What Your Teacher Is Doing In Your Music Lesson, and How to Adapt Online
by Claire Allen
In order to see the learning potential in online lessons, it helps for us to take the long view and think, "What is happening in weekly music lessons?" I tell my violin students that the goal is for them to learn something about the violin, and something about themselves. Any lesson where we learn something is a worthwhile lesson. This article will examine the many things music teachers do during private music instruction, in order to open the door for everyone to think creatively about how to connect online and continue to accomplish these goals, without the teacher’s physical presence in a room.
Connect and Build Relationships
One of the main things a teacher is doing during a lesson is building a relationship and establishing a connection through which learning can happen. This might be something simple, like asking how the student's day is going, what discoveries he or she made during practice this week, or sharing a story about the teacher's own experiences. Those conversations can still happen over a virtual connection, whether through a video call or even just through emails. Parents of younger children may have to read emails out loud to them. Parents can also encourage their children to write a note to their teachers themselves, either through email or on paper. Or, just take a picture of the paper and email or text it to the teacher.
Teach New Skills
In lessons, teachers often teach new skills, such as a new bow stroke, a new finger pattern, shifting, etc. This involves the following: what it sounds like, what it looks like when you do it, what it feels like inside the body to do it, and how to help each student be able to find that sound and feeling for themselves. Over an online connection the teacher will need to use very body-specific language to make sure the child is feeling it for themselves.
Teach New Material (Scales, Etudes, Pieces)
Unfortunately, some people think this is the only reason to go to lessons - to pass off their old material and be assigned new material. Teachers are truly doing so much more, but if this is what one is most afraid of losing over a virtual connection, there are ways to teach this as well.
What is involved in teaching new material? Here's a list:
- Identifying the notes and the rhythms
- Explaining what the musical directions on the page mean
- Explaining how to physically create those sounds on the instrument
- Identifying techniques the student already knows that are needed to play the material
- Showing what new techniques the student can use to play the material
- Demonstrating the material on the teacher’s own instrument
- Discovering the right feeling, character, and expression of the piece
- Discussing the musical structure and historical/cultural context of the piece
Whew! That’s a lot. But most of this can be done over a video call, or a pre-recorded video. A teacher can also write step-by-step instructions and give the student a challenge of learning independently.
Assess Short- and Long-Term Progress
Teachers are assessing a student's progress every week: if they’ve completed the assignments accurately, if their physical ease with the instrument is allowing them to make the best sound possible, if each element of their musicality is in balance (for example, do they play with a beautiful sound but struggle to keep a steady pulse? Are they wonderfully expressive but fail to play in tune?)
Teachers are also assessing the student’s progress with their longer-term goals in mind. Are they learning the techniques they need to successfully audition for their high school orchestra? If they want to be a music major in college, are they playing the pieces and building the technique they need to be on track to take auditions? How does music fit into the big picture of their life, and what materials and activities are needed to ensure their continued enjoyment and also their success?
Taking some regular lesson time for a detailed assessment can be incredibly valuable in helping students understand where they are in their musical journey: what their current skill sets are, what they need to develop next, and where they are mentally and emotionally with their music. Asking a teacher for this written assessment in lieu of a lesson can give a student (and their parents) tremendous insight.
Teachers are also working with students to set short, medium, and long-term goals. Whether it’s practicing a tricky passage a certain number of times, planning when to have a piece memorized for a concert, or developing a game plan to audition for music school, teachers are constantly jumping back and forth from their student’s current reality to their hopeful future.
A good idea for this period of online lessons would be to strategize goals with your teacher for the next couple weeks of playing - and maybe set a challenge! Can a student play all the scales they know each day with really free and balanced posture? Can they read all the notes in each of their etudes as well as playing them? Can they practice a set amount of time each day? All of this can be done over a video call.
Teachers answer lots of questions during lessons, like "How should I practice this? Can I take this audition? When can I play this piece? What can I listen to this week?"
These questions can be answered in writing, or via a video call. There are very few questions that require the teacher’s physical presence to answer.
Reminding Students Of What They Already Know
Music teachers spend a good amount of lesson time reminding students of things they already know, such as appropriate posture, reading the notes accurately, keeping a steady beat...the list goes on and on.
Online lessons can be great for keeping students aware of those details that elude their awareness on a regular basis. Students get a little reminder, and this continues to improve their musicianship overall. If students came back from this period of online lessons having fully integrated all their teacher’s regular instructions, that would be a huge leap forward in progress for most students.
Teachers make decisions about what materials to assign, how much to assign, and how to assign practice.
The ultimate goal of every teacher is to help contribute a thoughtful, artistic, independently-operating musician who feels empowered to learn, create, and share music on their own. For small children, this could be as simple as carrying their own instrument, learning to care for their instrument, and checking items off on a practice list (even if the parent has to read the list to them). For older children, this might be making a list of practice strategies they know from their teacher and trying them. For teens, this might be learning a piece independently, or preparing a special recording or concert project by themselves. Switching to online video lessons will require more independence, since there will be some things the teacher simply can’t do for them. And, having students develop more independence is actually part of the master plan - so we are really still on track!