What Your Teacher Is Doing In Your Music Lesson, and How to Adapt Online

March 16, 2020, 1:25 PM · In order to see the learning potential in online lessons, it helps for us to take the long view and think, "What is happening in weekly music lessons?" I tell my violin students that the goal is for them to learn something about the violin, and something about themselves. Any lesson where we learn something is a worthwhile lesson. This article will examine the many things music teachers do during private music instruction, in order to open the door for everyone to think creatively about how to connect online and continue to accomplish these goals, without the teacher’s physical presence in a room.

Claire Allen teaching student
Photo by Alice Grabowski, BlueGreenPhotos.

Connect and Build Relationships

One of the main things a teacher is doing during a lesson is building a relationship and establishing a connection through which learning can happen. This might be something simple, like asking how the student's day is going, what discoveries he or she made during practice this week, or sharing a story about the teacher's own experiences. Those conversations can still happen over a virtual connection, whether through a video call or even just through emails. Parents of younger children may have to read emails out loud to them. Parents can also encourage their children to write a note to their teachers themselves, either through email or on paper. Or, just take a picture of the paper and email or text it to the teacher.

Teach New Skills

In lessons, teachers often teach new skills, such as a new bow stroke, a new finger pattern, shifting, etc. This involves the following: what it sounds like, what it looks like when you do it, what it feels like inside the body to do it, and how to help each student be able to find that sound and feeling for themselves.

Over an online connection, there are a few ways this can be adapted. First, the teacher will need to use very body-specific language to make sure the child is feeling it for themselves. Second: rather than using the lesson time for a video call, the teacher can make a video demonstrating the technique several ways, even a step-by-step video. The student can download this video at home, watch it as many times as needed, practice along with it, do it in slow motion, etc. One advantage of video is you can change the video angle, adapting it to get a close-up view of one hand or another to demonstrate a technique in detail. Depending on the situation, that kind of video might provide an even better perspective than an in-person demonstration!

Teach New Material (Scales, Etudes, Pieces)

Unfortunately, some people think this is the only reason to go to lessons - to pass off their old material and be assigned new material. Teachers are truly doing so much more, but if this is what one is most afraid of losing over a virtual connection, there are ways to teach this as well.

What is involved in teaching new material? Here's a list:

Whew! That’s a lot. But most of this can be done over a video call, or a pre-recorded video. A teacher can also write step-by-step instructions and give the student a challenge of learning independently.

Assess Short- and Long-Term Progress

Teachers are assessing a student's progress every week: if they’ve completed the assignments accurately, if their physical ease with the instrument is allowing them to make the best sound possible, if each element of their musicality is in balance (for example, do they play with a beautiful sound but struggle to keep a steady pulse? Are they wonderfully expressive but fail to play in tune?)

Teachers are also assessing the student’s progress with their longer-term goals in mind. Are they learning the techniques they need to successfully audition for their high school orchestra? If they want to be a music major in college, are they playing the pieces and building the technique they need to be on track to take auditions? How does music fit into the big picture of their life, and what materials and activities are needed to ensure their continued enjoyment and also their success?

Taking some regular lesson time for a detailed assessment can be incredibly valuable in helping students understand where they are in their musical journey: what their current skill sets are, what they need to develop next, and where they are mentally and emotionally with their music. Asking a teacher for this written assessment in lieu of a lesson can give a student (and their parents) tremendous insight.

Setting Goals

Teachers are also working with students to set short, medium, and long-term goals. Whether it’s practicing a tricky passage a certain number of times, planning when to have a piece memorized for a concert, or developing a game plan to audition for music school, teachers are constantly jumping back and forth from their student’s current reality to their hopeful future.

A good idea for this period of online lessons would be to strategize goals with your teacher for the next couple weeks of playing - and maybe set a challenge! Can a student play all the scales they know each day with really free and balanced posture? Can they read all the notes in each of their etudes as well as playing them? Can they practice a set amount of time each day? All of this can be done in writing or over a video call.

Answering Questions

Teachers answer lots of questions during lessons, like "How should I practice this? Can I take this audition? When can I play this piece? What can I listen to this week?"

These questions can be answered in writing, or via a video call. There are very few questions that require the teacher’s physical presence to answer.

Reminding Students Of What They Already Know

Music teachers spend a good amount of lesson time reminding students of things they already know, such as appropriate posture, reading the notes accurately, keeping a steady beat...the list goes on and on.

Online lessons can be great for keeping students aware of those details that elude their awareness on a regular basis. Students get a little reminder, and this continues to improve their musicianship overall. If students came back from this period of online lessons having fully integrated all their teacher’s regular instructions, that would be a huge leap forward in progress for most students.


Teachers make decisions about what materials to assign, how much to assign, and how to assign practice. This can be done in writing, via a pre-recorded video, or over a video call.

Cultivating Independence

The ultimate goal of every teacher is to help contribute a thoughtful, artistic, independently-operating musician who feels empowered to learn, create, and share music on their own. For small children, this could be as simple as carrying their own instrument, learning to care for their instrument, and checking items off on a practice list (even if the parent has to read the list to them). For older children, this might be making a list of practice strategies they know from their teacher and trying them. For teens, this might be learning a piece independently, or preparing a special recording or concert project by themselves. Switching to online video lessons will require more independence, since there will be some things the teacher simply can’t do for them. And, having students develop more independence is actually part of the master plan - so we are really still on track!

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March 16, 2020 at 08:29 PM · Hi Laurie! Thanks for this. My biggest struggle is that I have to plan for mixed instrument groups with quite a number of Spanish-only speakers. I don’t speak Spanish and always have another child translate. I’ll be modeling my videos on what you’ve done and Nathan Cole’s videos. Interesting times!

March 16, 2020 at 11:20 PM · Hi Catherine -- thank Claire - she has been writing such helpful blogs during this time of transition for so many teachers and students! :) That does sound like a complicated situation, you will have to share with us how you solve all that!

March 18, 2020 at 08:09 AM · This sounds very interesting but I still prefer haveing the teacher in the room.

March 21, 2020 at 03:27 AM · I think a lot of us prefer having the teacher in the room - except during a pandemic! That said, we all might find some things we really like about online teaching; it may emerge as more of an option than it used to be, when all this is over!

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