by Danilo Mezzadri
I am writing this article in an attempt to help those of us who are confronting the new reality of another semester of online lessons. I am basing this article on my own successes and failures during this past spring and summer semesters. Together with many other musicians around the globe, I have been teaching and performing exclusively online. As many of us know, that is not an easy task. After many experiments, I believe I have reshaped my online teaching into a better form. Although this article focuses exclusively on online music teaching, I am sure some of these new approaches will eventually stay in place when I go back to teach music in person.
This article is divided into three sections: “Be constructive,” “Steer away from technical problems during lessons,” “Focus on what can be done.”
Yes, probably no one is happy about teaching, learning, and performing music online. Music making is typically a shared experience, and the online environment can suck out all the energy of an in-person exchange or performance. Now, the reality is that online is here to stay for a while, and we need to deal with it in a constructive way. It is better to focus on what can be done rather than on what we are missing. Here are some ideas I have found to be helpful:
- Keep your students engaged in the topic of becoming a better musician by sharing recorded live and streamed concerts, professional recordings, and writings about music.
- Prepare simple and achievable projects that will keep you and your students engaged.
- Adapt your teaching techniques to the reality of your students’ lives. Consider not only their musical level, and instrument quality, but their electronic equipment, computer skills, and living environment.
- Engage with musicians from all over the world. With the exceptions of a few venues, and a few porch-style recitals, no one is performing in public. This is your chance to interact with musicians who otherwise would be unavailable to your studio.
- Focus on more than just getting your students to be better performers. Right now, you can help them become better listeners, researchers, and writers. You can also learn with them how to edit and produce music.
- Start looking to what other musicians around the world are doing right now. Since everybody is experimenting with this new reality, much of what you see will be reframed and improved before it becomes standard procedure. So, don’t worry about being ahead of the curve. Share your observations with your students and listen to their observations as well. Often our students are more tech-savvy than us!
- Think outside the established performance procedures from the past. We are all starting a new chapter in music history, and it can be exciting to be a part of it!
Steer Away From Technical Problems During Lessons
It is very easy to feel bogged down by the challenges of teaching online. There are many unknowns and numerous options on how to proceed. Since it is impossible to have the best solution for every situation, focus on what needs to be done in the moment, and be flexible as you move forward. Here is some specific advice for your day-to-day lesson routine:
- Choose one online teaching platform that works reliably for all of your students and commit to carefully learning the ins and outs of this program. Avoid having to switch platforms in the middle of lessons or even in between lessons. This can cause audio and video issues in your computer, and you may lose track of conversations with your students or even misplace files.
- Use one system to upload and share files with your students. Similar to online teaching platforms, no particular system is ideal, but most are adequate. Try to make a choice that will make your teaching easier across the board for you and your students. There are many different solutions here. They key is to use an efficient system and be consistent.
- Use simple files to exchange audio and videos with your students. Learn to compress your recordings into MP3 and MP4 formats and require your students to do the same. That will avoid excruciatingly slow uploads and downloads, overfilled computer memories, and many other headaches.
- Use the internet wisely. Keep in mind that both you and your students need to have a great connection in order to have a decent video and audio interaction, and sometimes that does not happen. You can avoid a lot of frustration by uploading your demonstrations and sharing them with your students. You can also request that your students record and upload their scales, etudes, duets, and repertoire in separate files. You can reference these files during the lesson by reviewing them with your student.
- Control your teaching environment. Previously instruct your students on appropriate protocol to position and set up their camera and microphone. Follow these protocols yourself. Lessons with poor lighting and/or poor sound quality are not fun or productive. It is possible to have a great sounding lesson on almost any smartphone nowadays and there are many video tutorials that explain how to set them up. You and your students might need to adapt the lesson schedule in order to find a time when you both have privacy and a good environment for the lesson.
- Control the lesson flow. Be clear on what your students should upload for each new lesson, and what they should be doing for the next lesson. In that way, when you meet again, you will have access to uploaded material that can be examined together, and the video conferencing will serve as a platform for you to clarify questions, listen to some live performance, do some demonstration, show musical suggestions on a shared screen, and set up specific goals for the upcoming week.
Focus On What Can Be Done
As we all know, teaching online has changed the parameters that can be addressed in a music lesson. Since there is not direct live observation of the student’s performance, your musical senses have to rely on a new and somewhat weaker set of information and cues given by the student through recordings and your online meeting. Each aspect of the music lesson, from posture to repertoire, has to be reframed according to this new reality. Each of the seven items below focus on a topic commonly addressed during a typical musical lesson within the new teaching online reality.
The hands-on approach to help students shape their sound and develop a rich tone during the lesson is not possible anymore. Too much information is lost through a two-dimensional video lesson and heavily compromised audio quality. However, we must still serve as a guide to help our students develop their sound and overcome tonal challenges. Here are a few tips to reframe this task and help students develop their tone:
- Listen to great performers together. Share professional level recordings with your students, choosing examples and tracks that address the issue they are facing. For example, the archived recordings by Marcel Moyse are a wonderful source for students learning to use vibrato as musical expression.
- Record each exercise you are assigning them to do. A clear demonstration can be invaluable for a student and is perhaps the best way to get them to emulate what you are asking them to do.
- Listen to recordings of your students doing their weekly tone development exercises. In order to obtain an accurate observation of what they are doing, you should ask them to properly record this exercise before their lesson. Video conference is not adequate for hearing all the nuances of your students’ tone.
- Help the student focus on the process of tone development. Students don’t necessarily know that a rich and flexible tone is a process that needs constant attention and development. In order to do that, establish a routine that will steadily help them to shape and develop their own sound. After a couple of months, you can bring back some of their old recordings and show their progress.
Developing proper finger technique can be taught online very well, if you take a couple things into consideration:
- Focus your demonstration videos on the hand or finger issue that you are teaching. Compensate the shortfall caused by converting a 3D image into a 2D video by recording up close and from different angles.
- Assign specific timed exercises that address challenges or shortfalls a student might be facing. For example, assign Taffanel’s EJ-7 for those who have difficulty remembering to open the index finger on the middle octave d natural and e flat. Have them record this short exercise at a specific metronome marking, focusing the video on their left hand. During the lesson, watch the video with them.
As we know, proper posture is vital for good sound projection. Without proper posture, air support suffers and results in weak sound projection. In order to observe posture, ask your students to have two different setups for their lessons. The first setup should be for recorded material and the second setup should be for the online lesson. The setup for recorded material must show the performer’s entire torso in order to allow the viewer to check for proper posture and air support. The setup for lessons must be much closer in order to allow a better interaction between the student and teacher.
I believe that learning a new etude every week is the best way to develop musicality and solidify technique. Here are some tips that I learned while working on etudes with my students last semester:
- Record the etude you are asking your students to learn. By doing that, you demonstrate proper posture and all the musical ideas you want them to develop.
- Require them to record and share with you their etude before their particular lesson.
- Require them to annotate their own parts and share them as PDFs with you.
- Listen to their recorded etude during their lesson.
- Show them (screen sharing) their own PDF and, while you listen with them, mark what could be done musically different, mark any mistakes, and mark what could be annotated better.
- By using an audio software, extract the sound file from your students’ recording and show them that one can actually see a dynamic change, a clean articulation, and even a noisy breath. Put that image side by side with the score and help them figure out solutions based on what you both can see and hear.
- Go over the new etude during the online lesson. Show in a PDF (screen sharing) if there are any specific challenges in the new etude, mark the required tempo, and any dynamics. Make sure your recording reflects those requirements.
- Have a virtual studio class where students share their recordings with each other. You can use YouTube links or previously uploaded files. By having pre-recorded materials, your virtual studio class does not impose another private hour on your students’ schedule while stuck at home. This will help students see what other studio members are working on and participate by making positive comments on their peers’ recordings.
Learning new repertoire is very challenging now. There are limited performance venues, and it is difficult to collaborate with a pianist. None the less, this pandemic will eventually subside, and recitals and concerts will comeback. Now is the time to get ready. Although a lot of the tips for etudes can be applied here, there are also a few particular tips that are exclusive to repertoire:
- Encourage students to take advantage of watching and listen the great number of professional recordings available online.
- Require your students to practice their repertoire using a piano backtrack. The earlier a student is aware of how their musical line fits in the scope of their assigned piece, the better they will learn it.
- Establish clear weekly goals for the students’ repertoire development. Keep in mind that this is a long-term project that needs constant supervision and adjustments.
Although it is impossible to create an ensemble online, there are a few strategies that help us create an ensemble-like experience. Here are a couple of suggestions:
- Work on easy duets with your students. Record your part with a metronome clicking in your headphone only. Give a count down before you start playing your part, but don’t record the sound of the metronome. Share that recording with your students and have them learn their part. Once they can play with your recording, ask them to record their part while listening to your recording. If you are technically able, mix these recordings together and share the result with your student. Address issues of rhythmic and note accuracy, matching articulations, and complementing dynamics. Make sure to work on visual cues if you are recording a video.
- Create a recording group project. Prepare a clear leading track with an audible metronome backing, clear entrance cues, and accurate score markings. Have your students record their own parts while listening to this audio track. Mix all tracks together and check the results in a group meeting. Start with simple pieces and audio tracks only. Depending on the level of your students, you might be able to create a more elaborate video project. Your students will quickly learn that there is very little tolerance for inaccuracy in this new environment. Things that were not very noticeable in a live group performance (e.g. notes slightly out of tune, or a missed entrance), become very noticeable in a group recording project.
This is a great time to read books and articles related to important music topics. There is a vast amount of literature on how to efficiently practice music, how to improve memorization, and how to stay positive and motivated. There are also a great number of books on the history of the flute, flute technique, and inspiring flutists’ biographies. Use your online lesson time to explore reading material with your students that you might not otherwise.
I hope the suggestions above were helpful and reassuring to you. We are all rediscovering how to learn, practice, and perform in this new reality. Although watching music performances on a computer screen is not as a rich experience as going to a live concert, it is still better than not doing anything at all. Meanwhile, I believe it is important to fully explore what can be done and to share our knowledge and experiences.
Please, feel free to contact me with you have any questions!
International prizewinner Danilo Mezzadri is Flute Professor at The University of Southern Mississippi and founder of International Flute Workshop in Italy and Southern Flute Festival in the United States. Dr. Mezzadri has been featured as a soloist with more than forty ensembles worldwide. Danilo has a “glowing, golden tone,” “vivid musicality” (Fanfarre Magazine), and his “dexterity is enviable” (British Flute Society). He is principal flute soloist with Golf Coast and North Mississippi Symphony Orchestras. Danilo Mezzadri is the creator of the Spider Log interleaved practice system.