who may not be familiar with teaching in an online platform, and especially in a field like music, which thrives on interpersonal connection.

teaching online

We, as music teachers, are uniquely equipped to face this challenge. We think outside the box every single day. We are creative. From the many conversations I had at the ASTA conference last week to the ideas I see being offered in online discussion groups, I know that this is a group of brilliant people who are going to turn this situation into a learning opportunity for our students. And I am encouraged by the support that music teachers are sending each other across the globe as we all face this together.

With our students and parents, this may be a challenging sell, especially for families with very young children, or with very progress-oriented families. I tell my students this: "A violin lesson is a place where we learn something about the violin and ourselves. And often, the lesson we’re expecting to have isn’t the lesson we need - but the lesson we have, is, in fact, the lesson we need." So, if you learned something about the violin or yourself in your lesson today, that was a good lesson.

What are the unique things we can teach our students in this new learning method? How much more open to learning will their minds be when they are out of their normal school and lesson schedule? These are unknowns for now, but even as you debate Zoom vs Skype vs FaceTime, I encourage you to think of the learning potential for your students as well. Here are some of the things I’ve thought of:

1. Cultivating independence. I am so, so guilty of just doing things for my students because it saves time, whether that is tuning their violin, writing something in on the music, or just telling them why their tone is funny. In online lessons, where we can’t physically aid our students, this is a great opportunity for them to build needed independence.

For young children working with their parents, this is a great opportunity for the parents to really be active in reading the music. You can take photos of your own sheet music and send them to the parents so they can compare for accuracy. For those of us not teaching wholly Suzuki-style, this is an amazing chance to really involve the parents in the lessons so they are more deeply aware of what is going on in their child’s education. Being out of their normal routine will make them more open to this. "Because of this unique set up, I need you to be really observant during the Skype lesson. Can you please be prepared to physically adjust your child when I ask you to, mark things in the music, and take notes so you can help them practice at home?"

2. Seeing our students in their home environment. I taught one of my youngest students (age 6) via video this last week, and was absolutely delighted to see her more relaxed and open than she is in the studio. In fact, halfway through one of her rhythm exercises, she got frustrated, so she ran over to the play house in the corner of the room, climbed up, went down the slide, and came back, ready to work. I think that’s fantastic, and it was an insight to her character I never would have had in our normal lessons. We will get to see where they are practicing at home, observe their set up (no wonder the violin droops - the music stand is way too low!), potentially "meet" family pets as they wander in and out of frame - this will give us a new perspective on our students. And that, too, is a learning win.

3. Clarifying everything. So much of music is nonverbal, and one of the challenges of online lessons is that just about everything has to be a very specific verbal instruction, whether to the student or their parent. In a normal music lesson where the parent is observing, they may not be the one actively adjusting their child’s posture. In an online lesson, you may have to say, "Parent, can you move the violin so it is balanced on Child’s shoulder? The scroll should be pointing straight out, not down." Or, "Can you feel their bow hold so it’s soft and squishy?" Give clear directions of where to physically move their child and what it should feel like, and see the results. The parent may feel more empowered to help their child when practicing at home, and this is a very good thing!

For older students, I find I need to be very specific about how much I want them to play, and what I want them to be observing while they do. "Play the first four measures of Wohlfahrt 1, and observe your pinky hovering over the strings. Great! Do that again and this time, can you feel your bow arm moving smoothly from the elbow joint? Good! One more time, and now listen to how ringing all your 3rd fingers are."

4. Note-reading. We all teach note-reading in different times and different ways. This might be an opportunity to develop it more thoroughly, or even teach it earlier than you had originally intended.

For older students who already know how to read, but who aren’t fluent, you can have them read note names to you out loud, then play the lines. You can find pieces that use the notes they know how to read but that you haven’t played yet, send them to them digitally, and ask them to read the notes to you, or learn a piece independently without you playing the notes for them first. I know there are several sight reading websites/software programs out there offering discounts to teachers right now. I’ve never used them myself, but this could be an option.

For younger students just beginning to read, I really love Evelyn Avsharian’s ABC Notespeller books. They are fun, use very large print, and my five-year-olds loved them when we did them last summer. If the parents are still able to order books online, I’d recommend these. You can also send the parents a basic primer on reading simple notes (even just A, B, C#, and D), and have them work with their children on drawing those notes on staff paper (easy to print off or draw their own), identifying those notes in their own music, or make flash cards.

This may not be the normal progression you would have chosen, but at the end of the month, if you have a student who is reading more fluently, confidently, and able to operate more independently because of it, this is progress!

A lot of this transition involves rethinking those things that we teachers do automatically in lessons, and choosing how we can best communicate them over a video connection. Yes, of course, we all know that in-person lessons are ideal. That teacher-student connection is really important, and no digital medium can take away the joy of actual, live music. But, a violin lesson is a place where we learn about the violin and ourselves. What can we learn as teachers, and what can we help our students and their families learn through this?

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