Online Music Teaching: Tips

A few tips on online teaching based on my experiences as BA(Hons) Music Programme Leader at the Open College of the Arts

As universities and instrumental teachers are making a quick shift to online working I wanted to share some of my experience in this area in case it can help. I am Programme Leader for the BA (Hons) Music Degree programme at the Open College of Arts. The OCA is a registered charity and provides open learning courses to enable students to study at HE level from their own homes at their own pace. Our students are based around the world and range in age from 18 to 80+. The curriculum takes into account the capabilities of freely available technology and although we don’t offer a performance element in our degree programme (yet) I have been exploring approaches to online performance teaching and assessment. We recently held our first online performance class with students presenting work on a range of different instruments.

I have tried one to one instrumental teaching on a range of different platforms, and my preference is Zoom. It prioritises audio over video and works with a low bandwidth. We used Zoom for the performance class too, and although there were occasional sound quality issues (normally relating to individual computer/wifi set ups), it functioned well enough for us to have a useful and meaningful discussion on each of the performances similar to a face to face performance class. Zoom also allows the host to record the session and share with the group, which means anyone not able to attend (for example, those in a different time zone or absent due to illness) are able to catch up later. I usually post the recorded video onto Panopto for easy sharing with students. This is potentially also a useful tool for assessment.

Panopto is useful for webinars which do not require visual interaction, and for pre-recorded material. It is also currently my preferred choice for performance assessments although I haven’t had a chance to test this in the field yet (and would be very keen to hear from any HE departments who would be up for collaborating in researching this).

Some tips (in no particular order):

• Inbuilt cameras and mics are generally fine, but mics often have automatic noise cancellation which can make the sound cut out as it tries to find voices. In Zoom, switching off the “automatically adjust microphone settings” in the mic settings can be useful.

• Some instruments (eg the flute) are relatively loud (compared to speaking), so it’s worth experimenting with mic position and input volume to avoid clipping. NB it may be necessary to change the settings for speaking and for playing.

• Using headphones can really help in terms of avoiding feedback and echo. In class situations, I find using headphones is also extremely useful in helping students to focus on the class rather than on their wandering pets or other background activity etc.

• Unlike face to face, if more than one person speaks at a time, the software chooses who to prioritise and the other sounds get blocked out. This means you need to be patient, and you cannot talk while someone is playing. I find it can be useful to make notes on a copy of the score and then share the notes by email or through screensharing.

• If you are not speaking or playing, mute the microphone. This stops any additional noises fighting for bandwidth.

• A wired connection has less latency than wifi, so that’s preferable, but if you have to use wifi, get as close to the router as possible, and advise your students to do the same.

• Certain aspects of playing come across less well in an online scenario than face-to-face due to the limitations of built in mics. These are (in my experience of teaching the flute) articulation, dynamics and subtleties of tone colour. A better mic (such as connecting a Zoom H4n) improves this, but it is not reasonable to expect every student to have their own mics available. This means that the teaching needs to be adapted to deal with what the technology can do well, but there are still ways to explore these more complex issues. My own approach is usually to ask questions of the student to enable them to self-assess their performance; this has always been an important part of my approach to HE level teaching in any case, so the technology can help to develop this further.

• If you are using headphones, avoid closed headsets for both speaking and playing, as it is hard to hear yourself

• Avoid standing in front of the light; use the same basic rules for lighting as you would for photography (ie make sure the subject is well lit and not directly in front of the light source)

• A feedback echo comes from the mic and speakers being too close together so either use headphones or change position.

• The inbuilt mic on an ipad is a little less good than on computers (from my experience) but still OK, and the portability is useful.

• Working with an accompanist is not really feasible unless both players are in the same room, so unaccompanied repertoire is best suited to online classes.

• Use the chat function to share resources, notes, additional comments etc; these can be exported and accessed later.

• Use the original sound feature in Zoom to improve sound quality (switch this on in the In Meeting Settings>Advanced menu)

Questions? Feel free to use the contact form to get in touch with me, and I’ll add answers to any questions received to this webpage as they come in.

For more information about the OCA and our music degree, see