Confessions of an online music teacher

By Alice Maxwell

I am giving a Skype lesson to my six year old piano pupil Elly. My computer screen displays a keyboard, and an empty piano stool – but there is no sign of Elly. “Elly … Where are you?” Suddenly a cheeky face appears on the screen – apparently we are playing hide and seek, and I am at an serious disadvantage. “Oh, there you are!” I grin, and add sheepishly “Now how about playing Old Macdonald?”

Online teaching is full of surprises and I learn to accept that I am often at the mercy of pupils’ whims and fancies. While technological difficulties are often a source of hilarity, a great deal of imagination is needed to make online lessons engaging and fun.
Pupils seem to find getting a satisfactory camera angle quite a challenge, the screen may be entirely taken up with an ample bosom, or I find myself conversing with a headless pupil.

An early morning lesson reveals a grumpy Nancy, who shows no interest in piano, so I suggest drumming instead. She sets her drums out on the floor, but the camera is still facing the piano so Nancy has all but disappeared. Asking her technophobe Dad to re-position the camera would be a major operation, so I resignedly direct the lesson to the top of her head.

Emma in ghoulish disguise

Some pupils have lessons on their phone and it takes Penny ages to find a place on the piano where the wretched thing is secure. She comes in and out of focus, but at least I can hear her. In her enthusiasm, she plays an extra loud note, the vibration of which sends the phone crashing to the floor, and my screen goes blank. She eventually re-positions it, but for the rest of the lesson she appears horizontal on my screen. Once again, I take a deep breath and carry on!

Emma has a strange device on Messenger whereby she can change her appearance. Today “My Favourite Things” is being played by a ghoulish figure with hearts flowing out of her mouth. Perhaps she is having fun at my expense, but as long as she is enjoying herself, I don’t mind.

These lessons give me lovely vignettes into people’s lives. I am introduced to cats and dogs, brothers and sisters, and a devoted husband who appears at the end of each lesson to announce that lunch is ready. A pupil is due to start her lesson, but the music is nowhere to be found. A scene of panic and chaos ensues as the entire family are called upon to turn the room upside-down looking for the lost folder, while I look on helplessly, trying to control my laughter.

There are unexpected disruptions too, one sunny morning all the windows are open in Wendy’s house, and the lesson is progressing nicely. Suddenly Wendy emits a loud scream and races out of the room. She reappears with the Parental Bee Removal Squad and not until they have managed to return the offending creature to the great outdoors does the lesson finally resume.

In many cases the idea of “practice” seems to have fizzled out. “Have you done any practice this week Sam?” “Oh no” he replies, “I’ve been much too busy with the Coronavirus”.

Although online learning is not for everyone, I have recently taken on pupils from Leeds, Langholm and Birmingham but I find myself yelling into the computer at them – (they are so far away how can they possibly hear me otherwise?) – and I am often hoarse by the end of the lesson.

During lock-down a wealth of online videos about music teaching have appeared, and the Benedetti Virtual Sessions especially have provided wonderful ideas to inspire adults and children, for which I am forever grateful.

Overall, this experience has without doubt improved my teaching, and my Dad made it all worth it, announcing that his latest lesson with me “was the best he’s ever had”.

At the same time, I can’t wait to have my pupils back, I have missed them so much, their shoes in the hall, the endless stream of music, coats and hats that gets left behind, the sounds of tinkling piano keys. But most of all I look forward to that old-fashioned form of communication that a screen can never replace, to being in the actual presence of wonderful human beings.

PS For the sake of anonymity, pupils’ names have been changed