Tips on Teaching by Skype

April 16th, 2013 by

Skype and other online learning options are increasingly attractive for people who are comfortable with communicating via computer, and especially for people who have few local learning choices.

For music teachers, working online presents some special challenges.  Here are some tips.  If you’ve tried Skype teaching or learning, please contribute your thoughts as well.  In my next post I will discuss ways to work with students online in real time, without the delay of Skype!

Let’s take a look at setting up for a Skype lesson, verbal skills, visual and sound issues, online materials and what to do in the case of technical difficulties.

Set up.  From the college of hard knocks, here are a few tips on preparing for a Skype lesson. 

Time Difference.  Make sure you are aware of any time difference between you and your student.  For a while I was teaching a student in France and my cell phone’s world clock was one hour off so we missed the first lesson!  Music Teachers Helper can be set to automatically email them a reminder of the lesson; when there’s a time difference, the online calendar will show the lesson in my time zone, but I add the time in their time zone after their name in the Event Title for their lesson entry, for their benefit.

Hardware.  Make sure you have a cable connection if possible; wifi can be sketchy at times.  Have your power cable in or ready in case you have low battery during a lesson.

Lighting.  Make sure the lighting shows you clearly, and be aware of what’s behind you, that the student will have to look at — nothing you wouldn’t want them to see, and nothing distracting, such as people moving through, or a TV that’s on.

Student camera placement.  Make sure the student’s camera is positioned so they are not too close or too far, and that you can see what you need to see.

Verbal skill.  Teaching an effective Skype lesson requires extra verbal skill.  The time delay and the limitations on seeing fast movements often force you to describe things you might demonstrate or help with physically if you were teaching in person.  Think ahead about methods or exercises you want to choose from when you work with a student online.  For example, I once got stuck teaching a bowing exercise that involves making a large circle with the bow.  It’s not only hard to position myself on camera so the student can see the whole picture, but it’s also hard for them to see anything that moves fast — it looks jerky or blurry.  One part of that exercise I like to have a student observe is the wide vibration of my string, but they cannot see this on Skype.  I have since learned how to describe this exercise more verbally, with carefully chosen and carefully timed words, so that the student gets it reasonably well.

In general, I have found myself spending more time on Skype discussing ideas, attitudes, techniques verbally rather than demonstrating them.  With practice, this can be quite effective, though it cannot quite have the impact of being in a room together.

Visual Quality.  When I do demonstrate something, I keep my eye on the image of myself to make sure the student can see what’s important.  Sometimes I will hold my hand up closer to the camera to demonstrate a position as I describe it.  Occasionally the image will turn into slowly moving pixels, but that is usually a temporary glitch, and the sound continues to work okay during bad visual moments.

Sound Quality.  Sometimes the sound quality can be good, but sometimes it can be screechy, through no fault of the student!  I used to hook up special speakers to my computer to make sure I could hear clearly, but due to the variable quality of sound, I have found that my regular computer speakers work well enough; I just listen carefully, and situate myself in a room with no other noises.

Sound delay.  One difficulty is the delay in sound, often a half second each way.  Be aware that when you say something it may take a moment for them to hear you; sometimes I even time a comment a hair early so it comes across at the right moment.  Take your time to speak clearly and make sure you let the student finish what they have to say before you speak.  Otherwise it is easy to start talking at the same time.

In my next post I’m going to discuss a new method of working with students online without this sound delay, allowing you to play with them together.  In the mean time, please feel free to add your comments or questions on this timely teaching method.

Flexibility.  It’s important to be flexible.  If you’re working on something that requires visual clarity and the image goes bad, be ready to move on to something else immediately and come back to it when the image is better.  Or if you’re asking the student to do something that is fast, and it looks blurry or jerky, you may have to ask them how it felt.If the sound gets screechy, you may have to ask the student how it sounded, and tell them what you’re looking for.  Sometimes this is helpful, to keep the student aware of your goals and to tune them into looking for the right sound or feeling.

Emails, attachments, links, online tools.  The whole experience of teaching by Skype is a bit of a compromise (much like progressive lenses on eyeglasses!) so your job is to make the lesson overall as useful to the student as possible, given what you can both see and hear.  You may wish to make available to the student online materials that can emphasize important points brought out in the lesson.  Sometimes even during a Skype lesson you can take a moment to send them by email a message with a link they can look at, or an attachment with explanatory material, music, or a recording.  At the bottom of the Skype screen is also a dialog box you can use for this too.

In any case, the Music Teachers Helper File Area is always available to put up a piece of sheet music or a recording for the student to have once the lesson is over.

In my teaching I also offer online tunlearning pages divided into group of a dozen tunes each so that students have a choice of a dozen tunes with sheet music and recordings of phrases and whole tunes.  This can serve as a nice companion to the Skype lessons; it also allows me to log in to the same tunelearning pages they’re looking at and explain any questions they may have, or recommend another piece of music to work on.

If the connection fails.  A few times I’ve had lessons interrupted for technical reasons.  Usually the call is soon reconnected.  Once a call was interrupted because my student’s computer decided to update at that moment!  Once the call just couldn’t come  back, so we talked a bit extra by phone.  As I mentioned above, when you hone your verbal skills, you really can help the student verbally by phone to some extent as well, so for the last 10 minutes of that lesson I able to review what we’d done with the student and make some recommendations, following up as usually with written lesson notes when I reconcile her lesson in Music Teachers Helper.

If the lesson really fails, though, what is your policy going to be?  It’s a good idea to think this through in advance, though students will certainly work something out with you as well.  It’s hard to charge for a lesson that fails due to technical difficulties; it’s not as if the student didn’t show up.  You might be able to be more flexible with makeup lesson time for Skype lessons since you are probably working from home.

Your feedback.  Once again, as this method of teaching becomes more popular, more teachers have ideas to share.  Please feel free to add your own comments here for me and others to read.  Thanks!

Posted in Music & Technology, Teaching Tips, Using Music Teacher's Helper

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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