Technology that makes teaching music lessons online better

August 14, 2020

Transitioning to teaching music online hasn’t been easy for anyone – myself included! In the first article in this two part series, we discuss some tech setups that help to make the online music lesson experience WAY better for both the student and teacher!

Like many of you, I switched to teaching piano online in the middle of March in 2020. Initially, it was a pretty easy transition for me, due to me being a “techie” person already. I was able to do it over one weekend, with minimal investment of new equipment.

These initial online lessons went very well. Despite running a better than expected virtual recital and a number of group “hangs”, I realized I wanted to improve the experience  for students even further. I began looking for more ways to add value to my online lessons.

Additionally, after a few months, teaching online was proving very detrimental for my health.  That’s been the challenge of this entire pandemic, hasn’t it? We’re all trying to stay healthy, but life still needs to move on. We’re all spending a lot more time in front of glowing screens  than we are accustomed to!

Certainly, the stress of the pandemic contributed to these problems for me, but I began to experience more migraines than normal, and became incredibly weary of being tethered to the computer for many hours a day.  I wanted to invest in some new equipment that made teaching online less stressful for myself.

When it became apparent that we may need to be in this situation for a little bit longer than originally expected, I began to ask myself “How can I make the online music experience better for students and more comfortable for myself?” I made a commitment to upgrading some of my software and hardware to facilitate this.

I’d like to change it up a little bit in my blog today and talk about a few of the things that I’ve found extremely valuable in improving my online lessons.

You Need FAST internet to teach music online.

If you want the students to have a good experience, make sure you are paying for the best internet you can afford in your area. This will help to reduce latency (that’s the lag you may have experienced). Fun fact: latency isn’t solved simply by switching to a different platform than Zoom.

It’s important to consider what both the download AND upload speed is for your internet.  Often, the upload speed with an ISP (Internet service provider) is going to be slower than the download speed. It’s better if they’re both equally fast!

You can check your internet speed by googling “internet speed test” – Google has its’ own tool that will tell you the speed.

For the best results, you should be the only one using your internet at your home during lessons.

Invest in a GOOD Chair

In piano  lessons, I talk endlessly to my students about posture and taking care of their bodies. The first thing I noticed about teaching piano online was that my back was KILLING ME after a few days. I’ve had this experience before due to my web development jobs, and it’s not something I wanted to re-live!

In March, this was my setup.
It was a FAIL!

Here’s my setup now!
Talk about a “glow up!”

Your dining room table chair isn’t going to cut it. I realized that after the third day, and brought my rolling, swiveling office chair home from my studio. I use that chair when I’m sitting directly at the computer.

I also brought my piano bench home from my studio, because you really should not play piano when sitting in an office chair. I get up and move between chairs when needed.

Bonus: I also have an armchair that I can sit on and still see my screen on migraine days.

I’ve been able to arrange a small corner in my apartment to accommodate all of these and still be on camera!

A No Brainer and a MUST have for online music lessons: A  Good Microphone

I was lucky enough to already have a Yeti microphone at home.

I use the cardioid setting (the little heart). This allows for a minimal reduction of background noise. I live in a noisy city on a major street, so this is really important to me. I didn’t want students hearing ambulances, motorcycles or leafblowers in the background of their lessons. We did have some problems in May when the massive loud protests were going directly by my window, but that is obviously out of the norm! Most of the time, it’s been great.

I’m not always able to have a quiet background, but I compensate by muting myself while the student is playing and that has also helped a lot.

I have the microphone propped up on my desk and faced directly towards me/my keyboard. but I am planning on getting a boom mic stand as soon as they’re back in stock to help reduce the sound of things on my desk.

I’ve heard great things about Shure microphones as well, so look into those, too!

Invest in Wireless Technology So you Can Move Around

I’m a firm believer that sitting in a chair all day is not healthy for anyone. It’s also super boring on the students’ end to just see their teacher sitting still.

When I’m teaching in person in my studio, I’m VERY animated.  I move around a ton. I speak with my hands (yep, I’m 1/4 Italian). I sing. We do breathing exercises and yoga moves. I make extremely exaggerated movements with my body. I needed to find a way to achieve this while teaching online.  I realized that going “wireless” as much as possible was going to help that.

I now am the happy owner of the following wireless devices:

 Bluetooth Keyboard (Really any will do, but I have the Logitech K380)

This device has allowed me to easily change camera angles while not sitting directly at my desk. I setup hot keys (keyboard shortcuts) in both ManyCam and in Zoom to achieve this. It’s been a GAME CHANGER.

Wireless Drawing Tablet (Wacom – Intuos Wireless Drawing Tablet (Small)

I hated how my “writing” was looking when using the whiteboard feature in zoom and realized that there are input devices that are meant just for this purpose. It did take a little while to figure out how to most efficiently use this, but once I got it setup and practiced with the stylus, it’s made writing SO much easier!

Apple AirPods

I honestly don’t know how I lived without wireless headphones before the pandemic. Headphones usually hurt my ears if I wear them for too many hours, but these have worked out really well as a speaker for online music lessons lessons. I can move around quite a bit and they don’t fall out. It’s also super useful to have these when I need to brew myself a cup of coffee or shush my barky dog in the middle of a lesson!

Invest in a Multi Camera Setup

If you’re teaching piano online like I am, one camera angle works alright, but having multiple angles makes it SO easy to further explain technique and even music theory. If you’re teaching guitar or some other instrument, you could probably find ways to benefit from this as well!

Bonus: the kids love the multiple camera angle thing, because once you learn how to setup keyboard shortcuts with your wireless keyboard, you can tell them that the camera angle switches because of “magic!” It’s honestly like having a TV studio right in your home office!

Main Camera for Online Music Lessons
Right now, most webcams are out of stock, but I was lucky enough to score a Logitech c922 (retails around $99) at Best Buy. I use this as my main camera.This example picture was taken at night with lower lighting than I usually use in lessons, but as you can see, the quality is still okay!

Overhead camera for online piano lessons (Logitech C270 taped on a boom mic stand)

It was a challenge to get the entire keyboard in the frame and not have the boom mic stand this is attached to in the middle of my room. I realized I don’t really need to display the entire keyboard very often, so I have it zoomed in to a smaller portion of the keys.

Side camera (Logitech C270 propped on a tripod)

The side camera allows me to display arm motions and hand shapes easily. This camera doesn’t have the ability to attach directly to a tripod, but I just have it propped on top of a tripod. You could easily prop it on a table or music stand. I don’t have it “permanently” attached to anything because this camera also doubles as my sheet music camera. I am able to move it to point at method books when necessary.

Maybe someday I’ll have the means to upgrade my side and overhead cameras to something fancier, but for now, I use two cheaper 720i cameras (Logitech C270) as my extra views. In addition, a lot can be accomplished with good lighting and makeup to improve the quality.

The great thing about all of these cameras is that they are basically plug and play (on a Mac) – You just need enough USB drives to accommodate them. I am using a USB hub to accomplish this, because my usb inputs on my mac are limited.

Use a Virtual Camera Software

I wanted to be able to share content and switch cameras easily, while also using cute effects – without having to hit “share screen” in Zoom. I have both OBS and ManyCam. While OBS has many amazing features, I found that ManyCam is the most user friendly for my own purposes.

I can’t explain how to do all of these things in this blog, but if you decide to use ManyCam, here are some things I learned how to do that helped a lot:

  • Learn how to setup presets
  • Learn how to use the drawing tool and setup your wacom tablet so you can draw on any of the presets
  • Make one preset for your “regular teaching camera”
  • Make a preset for your side camera
  • Make a preset for your overhead camera
  • Make some fun presets with things you might say often in class (this has helped preserve my voice, because I do teach a lot of little kids who get excited and just keep playing away!)
  • Learn how to create effects in ManyCam (you can also use bitmoji to personalize this – it’s SO FUN!)
  • Learn how to setup keyboard shortcuts to switch to different presets

I hope this first article helps you if you are struggling with online lessons! The next article will detail some other software that has helped me a lot in my piano studio during this difficult time. I’ll also be back with an article about music teacher SEO soon! If you have any questions in the meantime, please contact me or book a consult!