I’ve been teaching cello lessons for over 25 years and I’ve never taught an online lesson until a couple of weeks ago. What a huge learning curve this has been!!! In the past two weeks I have learned to use several online video streaming platforms. I have upgraded my hardware with a new webcam, microphone, wireless earbuds, and new speakers. I have taught 40 families to use Zoom, which ended up being my preferred platform after lots of experimenting and advice from colleagues. I have boosted my personal creativity to make these online lessons work best for my students. Most recently, I have gotten crafty with making signs to communicate more clearly with my students on the other end of the internet.
At first, I was skeptical about what could be accomplished in online lessons. I have learned that I can still hear intonation. I can see their posture. I can see whether they are playing correctly. The hardest thing for me is that I can’t really tell what their tone quality is like, but so many other facets of playing the instrument are apparent, so I think I am hearing enough to keep everyone on-track. My students can play their assignments for me and I am able to make corrections and suggestions for improvement. My students are still moving ahead, and everyone is keeping a positive attitude toward online learning.
There are several positive aspects to online lessons. First, students are in their own home environment, so many seem more relaxed and comfortable. Second, my students are having to be more independent. I can’t play along with them anymore! We can use call and response, but most of the time, they are doing all the playing and I am making verbal comments. They also have to pick up their pencil and mark their own music. I always say that marking your own music is a sign of maturity! Hopefully, when we can eventually return to in-person lessons, these more independent habits will remain.
My advice to parents is to keep your kids actively playing their instrument daily at home. They have lost their school lessons and orchestra playing time, so even if they practice every day, like normal, they are not playing as much as they normally would. Having a specific time everyday to play their instrument is helpful in maintaining this habit. Music can also help kids to relieve the stress of this crazy time. I know that maintaining a practice habit is challenging, but it’s so worth it!
I have had to practice quite a bit of patience with technology these past couple of weeks. I've learned that technological glitches are out of my hands. I’ve improved my equipment and internet connection to the point that I should not be causing glitches on my end. However, I cannot control the equipment or internet connection that my students have, nor can I control how well or badly the overloaded Zoom platform and internet services are working. What I can control, beyond the quality of my equipment, is the quality of my teaching and my positive and caring relationships with my students and their families. The lessons are valuable to them, even if they aren't perfect. They realize I am stepping out of my comfort-zone and doing everything I can to continue their lessons and help them to maintain some semblance of normalcy in this time when pretty much every other activity they do is cancelled indefinitely. We are all in this together. It will be ok. Eventually, school will restart, and we can go back to teaching in-person. But right now, we teachers must teach our students the best we can and not let the things that are out of our control bother us.
Sandra Halleran is an active freelance musician and cello teacher in the Rochester area. She also is the founder of The Rochester Cello Society, an all-inclusive group of cellists in the Rochester, NY area. Cellists (students and professionals) and lovers of cello music are all invited to join.