Thanks to videoconferencing tools such as Skype and FaceTime, teaching music lessons online is becoming more and more popular among teachers all over the world. In this post I’ll share a few of my own experiences teaching online piano lessons: finding the right clients, introducing concepts in online lessons, visual aids, having online students perform in your studio recitals, what to do when your screen freezes, and more.
This post was originally published September 18, 2012 and has been revised and expanded.
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It is important to identify the best potential Skype clients
One particular student I am teaching online at the time of writing this post is four years old (she will be five next month), and we are using Alfred’s Premier Piano Course, Level 1A. H is responding well to this series for many reasons:
- She is reading at a 3rd grade level
- She is very independent
- She follows directions well
- She is intrinsically motivated to learn and loves learning
- She is home-schooled by her mom, a former elementary school teacher
- Her mom sits with her during each lesson to help out when needed
Parental support is essential, and H is blossoming because of it. So far, H has been the ideal client for online piano lessons!
I currently teach other students online as well, ages 11, 10, and 7. These three girls are hard workers, their parents are always very close by if they need assistance with moving the iPad or playing an accompaniment track, and we have so much fun during their lessons. These things make them really great online piano students!
It is important to use a specific protocol for introducing new concepts and pieces
For H, as well as other young beginners, I must create extremely detailed practice steps to use during the lesson and during the week, since I am not there in person for a hands-on lesson. My questions must be very clear, and I must wait until she has finished playing or talking before I speak or play, because she can’t hear me otherwise.
For each page in the Lesson Book, I create a list of questions and instructions for H. For example, here are questions I ask her and directives I give her as we begin learning “Treasure Map” (Alfred’s Premier Lesson Book 1A page 8), after we’ve talked about the title of the piece, going on a treasure hunt, pirates, and other things that 4-year-olds love to interject:
- Listen to the CD and tap your fingers while saying finger numbers.
- Say the words while tapping your fingers.
- How many groups of notes do you see?
- Are they moving higher or lower on the page?
- Will they move higher or lower on the piano?
- Which hand plays?
- Which fingers play? Wiggle the fingers that play this song.
- Will you need 2 black keys or 3 black keys?
- Find your Hand Position (look at the small keyboard on the page).
- Touch the notes that you will play. Remember to move lower for each group of notes.
- Play the song and sing the words, then play along with your CD at the Practice Tempo first (track 5), then the Performance Tempo (track 4).
These questions and statements can change greatly from week to week, based on the things she begins to notice on her own, as well as the things that need extra review.
It takes longer to teach concepts and pieces online than in person, so focus and flexibility are especially important
One of the reasons for this is because I have to lead her to complete tasks by giving her these detailed instructions, and it just takes longer! I email a copy of the assignment/task sheet to H’s mom before each lesson so she can follow along and be sure H stays on task through the lesson.
Often, I plan too many things to be accomplished in the lesson, because it does take a little longer to communicate concepts online, so I make changes to the assignment sheet and email the updated copy after the lesson. Sending the lesson plan prior to the lesson isn’t necessary for my older online students. We simply follow my plan and then I email practice notes to their parents afterwards.
Additionally, I must remember that H is only four years old, and she has a short attention span, as most kids that age do, so we usually work for 15 minutes, take a break while her mom and I chat, and then work for 15 more minutes, which I think is fantastic for a four-year-old. Of course, it helps that H’s mom and I are friends, so we always have plenty to talk about!
The older the students get, the less “brain breaks” they will need, so I need to be very aware of when they are getting tired and need a breather, especially during the more rigorous lessons. We take each lesson as it comes, and work and break accordingly.
Introduce new concepts using “larger than life” visuals (as part of the Sound-Feel-Sign-Name sequence)
When I am showing things to H, I must remember that bigger is better with regards to what she can see on her laptop screen. The visuals I create for her are 8.5×11 so that she can easily see not only the sign or symbol, but so that she can also follow along as I point to something such as a rhythm pattern or series of notes. These giant visuals make it much easier to convey information within the lesson setting, especially with a young child.
For example, after H experienced hearing a quarter rest within a series of quarter notes, and repeated clap-back patterns I clapped with quarter notes and quarter rests, I showed her a giant picture of the quarter rest, then told her its name. The giant visual eliminated any confusion she might have otherwise experienced, if she had been expected to follow along in her book on her own.
With my older online students, I keep an extra copy of their materials handy and write on the score during lessons. Then I hold the score close to my webcam so they can copy the markings onto their score. This process becomes much more efficient as they become more and more comfortable finding measures by using measure numbers.
How do online students participate in recitals?
There are multiple ways to do this, including having the parent video the student performing and sending the video to me ahead of time, and I play the video during our live recital. However, I prefer having my online students perform live via Skype or FaceTime during the recital.
Below you can see one of my online students getting ready to perform in our spring recital. My students and their families met in the fellowship hall at church. I used my laptop and the church’s projector and speakers so everyone could see and hear her, and she performed live via Skype from the sanctuary of her church. Her mom set up her laptop so that we could see and hear her performance clearly. What a fun recital!
Additional things to remember
- Laptops and iPads (especially the largest iPad Pro) are best for online lessons. Smartphones will work in a pinch, but they are not ideal longterm.
- Laptops can sit on a music stand, table, chair, or other stable surface. iPads can be placed in a floor stand for ease of use and to keep your iPad safe and secure.
- I use an ethernet cable rather than depending on Wi-Fi for lessons so that our connection is as strong as possible.
- My laptop power cord is plugged in during online lessons.
- If students are using an iPad for online lessons, turning the iPad horizontally seems to works best. I can also adjust my FaceTime settings so they can see me horizontally as well.
- iTunes is great for playing the CD tracks so students can clap along and say finger numbers, words, count beats, play along, etc.
- We have our webcams set up so that our hands and faces are visible. I set mine up on a music stand, raised slightly above the piano, with the webcam facing somewhat downward so my students can see and understand my demonstrations and see my face as well as books and materials when I am using. Logitech webcams are without question my absolute favorites.
- I use my students’ names very frequently during lessons to help maintain their focus and attention.
- Because online lessons are at the students’ own homes, my youngest student often asks to show me drawings she has made, or a new toy she has received. I allow her to do this, sometimes during our break, and sometimes after the lesson, because it is very important to her to share things with others.
- It’s also extra important to have brief chit-chat sessions with all of my students, whether online or not, to increase rapport and trust, and to help us get to know each other better.
- Be prepared for the screen to freeze occasionally. It doesn’t happen often, but we have a plan for when it does. If someone is “frozen”, like these hilarious screen shot pictures, we hang up and I FaceTime or Skype them again. It usually solves the problem right away. Really – these are ACTUAL frozen images of the girls, just as they looked on my laptop screen! We all broke out into giggles when I sent these to their mom 🤣
To answer a question from the comments on this post, here’s a video of how I teach pedaling to my online students, and to my in-studio students as well. It was recorded in Call Recorder for Skype, so please forgive the quality. I wasn’t planning to share it when I recorded it, but here it is 🙂