Finding the Resolve to Make Online Violin Lessons Work

June 4, 2020, 1:14 PM · "Today was my last day of school," my violin student told me during our Zoom lesson earlier this week. "My English teacher cried for the entire class."

online lesson little girl

I took a deep breath. I had a vivid picture of the English teacher who had come to know her students, planned lessons and activities for them, fostered hopes for what they might learn and how they would learn it. Then suddenly she was marooned at home, teaching over a computer, plans blown apart. She didn't get to see her students in person for the rest of the year, nor did they see her, and now it was time to say goodbye.

And then I thought about the students, like my student. It's the last day of school, saying goodbye without really seeing anyone. This is after three months of attending school via Zoom, on a small screen with an often bad connection. No visiting the library to pick out books. No smell of paint and clay in the art room, no noise in the music room. No chemistry experiment or frog to dissect (ewww!). No running around the field outside for gym class. No laughter from friends looking at the latest outrage on their phones. And now the English teacher is crying.

Certainly it's been a rough season for education. It's been frustrating, exhausting, unsatisfying, even maddening. Teachers are trying to hold it together and create a stable world for students, but there is only so much you can do over Zoom.

As a violin teacher, I'm grateful I can continue teaching my students. I continue to see progress and have fruitful interactions with them. But I also struggle with the limitations.

For example:

You can't physically fix things over Zoom.

I was waiting for a student to get ready for her lesson when I noticed she was struggling to prepare her violin to play. Then I noticed that the chin rest was in one hand, and the violin was in the other hand. Uh-oh. In-person, I would have taken the violin and likely fixed it in five minutes. How could she fix it without me there? I fished out my special tool, given to me long ago by a luthier: a little angled piece of metal that tightens those weird screws on chin rests. But I could only hold it up to the camera and ask, "Do you have something kind of like this at home?" The student found a parent, everyone looked all over the place, walked in and out of the room, found some odd tools, fiddled with the chin rest -- then we discovered that some of the cork was missing. Not only would they need to put a chin rest on a violin for the first time ever, but they would need to do some jury-rigging as well. It was too much. A week later the student was still playing without a chin rest - really being a sport about it. But it's not ideal. So repairs to the instrument, even simple ones, are much impeded by the physical separation, as well as shops being closed during the pandemic.

You can't control the environment in this online classroom.

You're not really in the same room, on Zoom or other online platforms. You can create a "set" that mimics the educational environment on the teacher's end, but there are limitations to this illusion. For example, students don't necessarily have the same things in their "set" as the teacher does, or they have them but can't find them. For example: a music stand, metronome, pencil, notebook, tuner....Let's just take one example to illustrate the difficulties of this: when you need to write something in the student's music. Obviously you can't directly write it into the music, so you have the following options: hold the correct version it up to the screen so the student can copy it; scan the music and text it to a parent in the hope that the student writes it into her/his music; or hold a fairly mathematical-sounding conversation, "In the measure 63, after the third note, there should be a slur from the fourth to the seventh note, which you need to play with your fourth finger, but please make sure you have an up-bow over that..."

"Wait, let me go get a pencil..."

There's a lot happening on that computer screen, and it's not all your lesson.

The student walks up to the screen, looking moonstruck, then starts fiddling with the mouse or touch screen. What is going on?

"MOOOOM! You just got a message from....!"

You never really know what windows are open on that screen, besides the one with the violin lesson. And even if all other windows are closed, messages and alerts can pop up and interrupt. It's a little like a phone ringing at a live lesson, but somehow it seems like more of an interruption because it interferes with the only connection you have; that computer screen.

You can't play together over an Internet connection.

This one grieves me most. I love playing duets with my students. I find I can communicate with them through playing, rather than through talking, and very often I can "say" much more to influence their style, articulations etc.. I still play the duets with them; but in order for them to play with me, they must be on "mute." That means they can hear me, but I can't hear them. This works for some students but not others - I can't adjust to them if they have counting or other problems. I can only give them a steady accompaniment to play with. When we do duets this way, I have to ask afterward, "Did that work?" because from my end, I don't hear how it goes together. It's still worth doing, to give them a chance to hear the harmony, but it's not ideal.

I could keep describing other limitations of online lessons, but I don't want to dwell on it. I just want to acknowledge that the limitations are real, and the frustrations do pile up for both student and teacher. What can we do about it?

Well, there's crying. Nothing wrong with that.

But after venting the frustrations, it's important to build the resolve to continue addressing these challenges and solving the problems that arise. It's just like solving a problem on the violin: you have to identify the problem, figure out why it happened, then set it right and go forward doing it right. The violin needs a repair? Call local shops, luthiers, Shar - find a way. Student's home set-up is not working? Talk to the parent and student and give them a list of what needs to be on hand for the violin lesson. At least some students will try to make this work; they are, after all, paying for lessons. Students get distracted by notifications and other windows? Ask them to close the windows, turn off notifications. Can't play duets? Do the best you can, do a little more listening to recordings to at least the student is hearing the full work with piano or orchestra. They can play along with recordings as well.

Before the pandemic, most of us held lessons in person. Teachers and students don't necessarily have a ready-made list of possible pitfalls and how to prevent them. So let's start making those lists of problems, and very importantly, using our imaginations and connections to each other to find the solutions and best practices to make this work. While many places are opening up for the present moment, the pandemic is not over, and we might be doing this for a good while longer. Let's find ways to keep students and teachers connected, to make online learning work as best as possible, and to keep ourselves mentally well in the process!

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June 4, 2020 at 08:01 PM · I think you summed up the challenges of online lessons perfectly, and I love the way you ended on such a positive and encouraging note.

I do have one suggestion about playing duets with a student; perhaps everyone on here is already aware of them, but there are some good tools designed for virtual jam sessions that might be useful:

JamKazam, which has open and private video jam session features, as well as a mode just for teachers/students called JamClass.

Jamtaba which is basically an open source version of JamKazam, though less featured.

Instagram Live, which of course isn't music specific but does now allow multiple simultaneous video feeds.

They won't replace live duets, just as online lessons can't replace in person lessons, but perhaps it will move things one step closer at least for some.

June 4, 2020 at 08:44 PM · Laurie,

Re: "The Little Tool" for working the barrel nuts for the chin rest. I have found that the cork-screw in my Swiss Army Knife does the job quite well.

Of course, I know what I'm doing and how much torque is required whereas a parent might not get the idea of "just tight enough" so that it doesn't move may not compute to a parent used to "making things TIGHT!"

My biggest problem has been with slipping pegs and trying to explain to parents how to push and turn. I've guided them over the computer only to see them release the peg and watch it spin. In my studio I have alcohol wipes, peg-dope, tweezers to guide strings into tiny peg boxes and spare strings. The parents usually don't have any of these things.

Regarding the duets: my solution has been to make recordings of me playing the teacher part as an MP3 and sending them to the student to play in the room. That actually does work but it isn't the same as being there.

The beauty is that humans evolved to solve problems and we are doing just that.

The one positive thought I have is that, in the future, foul weather or tight schedules might not be the problem they have been in the past and I've had more than a few five minute sessions with my students dealing with a specific problem they ran into. Under normal operations, that problem would have waited (or been ground in) till the next lesson. There are some up-sides.

June 4, 2020 at 09:29 PM · Wonderful post, Laurie! And I am so appreciative when George weighs in, as he always has a gem for us. This time, it's: "The beauty is that humans evolved to solve problems and we are doing just that." I wholeheartedly agree that there has been a silver lining to the isolation. I have a friend who is really uncomfortable driving and she's started taking online lessons during the quarantine. It's given her an entirely new outlet, and even with all the drawbacks of this virtual experience, it has proven to be quite wonderful for her.

June 6, 2020 at 10:36 PM · Yes, great job describing the online experience. My next step will be offering outdoor lessons on my porch. This will be interesting in the summer heat, and poses new problems like wind and bugs. But it does prepare students for outdoor gigs...

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