Notespinner

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

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Fergus Black at the piano, teaching online

Hardware and Software for Online Music Lessons

Necessity is the mother of invention. When the coronavirus struck, my private and school teaching evaporated. I know the government would have stepped it to supplement my income (eventually), but with a bit of effort, I am managing to stand on my own two feet. Actually it was a lot of effort.

Here is my experience after a month of online lessons. Hopefully it might be of interest to other teachers.

I decided early on that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it as well as I could: to resource it properly, and make online lessons as productive as possible. That meant a fair amount of time and money to get the right software and hardware - nothing I have is 'top of the range', but it is all good value, and (best of all), not out of stock!

Hardware

I have a mixture of the old and new.

By chance, I had a webcam that I bought last year on an Amazon deal. I am using an old USB speaker that was languishing in a cupboard, and I had an old mic stand. My wife has lent me various tripods and gorilla grips to hold cameras. Fortunately I had a second monitor already.

Because I was fairly quick out of the starting blocks, I managed to get a few other new essentials, but I found it hard to source hardware, since everyone else was rushing to buy.

Parblo Island Graphic Tablet A609

Parblo Island Graphic Tablet A609

I bought this on the recommendation of Bramble Online Tutoring. Thank you, Bramble. I didn't have any clear idea of what I was going to use it for, and I still don't - I thought I should buy it before stocks ran out, and work out how to use it later. I have never used a graphics tablet before. So far, I only use it for marking homework pdfs and photos. I will get round to using it on the Zoom whiteboard. Perhaps.

Marantz MPM-200U USB mic

Bravo to DJKit - who managed to get a USB mic to me as the country was shutting down. With the prospect of income drying up, I couldn't justify the Blue Yeti. I bought a Marantz MPM 2000U, from them for £79, and it arrived the next day. It works well but I have no idea if it makes the sound clearer at the other end! However, I can easily make recordings for students and friends.

Andy Harris ("Trumpet Man") and Fergus Black perform Stanley's Trumpet Voluntary

This is Andy Harris (the "Trumpet Man") and me performing Stanley's Trumpet Voluntary.

Hue HD portable USB camera

Fergus Black hands on piano from overhead camera

By the time I realised that I needed an overhead camera, webcams were in short supply - fortunately, the Hue was briefly available and works just fine. It is great value and my only reservation is that it is manual focus.

Peripherals

It isn't germane to the set-up, but because I had the computer on one side of the room and the piano and teaching setup on the other, I needed a host of new peripherals: a new powered USB hub, longer USB, HDMI and Ethernet cables, and a new mouse (because the Apple Mighty Mouse simply didn't have the bluetooth range to talk the computer across the room). Phew! This was getting expensive.

Software

Zoom

I wish there were a better alternative to Zoom - the software is fully featured, but it is built for speech in meetings, not music lessons, and using it for music lessons is like using a spanner as a hammer. It works, more or less. The audio is not good if the connection speed is at all compromised.

I use sharescreen a lot; I use a second camera a lot (but can't rotate it as Zoom promises I should be able to).

The biggest problem is audio. I am learning not to talk over people, but one loses dynamics and held notes. Hence asking students to send recordings (see below).

I would like a better audio experience, but Zoom is free for calls under 40 minutes, so it hard to complain.

Acuity Scheduling

Acuity is a relatively expensive option for scheduling software. I was previously with SimplyBook.Me, which I liked very much. Acuity has more options, and best of all, it has Zoom integration, so that when someone makes a booking, Acuity books the Zoom meeting and puts the date and time in my diary. There are some things on Acuity that irritate, and others that seem overly complicated, but I was in a rush to set it up, so I may have skipped some of the instructions, like coupons and Zoom passwords. I hadn’t realised that I had a restriction on my account, which limited the number of lessons in each day, and also, only showed available times next to existing lessons. All in all, it is a very well crafted SAAS.

Email it in

This is amazing value. I use the programme for students to send me homework. It has a very cheap monthly fee.

I ask the student to send recordings, or photos of any written work to me as e-mail attachments to the address I have set up with Email It In. I ask them to put the student’s name in the subject line.

They can do this from their own account, since I never see the email: it simply drops the attachments into my google drive, into a folder with the subject line as the folder name. Amazing!

Box

I use Box.com as a repository for anything I have that the students need to play, to listen to, as well as copies of written work. Years ago, I got a mountain of free storage from them, so I thought I would put it to use. However, a small number of parents have said that they cannot access box folders, and I suspect that the software is not really right for what I want and I am currently looking at alternatives: an inexpensive product that has a desktop sync folder, that allows me to share links from the desktop.

(So, NOT Mediafire, which doesn't have a desktop client, NOT iCloud, which doesn't allow sharing of folders till you upgrade to Catalina, NOT Dropbox, which is relatively expensive, etc. You can see why this takes so long!). I will probably settle on Sync soon.

I would argue that making copies and sharing them with students comes under fair use, given the circumstances.

Photo Booth

Photobooth comes bundled with the Mac, and makes decent photos and videos easily. I haven't need to edit videos yet, but I do have OpenShot if I need it.

Amadeus Pro

Makes first class audio recordings, that are easy to edit. Recommended.

Soundsource

I had to buy Soundsource from Rogue Amoeba to control my audio during lessons - I found that switching off my Mac sometimes reset the audio inputs and outputs.

What else I have learned

I spent too long trying to bodge. For example, I tried to use an old phone as a second webcam - that was a waste of a day. If I have learnt anything, it is not to fanny around trying to save £60. Just buy one.

I spent hours and hours and hours trying various software solutions.

I have bitten the bullet of Paypal and Stripe commission. I tried to manage on sending invoices to avoid commission fees, adding a coupon code into Acuity, and sending that out, but it quickly became too complicated.

Internet connection

Without a doubt, I find the biggest problem for online lessons is the quality of the connection. Please do everything you can to improve the student’s online connection and cut down other internet traffic for the duration of the lesson. Some people have made a great effort, including upping their broadband package, or working logically on marginal gains, which together added up to a big improvement.

The truth is that many people don't have good connections. I have trawled the internet for advice on how to improve connections. Perhaps students' families are following it. I know some are, and I have been impressed at the lengths some families will go to to improve the lesson experience.

Parental and Student Education

Some parents don't pass information and resources onto the student. Some families don't have a good enough internet connection, and others apparently don't have a printer. Or indeed, for one family whose child has been having weekly piano lessons, a piano.

Also, I have learned to ask students to record themselves. Since a recording is a kind of performance, it will encourage the student to play it well without stopping and starting, but also it is hard to hear the finer details of performance over the internet, and I do get much more detail in a recording.

There are many simple audio recorders for smart phones. On iOS, I find Music Memos as good as anything, although sharing it is a bit fiddly. Don’t use Voice Memos. On Android, Smart Recorder is hard to beat. If you can find an app with level meters, so much the better - then you can position the phone so that the sound level doesn’t go into the red.

If you use any other recorder, please make sure that Automatic Gain Control is set to off. (AGC irons out the volume, making the loud bit quieter, and the quiet bits louder, which is not what we want).

Safeguarding

I have parents sign up to some basic ground rules:

the lesson must be in an appropriate room with an open door (NOT a bedroom);

the parents/guardians must provide that one of them or a trusted adult shall be in the same premises as the student while the lesson takes place. For primary school children, I recommend that there is a parent in the room with them;

students (and parents) must be dressed appropriately as if it were in the usual school setting;

students must use the parents’ or guardians’ own account rather than the child’s. (Please set one up in your (parental) name and under parental control.)

All communications must be made with parents via email or other method on a parent’s own device.

The parent must make or answer the video call to start the lesson.

Recordings You may wish to record the lessons to replay.

you must not share, or post to social media, any recordings;

you agree to securely delete and dispose of any of recordings of my teaching as soon as possible on my request.

Lessons and preparation take much longer

You can't wing it. Not that I ever do, of course!

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