I will admit that I have been skeptical about teaching lessons via Skype even though I have heard from many people that it is the way of the future. I have used Skype before to connect with friends and family across the country – even across the world – and it has not always been the most reliable form of communication. There are video delays, dropped calls, pix-elated pictures. But it is a free service and if the environment is right, it opens an endless amount of possibilities for teachers. As stated in a previous article, it is a marketing tool that all teachers in the 21st century should utilize. So here is my advice about teaching music lessons online with Skype.
The right equipment is key
This is the most important aspect of teaching with Skype. Technology is not the way of the future, it is the necessity of the present. There are several things that both you and your student need to have in place in order to make this a productive experience.
- A fast and reliable computer with a good webcam – This can be a desktop, laptop or iPad/notebook. I don’t recommend doing this with your smartphone. Skype recommends that your computer has at least a 1 Ghz processor and a minimum of 256 MB of Ram for Windows machines and for Mac, at least a 1 Ghz Intel processor (Core 2 duo) and a minimum of 1 GB of Ram. But remember, these are minimums. The faster your system is, the more reliable your connection will be.
- A fast and reliable internet connection – You must have a high speed connection and it can be on a wired or wireless network. Realize that a wireless network can occasionally be sketchy. If you happen to be far away from your modem or router, you may find that the strength of the wireless signal severely diminishes. I happen to teach on a different floor and on the opposite end of the house where my router is located so I purchased a high power smart repeater and range extender and I am amazed with the results. I placed it on the same floor as my router in the middle of the house (between my router and my music room) and I maintained an excellent connection throughout the lesson – where before I installed the range extender my connection would only show 2 bars at best, after I installed the extender, there were consistently 5 bars. A wired connection will be the most reliable but that, of course, does pose location issues.
- Good speakers – Unless your laptop has very good internal speakers, I would suggest that you get good external speakers. This is a necessity in order to really hear differentiation in tone and clarity.
Adjustments to your communication may be needed
There are some video and sound issues that will take some getting used to when you are teaching with Skype. First of all, there is a very noticeable delay in the video feed which means that while you will be able to see every move that your student makes, those movements will not sync up with the sound they are making.
The second issue that will affect how you communicate is the sound sync. I found no delays with the sound at all however you will have to be very careful to not talk over each other. When you and your student are in the studio together, they can be playing or singing their piece and you can encourage or correct them as they play. However, via Skype this will not work. If you talk over your student, they will not hear the first few words of your sentence and if they are playing or singing, it cancels out the sound on the other end. I was teaching a voice lesson and I tried to accompany my student while he was singing but when he started to sing, he could not hear the accompaniment at all so it made it useless. I suggested to my student that if he wanted, he could use recorded accompaniments (many available on iTunes) or hire an accompanist to be in the room with him. Otherwise, he will have to sing a capella. With other instruments this may not be as big of an issue.
You should also try to come up with a signal between the two of you so that while they are singing or playing and you want to stop them, you have some physical signal that they can see and they know to stop.
Some other considerations
You will want to instruct your student how to set up their webcam so that you can see them properly. Make sure they do not stand directly in front of a bright lamp or a window otherwise they will only appear in silhouette. The room needs to be well lit and the light is better if it is behind the computer shining toward the student. Also, if you require your student to stand, make sure you instruct them to angle the webcam properly so that you can see them without their heads being cut off.
Since you have no control over the quality of your student’s equipment and setup, you might want to offer them a free mini-lesson where you both get to “audition” the experience. If the student doesn’t have a setup that is conducive to a productive lesson, it is not worth continuing. You will be frustrated and your student will feel the same way.
There are also some small logistics. You have to determine who is going to initiate the call. You have to arrange payment. If you accept credit cards, you can have them read the credit card number to you in the lesson or you could send them a PayPal money request before or after the lesson (you need to have a PayPal account but they do not). Or of course you could have them send you a check. If you use Music Teacher’s Helper, you can have the program automatically request payment via email. You should also have a makeup policy in place in case environmental issues prevent you from continuing a lesson that has already been started (i.e. your wireless signal goes out because of a storm, etc.)
If you have never done it before, Skype is the future of teaching music lessons. If you really think about the possibilities, your studio could double in a matter of weeks. You can teach students who have moved away and mourned not being able to work with you anymore. You don’t have to clean your house before you teach – you don’t even have to shower if you don’t want to! (although, I would rethink that) Try it and see if it is something that you could get used to. You may find that it will open up a whole new world!
Have you already taught lessons on Skype? Tell us your experience in the comments below!