Thoughts on composing, teaching and performing music, by Fergus Black


Adjusting to the Brave New World

Fergus Black of John Clare School talks about his experience teaching music online over the past year.

Originally published in Village Tribune, March/April 2021; the magazine serves the villages of North Peterborough.

I am not a luddite, but I don’t have any Social Media presence, and until a year ago, like so many people, I hadn’t ever attended a Zoom meeting. But, necessity is the mother of invention …

I was working as a musician - part teacher, part conductor, part performer. Some of the performing has continued (unpaid) on YouTube and online, but the teaching I have so far, largely managed to rescue.

I was teaching piano and singing at John Clare PS in Helpston and at Bourne Grammar and privately. When the coronavirus struck, the teaching evaporated. Schools were understandably reluctant to have visiting music teachers in school.

So I jumped in to lessons online with Zoom. You may be sceptical about how this works for music lessons. I know I was before I started.

What do you need for Online Lessons?

The first thing to say is that online music lessons need a decent internet connection at both ends: so Helpston, for example, with its super-fast broadband is a dream, almost like being in the room with the student. Elsewhere, I have been impressed that some families have made a great effort, including upping their broadband package, or working logically on marginal gains, which together added up to a big improvement.

Some families don't have a good internet connection, and others apparently don't have a printer. Or indeed, for one family whose child had been having weekly piano lessons in school, a piano.

Why might Online be better?

In my experience, online is actually better for two kinds of students: the shy and the forgetful. The shy are sometimes more comfortable with a camera than a person, and the forgetful don’t usually forget to bring their books (or themselves) to online lessons.

Also, I have some private students in Werrington who were travelling long distances to me for lessons: several from Stamford, one from March. In the past I have had students from Stilton and Boston. The value added by face-to-face contact has to be greater than the cost of an hour’s travel, and waiting at the level crossing!

The other major plus is that most students have practised more – I guess they had little else to do, since the chess club, rugby and netball have all stopped. “What can I do? I know, I’ll practise the piano!”. Also, I have better contact with parents for school learners. That three-way communication helps all of us enormously.

Why might in-person be better?

Some things are lost, of course – it is hard to hear the finer details of performance over the internet. Zoom doesn’t convey long sounds well, so it can be hard to tell if students really are holding the long note; and it doesn’t do loud and quiet very well. It is the penalty or using meeting software that boosts the volume of people speaking quietly in a meeting, and shushes the loud ones.

So, I have learned to ask students to send me a recording of themselves. Since a recording is a kind of performance, I hope it encourages the student to play it well without stopping and starting, and I get much more detail in a recording.

And for me, I find that lessons and preparation take much longer. You can't ‘wing’ it. Not that I ever do, or did, of course!

Here is the article in the magazine



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