Online Teaching

Today we have an awesome guest post by Christie Sowby about online teaching! I am now super intrigued about the whole prospect, and may just have to try it out someday! (Isn't technology amazing?)

How many of you just grunted or sighed when you saw this subject? Have you ever thought what it would be like if you had to teach all of your students online?

Well, that’s where my story comes in. When you have a successful piano studio and your spouse gets accepted to a graduate school all the way across the country—or takes a new job or a temporary assignment away from home—what do you do? Drop all your students? Hope they’ll be there when you get back? Give up?

No way. You can keep your students. Here’s how I did it.

1) Talk to parents and students about your idea

I let my studio know that I would be moving to Boston with my husband for a year. (By the way, I know some people that do this over a 2–4 year period—or even longer. No matter how long, it can still work.) I didn’t want to lose my precious students that I have worked with for several years. They were too good to give up! So, after talking with them and their families individually, we decided how to proceed. There were a couple of parents with their children who decided that they couldn’t do online lessons—and that was fine with me. I respect everyone’s decisions. I did let them know that they would have to go to the bottom of the waiting list if they wanted to study with me when I returned, though. There were definitely perks for those who stayed! Fortunately, 90 percent of the studio was open to the idea of online lessons and supported me in it.

2) Practice having lessons online before you actually have to do it

A few months before I left for Boston, I made sure I had—and tested—all the equipment: two iPads, two microphone stands, two iKlips, two pianos and a regular internet connection. I was able to purchase all of the materials (I already had the pianos) with a $3,000 grant I received through MTNA. If you’re interested in such a grant, see here:

At a master class a couple of months before I left, I showed all of the students how the process would work. I had the iPads on the iKlips (attached to the mic stands) and had both iPads connected via FaceTime. I showed each student what it would look like on either end of “lessons.” Was the sound good? Yes. Was the view good? Yes. Was it different? Absolutely! You can tilt the iKlip any direction you need to in order to see the student. Here’s a picture of it facing up (I had it the long direction and facing down toward the student sitting at the piano):

Throughout this master class, students could ask questions, get experience and understand what it was going to be like.

3) Do individual lessons online before actually having to do it

We then focused on individual online lessons. Each student had about 2 to 3 lessons online before I actually moved. We started with 15 minutes online from separate rooms in my studio, after which I would finish the remainder of the lesson in person. We increased the online time each week until the last was a full online lesson. Parents were welcome to come and observe.

4) Make sure you have the materials and connections ready to go

Yes, I had to own a copy of every single song my students were playing. Yes, I took it all to Boston. The good news? I can sell them to any future students now that I am done with those extra copies. For each lesson, I knew what books the student was working out of and I kept the books by my piano as I taught. I also thought about any new repertoire they would be learning and made sure I had copies both in my studio and in Boston. Just in case I forgot, I made a list of all the books I had in my studio or wanted the students to purchase.

I had two iPad 2’s. They come with FaceTime built in, which uses a wireless internet connection and does not require any fees or contracts. I’ve never had to use the 3G service. I also got the Skype app for backup. Depending on student’s preferences, we used FaceTime or Skype.

5) Figure out where lessons and master classes will be held

I was lucky enough to have a family who supported me in this endeavor. For students who wanted (and this was the majority), they went to my parents’ home in Highland where there is a beautiful grand and upright piano. I hired and paid my brother who was always home during lesson time to set up the pianos (keep them dusted and clean), keep the environment clean, set up all the equipment, make sure the iPad was charged, etc. He would let students in and out and make sure everything ran smoothly. I do NOT think this would be possible without someone responsible on the other end. My nice younger and tech-savvy brother did this for me.

Other students tuned in to lessons from their own homes. Some of them had computers set up on chairs (with books underneath to reach the correct height) and others had iPads or other devices. No matter what it was, it all worked. The nice thing about Boston is that I was two hours behind them. I had students wanting to do 6:00 a.m. lessons in Utah. No problem at 8:00 a.m. my time! I also had two students move to Taiwan for five months while I was in Boston. Not a problem. I taught in the morning in Boston, when it was evening in Taiwan. When I got back to Utah, I taught at night and it was morning for them. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE! And guess what? The connection was as smooth as it was in Boston.

For master classes, I hired a professional teacher whom I trusted would do well with my students. I prepared my students each month with pieces to play at master class. I paid my master class teacher well and my students thrived in her master classes. Those classes were also held at my parents’ home in Highland. My master class teacher also accompanied concertos for my students. My students paid her to learn the parts. She played with them at classes and for competitions and festivals. My students benefited from a second teacher’s musical advice and still got the experience of master class in my absence.

6) Get on the move and make it work!

Rob and I moved to Boston. That’s a feat in and of itself. I then made sure to practice FaceTime with my family before students actually came. It took about 1.5 to 2 months for everyone—including me—to be completely comfortable with the iPads. You have to remember that you have a live person and then all of a sudden they are smaller than the screen you are currently looking at! We learned to love it, though.

I got used to typing lesson notes on my computer during lessons and then sending the students the notes via a wireless printer set up in my studio (using HP ePrint). I would send an email to the printer and would watch my lesson plans from Boston being printed for the students in Utah over the iPad. It took about 10 seconds from the time I sent it in Boston to the time it printed in Utah. It was pretty neat. For those who had lessons at their homes, I just sent an email and they printed it off or kept it on a mobile device. Simple.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Did it work? Yes. I had students enter and win competitions while I was teaching them 2,600 miles away. In fact, I would say they grew more without me there. They learned to mark their own music at lessons. They learned how to describe music and form better because they were looking at the music more and had to make sense of it without me pointing. They learned to listen for themselves—including sensitive pedaling, playing and taking special care of articulated notes and shaped phrases. I was always asking them questions to make sure they were doing what they needed to—and they learned how to do it on their own.

My next goal: Teach in Africa. I’m working it out now!

Frequently asked questions:

Did your students’ tone get worse?

No. I have heard other teachers say that this has happened to them with online students. In my case, I think we avoided the problem because I was adamant about using arm weight and good posture before I left. I also knew the students who had tendencies and needed reminders, so I would remind them every time I felt I needed to (even if it was every lesson). I visited Utah three times while living in Boston and each time I made sure I had live lessons with the students. This helped me catch anything I may have missed online.

Also, I could see everything I needed to. From legs slipping behind the bench, any semblance of bad posture, elbows not in the correct position to curved fingers. They were always noted and taken care of.

Did you lose a lot of students?

No. I kept about 90 percent of my studio. Honestly, the ones who stayed were my most dedicated students. I am more pleased with my studio now than I ever have been. They are dedicated to me, and I to them.

I even started a new student solely online. I was very wary of this, but am so surprised that it worked just as well as my other students who have been taking for several years. You have to know what students should look, sound and be like when at the piano—even when you’re not there in person.

Do you think this could work over a long period of time?

Yes. I know people who only have online lessons (any age, too). I know personally that my students chose to do online lessons because I would only be gone a year. I was comfortable with that amount of time and so were they. Know your studio and their boundaries and you can make anything work.

How smooth was the connection?

This is something that can be very worrisome for doing online lessons—your lesson depends on that good connection! Luckily, we were living on MIT campus—with one of the fastest and most robust internet connections in the world. I would say 97 percent of the time it was very smooth. For those rough times (there always will be), we just turned off the iPad and reconnected. (Before moving I taught my students how to reconnect.) It takes about 30 seconds to do that, but it fixed it each time.

How did you check fingerings?

I had them scan or take a picture of their fingerings before their lessons and send it to me. I examined the scan during lessons and made suggestions as necessary.

How do you do billing?

You can get a third party—which I do. Or you can use your bank’s mobile app to deposit checks with your smartphone camera. Easy.peasy.lemon.squeezy.

Were other people intrigued?

Yes. I had several teachers around Utah come watch lessons in Highland while I was in Boston. They would sit in during the lesson so they could see how it worked. I’m happy to say that many of them are now successfully teaching online and experimenting with it.

What type of piano did you use for teaching?

I taught on my end with a Yamaha Clavinova for lessons because we lived in the tiniest of apartments in Boston. Lots of money for a small space and we couldn't have neighbors complaining! Of course I practiced on real pianos, but the digital worked great for teaching. You have to make do and do the best with the environment you are in.

If you have any other questions, please email me at I’d be happy to answer.

Labels: , ,