Of late due to the Covid-19 Virus, a lot has changed around the world affecting the way that we work, study and interact. In order to move on with the times and not to put our lives on hold, we need to adjust and adapt to some of these changes even if it means being uncomfortable and experimental. Here is an entry from me about adapting some of my teaching styles in the past 24 years to finally transitioning to a complete non physical contact with my students.
My first encounters with online learning were at law school at NUS (National University of Singapore) where I was doing my Graduate Diploma in Singapore Law. They tested out online lectures where we could be in our pajamas in the comfort of our own homes taking down lectures notes. Being from a UK University, this was very new to me as we were used to taking down notes without handouts, armed with just a pen and plain piece of paper with perhaps a voice recorder. (No not those found in your mobile phones, there were none of these functions some 15 years ago). Most of our Professors used transparencies or no visual aids for our learning. In NUS, it was a bit of a culture shock where students brought in their laptops to class and lectures to take down notes with lecturers using PowerPoint presentations. The concept of open book examination and a massive stack of handouts to refer to instead of memorizing and doing your own thorough library research was also something that I needed to quickly adapt to in order to complete my short one year of learning.
That was my first experience having to adapt to technology and moving away from traditional educational medium of physical classroom interaction. When I had to leave my students in Singapore to move to Beijing, I took on the feat of teaching weekly online theory lessons to two of my existing violin students. It was through a lot of commitment from their part and mine to have completed our grade 4 & 5 theory grades (They both passed with high distinctions) within a short span of time. It entailed them scanning in their completed work, my marking the work electronically and then sending it back for them to take in the markings and corrections, On hindsight theory classes as they consist of constant paper work, is definitely a lot more work to do but not impossible as compared to practical lessons.
After I left Beijing, I continued pursuing internet online tutoring to some existing students I had, however this time, 6 years later, technology had advanced we did not have to use a separate webcam and simply did so via our mobile phones (through WeChat). Until today, I have students who would Skype me for one off lessons or regular lessons which is extremely useful if they have to move and we need to part ways.
When Social Distancing Started
This year, I had planned with my studio to conduct a “Tuning Workshop” where we would learn different methods and ways of tuning our instruments. This would have been also a compulsory event even for the very little ones as their parents would also benefit from helping them tune their instruments for them to have well tuned instruments to practice all week long.
However, on 7 February 2020 as Covid19 worsened and the DORSCON Orange was implemented. I also took measures in ensuring hygiene was up kept by social distancing (students to stand at least a 1 metre distance from my sitting area) this helped me to look at them at a better angle actually and listen to a better projection as I always felt they were too close. It helped me to look at their overall performance stance better at a further distance which I was more used to when at the Conservatory.
We had no physical contact which meant that they would have to apply their own rosins, tune their own instruments unless it was really necessary for me to do so (then of course we would ensure proper hand washing and sanitizing thereafter.) Automatically over time, the students young and old learnt how to tune their own instruments. Thankfully, we had a few weeks of doing so before we were no longer to physically meet.
Full Online Learning
1. Tuning their instruments
When we had to transition to no more physical contact, the aspect of the students’ abilities to tune their own instruments would be paramount to online learning. As without a well tuned instrument, I would be unable to conduct the class for them. But having said this, I did have a 6 year old student last week who managed to tune her violin (with pegs not fine tuners) all by herself with some instruction from me online, I was really proud of her effort and felt she had risen to a new skill level to be able to distinguish tuning of her strings independently.
2. Independence to take charge of their learning
Online teaching, has taught my students independence. They would need to take down their own notes and certain fingerings where necessary – I’m the minimalist fingering sort of teacher who habitually writes minimal fingerings for the students unless it is a change in position not indicated or a very difficult part that just cannot do without jotting down the fingering in that particular few notes. This is because I believe it really does help in memorizing the piece to have a neater sheet of music put out in front of you rather than one with scribbles all over. I used to simply write in what I wanted while they were playing during physical classes for efficiency, having them to put down their instruments to write something down at junctures of class time deemed too time consuming. However through this process that I am completely unable to help them, I realize that it is probably needful that they do these notes themselves as part of the learning and training process.
3. Understanding of orientation in the music
They are better aware as well of bar numbers which previously I would just ask them to start at a particular note, otherwise get up and point. This was definitely not a good habit, as only the ones exposed to orchestra would be able to draw their attention to referencing of bar numbers. These days, I cite the bar numbers first in order to bring their attention straightaway to the point that needs to be addressed. They would also be forced to understand the concept of beats as i would reference “first, second, third etc.” according to the meter time in the music.
It helps that both teacher and student situates the lesson close to a WiFi router. I rely heavily on Skype for classes as I find the sound and picture quality best. I can actually hear their dynamics better online than in my usual teaching place, I find this especially so for piano and pianissimo dynamics. Perhaps , there is an echo which only in a well acoustically tuned large concert hall you would be able to hear the dynamic changes. I am also not as distracted unnecessarily as the screen automatically provides a portrait and silhouette of the student in focus where I can see their posture clearly. The broadcast over a “recording medium” also offers an audio that sounds more like what we are used to hear in a recording on a CD, DVD performance or YouTube videos. This enables me to be able to judge and give my critical comments fairly. I also find it easier to focus on their sounding points and bow distributions somehow on a screen rather than live and experiment more accurately on what is affecting their tone, be it a bow hold or bow movement problem or too much pressure etc.
I have found that if the student is standing in a smaller room, like a studio, the violin tone would be more accurately gauged rather than in a larger room where there may be some feedback or echoes which would not be as effective to listen to the true tonal production.
It helps if the student provides a different angle of filming at each class as I will be able to check all aspects of their posture and not leave out anything due to the “2D” nature of a video. However, it is necessary that their bow movements and their left hand movements must be visible within the frame of the video at all times and angles they choose to stand in. Make sure that they are not blocked by their music stand or that the camera is placed too high or too low.
As I also get to see them in their natural practice environment, I have found it extremely useful to check that their stands and usual practice positions and postures are correct. This would not be possible if I am not “let into” their rooms. Over the weeks I have corrected many badly angled music stands which had caused all sorts of bad posture habits. Some of the stands I learnt were not able to go any higher for example, and for these, I had to put my foot down to recommend buying a more suitable one which could be angled well and fit the height needs of the student.
Somehow in their own rooms, they also tend to be bolder in their performance and less “shocked and shy” playing in another foreign environment. Initially, there were some apprehensive stances on our first week of video online lessons, but past that, the students adapted and got very used to how it was. I also felt that as they had a video in front of them, likened to a mirror, they were able to be more self aware of their own performance and could also correct some of the problems themselves without me having to address it in the first place than in a live physical class.
Furthermore, when I had to bring their focus to a particular posture or angle I could move myself around to show them what I wanted them to see which if in a physical lesson, this would be difficult to frame what I want them to notice.
6. Younger Students
The absence of physical touch means you would need to be more descriptive in what you would like to convey to the students or teacher. Younger students (6 or under) are harder to teach online, as you cannot use much worded descriptions to convey a thought process as effectively than an older student. For these students, it helps greatly for a parent to be there at the online lesson with them just like in a physical class, i would encourage parents to sit in the class till the child does not prefer that or the child is 9 years of age.
The younger students fare better through imitation, hence this would mean our online lessons have enhanced their aural training and abilities. I would play something and ask them to echo instead of going through a whole of lot of descriptive words which I may do with an older student. Lessons also can be recorded and sent to them for review and a keepsake. This would be helpful through the week to have some fallback for themselves or parents to check if they had gotten all points of learning to be ready for our next class.
Some other Tips that may be Helpful to have a Successful Online Class
- Always get your instrument and materials ready, books and scores (preferably in the same edition or publication as your student for quicker referencing) that you would need to refer to during the lesson; stationery like pencils, plain paper and markers should be within reach.
- Dress up nicely as if you are having an actual lesson. Although it is home based, it is also important to set the tone of the seriousness of the class by dressing appropriately to show the other party respect.
- Get battery packs or chargers ready if you are using a mobile or tablet and locate yourself close to the WiFi router for clear picture and audio quality.
- Try to locate yourself also in a position that you are able to look out of the window. Some days of lessons for me involve a good 10 hour long almost non stop sessions. These days looking out of the window now and then really does help with eye health.
- Do not be embarrassed to do some stretching exercises in front of the students. These days with technology especially during a lock-down, there is just too much screen time and not enough activity. I even try to do these stretches with my students to educate them on some ways they could prevent playing injury.
- Keep a student diary on what they are working on and what they should be improving during the lesson so that you can refer to this the following week and pick up from there.
- Make sure your instrument is in tune before the class begins to save class time.
- Set yourself up at a good camera angle so that you don’t have to take up the class time to adjust your position.
Stay inspired and be THE Inspiration
The Covid19 Pandemic is by all ways an unfortunate event which has cost people’s lives, opportunities and economic value. I am thankful for technology which probably would not have been even as available about 10 years ago when I started online teaching (but not in such a prevalent manner.). The support technology has for online music classes are more than sufficient for something different.
Get inspiration from others online. There are many artistes and fellow violinists sharing material and their performances online. Here is a list of some musicians that I follow on instagram (they are not in an order of any preference):
1. Augustin Hadelich – A violinist who has a series of advice on violin technique and more on his “Ask Augustin” segment. He also shares his home concerts of himself on both the violin and piano. Recently, he also shared an interesting joint concert of 14 musicians playing Bach’s Chaconne initiated by Julia Fischer.
2. Itzhak Perlman – A 16-time Grammy Award-winning Israeli-American violinist, conductor and pedagogue who teaches at Juilliard School. He tells interesting stories and accounts and would play a short segment of music at the end.
3.Nicola Benedetti – A violinist who initiates interactive chats with other musicians.
5. Maxim Vengerov – A superstar violinist, violist and conductor who shares his performances with his children and friends. Very privileged to be able to have him share these with us as his concerts are often sold out quickly.
5. Anna Savkina – A violinist who shares tips on practice and how to troubleshoot difficult passages.
6. Nancy Zhou – A violinist who shares her practice and also references to what she has learnt.
7. Nikki Naghavi – A violinist who shares some tips on practise and her own practise from time to time.
8. Kimberlee Dray aka “Greencasegirl” – A violinist who is an enthusiast of the violin who shares topics centered around the violin.
9. Ray Chen – A very popular and entertaining Violinist who engages others to join his live streams centered around the violin and his interests.
10. Stefan Jackiw – A violinist who shares his practice performances with us.
11. The Violin Channel has been featuring artistes recitals on demand recorded from their living rooms.
12. Yoyoma – A famous cellist who is famed for also being an great humanitarian. He shares his playing with us in a series #songs of comfort.
This list is definitely by no means exhaustive. There are many wonderful musicians out there sharing their practices, thoughts and advice on a regular basis. You too can share something to inspire someone during this difficult stay home time be it within your family, your own group of friends or community, especially dedicate something to the front line workers for encouragement could be a great idea as a musical project. It does not have to be on the World Wide Web. But it is a good chance to use your music capability to touch someone or send an uplifting message that would brighten their day.
In some institutions such as the Central Conservatory of Music In Beijing, they had already started with online exams using an app about 2 years ago. The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal School of Music have moved on to Performance Graded Examinations which our students have tried and have all successfully completed them in January of 2021.
Keeping up with the times is important, it would be wise to be practiced and comfortable playing in front of a camera and not just leave these experiences to the last moments of taking an exam. Submitting a video of yourself for a music competition is also these days a trend rather than an option as it was before, where the candidates had to be physically present for auditions (which escalates costs for going for such competitions having to pay additionally for hotel and air tickets). I am glad that we have a chance to explore these experiences for every student not just for the selected few who do competitions or have the guts to be on a video recording, but every student will be getting the same valuable experience in the coming Belcanto Violins Music Studio Concerts.
Further to this, we have definitely learnt to raise our own hygiene standards to also prevent the spread of other bacteria or viruses which would be beneficial for health in the long run!
Thanks for reading 🙂