Guest Article by Mark Polishook
This essay is about my experience teaching piano and jazz improvisation to adult students on Skype. Right now Skype is a standard technology for online instrumental instruction. But there are alternatives, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and Oovoo among them.
We call the medium Skype. We say we’re Skyping. But, really, it’s consumer-level video conferencing.
Marshall McLuan some years ago offered the medium as answer to what’s the message?
My question now:
How does video conferencing shape teaching and learning?
Three immediate answers on the positive side:
- It moves teaching from the local to global.
- It enlarges the pool of teachers from which students can select
- More stylistic diversity and specialities come from a larger, global teaching pool.
Are there downsides?
My first higher-ed teaching position, long ago, was at a school in Maine among the first in America to offer degrees through distance education. My introduction there to distance education predates Skype. Consumer-level video conferencing didn’t yet exist.
A common question was why offer online degree programs? The answer is Maine is a huge state covering thousands of square miles. Not everyone there is close to a university campus or able to get to one. So distance education is a serious solution to a real need.
While my university offered degrees from a distance, I didn’t think the programmes worked particularly well. In those early days as opposed to now there was much less interaction among teachers and students. If I remember correctly, instructors spoke to classes through a television camera.
Students, watching from satellite locations, phoned in questions that, in turn, were piped into the lecture. That was called interactive television. The courses offered through that medium tended to be introductory level.
So I was glad my position in the music program where I taught jazz piano, composition, and music technology didn’t intersect with distance learning. To teach those subjects, and especially the higher-level classes, required personal interaction and hands-on experience. I couldn’t see how that would work within the interactive TV lecture format.
After a few years without experience in the university’s distance program, a colleague from the history department and I produced a video conference for a special event. I was involved from planning stages because I brought in the special guest and was a subject matter expert.
The event was special enough for the conference to be broadcast to every campus in the University of Maine system and to a plethora of satellite locations. Unlike the interactive TV courses, the conference used full screen video with full duplex communication. “Full duplex” meaning two-way communication.
What happened “day of” was colleagues separated by hundreds of miles interacted with each other onscreen literally as if they were all in the same place. It wasn’t the first time that happened in Maine or anywhere, really. But it was my first experience in that medium.
Afterwards I felt differently about video conferencing as compared to less flexible distance education technologies. Video conferencing seemed magical. It suggested how collaborators might work together in realtime without actually being together in the same shared location.
A few years before that conference I was working towards my doctoral degree in composition. Among my course requirements was a seminar on aesthetics and music. Among a bunch of philosophers and influential books we discussed some of Plato’s Republic which he famously wrote in the form of Socratic dialogues.
For me, those dialogues were a revelation. They were small-group discussions where information wasn’t given. Instead, ideas were explored and questioned. There was an active quality to that kind of teaching and learning. That was how teaching should work! So I thought!
Fux, counterpoint, and the Gradus Ad Parnassum
The most famous counterpoint manual of all time is the Gradus Ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux. It’s written in the form of a Socratic dialogue.
Hundreds of years later it may, or may not be, the best counterpoint manual we have. But it’s never considered a bad place to begin The study of that subject. Because Fux captured the essentials of counterpoint. All counterpoint books since then refer him in one way or another.
The distance from Fux to distance learning
Let’s separate out the necessity of a common shared location from the learning process. Let’s set things up so a student can learn with a teacher without being in the same physical location as the teacher.
For example, the Gradus Ad Parnassum permits learning about counterpoint, without having to be with the teacher who wrote the book. Is a book a precursor to distance education?
These days we have the internet, computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, all of which support consumer-level video conferencing which, in turn supports interactive learning. Meanwhile, Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus Ad Parnassum is on the web. His reach extends from our computers to the international space station.
Consumer-level video conferencing along with downloadable web goodies make it possible for two or more people who can’t be together in the same location to still work together – and interactively, at that.
Skipping ahead from days when I knew distance education as the devil, I’ve since used Skype to teach taught many adults around the world. I’ve done enough of it over several years to see the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Case studies: the good, the bad, the ugly
One of my former students lives in Sydney, Australia. Over three years of fortnightly lessons we had mostly excellent connections.
Excellent Skype connections as in I could hear the lorikeets in her backyard. And excellent connections such that my student would record the examples I played so she could listen to them after the lesson.
Sound quality wasn’t CD level or even decent streaming quality. But it was more than good enough. We worked easily and productively on tone production, dynamics, and timbre, among other things.
Although, yes, it was true, sometimes Skype randomly transposed, distorted, or bent a few notes into ragged noise.
Is the perfect the enemy of the good?
Here’s an interview with her. Reading between the lines suggests Skype disappeared from our sessions.
Disappeared as in we forgot we were video conferencing and so didn’t give the fact we were a second thought. What it came down to is we were collaborating on a common purpose, which was her learning experience. Our involvement and investment in that common purpose made Skype invisible.
The bad, the ugly
I had a wonderful, resourceful student in Iran. Given his remote location who were the local teachers with whom he could otherwise study jazz? Or the piano? He had to download videos from Youtube that we would stream. His access to many of the resources we take for granted was limited.
When we began his English was functional. But my ability with Azeri and Farsi, his native languages, were nonexistent. His English improved rapidly as we worked together.
But while our conversations became more nuanced, our usual problem was our Skype connection over the course of a one hour lesson was miserable. We’d get a great, robust connection for five to fifteen minutes. Then disconnection and nothingness.
After the disconnections, reconnecting was impossible. It wasn’t that we didn’t try. We rebooted our computers, connected through VPNs – virtual private networks – and tried other internet access points. Nothing helped.
We learned quickly: Anything to be played in its entirety had to be played immediately when we connected.
To the rescue: instant messaging and temerity
Given poor and dropped connections as normal occurrences, we let our lessons morph into instant messaging sessions. It helped that my student was adept at recording short sound files, attaching them to messages, and sending them to with almost no delay.
I responded, in turn, through instant messages. I commented on each sound file – what I heard and what I thought needed to be done for improvement.
That arrangement actually and really worked well. That it worked at all was, first, and really because my student was an especially driven individual. Second, we were determined to collaborate. It was our unspoken pact. So our communications through instant messaging were real conversations and not just short, casual exchanges.
Over time, significant progress in his playing emerged. Progress, as in imagine some playing and improvising in the general style of Erroll Garner on the be-bop anthem Ornithology while also including ornaments from Persian folk music.
We were thrilled about how it all came together, actually in a very orderly manner. Temerity was the key.
To get the results I’ve described requires a great working relationship with a collaborator. Notice I said collaborator rather than student.
Because teaching on Skype is very personal. To make it work students and teachers really have to pull together. The thing is, when collaborators solve problems and find solutions together they build trust.
Trust, itself, has nothing to do with video conferencing or Skype. It’s not a technology. But trust makes all the difference when teaching through video conferencing. Or when teaching in the shared physical location of a studio, for that matter.
Sometimes my student in Australia and I played duets, kind of. Which I also did with a student in America and another in Birmingham (in the UK).
The problem is Skype introduces delays – the technical term is latency. When and how much latency occurs isn’t predictable. In conversations a little latency on Skype isn’t a problem.
But music’s entirely different. It has timing requirements that aren’t within the scope of what Skype excels in. To pull duets off, even a little, requires patience and an attitude of let’s make this work no matter what while accepting this really doesn’t work, it won’t work but let’s do the best we can.
All just said applies to duets that require synchronisation and perfect timing. But there are other scenarios in which Skype duets work magnificently. For example, when synchronisation isn’t required because one person plays something, the other answers, and the exchange is simply out of time.
To help students acquire the feel of jazz, I play phrases on my side of the screen. My students repeat what they hear on their side. We go back and forth like that as much as is needed. Skype doesn’t get in the way because my timing transmits over Skype as does theirs. So we’re playing one after another and listening to each other. There’s nothing to synchronise.
Or, I might play a phrase totally out of tempo and asked students to respond with whatever phrase they think should come next. That too is easily done without tempo or synchronisation.
Call and response
The methods just discussed are ways to work on call-and-response techniques. Which are a huge part of jazz. Sometimes I’ll play improvised bits and ask my students to tell me, note-for-note what they hear. Or I might ask students to sing a phrase or phrases that I play.
Most of the time Skype’s audio quality is far more than adequate for all things described above.
I’ve also taught Bach, Chopin, and other composers, and harmony and four-part chorale-style writing on Skype. Through the medium video conferencing, how do you help a student acquire a relaxed technique?
How do you help a student position their hands properly? How do you help a student build self-assessment skills so they can answer those questions to some degree on their own?
How do you help a student balance dynamics between the hands or bring out an inner voice? How do you help a student become sensitive to tone and tone colour?
Questions often lead to more questions:
- Can the gestalt student and teacher present on Skype provide sufficient information and feedback to overcome and neutralise Skype’s technical limitations?
- Can students translate, on the one hand, explanations and examples played by a teacher in a video-conferenced lesson into, on the other hand, the techniques and awareness that lead to musical skill?
In my experience the answer to both questions is an unqualified yes. To which I’d add: Celebrate the fact that we as teachers can collaborate and work with students spread across the world. If, as, and when we’re comfortable with consumer-level video conferencing that is.
Problems and realities
I’m extolling the virtues of teaching piano to adults through video conferencing and I’ve presented two case studies that illustrate my experiences and adventures in the genre. However, there’s plenty of testimony on the web and everywhere from students and teachers who don’t like Skype for many reasons.
Sometimes the problem is poor audio quality combined with latency. Sometimes the issue is audio feedback and frozen video. Sometimes the culprit is a poor broadband or wireless connection. And some teachers prefer to be in the same location with their student so they can physically adjust fingers, hands, and arms.
But, having mentioned those sorts of problems – and I recognise and acknowledge there are others I haven’t identified – I and my students have found solutions and workarounds.
Here’s a list of fourteen of them.
- In general desktop computers and laptops provide a better video conferencing experience than tablets and smartphones.
- If the connection is poor to begin with, don’t hesitate to quit Skype and reestablish the connection.
- If quitting Skype and reestablishing the connection doesn’t help don’t hesitate to reboot computers These days most computers restart quickly – mine takes about 20 seconds. Stopping and restarting a lesson might sound jarring. But a quick reboot really isn’t enough time to lose a train of thought although some find it more disturbing than others.
- Audio feedback loops often come from microphone settings that are too high relative to speaking settings. There are two solutions. One is turn down the gain of the microphone. The other is use headphones. Actually, many Skype users prefer headphones because audio quality is better than it would be through computer speakers.
- Use the best possible microphone and video camera to transmit the highest quality audio and video that you can. But recognise that Skype and all other consumer-level video conferencing software optimises audio and video for the best possible experience. Past a certain point high-end microphones and video cameras don’t provide better performance.
- Make sure broadband is, well, broad. I use a wireless connection and it’s been fine and trouble-free. But connecting directly to a router with an ethernet cable will give the best performance. If you’re using wireless be sure that the signal extends to the room in which you’re using Skype. Depending on location, 4G may give the best performance of all. But without an unlimited data plan costs likely will be outrageous!
- Avoid backlighting. Your room will appear to be very well lit. However, you’ll appear onscreen as a dark shadow.
- Don’t hesitate to try alternate video conferencing solutions, such as Facetime, Google Hangouts, Oovoo, or others. My experience is if Skype doesn’t work Google Hangouts is the next best option.
- Try to have one and only one person speak at a time. That can seem forced at first because in conversation we all sometimes speak at the same time! But Skype and other video conferencing solutions perform best when they have to process only one voice at a time.
- Look directly into your camera. Position the camera so it’s directly in front of your computer screen. This way, you’ll always be looking directly out of your student’s computer screen, as if you were in a face-to-face conversation.
- Use a camera that you can reposition easily and quickly. Sometimes you’ll want your student to see your face while you talk. Sometimes you’ll demonstrate something and you’ll want your student to see your hands. Sometimes a student will want to see an extreme closeup of your fingers.
- Skype’s optimised for conversation and not for music. I haven’t had good luck when speaking while playing. It comes down to one person at a time speaks or plays.
- Shrug off and tolerate minor technical glitches. They will happen but suggestions above will mostly solve them. But, even as we discuss problems keep in mind that most sessions will be glitch-free and require nothing in the way of technical problem solving. In fact, that’ll mostly be the norm–if suggestions above are followed as well as others you’ll find in your own experience.
- If it’s impossible to maintain a connection it may be things in general are busy in your neighbourhood or on the internet. In that case just reschedule the lesson. Over several years, I’ve rescheduled two lessons and maybe three at the most.
Really, more often than not Skype is trouble-free. It just works. I’ve gone for months at a time without a single glitch. But if and when trouble arises I have my list of procedures for troubleshooting and problem solving.
International video conferencing will lead to interesting cultural experiences because lessons can be anywhere there’s an internet connection: in China, Iran, France, the UK, the US, South America., Australia, etc.
You’ll realise in March the switch to daylight savings time is different from country to country and continent to continent. You may even find Vanatu has, depending on where you live, a fifteen or forty-five minute offset from whatever other time-zone differences exist.
I’ve been invited to dinner in Hong Kong, to have a personalised tour across Iran, to stay whenever I want in Washington, D.C., to meet for coffee in London, to visit Florida, Sweden, South Africa, and New Jersey (where I’m from), to see the Northern lights in Trondheim, and more. I’ve been introduced to entire families before, during, and after lessons.
There’s good humour to all of that. There’s something unreal if not surreal about video conferencing and connecting with people – families included – who are thousands of miles away if not on the other side of the world.
Whether or not Skype is a medium for children I don’t know from experience although I’ve seen on the internet that some teachers have tried it. With an attentive parent in the mix, I’d have to think, yes, all things are possible. But that’s the yes of optimism that I personally don’t know from experience.
Huge lessons learned
- The quality of the student-teacher relationship makes all the difference.
- Temerity is key. If one approach doesn’t work try another.
- Use the internet as the grand resource it is. Almost everything is out there somewhere, whether a recording, a score, a video, or software. When we’re video conferencing we’re already in front of a computer screen. It’s simple to look things up on Google and send links back and forth. It may sound obvious but this sort of thing brings everything that’s out there right into a lesson. Somehow it’s very different from teaching with a laptop sitting on the piano in a studio.
A long time ago bringing my professors a score rendered from a computer to a printer wasn’t best practice. In those olden days some theory and composition teachers and performers perceived computer-engraved scores as, well, jarring. I’d hear:
with all that time spent working on the score you could have ….. FILL IN THE BLANK.
Not long ago, and even now, I have former university colleagues for whom sending and receiving emails is, dare I admit, challenging.
All above are my opinions from my personal experience with Skype, distance education, and teaching.
If you have questions or comments about teaching or learning on Skype feel free to send me a message. I’m not hard to find. If on Skype that would be mark.polishook. Otherwise firstname.lastname@example.org works.