Teaching performing arts has its’ specific challenges when it comes to distance learning. How are instrument studies organized remotely? In this article Jouko Tötterström, Principle Lecturer at OUAS shares his experiences and tips on how to build a home studio that can be used teaching piano lessons online!
About five years ago, we moved from a detached house to an apartment building. At the time, I thought deeply about the solution on how I could continue to play the piano without disturbing the neighbors. When we moved in, we decided to sell our beloved Steinway grand piano and bought a hybrid instrument that can be played acoustically, but also with headphones on so that the environment is not disturbed by the sound from playing. With the need for distance learning caused by the covid-19 pandemic, I also had to think about how I could teach in such a way that the quality of my teaching including the information and students’ learning experiences would be the same as in traditional contact teaching.
After the pandemic forced me into distance learning, I initially gave lessons on my computer and taught mainly via speech. I had no previous training or experience in distance learning. During the lessons, I used the Zoom platform, which allows adjusting the sound quality. It was also possible to transmit information through the body language via the integrated camera of the computer. However, I was not able to provide sufficient high-quality information to students, which is why I ended up exploring various technical possibilities for developing my distance teaching.
During this academic year, I have learned a lot about distance learning and the technology used in it. I have built a system in my home studio that allows me to teach with the same quality as in contact teaching. I was inspired by Professor Matti Raekallio's online piano master class during a piano pedagogical event in February (1), an article written by him (2) and I also got great tips from a Facebook group discussing distance learning (3).
I noticed that my grand piano has audio output connections, and I investigated whether it could be possible for the sound of my playing to be transmitted directly to students over the network so that I wouldn't have to use a microphone to pass music to them. After this insight, I began to study what kind of equipment I would need to implement the idea. This is when the electric construction of the home studio began.
I came up with a solution where I use an USB-connected sound card, to which I first connected my grand piano's audio connection and secondly, a separate microphone to transmit speech. In this case, I can teach completely without disturbing the neighbors and so that the students can hear both my speech and playing, both with a very good sound quality. To transfer the video, I have a separate high-quality webcam through which the student can see me completely, so that showing technical things by playing to teach them is possible without any problems.
In addition, when studying various digital tools, I decided to use only electronic music scores in teaching situations. I use a tablet as a tool where I have a special software installed that allows me to mark notes during a lesson. I have two Zoom channels open during the lessons at the same time, allowing me to show the student remotely the scores during the class. In addition to this, the scores and markings can be sent to the student after a lesson if necessary. Before the lesson, students provide links to the scores of the works they play or send them electronically to me.
The largest bottleneck in distance learning is sometimes the insufficient speed and low functionality of the internet connection. We have a high-speed wired Internet connection (400 Mbps) at home that allows the transmission of undisturbed audio and image connection to students. Oulu University of Applied Sciences has a good wireless network, which is why students are often in the classroom during the distance lessons instead of being in their homes. A high-quality webcam has been acquired, and many students also have a separate high-quality microphone, so their sound and image quality are good enough. Sometimes the school’s network is strained, which can cause some disruption. It is therefore an essential condition for well-functioning distance learning that the connection works correctly. You can't get the most out of teaching through a mobile phone, so using a laptop is highly recommended.
Sound is a big challenge. What kind of speakers or headphones does the teacher use to listen to students play and, correspondingly, what kind of audio does the student hear when the teacher is playing? The sound quality of laptop speakers is often quite poor, which may limit the way music is transmitted. It is important to invest in this in order to get the most out of distance learning. Good headphones can become a very important tool.
During the pandemic, piano didactics have also been taught remotely. The follow-up of students' teaching training is an essential part of teaching. It has been possible to implement this asynchronously so that the student keeps the class with his/her student via Zoom and records it. He then uploads the video to a hidden YouTube channel, from where the guiding teacher can watch the lesson. After this, a feedback conversation is held remotely with the student.
Some of the instrument lessons can be arranged in the same way asynchronously, and in this case the student can also share a video of his or her call with other students, allowing them to receive feedback not only from the teacher but also from eachother.
Through distance learning, teachers have learned new tools and new ways to help students. There is hardly a return to the past, but some kind of hybrid model is likely to take place, using new ways of working utilizing both traditional pedagogy and methods learned during the so-called “forced digital leap”. Modern technology can be very helpful to us when used correctly.
In the future, internet connections will develop to be faster and faster, and 5G technology, for example, will help build high-speed wireless connections. As more bandwidth can be added to the sound quality and the delay in sound is almost eliminated, distance learning can be built on a more confident basis in music and work more realistically in real time.