A Perspective on Zoom Lessons from Kristen Wuest, Director of Student Services
It was, perhaps ironically, Friday the 13th (March 2020) when we decided to close the Performing Arts School in Berkeley Heights for at least two weeks, and I honestly did not know if or how I was going to continue teaching my flute and piano students. At the time, I was not a believer in virtual learning for a practical endeavor like playing an instrument. You could say that I was resistant—at the very least. However, I packed up an electric keyboard from the piano lab and as much music as I could carry, preparing as best I could for what I thought would be two weeks at home.
Little did I know that social distancing would last much longer…
My husband, a veritable tech genius, helped me set up a teaching space in our apartment, complete with a USB mic, external speakers, and anything else I requested. He also set me up with the video conferencing platform Zoom. Still a pessimist, I scheduled my first music lesson with one of my students, held my breath, and dove into virtual teaching. Much to my surprise, the water was warm!
Not only do I get to “see” my students whom I miss so much via Zoom, their lessons are progressing surprisingly well. So much so that I am scheduling double lessons weekly, students are sounding better than ever (I hope so…they have tons of practice time on their hands!), and we are preparing to move forward with juries, a virtual honors recital, and the 2020-21 season auditions for the New Jersey Youth Symphony. I’ve even been able to play duets with some of my flute students!
In order to make this the best learning experience possible for all of the students at the Performing Arts School, as well as my own students, I first immersed myself in online webinars regarding virtual music lessons and researched what other performing arts schools are doing during this pandemic. I have learned everything about Zoom that I possibly could, leading me to become the Zoom guru and tech support for our 40+ teachers.
While virtual teaching is not the same as in-person lessons, it is the best alternative that we have during this time of social distancing. Students are able to maintain upward progress while staying in touch with their instructors, and online lessons provide both the teacher and student with human contact on a predictable schedule. As a teacher, I find myself welcomed into their personal home practice space. I can see what their environment is like at home: are they sitting or standing? Do they have a music stand? How is their posture when they practice? All of these insights help teachers make adjustments that may not normally have been possible. And I find that students are generally much more relaxed in their home environment and tend to be less nervous about making mistakes.
Every one of my lessons begins with, “How are you doing? How is online learning for school going?” It is so important to me to be a sounding board for my students. At the Performing Arts School, we are teachers as well as mentors. Not only do we provide guidance with the gift of music, but we also provide our students with warmth and trust. Keeping contact during this time is crucial—not just for musical growth. While nothing compares to experiencing those “A-ha!” moments in person, continuing lessons virtually will make so many things that much better when we are able to be meet again at the Performing Arts School.
Here are some commonly asked questions about online lessons that I am fielding on a daily basis as Director of Student Services:
Q: What does a student need at home in order to take Zoom lessons?
A: A student Zoom setup can be as simple as a cell phone. If students want to invest in better audio by adding a USB mic and/or external speakers they can, but many of my students are only using a cell phone. And, of course, they need wifi.
Q: How are things different with Zoom lessons as opposed to in-person lessons?
A: I make my commentary and instructions much more concise, and I am more picky and strategic about what we work on. I usually don’t stop my students while they are playing; I take notes and we go back only if something is glaringly incorrect, and then I stop them for feedback. For my 60-minute lesson students, I break their lessons into two 30-minute sessions because an hour zoned into a computer screen is difficult and can be unproductive.
Q: What are some specific challenges of online lessons?
A: One day my audio may be great, and other days my students can’t hear me at all and I can’t hear them. Many times, it comes down to the internet connection. If the wifi is not cooperating, it can be difficult. That has been my biggest obstacle thus far. Another small challenge is the fact that you can’t make physical adjustments, but if you help students set the camera in a good spot, it is possible to guide any physical adjustments that may need to be made.
Q: How have you overcome these challenges?
A: In terms of the wifi, I have recommended the following steps before joining a lesson:
- Try to limit the amount of people using the wifi during a lesson.
- Reset the router before joining a lesson.
- Set up in the same room as the router, or as close to it as possible.
- Close any apps or programs on the device you’re using.
Q: Are there any apps you are using with online lessons that you weren’t using previously with in-person lessons?
A: Zoom capabilities are incredible. I have an iPad pro and am able to incorporate screen sharing and the whiteboard option while using my apple pencil. Many times I will join the lesson on the iPad at the same time as my laptop and use the iPad for screen sharing only while using my laptop for video. Tech capabilities these days are amazing!
Q: What about students who are having trouble tuning their instruments at home themselves?
A: We’ve been sharing this article with links to several apps which has proven helpful.
I am happy to report that every single instructor at the Performing Arts School has begun virtual teaching with great success. We are hosting over 200 Zoom lessons weekly, with 90% of our student population taking online lessons during the COVID 19 pandemic. We have launched a virtual music lesson program for NEW students wishing to start an instrument while in quarantine—from anywhere in the world—which is very exciting. Our administrative staff is dreaming up new ideas every day to keep our students engaged. We are learning how to navigate this novel world of virtual learning, and we are so thankful for everyone who has joined us on the journey. As a community, we will come through this stronger than ever while using the gift of music to uplift and encourage each other.