How Covid-19 has Changed my Music Teaching for the Better. And Tips on Online Violin Learning and Teaching

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.

Past Experiences

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.

Showing a student where to begin on the score is still possible

4. Tone

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.

5. Angles

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.

Focusing and zooming into the angle and posture I want the student to pay attention to

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.

Lastly, remember we have fun together! Till we get to meet physically again.

Some other Tips that may be Helpful to have a Successful Online Class

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Make sure your instrument is in tune before the class begins to save class time.
  8. Set yourself up at a good camera angle so that you don’t have to take up the class time to adjust your position.
1. Stationery and writing equipment
Photo by Frans Van Heerden on
4. By a Window
Photo by Taryn Elliott on
6. My Teaching Diary

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.

4. virtuoso_violinist – A violinist who demonstrates practical tips from the Dounis Method.

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.

Moving Forward

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 also indicated last month that this may be in the works to keep our examinations going as there is a temporary suspension at the moment due to Covid-19.

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 concert that I am planning “Our Perfect Number”.

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 🙂

Invited to Careers Education Day at Singapore Chinese Girls’ School

This was my first ever time speaking about my Career officially at any event so I was not sure what to expect.  We had a couple of speakers for the different art groups, for music it was just my fellow Alumni Lin Si Tong (Instagram linsitong, is a Chinese lyricist and Music Producer for Dramas and other Mandarin Songs) and I.  This was great as she covered the students who aspired to go contemporary and I addressed the students who were interested in sticking with Classical.  Though both of our Careers do overlap somewhat as we still need to practice a lot and be good with our pitch; and we both love to teach!

It was nice to be back in my old school after leaving for so long and meeting most of the teachers who still almost looked the same (to me). Talking to the students and meeting others from the art industry made me realize that it is really not out of necessity that we do what we do every day but for the passion and love for our art that we wake up an try our best with our careers even though what we do sometimes seem more obscure than a more conventional job.

It is truly a blessing to have a talent to share with others, so those of you reading this who is good with any form of musical or artistic talent, do try your best to nurture it. Your creativity is unique and original and even if it seems insignificant, there will be an eager someone who will be truly inspired by your art! Thank you SCGS for giving me the opportunity to share and realize this ❤️

Suzuki has come to Singapore! What really is the Suzuki Method? And how I use the Suzuki Method in my Teaching Programme

Martin Rüttimann (Chairman, European Suzuki Association, Vivienne Eio and Una Lauw (President of STEAS)

The Suzuki Talent Education Association (STEAS) arrived in 2014 actually…! Sponsored by my friends at Synwin Music, today I participated at a Teacher’s workshop on the Suzuki Values & Teaching Method and to bring awareness to STEAS.  Guest Speaker Mr Martin Rüttimann flew in to give us the insights of Dr Suzuki’s violin Methodology and why it works particularly well for young learners.  There were also some young performers who gave us a demonstration of the Suzuki Method in action. 

Students demonstrating Suzuki Volume 1’s first piece “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Variations”

There will be two different training workshops for piano and violin coming up this year for teachers.  If you would like to join do contact the Suzuki Talent Education Association Association Singapore.  The dates of the piano teachers’ training is on an earlier date while the violin course is planned at the end of May. Do contact them directly at the STEAS website for more information.  To join this workshop you need to be a member of the Association and also need to send in an audition demo of yourself at the highest proficient level: choose and play a level you are at from book 4 to 10, hence book 4 is at its lowest entry level in order to be qualified to be trained for Book 1 at the workshop in May 2017. (If you send in a level at book 10 Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D major this would just mean you will not need to send in any more auditions for the training for book 1 through to 10. ) note that it is required to be trained from Book 1 and the workshop training sessions are approximately 35 to 42 hours to cover each volume. 

For those who are not familiar with the Suzuki Method.  Here are some features of the Method that I have summarized below:

  • A concept of nurturing an individual through music to learn discipline and a community spirit, which would lead to ultimately having a “beautiful heart”
  • Believes that learning music is like learning a mother tongue language where a young child would be able to learn music and an instrument just like learning their own native language. The Suzuki Method strives to teach a musical instrument (piano, violin, guitar, viola, cello, flute etc.) this way.
  • Usage of familiar songs in first books to keep the students and child interested in learning as this would be easy to train the ear as well as play from memory which is a compulsory component.
  • No particular written technical method reduced into writing (except Dr Suzuki’s concept of Tonalization) as compared to the French or Russian schools of learning but the musical abilities and techniques are passed down from teacher to teacher, thus the need for the Associations for training teachers to be “Suzuki ready”.
  • Method encourages a Child, Teacher and Parent triangle where the Parent plays a vital role as much as the Teacher and Child in the Learning Process. 
  • Lots of group playing in unison are encouraged as one of the key visions of Suzuki is that the child is nurtured into a not being competitive but to having a communal spirit. 
  • A large range of repertoire focusing on early classical and baroque pieces (my observation of the Violin Method) and an absence of the traditional Etudes like Wolfhart, Kayser, Dancla, Dont, Gavinies, Kreutzer etc. no Romantic period concertos but ends at Mozart Violin Concerto. The idea is that afterwhich, teachers would progress to teaching the Bruch and Mendelssohn Concertos.
  • Usage of Solfege instead of note reading initially for ear training as well as easy pick up for even toddlers which is why more students can pick up the violin with scaled down instruments at an early age. 

For more of the Suzuki Method and how it is taught, it is best to join one of the teachers training courses available in your region worldwide to have the know how to teach and understand this concept better. 

 How I would teach and use the Suzuki Method for my Students 

The Suzuki repertoire is a popular choice for teachers and students and almost a staple for Beginner’s repertoire as they are really catchy tunes and the songs have been reduced in a way that initial bowing methods for the violin and certain technique can be taught easily.  I personally do use the first Volume for a typical beginner for the same reasons but I perhaps teach it in a very different way from a typical Suzuki teacher would (unfortunately out of group lessons or the occasional special concert arrangement, I do not have students playing in unison) and I would graduate much sooner (at about song no.10 this also depends on the aptitude of the student) to a wider range of classical genre and Etudes to explore more aspects of violin and bowing technique appropriate for a beginner.  

The focus would be more on grasping the correct posture, basic music theory concepts and learning completely the permutations of the first position of the violin as an initial hurdle.  For e.g. Oskar Rieding’s violin concerto in B minor which pretty much covers the first position (though it can be played in higher positions) would be taught and is a catchy and exciting tune as well!  I like to start with the Rieding  piece as it offers a glimpse of the many solo violin repertoires to come with great concertos written in D major/Bminor.

After which grasping the entirety of the first position, more keys and the intensive grasp of the second position will be introduced before the third, vibrato and shifting.   This would be a contrast to the Suzuki repertoire where they go straight to the Vivaldi pieces at the intermediate level and into the third position seemingly straightaway.

Dissecting what is taught in my lessons: 

Apart from daily left and right hand exercises, I would also add in Etudes by Kayser, Wolfhart and and others and a series scales and arpeggios to learn the different keys in the first then second position, then third and onto higher positions.

No student is the same, so one would expect the repertoires and also concepts to be taught at different paces. But I would like the student to follow up the classes efficiently as the classes were as mini lessons on their own till our next class in the same format. Hence, instead of achieving one lesson per week they would have done at least 4 to 6 on their own. So their hard work and commitment to what was taught proves their own success. This would help them to gain independence much sooner as that is my fundamental goal for them to do without me and become their own teacher as soon as they can.

I do agree that parents have to be in the class for any child under the age of 8 years old and are as important in the learning process as the child or teacher is to encourage development. Which is the same triangle concept that Suzuki has for their courses.

I do follow through with some of the selected songs in Suzuki in the later books and find them useful in exploring technique and compartmentalizing the different concepts of Violin Technique. But there is a vast range of repertoire out there to be covered such as the 6 Bach Partitas and Sonatas which are a staple for my more advanced students.