In a short viral video that has racked up millions of views, a nice young lady who teaches music explains how she’s coping with having to give video lessons instead of face-to-face lessons in a world blighted by the Covid-19 coronavirus.
“I found that one of the best ways that I can process the whole transition to online learning and teaching is to write a song – so I wrote a song,” the nice young lady says.
As she says these words, she picks up a wee ukulele and starts playing chords. After a few bars, just as you expect her to embark on a jaunty little ditty so uplifting that it brings out the sun, turns the sky blue, fluffs up the clouds, causes the trees to blossom and the flowers to bloom, and inspires the birds to sing sweet joyous melodies of yonder and yore, the nice young lady lets out a scream. A scream so shrill and so piercing and so powerful that despite the many filters of distance and microphones and resistors and transistors and software and firmware and lightwaves and radiowaves and latency and server stacks and computer speakers and volume controls and whatever else that attracts your fancy, the scream drills through your forehead. It drives through your cerebral cortex, bores through your frontal lobe and reverberates around your cranium like the explosive thunder of a thousand cannons fired within the depths of the Grand Canyon. One fears for the eternal destruction that the nice young lady has wrought her vocal chords, sadly chalking them off as two more casualties of the worldwide pandemic that has slowly been turning seven billion otherwise sane and well-adjusted human beings into gibbering jellyfish.
Fortunately, the transition to online lessons for the teachers and students of music school Lenagen Bekef during Israel’s first lockdown in March and April 2020 was not as traumatic as that of the nice young lady. Or if it was, I was not told. As the managing director of Lenagen Bekef, I’d hope to have heard something.
Either way, some customers were in fact effusive in their praise. Gabriella Lawrence, whose 11-year-old daughter Amalia learnt piano and singing, was “incredibly impressed” and described Amalia’s achievements during the video lessons as “amazing”.
Like many businesses around the world, Lenagen Bekef has been hit hard by Covid-19. Twice this year we have been forced to suspend regular face-face activities, most of which take place in our studio in the center of Jerusalem. These include private lessons, the rehearsal of bands that we create and instruct, and the renting of our rehearsal rooms.
To stave off total disaster during the first lockdown, we offered online lessons to our private students and have been doing so this time around. In March, the majority couldn’t or didn’t want to learn remotely, but of 22 existing students who did a trial, 18 continued for most or all of the period. Two who took lessons in two instruments carried on doing so. The age range of our online students was five to 74.
After a couple of weeks or so of lessons, I surveyed students and teachers to find out about their experiences, including: what went well; overcoming any challenges; which devices they prefered to use; whether they favoured Skype, Zoom or any other application; and how good their connectivity was.
Favorable General Impressions
It was obvious that video lessons were not going to be the same as a face-face ones, but what was pleasantly surprising was that completely unprompted some customers expressed appreciation at being able to learn music remotely whilst being mostly locked down at home for long periods.
“I’m glad to be continuing the lessons amidst all this balagan,” said Ayelet Shenkman, who was learning guitar and voice. “It’s clear that it’s less ideal but it helps maintain some consistency”.
Sara Sisro, who was learning violin and singing, echoed these sentiments. “I absolutely prefer to have lessons on the Internet than not do any lessons at all for two months,” Sara said. “Because of the lockdown, there’s a lot of time to work on it.”
After receiving Sara’s and Ayelet’s feedback, I added a question to the survey about the impact – positive or otherwise – of the remote lessons on the students in general and on their musical development.
CR Eller, who learned guitar, was “grateful” for the video lessons.
“If I didn’t have lessons via Zoom, I’d be left on my own to learn,” said Mrs Eller. “I don’t know if I’d have the discipline to keep going. The online lessons keep me playing.” This was despite the lessons being “second best” to regular ones.
Even after the first lockdown was lifted, video learning became a good alternative for Ayelet, Sara and other students if they couldn’t come to the studio for regular lessons.
Lessons improve over time
The initial online lessons were generally satisfactory but not great, as students and teachers got used to interacting via a screen and not in person, got to grips with the technology, found the best angles for cameras and screens, and discovered what worked and what didn’t.
However, as piano teacher Oded Keren found, with time the quality of the lessons improved.
Gabriella Lawrence, whose daughter Amalia learned with Oded, concurred.
“I wasn’t totally sure online lessons would work especially since Amalia had added piano to her voice training, but I’ve been incredibly impressed,” said Gabriella. “The first few lessons took a bit of adjustment, but it’s pretty amazing what she’s accomplished with her teacher over video.”
What worked well
Quite a lot, it turned out, according to guitar teacher Noam Lit.
“Many things work just as they do in a regular lesson,” Noam said.
Indeed, some students and teachers even found one or two advantages to online over face-face, such as the recording functionality of various programs. This enables a voice student, for example, to listen to how they sang during the lesson, including whether they were in key, and how they sounded when they were singing relaxed and when they were straining.
“Recording on Zoom is better than recording a face-face lesson in a room,” Ayelet Shenkman said.
Oded Keren said that with one nine-year-old piano student, because the lessons were online and not in the studio – where the drums and other instruments can often draw the attention of young children – the lessons were better than usual.
“She didn’t have a choice but to read (the music) and so she just did it,” Oded said.
It’s worth pointing out that having extra instruments in a room is usually an overwhelming advantage, as it allows the teacher to make sessions more interesting by accompanying the student on a second instrument. This teaches the student to listen and communicate musically.
Still, as violin teacher Elik Harpaz noted, the teachers can develop these and other skills during online lessons.
“What worked well in the lesson was the dialogue of ‘answer-question’ in improvisation and the development of the student’s independence, such as listening and note-reading,” said Elik, who often accompanies his students on the drums in regular lessons.
“Answer-question” is an exercise in which the teacher plays a few bars on their instrument and the student has to answer. The teacher responds, as does the student, and so on and so forth. In effect, the pair engage in a musical conversation, thus developing the student’s ability to communicate musically.
What wasn’t so great and finding a fix if you can
For the sake of transparency, none of the students or teachers found online lessons to be as good as regular ones.
David Smith, who learned bass guitar at Lenagen Bekef, summed it up nicely.
“It’s not the same as face-to-face,” David said. “Communication is much more fundamental in person but it’s still a verifiable lesson. Everything’s basically the same except the sense of immediacy.” Notwithstanding, David described his lessons as “excellent”.
Jack Silver, who was learning guitar at the time, also explained why face-face lessons are better.
“When the teacher’s there he can see exactly what you are doing wrong and what you are doing right, and can guide you either way,” Jack said. “On the phone you can only see a certain amount.”
This might be a reason for another difficulty that Noam Litt identified.
“The main problem is the ability to focus, it’s difficult to concentrate for an hour,” said Noam, who teaches the Cubase recording software as well as guitar.
As Noam and others mentioned, a further disadvantage is that the technology isn’t yet good enough to enable musicians to play together online due to latency, or the delay between one person saying or playing something and their interlocutor hearing it. This has stopped Lenagen Bekef from holding band rehearsals online.
It was also partly the reason why one of Elik Harpaz’s violin students suspended his lessons until face-face activity could resume. In contrast to Oded Keren’s nine-year-old piano student mentioned above, the lack of accompanying instruments to play with and play on was a drawback for the violin student.
Still, Elik Harpaz said that if he “can stay on beat when I’m accompanying a student then it can work”.
Elik and his students also developed creative workarounds, as Doniel Pell noted. “We’ve found new techniques, such as using playbacks from YouTube,” Doniel said.
The students liked online lessons better than the teachers did
I asked the students and the teachers to give a score out of ten for online lessons compared with regular face-face ones, which for the purposes of the survey were marked at ten.
While eight teachers gave an average grade of 6.4 for online lessons, the students’ average was 7.25 from 16 answers that were provided.
The best and the worst of the video software for online lessons
A variety of applications were utilised during the lessons, including WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger. Where necessary, Lenagen Bekef assisted students and teachers with the installation of any of these programmes on their phones and computers.
WhatsApp seems to be the easiest application to use, as a teacher can simply start a lesson by phoning the student or vice versa. However, video calling isn’t formally available on the PC version (a hack obviously exists but that’s beyond the scope of this article), and it’s not as stable as the other software, often slowing down, cutting in and out, or dropping calls entirely.
Skype and Zoom appear to be more reliable but often require extra organisation, such as sending a meeting invitation first, and some students struggle with these programs.
In theory, Skype should be as easy to use as WhatsApp but it always feels like the lesson has to be arranged first on WhatsApp before the Skype call is made.
Zoom is the most favored app, as it offers several useful features such as screen sharing and, most importantly, recording, although other software such as Skype provides these functions as well.
“It (Zoom) allows a lot of flexibility and teaching capability,” said guitar teacher Noam Lit. “I can even take over the student’s screen if I need to.”
Zoom also recently released its “High-Fidelity Music Mode”, which is designed to provide better sound for music lessons, among other things.
And as noted, Ayelet Shenkman reckons that the recording feature on Zoom is better than recording a face-face lesson.
Connectivity and Equipment
After initial hiccups, it appears that most lessons enjoyed decent Internet connection, although not always without bumps. Two teachers who had the fewest problems, if any at all, would connect to the Internet with a cable to a landline router, as opposed via WiFi or the cellular network.
While one student didn’t continue with online lessons partly because of the connection in the one he took, such problems appeared to decrease as students and teachers found solutions.
Oded Keren, for example, suffered from poor connectivity and discovered that the smart television at home was hampering a lot of other Internet traffic. “I simply need to turf everybody out of the living room when I have a lesson,” he said. Once he did that things went swimmingly.
It helps to own decent equipment such as a good camera, microphone and speakers, and a large screen. Most teachers and students used laptops or PCs for the lessons, although some satisfactorily used their phones.
Rachael Orbach, who teaches a variety of instruments, prefers a computer when she teaches online. “The sound is better and the picture is bigger,” Rachael said.