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Teaching violin through a screen



It seems as though every piece of writing these days starts with the words "in light of the recent Corona outbreak". It has become the new normal. And while humans are historically brilliant at adapting, it doesn't mean it's always easy. For the past four weeks my fellow music teachers and I have been thrown into the very lucky deep end of the pool where we are allowed to keep working and earning - but having to adapt to online teaching instantly.


It's been an enlightening four weeks, forcing me to burrow down to the fundamentals of music teaching and finding ways to provide the most value for my students. Some musical techniques, like tone production, you cannot teach online, ever (I mean, the audio quality is sometimes horrendous), whilst other concepts are far easier. Here are some of the things I have learnt so far. Hopefully they are helpful!



Prepare your space


This goes both ways. As a teacher, you need to provide some consistency for your student. Make sure your teaching space stays the same as much as possible. Make it a space that you feel comfortable, prepared and happy in. You can even go so far as to provide a cool musical backdrop to your lessons. Your students will look forward to hitting that "join" button. As important - make sure everything is within reach: your violin, your notes, pen/pencil, cellphone, laptop charger, headphones, coffee. What I especially found useful for the young students, was having lots of paper close by, so I could quickly draw a note and hold it up to the camera if I needed to explain minims/quavers/crotchets again :)


Students tend to take a subject more seriously if they need to prepare for it. Have your students (or your child if you're a parent reading this) prepare a small space that is just for violin. This is a lot to ask, I know. But even something basic, like a picture of a violin or something music-related on the wall behind them can make them "click" that this is their musical space, and therefore puts them into the right mindset for the next 30min. Make sure they have homework books, music books, and pencil within reach. Furthermore, sheet music should always be on their eye level, and laptop/tablet at least at chest level, otherwise you end up "looking" up from the floor/couch, and your student is slowly turning into a hunchback of Notre Dame.


I got the idea of preparing my space from Gabi Immelman's blog post Setting up your virtual classroom. She also has some other great posts about online learning.



A glimpse into your student's practicing routine


Now this has been the biggest perk of online music teaching. In the past, I would see my students for 30min each week. Some of them would not practice for the whole week, thinking that they would get better by just attending lessons. Which meant they were playing violin for 30min, once a week - not enough. I've always thought that perhaps it's because they don't know how to practice at home. By teaching through a screen, I've been offered the rare experience of being a fly on the wall when my students are playing in their home.


As music teachers/performers we know that practicing is where it's at. So if we can "infiltrate" that most important space of our students' music education, we can effectively give proper guidance and advice, knowing what is really going on at home. For my more advanced students, I often let them practice a piece on their own for a few minutes, while I'm watching. Hopefully they will forget that I'm there and I'll see how they tackle a piece on their own. This is invaluable information! By assessing their practicing approach, and gently guiding them into the correct techniques or ways of thinking, I'm making a daily difference, as apposed to a weekly one.


After a while I hope my small guidances here and there will turn into a gentle "voice on the shoulder" that is always present. When a student is struggling with a passage, doing it over and over and starting to get angry at themselves, I hope that they will hear my voice saying "I know you want to get this part right, but have you thought of stopping and analyzing what practicing technique you could use to fix it once and for all?" (Answer: rhythms). For now my voice is coming from a tiny laptop speaker - something far less intrusive than me sitting in the room with them - but hopefully one day it will just be there, guiding them every day.



Backtracks


Thank goodness for backtracks and prerecorded accompaniments! If I had to listen to another open-string piece through a screen, with no accompaniment to make it fun and interesting for my student, I would run out of steam within minutes. It's also very very hard for young students to practice at home. Playing the open A string eight times, even though very important for technique, tone production, timing, posture, and many other non-obvious things, is incredibly boring and is definitely not a song in any way. However, practicing this same eight note "song" with a backtrack is a whole new experience. There is counting involved. Listening. Musical interpretation. Focus. And because it's more "complex" with all these elements added, you can play the song a few times! And each time you can ask your student to focus on something else. First making a smooth sound. Then maybe making a soft sound. Then standing up straight. Then standing on one leg!

Thank you backtrack makers!


If your students use the Fiddle Time books, you can access some of the audio backtracks online here. You can also email the company for audio files that are not online.

Similarly, and for a small fee, you can download all the ABRSM audio accompaniment on their website. For most instruments and all grades.



Zoom violin parties


After week two of teaching I decided to host a little zoom party for my students, so that we could try applying this new normal to something more fun. It worked so well! The audio was a bit all over the place, but the point was not to have perfect playing, rather to connect and "perform". Having something to work towards also motivated the students to practice more in the week.


The party started with each student introducing themselves: name, grade, how long they have been playing violin, and a few notes on the violin (anything, just a little burst of individuality). After some games, we each got a chance to perform our favourite song we were working on (me included), followed by speaker-distorting applause! To end off, I either showed them a cool music video or live video on youtube (screen share), to which they needed to respond with comments, or we all jammed in G major over some famous G major pop song. (By just sharing my computer sound).


Here are some games I came up with:


  • Broken telephone - Student A makes up a short music riff (eg. DDAADDG), student B tries to copy exactly, etc. See if the last student plays it exactly the same as Student A. Then start again from the last student going back with a different riff.

  • On the spot - As above, a student makes up a short riff. Then I randomly select another student using "Spotlight video" (they then appear on the big screen on everyone's screens). When they appear on screen, they must copy the riff. I usually take some time before I pick someone to make it more suspenseful.

  • Composing together - Using the same "Spotlight" feature, I get one student to start composing (can be open strings, anything), and then switch randomly to another student and they must continue the composition! Whenever a student sees themselves on the big screen, they need to respond quickly! This can go on for a while ;)

  • Challenges - Whilst students are playing their favourite pieces, I ask the other students to write a challenge on paper and hold it up to the camera. Eg. "Play on one leg", "Play 2x fast", "Play super soft", etc. If you have more advanced students, the challenges can obviously scale up as well.

  • Music maths - Using cards with notes drawn on them, I do maths problems with my students. "How much are these together"? (Holding up a minim and a minim). As an answer, they must hold up their semibreve cards. It can get quite complex as well.

  • Fastest grab - Some non-musical fun to get everyone excited and laughing. Eg. "First one to show me their favourite colour!" These grabs can range from pets to teddies to what reminds them of weekend, to kitchen utensils, to happy things - anything that sparks creative thinking.



I found that my students are far better at this than I am. They're more comfortable with technology, and very eager to use it to their advantage. Perhaps we as teachers can learn as much from them now as they are (hopefully) from us! Remember that you can always ask your student for ideas. Or for feedback about your lessons. It may feel overwhelming to provide everything you once did from your classroom, and to keep them entertained. But perhaps that isn't really necessary now. Perhaps the best thing for them is someone to look up to, or lots of links to watch music youtube videos! Who knows.


Maybe online teaching is our new normal - for the future even after Corona. (When something like this happens again, or when you can't get to school anymore for some reason). Best to get comfortable, innovate as fast as possible, adapt to completely new ways of sharing ideas and concepts, and learn to love this useful tool called technology.



I would be happy to share more ideas, and would love to hear yours too!


My Violin Zoom parties are happening weekly, and if your child would like to join (ages 8-12ish), send me a message.


lucasound91@gmail.com

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