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Click here for general info about violin, viola, fiddle, and cello lessons with Laurel, and here for info about her lessons via Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom.
Skype and Zoom are completely free to download, and FaceTime comes with all Apple devices. I prefer the sound quality and features of Skype, but the other two will work too if you prefer them.
Most computers and laptops have built in cameras and microphones that are perfectly acceptable for lessons. We will determine this in our initial complimentary meeting before we start lessons. If not, a webcam and/or mic can run as little as $30-40. Personally, I use a MacBook Pro laptop or sometimes an iMac desktop. I use the built in camera with both, an external RODE NT-USB mic, and Bose Companion 2 speakers.
You’ll of course need good quality internet. Plugging your computer directly into your router through an ethernet cable rather than using Wi-fi improves any connection, often dramatically.
Skype and Zoom offer call recording right through the app, but if you’re on a Mac and using Skype for lessons, the additional plug-in Call Recorder for Skype, let’s you video record the call as a split screen or individual screen version, only the audio, etc. (click here to read my blog post for more info). I routinely record parts of the lessons for students and now have a library of nearly 1000 video demos of various scales, etudes, pieces, technical exercises etc. my students can access.
A few additional recommended apps and accessories which are mostly free include:
Everything flows along in real time as long as the internet connection is robust (at least 15 mbps download and 2-3 mbps upload, though the higher the better). Google "speed test" to check your connection.
Internet is always better and more stable when using an ethernet cable plugged into the router rather than wifi. I really can’t stress enough what a difference this makes - usually at least 2-3 times the speed of wifi and it's perfectly consistent, so we completely avoid the issue of being clear one moment, choppy the next. My ethernet speeds are 10 times faster then my fastest wifi speed. That's a huge difference!
Because we're dealing with both party's internet and equipment, even if one of us has a fast connection, the other party could experience video or audio glitches if their internet is slow. For the best experience, both parties need to use an ethernet cabled connection instead of wifi or cellular.
The truth is, if a teacher is not perceptive or experienced enough to identify and make corrections, corrections won’t be made, regardless of whether the violin, viola, or cello lessons are happening in-person or online. For most teachers who are knowledgeable and solution oriented, online video lessons do not hinder our ability to make the same technical adjustments and troubleshoot playing issues we would encounter in-person. However, for a teacher who is not experienced in these areas, who may just be starting out, or who doesn’t listen and look for technical issues (sadly, there are some!), I would imagine that teaching virtually would present a formidable challenge.
My primary teaching passion is technical troubleshooting - helping students find greater comfort, ease, and playing ability by working with the natural mechanics of a student’s body and their individual anatomy. If I didn’t feel I was able to achieve the same results and standard I set for myself as an instructor in the lessons I teach via Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom, I simply wouldn’t be doing lessons this way and I wouldn’t enjoy teaching lessons that weren’t effective. Over time, I have developed a teaching vocabulary that allows me to communicate very technical and physical adjustments in a way that is easily understandable and accessible to most students I’ve encountered. Furthermore, my video library of over 1000 demonstrations and the personalized videos I often make for students in addition to our one-on-one lesson time, provide extra support and solidify the remedies I want my students to use at home.
In my experience, identifying playing problems, be they technical, interpretive, postural, or even something as basic as intonation and rhythm, and helping students fix them through online lessons, have been just as graceful as with in-person lessons. Yes, I can fine tune your intonation. Yes, I can hear what needs to change in your bow arm to improve your tone. Yes, I can see the tension in your left forearm and down into your thumb which is contributing to your lack of vibrato stamina. Yes, yes, and yes! Or I just wouldn’t be doing this!
Since I can’t move around the student to look for problems when teaching via Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom, I may ask a student to reposition his or her body from time to time so I can see the positioning in question. Though at first this might break the flow of the lesson, in my experience, students quickly get used to having to move and turn occasionally and instruction becomes seamless, just like in-person.
We can experience differing levels of instruction quality with any lessons format. Many of my students come my way because they know they have playing problems, and sometimes even pain patterns, that in-person teachers have not been able or willing to address. When the teacher, the student, and the rapport they share are a match, lessons are a success no matter where they are held.
It’s important to recognize that no teacher will be the right fit for every student at every stage of their development. Through lessons via Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom, it’s possible for every violin, viola, fiddle, or cello student to have access to some teacher who best suits their age range, playing level, learning style, personality, musical interests, and who has experience with their playing struggles. While it’s wonderful when this teacher happens to live down the street, that’s not a realistic expectation, especially for students living in more remote areas or who have unique needs. I’ve seen mismatched student-teacher relationships damage a student's playing ability and self-esteem, sometimes irreparably. Some of these students eventually come my way, and while many can be helped, the mental, emotional, and physical repair process can take many years to heal. Some are forever scarred. I hope that technology can help stop this pattern from happening. Every student deserves to find a violin, viola, fiddle, or cello teacher who they love! Furthermore, anyone on the path to true artistry, needs the help of a variety of teachers to achieve the highest levels.
Once we determine our payment schedule (per lesson, monthly, or one of my package rates), we can set up payment through Venmo, Zelle, Apple Pay, PayPal, Wise, or with a check in the mail.
Using either PayPal or Wise we are able to convert the student's local currency to USD automatically. Some foreign students have used other payment methods as well. Apple Pay, for countries that support it, is a nice way to avoid the excess charges. In any case, we will work together to find a method that is easiest and most cost effective for the particular situation.
I initially assumed that online lessons wouldn't work well for young students, especially beginners under age 6 or so, but I’ve taught lessons via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom to students as young as 3 quite successfully. Parents of very young children need to be very involved in lessons and home practice in general. While parental involvement has always been a strong encouragement, I require that online students under 8 years old have parents sit through the lessons and help with manual adjustments, at least until the child demonstrates that they’re able to be independent in this regard. More often than not, parents choose to learn to play alongside their child.
Absolutely! Since I began teaching virtually in 2009, I have taught well over one hundred complete beginners of all ages via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom with the same success I might with a in-person beginning student.
We begin by addressing good form, including personally tailored shoulder and chin support suggestions, developing a highly functional bow hold, building good intonation, rhythm, the ability to play by ear and also to read sheet music, and eventually the ability to play with a variety of bow strokes, to play musically, with feeling and good tone, etc..
With young students I require that a parent is present during all the lessons (see question above).
As with my in-person students, I am always available to answer questions or review short practice videos from the student by phone, Skype chat, or preferably, by email or text. I can usually respond within 24 hours, if not much sooner.
I have recorded hundreds of additional practice videos (generally something technical, like how to practice vibrato, or perhaps a demo of the piece we’re working on), and after most lessons I will hand-select and share videos that review what we covered in the lesson. If I don't have a video on a topic, I will make one personally for my student. I often send additional audio or YouTube examples of the pieces we are working on, as well as accompaniment tracks for students to eventually play along with. After a few months of lessons, students will have a growing personal library of tailored instructional videos and MP3s to refer back to as needed.
Students are also encouraged to check out my Violin Geek Podcast, Strings magazine articles, Violin Geek Blog, and my online courses for additional tips and techniques in addition to lessons.
In my experience, the typical Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom violin, viola, fiddle, or cello student falls into one or more of these categories:
I prefer the audio quality and features of Skype for online music lessons.
My second choice is FaceTime when Skype is not possible for some reason. Though FaceTime doesn’t offer much more than a video chat, I find its audio quality comparable to Skype - audio quality being the most important factor, even slightly more than video quality in my experience.
Zoom has become quite popular in recent years and shares the same features as Skype, but we often need to spend some time experimenting with the audio settlings to get a similar quality to Skype or FaceTime. The standard Zoom sound is unfortunately not ideal for hearing the violin, viola, or cello clearly.
I’ve also used Google Hangouts and Facebook video for lessons in a pinch. These sound similar to Zoom audio in my opinion, but the video often doesn’t seem quite as clear as Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom. I've had a bit of experience with GoToMeeting as well, but not recently enough to comment on it.
Of course, a strong internet connection makes the biggest difference. I recommend that all students use an ethernet cabled connection whenever possible. Beyond that, a USB mic as mentioned above can significantly improve audio quality. The third most important consideration is an external speaker system.
For video quality, built-in cameras are usually excellent these days, but students should make sure their webcam lens is clean, there is lighting in front and pointing at the student, and should avoid windows and bright light behind the student.
I have no problem with students who want to take lessons with me online in addition to a local teacher. Many of my students already have a local teacher when they find me, but need more help with technique, troubleshooting pain or playing issues, want to work on a style their local teacher doesn't teach, or just want a second opinion and some fresh ears and eyes.
Having two teachers covering different bases can often work well and doesn't need to mean twice as much practice homework. Because a local teacher is usually more tuned in to the regional performance opportunities available to their students, we usually end up deferring to them as far as repertoire, and in lessons with me we work out the issues that are holding the student back from bringing their pieces to life. It's nice to have teamwork. Whether it's orchestra music, audition requirements, solo repertoire, or fiddle tunes, I'm happy to help. It's surprising, and not so surprising at the same time, how many of the same pieces and excerpts get recycled across the country and around the world. Chances are, whatever you bring in, I've seen the it somewhere before, or will enjoy helping you decipher it and bring it to life.
Send me an email - email@example.com
Please let me know your instrument (violin, viola, fiddle, or cello), location/timezone (for scheduling feasibility), background/experience on the instrument or with music in general, and for students with experience, a list of the pieces/method books you’ve been working through over the past 1-2 years.
If I have space in my schedule we’ll start by setting up a complimentary consultation to meet and check our video/audio connection.
Laurel Thomsen Violin, Viola, Vocals Performance, Instruction, Recording Based in Santa Cruz, California