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How to use Skype for long distance music lessons

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Keeping students engaged using Skype lessons.

Amelia Taylor moved from Tauranga to the USA but found her students didn’t want to change teachers. Today we caught up with Amelia via Skype to talk about how she transitioned her Tauranga-based students from in person music lessons to Skype Lessons.

So how long have you been doing the face-to-face teaching?

I think it must be five years now. I’ve only got two students left that [in Tauranga] I started with in person, because everyone else has gone off to university.

I come back [to NZ] twice a year. When I come back we generally do intensive lessons, so anything I want to touch on we’ll do it then.

Where do you teach from in NZ?

The skype lessons still take place in my parents house and that’s great to teach when I go back as well. There’s an office that my mum has set up for me and there’s two computers and then all my materials I use are there and I have scanned copies of absolutely everything. If I need to do something then everything is there, so they [the students] still get the feeling that they’re going to someone’s house but I’m just popping up on a screen.

It’s kind of difficult telling new people “go to my house but I’ll be there on a screen”. Generally I don’t get people replying back. For five years I’ve had no one reply back and actually two weeks ago I’ve had three enquiries and two have succeeded, so that’s exciting. I have a new 6yr old student doing so well!

Amelia Taylor

What was that period like as you transitioned from in-person lessons to Skype lessons when you moved overseas?

It was a huge learning curve. I actually did some trial lessons when I went to the Aspen music festival in America for two months and what I realised was that my students weren’t independent; I couldn’t tune them or go fix something. I learnt to be really specific with my words.

I taught all my students to tune their violins with a tuner and then eventually with the fifths. The way I demonstrated everything was with very specific words and demonstrations and I followed up with videos through Whats App. Now all my students (this includes my in-person students) I don’t touch them for anything. I actually noticed that my students started, after the initial trial period, improving way faster than ever, because they were successful in the lesson so they are successful at home and knew exactly how to practice it.

It just makes my life so much easier because if I’m there physically fixing their mistakes and then they’re like “how do I do that at home without you doing that for me”. I have to make them very aware of what’s going on so that I can give them an instruction to do, if that makes sense.

How do you break down a weeks teaching?

Monday, Wednesday and Sunday are my private studio students and Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday are group classes for either my private studio and other organizations (Sphinx).

My NZ students come on Skype Monday, Tuesday around 11pm and Saturday.
Other activities like Orchestras, chamber music and dog walking get fit around my teaching schedule.

So, that’s kind of like the break down and anything else I fit in between that.

You mentioned that there’s video content post-lesson. Was that something that was introduced at the beginning of offering Skype lessons?

So I did my Suzuki training in New Zealand books 1-4 then I did it with another teacher in America and I’ve gone all the way through book 8 and it was his teaching method that I grasped on to. He makes videos of previews or little things that a student is working on. So that’s when I started incorporating that.

I incorporate many of his styles and teaching methods in my Skype lessons which have naturally been applied to in person lessons; everything is more connected that way with my teaching.

Is it easy to give a little demonstration of what words you use when there’s a specific problem? Previously you would have corrected the student physically but now use good descriptions.

I just had a new student aged 7 start, and this is the first time I’ve started a student on Skype (so I was a bit scared!).

We just did the bow hold and it’s probably the best first bow hold I’ve seen!

Generally with the first bow hold the teacher wouldn’t say much, the hand generally flops into a bow hold, so if the teacher is fast they place the frog of the bow up into the middle fingers and prop the thumb and the pinky into place…

But what I do is first ask them to place the frog of the bow where their right hand is and then we make a bunny.

I say “Place your thumb, put your two fingers over and now you’ve got a bunny, right?…

We wave the bunny, we go in circles, wave the bunny ears…

“…and now with your left hand you’re going to pick up the stick and you’re going to open up the mouth of the bunny and place your thumb on the silver button, you’re going to grab with your teeth and flop your ears over.” And she did it absolutely perfectly. (Im also demonstrating this with her)

So that’s an example of how I’d do that on Skype now, compared to me not saying anything and prying the child’s hand on the bow.

Is there a specific set up you have in your studio for a Skype session and is there a prescribed/ideal set up that you need from the student?

I have two screens where their eyes can look, and their scroll [of the violin] points at the big screen but the camera is on the other screen so I can see everything. Actually because they’re on Skype I can generally see much more than I can in person.

That’s for students without music.

I have a stand in there for the students who are reading music and the head of the stand has to be parallel to the wall, so they can see the music but I can see everything else.

My materials (theory, piano accompaniment, sight-reading etc) are all coordinated in different boxes and stuff so I’ll say “go to box 1 and get out this book” or something like that. I have a box of pencils and everything.

Anything ever go wrong with the set up?

Yeah. I came back two years ago and my student had destroyed my book whole system hahaha!

Otherwise you must rely on them having a good set up?

In America I did have one student who lived in San Francisco and the set up there wasn’t that great so I was just on her laptop in her bedroom and she was a bit of a flutter brain and I couldn’t really tell her that this is really what I need for this lesson to be successful.

A lot of my students in America work so hard and they have no term holidays and then suddenly they have this three or four month vacation in the middle of the year, lessons actually go through the vacation but I’m out in different countries performing or something like that but I will continue lessons via Skype. So with those students, I’m saying that they have to have no window behind you, you have to have it this certain level and it has to be at a computer, not an iPad or phone.

So it’s not as ideal as the studio set up that you have, but you make it manageable.


Amelia Taylor

Do you think there are any advantages that you’ve found through the remote lessons versus the in-person lessons (for you as a teacher and for the student)?

The advantage for the student is that they have an excellent teacher! One of the biggest advantages is that I’m still meeting with them regularly and if they’re travelling or I’m travelling we can still do it. The consistency is great. I think that’s probably the biggest advantage.

Other than that, the way I’ve changed my teaching,

I think that’s an advantage for my students now, that the teaching is much better from me. Apart from that, there isn’t really any difference than in-person or Skype!