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In praise of teaching with Skype

For the past six or seven years I’ve been giving music lessons online, using Skype or FaceTime (Apple’s proprietary alternative to Skype). My students include children, college students, adult amateurs, and concert artists. Some of them take occasional lessons, others hew to the traditional once-a-week lesson schedule. I’ve had face-to-face encounters with some of them, but not all of them.

Here are some of my recent students:

  • A young singer in Israel who has taken regular lessons over a year and a half.
  • Another young singer based in Melbourne who has taken dozens of Skype lessons, in addition to a large number of face-to-face lessons when she lived in Paris (where I make my home).
  • A professional cellist who I’ve known for fifteen years, currently living in Minnesota.
  • A flutist, also from Minnesota, preparing an audition for a big-time opera theater.
  • A professionally trained violist who makes a living as a doctor in Connecticut.
  • A professional flutist in Kentucky.
  • A college student in upstate New York, studying the double-bass.
  • A jazz pianist in Nashville.
  • A child-prodigy singer, violinist, pianist, and composer, currently living in New York City.

The online medium creates its own pedagogical possibilities, which flow logically from the medium’s constraints. How to place yourself when you’re trying to demonstrate something at the piano or the double-bass? If you give a full-view of your posture, you’ll be relatively far from the screen and the mike, possibly rendering dialogue difficult. Re-arranging positions in the middle of the lesson can be bothersome. These constraints might drive you crazy…or “drive you smart,” to coin an expression. Generally speaking, constraints are beneficial to your creativity. As Nadia Boulanger liked saying, “Great art likes chains.” Rather than fighting or resenting the constraints, embrace them and exercise your creativity to work within them.

Internet connections can be unreliable. You might be interrupted, often and unpredictably. Some of my lessons over Skype had so many interruptions that the subject matter of the lesson became “how to deal with interruptions”—that is, how to deal with distractions, challenges, difficulties, and disagreeable moments. It’s an endlessly valuable life lesson, potentially allowing you to develop intellectual and musical continuity in a discontinuous situation. As with other constraints, it helps if instead of resenting the interruptions you embrace them.

Music and music-making seem to be at the core of a music lesson, and sound and sound-making at the core of music. If so, online lessons aren’t ideal, since what your student plays or sings is inevitably filtered and distorted before it reaches your ears. But I think music and sound are comparatively secondary, even in a music lesson. I believe what is primary is the overall individuality of both the teacher and the student, manifested in perception and intention, habit and preconception, discourse and reaction, thought and gesture. This means that some music lessons might not even entail music-making at all, but a constructive dialogue that helps both the teacher and the student clarify their ends and means.

A music lesson might involve discussing rehearsal strategies, practice habits, music history, theory, analysis, ear-training, and many other activities for which a very precise dimension of sound making and listening isn’t essential. At any rate, online technology allows for a degree of sonic appreciation and discernment. You can tell that two interpretations are different—flowing or blocked, structured or improvised, alert or distracted, shout-y or whisper-y—even if you can’t pinpoint issues of timbre, dynamics, harmonics and partials, and so on.

Sonically, Skype is obviously a filter. The sounds I hear at home are definitely not like the sounds that the musician is making across the continents. But this, too, is a plus. First, it encourages both teacher and student to become better aware of the filtering process, which happens nonstop anyway and quite independently of technology. Your personality, aesthetics, habits, likes, and dislikes are also a sonic filter, predetermining some of your reactions when you hear a musician playing or singing right in front of you.

Second, it encourages the listener to acknowledge some uncertainty. “I don’t know exactly how you’re singing or playing. But from where I’m sitting here, it seems to me that…” Ultimately, this shifts the responsibility of listening closely and making aesthetic choices to the student. In the long term, it’s the best possible outcome.

Online lessons challenge a teacher to think in new and different ways. Skype is a kind of mirror: it lets you know what are your pedagogical strengths and weaknesses. Then it’s up to you to find new ways of observing, talking, listening, demonstrating, and so on.

Why would you take a music lesson from a disembodied teacher who’s sitting at a computer a continent away from you, rather than a talented and devoted individual whom you can meet in your own neighborhood? I can think of three reasons.

First, the relationship between a teacher and a student is by no means banal. Like all human beings, both the teacher and the student have unique, complex needs and wants. There must be some sort of match between the teacher and the students. For some of my students, I’m the absolute best teacher in the whole world; what I have to offer corresponds to what they need. But some people have taken a single lesson from me, never to return; I consider it obvious that what I had to offer didn’t correspond to what they needed. There doesn’t exist “a good teacher” or “a good student,” but only a good match between a teacher and a student. You might have to travel far in order to find your match. Skype is a very cost-effective travel mechanism!

Second, the very nature of a disembodied teacher can be a plus. The physical distance may be helpful, reassuring, or comfortable, depending on the student and the teacher. Face-to-face interactions have potential drawbacks. Back in my youth, for instance, one of my teachers was a chain smoker who kept his teaching room’s windows permanently closed. To take lessons with him was to smoke with him. It was a manageable difficulty, but a difficulty nevertheless.

Finally, people have always communicated in multiple ways, using a variety of media from smoke signals to telegrams to megaphones. Talking to a computer screen that talks back to you is just another way to communicate, a tool with its merits and demerits. Young people take computers for granted, but for some of us the existence of Skype is fantastically exciting, like something from science fiction, the unimaginable made concrete. It’s a wonderful toy to play with.

Featured image: “46/365 My Computer Floats” by Mike Poresky. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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