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!
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 squeeky 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 isn’t Netflix, where all you care about is download speed. The upload speed is what you need to present your playing to your teacher. Test your upload speed on your device using Google, or the old standard Speedtest by Ookla. 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 avoid streaming video or playing online games during your lesson. Web browsing or even Social Media, without video, is probably not a big factor.
- 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 recorder like the Zoom H4N. 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.
I am currently using FaceTime and a one-camera approach on my iPad. The donwside about this is that the default camera is going to show a mirror image, so high is low and vice versa. There are a couple of tricks I’ve discovered I can use when necessary. If I need to show a full keyboard view, I can swivel my device on its stand 180 degrees and turn on the back camera. It takes about 10 seconds to do, and has the disadvantage of not being able to see my student. However, if I just need to show a finger crossing or a chord, I have a melodica on a music stand just behind the iPad. That only requires switching to the back camera and switching back once I done the brief demonstration.
I do like Zoom when used with a laptop, especially used with a WebCam in addition to the built-in camera to create an over-the-keyboard view. I might do that on special occasions, or when creating short video lessons. However, I find it unnecessarily complicated for regular lessons.
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!