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Online Music Learning – Does it Work?




19.04.20 – Darrell Priestley

A month ago the very notion of teaching music online would not have appealed to me much. I love the immediacy of working with students, in real time, and have spent decades perfecting my own teaching techniques for maximum effectiveness; the idea of achieveing good results using the exact same techniques when teaching online is a challenging one. However, perhaps learning to adapt is in my DNA, as I am relishing the challenge of being just as effective teaching online as in the classroom. A slight shift in style, and a tweak to the technique.

For the student, the difference must be at least as great. Gone is the ease with which the teacher can demonstrate a new technique, or a refinement to existing techniques. The challenge for the teacher working online is to find other ways to instruct, that do not involve too much talking, because changing between processing spoken language and melody/harmony/rhythm/ and musical technique is quite demanding for the human brain, especially for younger students.

I began teaching online several weeks ago, bringing those of my students who pay by standing order on board first, since their monthly payments continued uninterrupted when we had to close for lockdown. So, while Eileen and I initially spent much of our time building a whole new business sytem to support online learning, I was also busy discovering how to be effective in entirely new ways, and meeting interesting challenges. Now we are ready to scale up, and the teachers are well under way in bringing the rest of our students into the new system.

In this new and different lesson environment, I have found that at some times it helps the student to focus more acutely on the written notation, and at other times on pure listening skills. At the same time, students are learning to be adaptable themselves, to focus more deeply, and to some extent to be more self reliant, as the teacher cannot support or direct them in quite the same way as they might in person.

One key thing which I had anticipated, and which is working out rather well in practice, is that students are getting better at preparing for each lesson. By getting warmed up at their instrument before the teacher joins them for the lesson, they are more receptive at the start. Then, at the end of the lesson, they are encouraged to continue working on any new skills and ideas while their memory is still fresh. Essentially, this is what happens normally when a student acquires a good practice habit, as memory and fluency develop and playing becomes much easier.

Three weeks into the online teaching exprience, I am pleased to report that students are uniformly making good progress. Though it might take a week or two for a student to adjust, the outlook is positive, and with all this time spent at home, music is proving to be a valuable way to monitor continued learning and development, simply by observing how much more fluently you are playing tunes at your instrument. Indeed, for good measure why not take full advantage of the situation, preparing a mini concert for everyone who lives with you, or even better an internet broadcast via Skype, Zoom or Teams to family members with whom you cannot mix at present. Everyone will love that!

Though for me nothing can quite equal teaching in person, it is remarkable how quickly people have adapted to the new situation. Teaching and learning are proving very effective, and I am certain that it helps us in this to know one another already. Teams software facilitates, rather than getting in the way, but the key to success is the existing working relationship between teacher and student, and I am delighted that technology can be put to use to support this relationship at a time such as this. It is genuinely wonderful to see my students again after a break, and to be welcomed into their homes, as it were. It only remains to say how much I am looking forward to seeing everyone again in person, and of course to playing duets once again in real time!