This 5th week of teaching all piano lessons online has been a real turning point and where I can see who is thriving and who is not. Most of my students are now so comfortable working on Facetime and Skype that they are making real progress. So much so that we are ready to host 3 virtual recitals next week on the Zoom platform that allows multiple users to share screen time together in a group. By now, our studio would have hosted one of our major large recitals of the year. So, not only will students perform in real time, albeit online, I am going to use my non-individual lesson teaching time this coming week, which would have been our spring vacation week from school, to put together a video of all of our students performing a newly learned work that will be posted on our private You Tube channel for all of my families to watch. It is really important to have specific goals of achievement, just like we have during our regular piano semesters. Students are excited to share and perform on Zoom. And they are very pleased that we will have a permanent video record of their playing…something we have not done before as a whole group. Parents often video record their individual students in performance. But now we will have a presentation of the entire studio. I’m planning on using some fancy video editing tools to create a movie that is as visually interesting to watch as much as to listen to. We’ll see if my new-fangled video skills can stand up to the test! Fingers crossed!
But not all students are thriving in online lessons. The very young are having a difficult time. It seems that students in elementary grades truly thrive on interpersonal connections; the warmth of a voice, a ready smile and body language that is easy to understand and that provides immediate feedback. While teaching online, I try to speak slower so that I can be understood. I use letter blocks, hand gloves and numbered dice to indicate clearly that we are talking about a “C” versus a “D” or “right hand” versus the “left hand” or the finger number “Four” versus finger number “Five.” One blip of the screen can mean that the student does not hear your reference point and 5 minutes of ensuing miscommunication can eat away at valuable lesson time. Learning to count octaves up from the bottom of the piano and to count measures has been a critical skill to teach and learn. Fortunately, we can see ourselves teaching as well as seeing out students at their piano, which is a wonderful reminder to make sure our facial expressions are larger and thus, easily understood. But young students, as much experience they have playing games on screens, seem to not feel our communication as much. They hit a dead spot, like a bird flying into a window they cannot see, and lessons may not be as much fun as before.
So, it’s not just as simple as getting the right “set up” for teaching online. It’s not just making sure you have copies of all of your student’s music. Something is missing and for some students, it can be detrimental. So, the next problem solving going forward will be how to make sure everyone stays engaged. It is amazing how much my middle school and high students are thriving with the necessity now of being more independent in their lessons and practice…taking their own notes. Checking off their memory list pieces. Writing in pieces learned onto their 30 lists. And with extra time at home and fewer activities to divert their attention, energy and focus, I’m hearing some of the best piano playing of the year. But it is back to the drawing board for me still. Maybe I’ll go watch old episodes of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. Fred and Elmo were always able to make it seem like they were in our living room, for everyone, all the time.