The Positives And Negatives Of Video Lessons

When Lockdown came into effect, face-to-face lessons became a risk and in the first few months, impossible. The move to video was not as stressful as I had thought and, like me, many people realised that the video medium is a viable option for many forms of work. As an instrument teacher, I wanted take a moment to state and compare the positives and negatives I have found when doing video lessons.

The Lowdown

Before I go into detail about these positives and negatives, I just want to outline a few things. These points are based on what I have personally found during the last 6+ months. Before Lockdown, I used to teach at home on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, and in Bristol city centre at a rented studio space on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I do not teach at weekends.


On the Bristol days, I would walk to the nearest bus stop (taking about 20 minutes), get on the 376 bus from Wells to Bristol, taking 30 minutes from where I got on, costing about £6.20 for a return ticket, and paid £20 for the studio space. I would finish at 7pm, have to wait up to an hour for a returning bus, then take the 20 minute walk back home (in pitch black night during the winter months), arriving back home at around 9pm. In total, I spent on average £52.40 and over 5 hours in travel time (factoring in the waiting for a bus) a week (in just 2 days!).


Upon entering Lockdown, I decided not to use Zoom. I don't know how it works but I had heard from other people that it required login details and could only do 45 minutes. I don't know if this is true but I took the decision to stick with formats I know and use on a daily basis: WhatsApp for those without Apple products, and FaceTime for those with an Apple device.


Video Lesson Positives


Safe from viral contamination - This is the main reason we've jumped on the video medium. By doing video lessons, there is no risk of passing on infection as you are not coming into contact with anyone. By playing an instrument, especially brass, woodwind, or singing, you're effectively becoming a cannon of germs. I've seen a lot of teachers make the move back to face-to-face but with protective gear and plastic see-through walls like those seen at the supermarkets now. It's necessary but does it reduce the risk completely? No, you still need to disinfect everything before and after the student leaves, which takes time.


No travel time to factor in to the working day - If you're like me, travelling to lessons, whether it's to a studio or a student's house, can set you back anywhere between 15 minutes to over an hour. By negating this, you have more time slots to fit students into throughout the day, going from something like 5 - 6 hour-long lessons a day (with an hour travel time in between) up to 8 - 9, with a 5 minute gap in between, factoring in a lunch break of 45 minutes, and finishing at about 7pm in both cases.


No travel/studio rent costs - Because I no longer need to go into town in order to teach, I don't have to rent studio space and pay any extra petrol costs or bus fares. I've worked out this saves me a minimum of £200 a month.


Students are less likely to cancel - With no need for travelling, being able to set up the instrument, turn the computer/phone on and, thus, be ready within minutes, I have found my students are less likely to cancel knowing that there is no longer any travelling to factor in to the lessons. Also, if a student is feeling poorly, they don't tend to cancel if it's just a cold or a light headache, whereas if it had been a face-to-face lesson, they'd have cancelled out of consideration for my health.


Easier to rearrange lessons - If a student wishes to rearrange their lesson for a later day during the week, whether it's because of illness or sudden commitments, because there are no travel times to factor in, it's easier to find a new slot in order to fit them in.


More comfortable playing in own home - This is more of a psychological factor but I've had comments from students stating they feel more comfortable playing at home than they do at my house or in my studio space. As friendly and welcoming as I am, a student may feel slightly on edge during a lesson since it's a space they associate with their lessons, where they feel their mistakes are being scrutinised. Take this factor out and they feel more comfortable, ultimately meaning better playing during the lesson.


Video Lesson Positive And Negative


The ability to screen capture - It goes without saying that you must never, never, never, NEVER use this with your younger students and always ask for permission from older students, deleting the recording and any related files afterwards. With one of my clarinet students (aged 47), his fingering needed drastic improvement and, despite me showing my own fingering while playing the same passage of music, he couldn't understand what he was doing wrong. I therefore asked if I could record his fingers while playing the music passage by using Quicktime's screen capture tool. I then recorded myself doing the same passage and edited together a side-by-side video of our fingering, sent it to him and deleted it from my computer. He was then able to see exactly what he was doing wrong and I have seen much improvement since.


It was great that I was able to easily screen capture his fingers while playing in order to show him his own mistakes but if it had been a face-to-face lesson then I perhaps would not have had to do it in the first place. That and the fact that screen capture is a dangerous tool to use puts this in the middle since it could also be seen as a negative.


Video Lesson Negatives


Reliant on good internet speeds - Video lessons don't really require much speed but out of download and upload speeds, the important one to be aware of is upload. It's all well and good having a fast download speed but it's your upload speed that determines the video quality and smoothness of the video call itself. For those whose connection is quite slow, you can expect pixelated video, distorted audio, delay, freezing and complete drop-outs of connection, ending the video call. Ways to improve this are to make sure you are the only one using the internet while having your lesson (easier said than done when your kids want to watch Netflix or play Fortnite).


I've noticed that, despite having Truespeed with over 200 mbps of upload speed, if the student having the lesson has a poor connection, the quality of the call will be terrible. It's worth noting, though, that out of all my students, there are only a couple whose connection drops out a few times during the lesson.


Internet latency - No matter how good your connection is, there will always be a slight delay, known as latency. This means duets during the lesson are impossible (at least on WhatsApp and FaceTime). To counter this, I instead record my part of the duet and send it over to the student to download and play along to. If there's a big delay then you've got issues with your internet, mentioned in the above point.


Audio quality - Aside from the point about internet speeds, you can still have an issue with audio quality, even with the best internet. I'm using WhatsApp on my Samsung Galaxy S10+ and FaceTime on my MacBook Pro 2018 model. No matter which device I'm using, I've noticed higher frequency notes, like those in the altissimo register, don't tend to be picked up as well as lower notes, resulting in a muddy sound being heard. I've also noticed that when playing louder, there seems to be some sort of noise protection happening with the microphone so that the notes suddenly sound really quiet. Apparently there's a way of turning this off but I believe it requires delving into either the system settings or doing some console command coding, which is beyond my skills.


Because of this issue with sound, I find I'm not able to offer precise and detailed feedback to my more musically advanced students about their tone quality while they play higher and louder passages of music. To get round this, I ask the student to record their playthroughs. Then we listen and give feedback on the recordings in the lesson, deleting them afterwards in regulation with safeguarding. It's quite an interesting way to structure the lesson as the student picks up a lot about their playing when given the opportunity to listen back to themselves.


Communication - By this, I mean those moments where I've had to be very specific about which section of music I want the student to play. I can no longer point to where I want them to start so I have to say something like 'can you play me bar 7, the second bar from the left of the second line in the third song down on page 14. The one that has a crotchet G followed by two quaver B's and a minim F'. Quite wordy and sometimes the student still plays the wrong thing.


On a more visual level but still relating to communication, the positioning of the screen (and you) is also important. In a lesson that focuses on fingering and how to correctly position your hands, the student having their camera aimed at their face makes me giving feedback difficult. It's not too much of a bother constantly changing the camera position but I do say to my students that it's more important I see the instrument during the lesson rather than their face, unless we're working on embouchure.


Video quality - I've not come across this problem yet but I am aware that some people may have older devices. This means that, regardless of internet speed, the video quality will still be poor simply because it's an older camera with less pixels. That being said, if you have a device from the last 10 - 15 years, you should be fine.


Home Environment - This was more of a problem when schools were still closed but the point here is that a student might feel they simply cannot take the lesson at home because of the noise their playing creates. A few of those that gave up their lessons with me in March stated this as a reason for not doing the video lessons and, while I understand, it does beg the question - before Lockdown, where and when were they practising in the first place?


Conclusion


While video lessons offer the highest level of safety during this pandemic, their convenience is at the cost of quality. They save time, money, and are more flexible than face-to-face lessons but unless you have a good internet connection and thick walls, the negatives can outweigh the positives.


For beginners and intermediate students who have a good connection, they work well. For the advanced level players however, those negatives have more of an impact on the lessons, though recording music beforehand does help. Despite the issues mentioned, I've seen all my students progress in their ability these past 6+ months.


Safeguarding in video lessons is just as important (if not more so) as in face-to-face lessons, and as long as you stick to it, they can be a safe medium to use during this time.


If you're thinking about trying video lessons, whether you're a teacher who hasn't made the move yet; a performing musician in need of a new income; or a prospective student who has the budget in these difficult times, don't be afraid to give it a go. A lot of teaching sites are free to sign up to and facebook is great for advertising too. Some teachers offer a discounted or free first lesson, allowing prospective students the chance to see whether their internet connection and technology is up to it. If you already use your device to video call friends and family with good results, then it will definitely work.


If you've found any positives or negatives I haven't listed, let me know! Back to blog page

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© 2020 Ed Brown