Many of us have encountered a year of “firsts” in our piano teaching — the sudden switch to online teaching, our first virtual recital, and perhaps a few online festivals and adjudications. One of the last frontiers of “firsts” for some teachers may be starting a young beginner online.
In the early days of the pandemic, just the thought of adding a new student online seemed daunting. All energy was directed toward keeping my current students afloat, with not a lot of gas left for anything else. As the pandemic prolonged from six months to twelve, I found myself at the start of a new school year with new students knocking at the door, wanting aboard.
I was heartened by the eagerness of the students and parents wanting to begin their learning of piano during unprecedented times. Their boldness in wanting to start piano, despite the challenges of virtual instruction, inspired hope and confidence to embrace this new adventure.
Upon realizing I was entering (largely) uncharted territory, my focus shifted from trying to recreate the in-person experience online to embracing the “perks” of online lessons. The least I could do was match my student’s eagerness and valor, and traverse the adventure together.
What’s In Sight Gives Insight
One of the perks of being online is collecting visual clues from the student’s surroundings. A virtual lesson in essence is an invitation into the child’s living space, a peek into their turf. Is the piano in the basement, near a window, or beside the kitchen with a parent cooking dinner? Siblings or pets may wander into the camera’s view. These visual prompts give us insight into the child’s learning environment and help us connect and relate with the student. Students can easily share their favorite toy or stuffed animal, giving insight to their interests, personality, and learning style. The stuffed toy might even find its way as another “friend at the piano” alongside Tucker, Blinker, and Tap.
Keys to Connection
At the outset of lessons, building a strong connection with the student helps us step inside the world of the young beginner [reference: The Young Beginner: Keys for Connecting – My First Piano Adventure]. Though we embark on the unique adventure of online lessons, capturing the spirit of play remains the same. However, traversing new territory requires a few new tools and a special invitation to an additional adventurer: the parent or caregiver.
- The parent as “in-person guide” can help find the right page and measure, set up technology, and translate the inevitable moments of frozen or choppy audio. Having a parent’s involvement in learning piano alongside their child can make for meaningful memories.
- As instructors, we can make a conscious effort to talk to students and ask about their day, how they are feeling, or share highlights or low points of their week. This may take a few more minutes than it would in-person, but is well worth the time.
- Finding things to experience together virtually is another way to foster connection. For example, watch a video clip of a performance or make a teacher-student duet video together. Or, try an activity that can only live in the online world, such as owning a virtual studio pet that students can ‘feed’ and ‘take care of’ online.
- Nothing beats a physical gift, something to hold and touch, especially when the virtual world is intangible. Mail or drop-off a welcome gift such as the Primer Level Sticker Book or My First “Stickers that Teach.” Parents can participate by giving out the stickers, or the students can reward themselves.
Tools for Navigation
Orientation and mapping out the course is the first step in every trip. Take time to acclimate your student to the ‘lay of the land.’ Spatial awareness (left/right, high/low) can be a difficult concept to grasp, even for in-person students. Young beginners may need help relating what they see on the screen to how their own physical space is oriented. Extra support may be needed to locate middle C, the starting note, and left vs. right hand.
- Have your middle C key marked with a sticky-note flag or colorful wad of paper. Help the student to locate and mark the middle C on their keyboard.
- Build a solid understanding of the two and three black-key patterns of the keyboard in the early lessons. This foundational skill is particularly useful for online learning as the student may be looking back and forth between the screen and down at their hands or keyboard to find their hand position.
- Be a “mirror” for your student. When differentiating the R.H. or L.H. hand with the student, face the camera and raise your L.H. when you would like the student to find their R.H. The student will most naturally mirror what they see.
- When demonstrating at the piano wear a watch or hair tie around one hand (ex: L.H.). Have the student distinguish their L.H. by doing the same.
- An overhead webcam is ideal for demonstrating fingering and hand position at the keyboard. Pop-up piano screen-sharing tools such as www.musictheory.net/piano or pianoshow.me are an easy short-cut to providing the overhead view without a second camera.
- The Teacher Atlas offers online digital editions of the Piano Adventures method books and supplements for screen sharing during lessons. Audio is conveniently linked so you can play, sing, and clap along with your student. Annotation tools let you mark up pages right on the screen for added support.
Making music with your student is the best agent for building connections remotely. Regardless of teaching online or in-person, music itself is a great motivator as it brings joy and fulfillment to the teacher and student. Let’s reframe our original doubts and questions of the unknown to simply, “how can I make music with my students online?” Whether it be sending videos to each other, playing music games via apps or YouTube, or making a video collage — set and accomplish goals at the piano together, bring the focus to music making, and enjoy the new adventure hand-in-hand… remotely.