Sorting through boxes of childhood things can yield quite a few memories. A couple of years ago, I was visiting my parents and uncovered a few of these boxes in their basement. One of these boxes held a bunch of craft projects and drawings—all of which definitely required some effort to create from my younger self. Incidentally, these drawings are usually harder for my parents to purge from the storage room. For me they all yield memories, but they are not important to keep—except for this one drawing.
This drawing was part of a first grade in-class project. We were all instructed to create individual drawings of what we wanted to be when we grew up. Once finished, these drawings decorated the classroom’s central bulletin board. If the drawings were to be believed, we had quite the number of future doctors, firemen, policemen, and astronauts—interspersed with a ballerina and a veterinarian. My choice was rare: no one else wanted to be a violin teacher!
What caused my six-year-old self to want to become a violin teacher? In hindsight, I believe it’s due to being exposed to a specific sector of a music career. I had started violin in the local Suzuki program two years previously. This program included a weekly private lesson and a weekly group repertoire class. While my parents did take me to the local symphony concerts several times a year, the Suzuki program remained my main musical activity. I simply thought that all violinists became violin teachers and failed to completely connect the other options.
Fast forwarding to present day, I obviously became a violin teacher—in addition to a performer. In fact, so far I have consciously balanced my career more toward teaching—not that I would want to give up performing. I firmly believe that teaching and performing inform each other—but that is a topic for a different post. So how did my first grade choice become my adult choice?
As I grew and advanced, I noticed that all students learned differently and advanced differently. Clearly learning, and therefore teaching, was not a one-size-fits-all enterprise. Teachers assigned different repertoire and etudes to each student to fit their strengths and to help overcome their weaknesses. Or students did the same repertoire, but in a slightly different order. Some students advanced quickly and others got stuck at one point before advancing. And some students were great at playing by ear and terrible at reading music (this was me in primary school). From these few examples, there was clearly a variety of learning styles and instruction at play. This job looked like a challenging and interesting one—not boring at all.
Through my actual teaching experience, I find that my childhood expectation was correct regarding the challenge and interest in teaching. As everyone clearly learns differently, the teacher will have to explain things differently to every student. Some analogies work well for one student and not as well for the next student. This means that not only do I have to be a very attentive problem-solving coach for a student, but I also have to be attentive to my explanation. I want the student to really be able to identify the difference made in his/her playing so he can practice well outside the lesson time—and, more importantly, apply the same solution in the future as needed.
Luckily, I’ve always had a curiosity about how things work on the instrument to aid in my varied explanations. In my middle and high school years I especially loved spending hours putting together various bowing exercises and learning the left hand positions—organizing everything in my mind. Even now, a breakthrough on some technical aspect is thrilling to me. I like to really understand how to make things happen, rather than simply playing by instinct. I feel this serves me well in assisting students.
While I can’t pinpoint what drove me to violin in particular, I can understand why I went into teaching violin. Was it the only interest of my first grade self? No. But it was the key interest. I could have gone on to become a doctor, journalist, or even tornado chaser, but the violin still remained as the main interest. Did I question this choice every so often as I grew? Yes, definitely. But I always came back to making the same decision.
After finding this drawing and, due to COVID-19, claiming a corner of the living room as my office space, I plan to hang this drawing on my wall by my desk in lieu of the typical college degree displays. It is a great reminder of a childhood dream come true—just without the long Disney-style dresses!
In my near-decade of teaching experience, I had never taught a lesson online until March 2020. I had also never taken a lesson online as a student, although online lessons have existed for nearly fifteen years. These statements are echoed by many in the music education and general education sectors.
Since March, I have had the opportunity to teach over four different platforms—accompanied by a steep learning curve. While I was familiar with Skype and FaceTime for social reasons, I was not familiar with Zoom or Google Meet—both of which I have now used for group classes.
Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom have seemed to be fairly similar in sound quality. Zoom has a bit more sound adjustments available if wanted. Zoom also provides a screen share option, which is especially good for note-reading exercises or showing notes on a page during a lesson. Skype and FaceTime both work well for individual lessons if you don’t need the screen share.
Sound quality was definitely worse on Google Meet as of May 2020. However, it does provide a screen share presentation option and I also found that I could join the meeting from two different devices: I could present on one device and still see the student on the other device screen. Zoom screen sharing is similar, although you either have to connect two devices, such as a tablet to computer, or use a screen mirroring option.
Being able to use two different devices is particularly helpful for me. I am able to use my iPad with pencil to draw notes, etc, and still see the student on my laptop. For Google Meet, I use Jamboard as a white board. For all lessons, I use an app called ForScore on my iPad that allows me to annotate PDFs, making it easy to mark my student’s music. I then can either refer to the music via screen share or send them my notes at the end of their lesson. I have found this app saves quite a bit of time.
Differences in Teaching Online
Of course, even as I learned about these platforms and apps over the last few months, I also noticed differences in teaching and learning online versus the traditional in-person lesson. While I use verbal cues quite often in teaching, I am extremely reliant on these cues and explanations online. I cannot do a hands-on posture correction online. This change has forced me to strive to be even more clear in my verbal explanations and in showing the changes needed on camera. Sometimes it can be slightly frustrating to me, as it can take a tiny bit more time, but I feel that the students generally understand the change better due to realizing the precise difference for themselves.
The other frustrating issue that has appeared is not being able to play together easily in online lessons due to the sound going only one way on many of the platforms. We have to take turns playing and talking. Sometimes students play along with their teacher to notice which part or note is “off.” The best I have been able to do is having the student mute themselves and play along with my sound— while I watch their movements closely, as I cannot hear them. To compensate for the usual slight delay in audio versus image, I specifically tell the student to play with my sound while ignoring my picture. As for duets...I will usually make a recording of the other part for the student to use. I expect technology will evolve to better deal with this issue in the near future.
Despite these changes in my teaching, I have found three advantages of online lessons during this time:
Forget the commute to and from lessons. As long as you have a device with a camera and a stable internet connection, you are good to go—even if you are traveling out of town! Once you and your teacher have figured out the best setup of the device (so you and your instrument are visible), lessons generally go smoothly. If you need to remember where to stand or to put the device, I recommend either taking a picture of the setup or temporarily marking the floor with removable tape.
Since you are not traveling to lessons, you can also have your violin ready, tuned, and music on the stand before your lesson begins. This can easily save five minutes of your lesson time, allowing more time spent on your pieces.
2) Fosters Independence
As I am not there in-person to tune a violin or to write on the music, students have to take responsibility for these steps. This change means that many students learn to tune sooner than usual, which I think is really good! By tuning, they have a better understanding of instrument upkeep and are training their listening even more. Additionally, they now don’t have to wait for their next lesson to fix a tuning problem! Granted, if the student is quite young, this means that their parents are the ones tuning the violin, particularly if the peg needs to be moved. Pegs take a bit more strength to turn and so an adult has more success. I walk the parents through the tuning process as needed.
All of my students, even as young as four years old, have been very pleased in being able to write notes in their music themselves. Even though I typically send notes I’ve written after the lesson, something as simple as marking a bowing or a fingering is best to do directly themselves. And of course, they can always double check with my notes afterwards. If the students are under the age of 10, I typically have them show me their music over the camera after they write their note just to check that it’s correct. This independent note-taking seems to make students feel more individual responsibility and control and obviously serves them in good stead for later in life (when you won’t be prompted to pick up your pencil.) I think it’s also given them a heightened sense of preparation in needing to have all their supplies in reach...pencil included!
3) Greater Connection between Teacher and Parents
Previous to online teaching, young students were not always accompanied by their parents. During this pandemic, many of us were staying at home—meaning parents often could overhear the lesson or attend more regularly. For very young students, it became necessary for the parents to be nearby to assist with tuning, set-up, notes, or in-person reminders about behavior. Sometimes the parents also help with posture adjustments, as the child may not always quite coordinate the change and the parent can provide the hands-on guidance. For example, a student with a sagging violin in front may need help moving the violin more over his/her shoulder. Due to this parental presence, parents have a better understanding of the lesson material and their child’s progress. And of course, it is even easier to have a quick parent-teacher conference if needed!
Overall, I have found all of my students progressing well despite the change from in-person to online teaching. Obviously, I look forward to the time when I can see everyone in-person safely, but this online experience has been successful and will stay part of my teaching going forward. It even opens the door for students outside of NYC and grants greater flexibility for lessons if traveling.
What has your experience in online lessons been like? I would love to hear about your experience. If you have been thinking about taking lessons, but hesitating due to having to study online, I hope this post gives you a better feeling about the process. In this current pandemic, having a creative outlet to do at home is incredibly important—and learning an instrument is a perfect combination of creativity, mental concentration, and training physical coordination. I would urge you to give it a try!
Hi, I'm Deborah and you probably saw my fancier professional bio on the "About" page. As mentioned in that bio, I have played violin for the majority of my life--starting in a local Suzuki program, growing through youth symphonies, studying in college, and finally becoming a professional (lots of practice hours later...and counting.)