‘Skype lessons’ is the generic name that is generally used for live online lessons using video chat technology. Skype is one of the more commonly used platforms for online lessons, but there are many others, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, OoVoo, Facetime and more. Mac users often find that Facetime works best, however, both teacher and student need to be using an iOS device. For ease of expression, I will refer to live online lessons as ‘Skype lessons’ in this article, but do be aware that the information will apply to other platforms as well.
Anthony has written about Skype lessons in an earlier blog post, which you may also like to read.
It is quite possible to have a very successful Skype lesson with minimal equipment, but it is important to realise that the quality of your experience will be impacted by the quality of your equipment. While it is possible to use an iPad/tablet (and maybe even a smart phone), better results will be achieved using a notebook computer.
Minimum basic requirements for delivering online lessons
For best results, use a cable connection to your modem rather than Wi-Fi. If that isn’t possible, make sure that the Wi-Fi signal is strong enough. If your lap top is too far from the modem/wireless router, you may need to invest in a signal booster.
If your laptop has an SD internal webcam, the view I see of you will probably not be adequate to work well with you. The video at right demonstrates the difference between an SD webcam and an HD webcam. Both parts of the video were taken one after the other, with the same lighting conditions etc (there is no audio).
If your computer has a good quality HD internal webcam, you can make do with that, at least initially while you work out whether Skype lessons will work for you. However, most people find that it is advantageous to have an external webcam as well. The Logitech C920 HD webcam appears to be the webcam of choice for most Skype teachers and is compatible with both Windows and Mac.
This can be suspended over the keyboard of a grand piano on a boom microphone stand:
Blu-Tack or tape both work well to secure the webcam to the boom, or you can purchase an adapter attachment (On Stage CM01 converts a 5/8” microphone thread to a 1/4" thread to suit cameras. The Logitech C920 HD webcam has a 1/4” thread which works perfectly with this. See a previous blog post on video equipment here.)
If you have an upright piano, you can also use the boom microphone stand, but a quicker, easier solution is an acrylic photo or leaflet holder, with a weight on it. (In my photo, a heavy lamp is placed on the end of the leaflet holder.)
Make sure that you attach the webcam in such a way that the keyboard appears across the top of the screen, and not upside down at the bottom of the screen (or you may be able to alter the view as needed in your webcam software).
If you don’t have any means of suspending your webcam for your initial lesson, put the laptop on a sturdy music stand and then angle the webcam to look down over the keyboard as much as possible. (In the photo of my grand piano above, the laptop screen would need to be angled down a little to give a better view of the keyboard.)
An issue with Skype, but not with Zoom, is that the image you see of yourself on the screen is mirrored. Don’t panic! Your teacher will see the image correctly (and will see his/her own image in reverse).
Switching camera views
There is another benefit to having an external webcam along with your internal HD webcam. It is quite easy in Skype and most other video chat platforms to switch the webcam during a lesson. This means you can easily switch between a side view of the keyboard from your laptop placed beside the piano and an overhead view from the suspended webcam.
For Skype on a Windows computer, go to <Tools>, <Options>, <Video Settings>, then Select Webcam. (See photo at left)
For a Mac computer, go to <Preferences>, <Audio-Video>, then <Camera Input>.
Here are Zoom and Google Hangout screenshots for changing the webcam:
You may like to use headphones or earbuds so that you can hear the audio more clearly. You will need to learn to speak a little more slowly, and to ensure that you wait for the other person to stop talking before you start. In real life we tend to overlap in conversation, but this just doesn’t work with video chat platforms.
The microphone in your laptop is quite likely to be adequate. If you plan to take Skype lessons over a long period of time, you may wish to invest in a better-quality external microphone.
In your Skype or other video chat audio settings, you will get best results if you uncheck the ‘Automatically adjust microphone settings’ box.
Recording your lessons
You may wish to record your lesson (with your teacher’s permission) for your own private use. Skype does not have an inbuilt recording facility, so you should experiment ahead of time with the recording program you wish to use. For Mac users, Call Record is excellent; for Windows users, Pamela is popular. Zoom has an inbuilt recording feature, so it is simple to record your lesson. You could also use screen-casting software to record your screen, however in Skype, your image will be mirrored. (Playing back in a program like VLC will allow you to flip the screen so that it is no longer mirrored).
Whichever means you choose for recording your lesson, be sure to try it out ahead of time. There are various settings for recording, such as whether to record both the teacher and student ends of the call (preferred) or just one or the other. In Zoom, the recording can be set to automatically record whichever end of the call is producing sound, however, students have reported that the change sometimes happens too slowly to see what the teacher demonstrates etc, and it struggles when the conversation is going back and forth between teacher and student.
Performing for your teacher during a lesson
Skype lessons are not a good medium for performing long sections of your repertoire. Your lesson time can generally be put to much better use by trouble shooting passages and seeking clarification on particular issues. Come to your lesson with a list of the passages you wish to work on.
If you wish to present a performance, it is much better to record it ahead of time and upload it to YouTube or Vimeo (as a private link), and send the link to the teacher. You and your teacher can then watch it together in the lesson - the easiest way is for one of you to play the video while sharing your screen.
If you send a video to your teacher ahead of time, please do not assume that s/he will have time to view it outside of your lesson time, unless this has been indicated otherwise. If the teacher does view it prior to the lesson, the lesson time should be shortened accordingly, as this video is intended to replace doing the performance via Skype in the lesson.
Preparing for your first Skype lesson
A few days ahead of your lesson, let your teacher know what repertoire you wish to work on. If s/he doesn’t have those scores, scan and email them to your teacher. Please remember to include bar/measure numbers and any fingering that you have already worked out.
Well before the lesson, check out your webcam and laptop positioning and practise switching between camera views (if you have two).
Hold a trial call with a friend, and have him/her check that your keyboard can be seen easily.
Allow time to reboot your computer before the lesson and, if you are a Windows user, ensure that automatic Windows updates are turned off or set to manual.
Close other programs on your computer, especially ones that are connected to the internet (such as email, Facebook, web browsers). Minimise internet usage by other household members where possible, especially big downloads or uploads (computer games, movies etc).
Check the time of your lesson carefully, especially if you live in a different time-zone to your teacher. You may wish to use a site such as timeanddate.com to check. Alternatively, you can add the lesson to a calendar such as Google Calendar or iCal and set the time zone accordingly. Be ready at the appointed time and wait for the teacher to call you.
Here is a quick preparation quick check list:
Set Windows Updates to manual installation
Allow time to check webcam and microphone set up
Reboot computer before you start
Close other programs on your computer, especially email programs and web browsers
Minimise internet usage by other household members
Use a cable connection if possible
Have pencil, eraser and notepad etc at the piano
Troubleshooting Technology Problems:
See above under ‘Preparation’
End the call and start again
Reboot the computer
Try different software (e.g. if using Skype, then try Zoom or Google Hangout etc)
Shorten the lesson and use an asynchronous method
You will find other information about using video equipment in lessons in these previous blog posts.
While a great deal can be achieved through Skype lessons, an important aspect of Taubman lessons that can’t be handled through the online medium is the hands-on contact. The teacher can learn much about what is going on in your hands through touch, and it is much easier for you to find the new correct movements with a teacher’s guiding hand. Enjoy the benefits of access to a Taubman teacher via Skype, but do take the opportunity to have in-person lessons as often as you can.
In a subsequent post I'll discuss using webcam splitting software to enhance your experience of Skype lessons.
Previous post: Applying Taubman principles in early-intermediate repertoire - Kabalevsky Op 27
Previous post in this series: Making videos accessible to students