At first, I was reluctant to post this article as the April 2020 addition to the Monthly Practice Corner. How does Technology for Online Lessons belong here? First, we couldn’t keep learning online without a minimum of technology know-how. Bravo to you for figuring this out so quickly! Second, there are lots of tweaks that can be made, regardless of whether you buy new equipment. That sounds like practice to me!
Many music teacher have written articles on this subject since confinement began. However, I wanted to put together what I’ve done, in hopes it might help you too. Whenever an option is available at no cost, I consider that first. I also take the long view – making recommendations that might help beyond our hopefully short time of social distancing. Let’s get started!
- My mentor, Nicola Cantan, made this device setup video. I can’t do it better. Go back to the beginning if you want to hear the intro and her lighting suggestions.
There are several things you can do to make sure you have the best speed possible. One is to call your provider to ask what’s available. I did this just before the Covid-19 pandemic, and received a higher-speed connection for a lower price. I don’t say you will be as lucky, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease!
One further tip is to try to test your upload speed on whatever device you are using. Yes, I did say upload and not download. This is not Netflix, where all you care about is download speed. If you want me to guide you in your playing, I need to receive it well. That’s only possible with good upload speed.
Test your upload speed on your device using Google, or the old standard Speedtest by Ookla. Every time I find a problem with bandwidth, I go to the Speedtest app on my phone. I want to know if I’m the problem! If you have at least 10 Mbps, that’s good enough. If you don’t have that much, there are several things you can do:
- Ask your other family members to stop streaming video or playing online games during your lesson. Web browsing and Social Media, without video, shouldn’t be a problem.
- If you’re using a laptop or desktop, directly connect via a network cable to your modem. These cables come in lengths of 50 and 100 feet, and are worth the trouble to plug and unplug!
- If you’re using a phone or tablet, you must rely on strong Wi-Fi. Thus, try to move your modem closer to your piano, or even your piano, if it’s electronic, closer to your modem. If neither is possible, perhaps upgrade your modem, if it’s more than several years old, or get a repeater to boost your signal.
Tablets are better than phones. Typically, larger devices have better cameras, audio, and battery life. Remember to charge your device before a lesson. If that’s not possible, plug it in to a charger during the lesson if your battery is low. Laptops have the advantage of a larger screen size, but they don’t necessarily work better than tablets. Plus, their size almost dictates having a music or specialty laptop stand for support.
- Turn off background app refresh
- Free up storage space to enable optimal buffering
- Reboot your device periodically
- Clear the cache regularly (However, this means having to enter your passwords again)
Device Stand and Holder
Many of you are using a table or chair with books to prop up your device. If you have a standard Wenger or Manhasset music stand, that can work even better! The best placement is a couple of feet past the end of the keyboard, and high enough to show both the keys and the student’s face as well.
If you’re looking to spend money for a better solution, I suggest buying a microphone tripod floor stand. My model is a Samson MK-10, which gives me the added flexibility to use it as a boom stand with a Webcam over the keyboard. You can purchase a phone or tablet holder to mount to it. Besides the two uses mentioned, the stand could be used with a microphone, a camera, or a digital audio or video recorder. Just make sure that you are aware how the holder connects to the stand. Make sure to get a 1/4″ male to 5/8″ female adapter if necessary.
Software (FaceTime or Zoom)
I am currently using FaceTime on my iPad. The problem is that FaceTime only allows that simple one-camera approach. I am often scurrying home from in-person lessons, or need to leave home after a video lesson to teach in person. My plan is to eventually use Zoom more often, instead of FaceTime, so that I can set up my second camera with an overhead view of the keys. It provides a higher-caliber online lesson.
If you don’t use Apple products, I can also use Zoom on my tablet. I just need to know in advance since those calls have to be scheduled; they are harder to create on the fly.
Your built-in microphone is probably sufficient. This is a really tricky one, since most inexpensive microphones have become much more expensive due to current circumstances. The Fifine microphone I purchased a few weeks ago was $5 above pre-Covid-19 times, and is currently selling for $5 more than I paid. A lavalier or lapel microphone is also probably fine. There is a risk in overpaying for any microphone right now.
Also, pay attention to the connector. A lightning connector will only work on older Apple devices, since Apple abandoned that connector for USB C in 2019. The Fifine microphone comes with an old USB A connector, which is perfect for a PC. An inexpensive adapter can also make it useful on an old or new Apple device.
Yes, you already have most of the technology for online lessons! So now you have to consider if there are any facets of online lessons you’d like to improve? The best improvement to any online lesson is by maximizing bandwidth and have an optimized device. Those two tasks are most likely free.
Most of the other ideas suggested aren’t free. Purchasing a device holder and stand adds to the online lesson experience, and will be useful past social distancing. So would purchasing an add-on microphone. Both are important steps in making quality recording for posting recordings to the Internet or simply for critique yourself. I’d recommend thinking long and hard about the proper way to buy technology. As Nicola Cantan from Colourful Keys says, figure out what your problem is first. Then, find a shiny tech device to solve it, and not vice-versa!