As the world adjusts to life with Covid-19, almost every industry is having to make unprecedented and unforeseen shifts in order to survive. For businesses offering their services, this is a particular challenge. Piano teachers are no different. Across the world, piano teachers are turning to Skype for the first time in an attempt to continue working with their students. As piano teachers, we are accustomed to our face to face sessions, and the interaction between us and the student is vital to our success. Our communicative toolbox primarily involves visual demonstration, sensory demonstration, and lastly spoken word. How do we continue teaching when two of these major aspects (visual and sensory) are restricted through the medium of Skype or FaceTime? I have been teaching via Skype for four years now, and I have encountered many challenges during that time. I hope the following five points will assist other teachers in making the transition for the first time.
1. Sing from the same hymn sheet
The first major difference is that the teacher cannot simply point to a note or a bar and say "Please begin here". It is therefore of vital importance that both the teacher and the student have identical copies of the piece in question. An edition with bar numbers is always preferable, as it makes it easier to identify a passage to work on. A different edition may have fewer or more pages, different phrasing and ornamentation or even different notes. The student must have a pencil ready to annotate their copy, and the teacher should make the same markings in their copy to ensure consistency. This will save a great deal of time over the course of the lessons!
2. Schedule with gaps
I have always scheduled Skype lessons with at least a 10 or 15 minute gap in between sessions. This allows the student a little more time should any connection issues emerge. Occasionally these problems will occur, and your student will be grateful for the extra time to account for any lost minutes due to unavoidable technical glitches. If the problems persist and become disruptive, perhaps you can try another platform (FaceTime or Zoom).
3. Follow up
This additional time can also be used to follow up with lesson notes and short video clips. As it's no longer possible to write down notes in a notebook, Skype chat provides an alternative option. Here you can send through brief lesson notes or attach a video if you prefer. This will greatly assist the student in their practice for the week. The video clips will stay on their Skype account for over a week, which offers the opportunity for them to login and revisit the lesson content.
4. Don't let sight reading fall behind!
In order to continue the student's progress with sight reading, it will be necessary for the teacher to purchase the same sight reading books that the student is working from. These might be the RCM Four Start Series or ABRSM Sight Reading books. Without them, you cannot give your best evaluation of the student's progress on sight reading. The alternative would be to ask the student to angle the camera so you can squint at their copy, which is not the most professional approach.
5. Ear Training
Skype will never replace one to one lessons permanently. The teacher cannot make the same detailed comments on quality of tone and sound via a small microphone. However, Skype does not offer any restrictions when it comes to ear training. Take advantage of this and increase the amount of interval training and aural tests that take place in your lessons. The RCM Four Star series offers a series of clapback and playback examples that can be utilized effectively.
Your teaching process will inevitably differ from a regular lesson. It is difficult to demonstrate subtle movements of wrist or arm through the camera, and therefore the spoken word takes more precedent. As Heinrich Neuhaus said in his book 'The Art of Piano Playing' while discussing technique: "How difficult it is to describe accurately this very simple process, and how easy it is to show it on the piano with just a few words of explanation!" As the teaching itself will inevitably become more challenging, it will force you to be more creative in your choice of words and analogies. Search for new ways to explain concepts and ideas, and this will certainly a positive outcome.
Choice of repertoire is a vital ingredient in the development of young pianists. If the piece is too easy, they can become bored very quickly. Whilst some pupils enjoy a challenging piece, others will become frustrated and disillusioned if they are faced with a piece that is too difficult. Over the past few years, I have been searching for interesting pieces that will capture the imagination of young pianists without drastically increasing the level of difficulty. Here, I have selected five pieces for late beginners or early intermediates to get their teeth into. Each piece is around RCM Level 2 -3 standard, although some are more challenging than others!
Key Features: Expression, pedalling, sequential patterns in left hand, piano and pianissimo playing, balancing the right and left hand.
This short Nocturne is a great introduction to the soundworld of romantic piano music. The challenge for a young pianist here is to set a dreamy atmosphere and play expressively throughout. The left hand must be especially soft in order for the right hand melody to shine through.
This piece is always a popular choice! Many pupils will enjoy the challenge of playing this at a quick and urgent tempo. There are some rhythmic challenges in the piece, which can be used as a vehicle for teaching syncopation (bars 15, 16 19 and 20), and the short and frantic introduction includes an impetuous accelerando. This provides an opportunity to introduce the concept of changing speeds to a young pianist.
Shades of Blue is an excellent collection of blues and jazz pieces, with a real variety of moods and atmospheres. ‘Scary Stuff’ gives the pupil an opportunity to create huge dynamic contrasts. More creative pupils might like to create a storyboard to go with this piece, in order to give them a mental picture of what might be taking place along with the music. The tremolando outburst at the climax of the piece should be a new and exciting concept at this level.
This piece is a useful introduction to ledger lines both in the right hand and the left hand. Spotting the repeating patters in the music can be a useful way to begin this piece. The pupil should be able to identify some of the left hand ostinato figures throughout the piece, as well as the return of the melody an octave higher at bar 18. The piece requires a cool, laid back approach, particularly during the final few bars.
This Musette was an ABRSM Grade 2 piece back in 2005-2006. The frequent time signature changes might seem daunting at first, but some work on the left hand ostinato figures to begin with should help with this. The beautiful right hand melody must be played with good legato and with plenty of expression.