Some tips for class or peripatetic music teachers giving online lessons.
Camera, action! Engaging students in online music learning11:41, 8th January 2021
In our January issue, Elizabeth Stafford outlined some strategies to keep students engaged whenever there is an online element to their learning. Due to recent events, we are offering this article for free to help as many teachers as possible.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock (and why not, every other Covid-avoiding strategy we’ve tried doesn’t seem to be working) I am here to tell you that online learning is now a ‘thing’ for music teachers. Whether you’re an instrumental or a classroom teacher, it’s likely that if you haven’t already, at some point you’ll need to switch your teaching at least temporarily online.
Online learning and blended learning need thinking about in different ways
Firstly, let’s get the terminology correct. Online learning is learning that takes place (you guessed it) online, while blended learning is a mixture of online and face-to-face delivery. A lot of people confuse these terms, which is unhelpful as they require thinking about in different ways.
If you are delivering some of your lessons online and some in person, to the same pupil(s), then you are providing blended learning, which opens up a much wider range of learning possibilities than online learning alone. Many schools and colleges are using the term ‘blended learning’ when really they mean some subjects are online and some are in person, in which case a different approach to learning is required depending on whether your subject is live or online.
If you are teaching solely online then your first hurdle is your platform. Some organisations insist on one particular platform for all lessons, with the two most popular being Microsoft Teams and Zoom. For one-to-one instrumental teaching, Zoom is the all-round best option, with superior sound settings, and being generally more reliable.
Best of all, if you’re only teaching one-to-one lessons, you can use the free version of Zoom, with no subscription fee needed. Many music hubs and services have switched to Zoom lessons since March, with Dudley Performing Arts being one such service that has used this technology really successfully to support students of all ages, right up to university level.
The challenge with any online platform comes when dealing with groups, and in particular, groups that you want to make noise at roughly the same time! A lot of classroom music teachers have chosen to go down the route of listening and theory-based lessons online, rather than incorporating a practical element, and with all the technical challenges, who can blame them?
However, it’s important to remember that the ‘fun’ bit of music is the practical side, and fun equals motivation equals engagement. Luckily there are plenty of ways to incorporate practical work into online sessions.
One strategy I’ve used really successfully is mics-off practical work. You can do call and response style activities, and while you can’t hear the response, you can see it, and it avoids a horrible cacophony as everyone comes in at a slightly different level of delay depending on their bandwidth. Obviously this type of activity isn’t going to get you very far with assessing musical progress, so you will also want to plan in some musical sound-making that you can do together.
One strategy I’ve used really successfully is mics-off practical work as it avoids a horrible cacophony as everyone comes in at a slightly different level of delay
A great way to do this is to use the Zoom Breakout Rooms function to put pupils into smaller groups and ask them to create a free-form, soundscape style piece that doesn’t need precise timing and coordination to be successful. Then when you come back together with the whole class you can ask everyone except the performing group to turn their cameras off, which should place them at the top of the screen so they can see each other and everyone else can see all the performers.
I used this strategy successfully recently with students at Leeds Conservatoire, where some first study singers gave us a lovely rendition of a trip to the seaside, including some particularly lively seagulls!
Another option for online practical work is of course to give individual tasks, ask pupils to practise with their sound off, and then perform one by one with sound on at the end of the lesson. With a whole class this will take a considerable amount of time, so you could put them in breakout rooms in groups of two or three and visit each of them in turn as the others practise, to save yourself and everybody else 25 minutes of torture at the end! Of course, this is assuming that your pupils have instruments at home, which is a whole other issue altogether.
Keeping them on the hook
Whether you’re using practical activities or not in your online lessons, you will want to employ some tricks to keep pupils engaged throughout your session. Using the chat function for pupils to answer questions or setting up a poll can be good ways to check that everyone is still paying attention, particularly those who are logged in with cameras and mics turned off!
It can also be a good idea to set a pre-session task that pupils have to complete before the lesson. This means that they come to the lesson with some existing knowledge, which is helpful, and they will expect that they might be called upon at some point to discuss or demonstrate the pre-session task, which should result in a higher level of attention.
You can also create a sense of structure by using a timer for different activities, or maybe even setting up a competition and awarding a prize for the first person to correctly complete an activity. The main thing to remember is that listening to someone talk over the internet can lull you to sleep much quicker than it does in real life, so avoid lots of teacher talk and try and break up your session into as many different activities as possible.
Using the chat function for pupils to answer questions is a good way to check that everyone is still paying attention, particularly those who are logged in with cameras and mics turned off!
Getting the blend right
If you are taking a blended approach to your music teaching, you have, to an extent, the best of both worlds. You can play with all the technological features that drive engagement, safe in the knowledge that you can ‘sort things out’ face to face if need be. However, before you sit back and relax, you may want to consider how well your face to face and online sessions integrate, and crucially whether your pupils view them as holistic.
You do run the risk in a blended learning scenario of either students thinking the live lessons are the ‘real’ lessons, and not engaging in the online tasks, or conversely students avoiding the live lessons because they know they can catch up online at a more convenient time. This can be avoided by making clear links between live and online sessions, so that pupils see the value in both types of learning, and make the effort to engage.
Knowing the limitations
Whether you’re delivering a blended or solely online approach, you will need to consider parents in your plans. As much as I love that my daughter plays the tenor horn and the drums (not at the same time), and even though my literal job is music education, I don’t want to hear her hacking through scales or mastering rudiments in the background while I’m on a Zoom call.
Of course, in our family we are lucky that is even a possibility, in that many parents will be sharing devices with their children, and therefore only one family member can be online at a time. Most parents are supportive of their children’s musical learning, but it may not always be possible to prioritise online music lessons, or support regular practice when the home is being used in lieu of an office.
Even though my literal job is music education, I don’t want to hear her hacking through scales or mastering rudiments in the background while I’m on a Zoom call
As music teachers we need to be flexible in our approach to learning within the home, and recognise that issues of access, equipment, and space are exacerbated by the level of noise that music lessons involve.
Online music learning is here to stay, and now that we’ve been doing it for nearly a year, it’s time to make it the best that it can be.
This article is taking from the January 2021 issue of Music Teacher, which had a focus on new approaches. To read other articles from our January issue including an essential mix of news, reviews and ideas, subscribe to Music Teacher magazine today.