Skype – Right or Wrong for Music Lessons?

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SkypeSkype is truly a marvel for our 21st century global community. It brings strangers closer together and keeps families connected. And it has become part of the way that today’s musicians study and learn.

But does that mean it is always the right tool for music study? When and how does it help and when does it just get in the way?

Like anyone else, I have my own ideas on the subject; your experience may vary. So I offer my thoughts below, not as hard and fast rules, but my own ideas shaped by my experience.

I will start with the one “golden rule” I apply to Skype or any other online learning tool: if the technology is frustrating then the learning is compromised. A slow internet connection or outdated equipment (which you might have bought last month!) can sabotage the learning experience beyond repair. Granting that Skype has a fairly low technical difficulty level, it can still be beyond the expertise of some students. Sometimes it just takes a lesson or two to “work out the kinks,” but if the technology continues to be troublesome, the lessons will feel like wasted time and effort.

On the whole, however, I love Skype and find it a tremendously powerful tool, especially in certain learning situations. These are some of my favorite ways to use Skype.

  • For coaching, where suggestions and guidance are primarily what is needed by the student.
  • For classes or workshops, where the instruction is less individual and more group-centered.
  • For avoiding bad weather or scheduling conflicts. Even when we have snow or ice on the roads, I can keep my students on track with a Skype lesson. Or when a student’s parents aren’t able to bring her, Skype can be a godsend to student, parents and me. I am very careful, though, not to keep this as a “once in a blue moon” exception, not to let it become habit.
  • For extra help in between lessons, or a practice check.
  • For study when no “in person” instructor is nearby. We harpists have always been particularly challenged this way. But with Skype, you can learn the harp even if the nearest teacher is hundreds of miles away.

For all its benefits, I don’t believe Skype is a good substitute for ongoing private lessons if there is any instructor accessible. Video is simply not as effective a medium as in person instruction.

While I have enough experience to evaluate a student’s technique over video, students benefit greatly from being in the same room with their teacher. I often demonstrate finer points of technique or expression and ask my student to pay attention to my feet as I push the pedals or to feel my arm to feel the lack of tension. And with the touch of one finger, I can remind a student to drop and relax her shoulders or lift her elbow.

Also, my students and I both enjoy when we can play together in a lesson. It’s a fun way to practice ensemble skills, and it just doesn’t work as well through an internet connection.

And I am firm in my belief that Skype lessons are not a good option for young learners. Children need to develop rapport and relationship with a teacher, and the teacher can do much to inspire the love of music in a child. But only in person.

But if you must learn by Skype, consider these supplements to your musical education.

  1. Seek out “live” learning opportunities such as workshops or conferences. The presenters at these events are often available for individual lessons to, if you make arrangements ahead of time.
  2. Find a Skype instructor and stick with that person. Building a relationship with a teacher over time allows you to create and follow through on bigger goals and projects. It avoids having to start over with a new teacher who needs to figure out what you know and what you need to learn.
  3. Seek out other live music opportunities. Go to concerts, join ensembles, even if they are ensembles of instruments other than your own. You will even find that an occasional “lesson” with a teacher of another instrument can be helpful.

Music connects people. The internet connects people. It seems like a natural pairing. But in this new shrinking world where anyone is only a click away, I still believe that virtual learning is only the next best thing to being there.

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  • Gretchen Cover

    I took a Skype lesson and agree with your thoughts after doing so. My lesson was for orchestra coaching. A big problem not discussed above is that there is a very slight time lag in sound. In my orchestra lesson, I kept getting corrected about timing until we realized the technical limitation.

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  • Karen

    Building on Gretchen’s comment. At least a third of my Skype lesson was spent with one of us repeating ourselves because the other (thinking that the first speaker was done talking) walked all over what the other said while responding. Also, visual cues, like facial expression, lag the audio. Which makes for more repetition to ensure that you ‘got’ each others message. At $50 an hour (minimum) per lesson, this method of instruction was actually a poor value for my time and money.

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  • Marie Shafer

    True, there are certain things that can only be done in person. My 14 year old daughter has been taking harp lessons by Skype for 2 years now. Her harp teacher quit teaching and was the only teacher in our town. We could drive for an hour one way to the nearest harp teacher or try online lessons. Her new teacher is wonderful and turned out to be WAY better than the teacher that she had in person. She even manages to notice incorrect placement of the hands, fingers, elbows etc. It is amazing what her teacher can notice on the computer screen. She has flourished with her new teacher. I think like most anything in life, Skype teaching and learning works very well for some, and not for others. I truly believe that her teacher is gifted and has been blessed with a unique ability to teach online. The right online teacher can make all of the difference in the world. Not every teacher can nor wants to teach online, and that is only to be expected. It is a very different world when it comes to teaching and learning online.

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  • Joy

    My daughter gave me my first lessons 2 years ago via Skype– from Rwanda. Many times she’d start to tell me something and freeze up as she’d lose power or internet. I was left hanging and wondering what she was going to say. This after spending the first several minutes trying to get the right angle for my iPad on my music stand with the right lighting so she could see my hands. Not to mention trying to find a time that would work considering our 9-hour time difference!

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  • lee Stewart

    I too find it limiting. I feel awkward and can’t get comfortable. Not good for learning. I suppose that might go away in time but I prefer in person lessons.

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  • Rob Stone

    I tried to rehearse with someone using Skype but the time lag impacted the synch and we had to do it it in person- I also gave a few lessons on Skype and didn’t enjoy it as much as the in person lessons- when I’m in person, I can look at all the angles of my students, ask to make adjustments, demonstrate, etc. But like you said , Anne, it could be the only alternative at times!

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  • Marilyn M Weiss

    I can’t imagine a harp lesson on Skype. I have studied a language on Skype but that has entirely diferent parameters. Skype is not the place for harp lessons unless, perhaps, your stationed in Antartica.

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  • Anna Dunwoodie

    Completely agree – as I teacher I far prefer having a face to face lesson, but sometimes have to settle for a skype lesson, but for young learners, its a definite compromise!

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