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June 2019 marked the 10-year anniversary of my first experiences teaching violin, viola, fiddle, and cello lessons via Skype (and more recently also FaceTime and Zoom). A lot has changed since then! The milestone has had me reflecting on the hundreds of online students I’ve helped along in their musical journeys and how offering a virtual option in my teaching studio has allowed me to fulfill other aspects of my career which were difficult prior to this teaching option, like touring. I’m very grateful my studio continues to grow and prosper!

It’s hard to believe that almost half of the years I’ve spent teaching have been largely through a means that didn’t even exist when I was 14 years old and welcoming my first violin students into a little corner of my parents' living room which they had graciously allowed me to set up for the violin lessons I was teaching after school. I would never have imagined I’d one day get to tour the world with dozens of students from all over the planet in tow with me online, or to get to visit some of them in-person along the way and vice versa. Life can organize itself in incredible ways if we’re flexible and open to where our journey takes us!

I’ve also been thinking about how much technology has improved! Most notably, I’ve noticed how much better typical internet speeds are now, and at a fraction of the price. Oh my goodness, I recall being so happy when I could get my early speed tests to report 10 or 20 mbps download speeds. Ha!! Now, I enjoy speeds consistently over 250 mbps at home and generally at least 30-100 mbps when I’m traveling.

Teaching violin, viola, fiddle, and cello via Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom has also given me glimpses into other cultures I might never have gotten to experience first hand. Thinking back, I made a list of all the countries and states my students have come from over these past ten years:

United States Alaska Arizona California Florida Hawaii Massachusetts Louisiana Maryland North Dakota South Dakota Minnesota Ohio West Virginia Virginia New York Maine Georgia North Carolina South Carolina Mississippi Texas New Mexico Utah Nebraska Pennsylvania Tennessee Kansas

Canada British Columbia Saskatchewan Ontario Northwest Territories

Australia New Zealand Trinidad and Tobago Panama Costa Rica The Bahamas The Virgin Islands Poland Italy France Germany Norway The United Kingdom The Shetland Islands Greece South Korea Japan China The Philippines India South Africa The Ivory Coast Egypt Saudi Arabia Bahrain United Arab Emirates

My list continues to grow. I’m always excited when someone from a state, province, or country I’ve never taught a student from gets in touch with me about lessons. Our cultural exchange can be as rich and meaningful as our musical sharing.

I’ve been also thinking about whether the pros and cons I initially considered with online violin, viola, fiddle and cello lessons are all still true or if I had any new ones to add to the list. Overall, I’ve discovered a few more Pros than I initially considered.

Here it goes:

PROS:

  • Students can take lessons with a highly experienced and specialized teacher from anywhere with a decent internet connection.
  • Recording a short demo or the entire lesson is a click away. I’ve built a library of over 1000 videos over the past 10 years, mostly covering different technique topics and popular etudes and pieces, which I share with my students as needed.
  • Students can quickly look over and see themselves in their side of the screen, confirming my suggestions and helping them make physical adjustments more quickly.
  • I’ve found students to be generally more focused and attentive online than in-person. Perhaps virtual lessons just attract a more serious, dedicated student (I do believe this generally), but perhaps it’s also because we’ve been trained to watch screens! The student is also in a familiar environment that may be less distracting than going somewhere new which may have different sights, sounds, smells, a different temperature, etc..
  • We generally seem to accomplish more in lessons, at least in part due to the fact that with in-person lessons at least 10 minutes are wasted getting the violin out, packing it up at the end, not to mention tuning the instrument, whereas with a lesson via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom, the student can be ready to go at the start of the call and the entire lesson time can be spent learning.
  • Students can warm up right before the lesson starts and continue practicing as soon as the lesson ends, as opposed to having to wait to drive home. They also have all the time they need to write down notes and reminders from the lesson in the comfort of their own home after the lesson ends.
  • Students (and/or their parents) must learn to tune their own instruments sooner than we might learn to in-person.
  • Students (and/or their parents) must learn to keep their own practice log and make their own notes in their sheet music sooner than we might in-person. If a part is very involved I’ll send them an edited copy, but for a fingering here or there, I find that it’s more likely to be followed if they took the time to make the entry or notation and it’s in their own handwriting.
  • Having a space at home that’s always set up for lessons on Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom, easily translates to a dedicated space for daily practicing. I’ve found that the lack of a dedicated space in the home is one of the common reasons students struggle with practicing. I'm surprised how many intermediate level students log on with me for the first time and I find that they don't even own a music stand. After an online lesson or two, we've sidestepped all these home practice problems.
  • After an already busy day at work or school, its often much less stressful to jump online than into a traffic jam.
  • Students who struggle with performance anxiety, even when playing for their teacher, can ease into playing for someone else in the comfort of their own home with its familiar surroundings and acoustics.
  • It's impossible to catch a cold or the flu (UPDATE 2020: or COVID-19!), from a student or a teacher over Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom and it's still possible to hold the lesson if the illness is minor, but potentially still contagious.
  • Both teacher and student have copies of the music. Particularly when students brings a new orchestra piece or audition packet to the lesson, it may be material or an arrangement I’ve never seen before. When we’re in-person it can take extra lesson time to make copies, or I'll have to remind them to send me some scans when they get home. Because of this, sometimes I just don’t bother, but that means I won’t have the material to prepare on my own for the next lesson. Lessons over Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom require that we all have the same parts and any time a student gets new material I have them send me good photos or scans of the music ahead of our lesson. Genius Scan is the best app by the way!

CONS:

  • Students (and/or their parents) must learn to tune their own instruments sooner than we might in-person. I personally think this is more of a PRO (see above), but I have to put it here too because it means we’ll often spend a few lessons mostly if not entirely devoted to learning to tune and sometimes we’ll uncover instrument issues that I would likely be able to fix (like pegs that don’t want to move), but since I'm not there physically the student has to take it to a local violin shop.
  • Students (and/or their parents) must learn to keep their own practice log and make their own notes in their sheet music sooner than we might have them do in-person. I also think this is more of a PRO (see above), but occasionally students make mistakes in the fingerings or bowings I’m dictating, or they simply take a lot longer to write things out than I typically would.
  • Both teacher and student need to have copies of the music. Yet again I also find this more of a PRO (see above), but it requires a bit more emailing back and forth in preparation for a lesson.
  • We can’t play duets. This is the biggest drawback to online lessons, but it’s forced me to record the duet parts in a number of situations which the students can then practice along with at home. Having these videos to practice along is indispensable for learning.
  • I can’t reach over and manually adjust a student. I personally prefer to make adjustments through demonstration and walking a student through the situation, so I don’t find this factor alters the approach I’d generally take with an in-person student. I want a student to understand why we might need to make a change, understand the principles of the technique involved, and work within their own bodies to find the most comfortable, natural position. If I were to just grab their hand or arm and force their body into a position that looks right to me, they learn nothing about their anatomy, the mechanics of the technique we’re learning, or how to get back there when I‘m not there to physically adjust them. For a teacher who’s primary teaching strategy is to manually adjust a student, teaching virtually could be extremely frustrating.
  • Sometimes someone’s computer or device is being glichy, or the internet connection is problematic, but especially with an ethernet, cabled connection, a decently new device, and updated software, most of the time we hardly notice we’re online. As with in-person students who may have a car break down or get stuck in traffic, we do our best, but can’t expect things to be perfect all the time.

While I occasionally still run into people who ask if it’s really possible to teach someone to play violin, viola, fiddle, or cello via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom (I would have given up this mode of teaching immediately if I didn’t achieve the quality of results I do in-person), compared to ten years ago, many people have now had experience with online education. I’ve met people learning a range of instruments online, various languages, who attend university classes, who further their careers with new technical skills and certificates, as well as those who explore hobbies like knitting and handwork, or even ethic styles of cooking! I see many private music teachers offering an online option now and have coached a few dozen teachers over the years in creating their own online studios. Rather than being something strange, or at best, "unique," online teaching has become mainstream. The Berkelee School of Music in Boston, MA, and other universities offer entire degree programs online now. While cost is unfortunately still a barrier to many types of education, we have solved many of the education problems of the past, such as location and access to good teachers.

I hope to enjoy many more decades of teaching online students worldwide. We learn so much from each other, and I appreciate all the special connections I’ve made with people I otherwise would never have been able to meet or work with.

Please email Laurel at laurel@laurelthomsen.com if you have a violin, viola, fiddle, music biz, or practice related question you’d like answered in the blog or on a podcast, have a story or insight to share, or if you’d like to inquire about violin, viola, or fiddle lessons with Laurel, in-person or via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.

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Laurel Thomsen

Violin, Viola, Vocals
Performance, Instruction, Recording

Based in Santa Cruz, California

Site by Laurel Thomsen
Photography by Michelle Magdalena

laurel@laurelthomsen.com
831-224-0913
Skype: laurelthomsen

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