Teaching piano online reminds me of a shirt Tim wears frequently, which states, “Not How I Was Taught!” We’re all teaching online these days. Although you may have gotten started, you may be still sorting out the best practices and what flat-out doesn’t work. In this article, I’ll share some pointers on online piano teaching that I wish I’d known when I started online teaching.
First, have a look at what platform you’ll use. Zoom is the current teaching industry top pick. Other contenders are Facetime, Skype, Google Duo, or Facebook Messenger.
Although it’s only for Apple devices, Facetime is my backup pick if I’m on a lesson and Zoom is not working for some reason.
Related: Tim’s Zoom setup video
Once you’ve settled on one main platform, communicate it to your studio in the most simple email possible. Brevity is always best, but especially now with so many changes at hand.
In marketing, it is said, “The confused mind always says No.” So be concise when announcing an online change. Parents will appreciate the clarity.
Do send the link instructions to Zoom, and a visual guide about setting up devices on their end. I opted for a simple picture guide showing DIY solutions with home setup. A picture is worth a thousand words.
Do allow flexibility with what students can use to take online lessons. Right now, families are sharing devices, and also internet bandwidth at home. I ask students to use a laptop if possible and have a side profile angle. But if they only attend with an iPhone, so be it.
Spend a day on teaching forums lately and you’ll end up convinced you have the wrong equipment, or aren’t doing it right, etc. This can stop you in your tracks from feeling ready to teach online.
However, some of my best online lessons were taught on an iPhone with a mobile mic, and simply put on Youtube. (There is a pile of gear, including a green screen and other fancy things, that I bought when I started online and still haven’t used!)
Instead, consider starting with what you have and make a small sinking fund for gear you think you’ll need long-range. This gives you a chance to evaluate how it’s going initially, and put your Amazon cart on ice.
No-frills basics list for the teacher: laptop, USB webcam, and a starter mic like a Blue Snowball. You can always upgrade later: I just upgraded to a Rode Podcaster like Tim uses, but didn’t do that till I’d been teaching online several years.
Starter peripherals: an Amazon basics mic stand, and a phone or iPad flexible holder.
It’s also essential to have some lighting help. The ideal light is a window with natural light to your front, and minimize/turn off lights (or close curtains) in the background.
But if you’re like me, teaching late into the evening in a semi-cave-like studio, you’ll need some help. I suggest floor lamps, CFL light bulbs, and the Zoom touch-up appearance feature if you’d like.
For starters, smile. More than you think you need to! The format of online lessons is much more face-to-face than an in-person lesson, and it’s much more visual. When I’ve been critiqued by pro online teaching trainers in another industry, they always made me work on smiling more on camera.
The next tip is about advance planning which can make or break your day of teaching back-to-back students.
Whether you look professional or not often depends on the quality of your advance planning!
Start thirty minutes early and locate every student’s physical books or digital scores ahead of lessons starting, and make a roadmap for the afternoon. I use an actual whiteboard and write out student names & brief agenda, then put their books in a magazine sorter by the piano.
This eliminates shuffling materials around at the last moment or going off-camera to fetch a book.
Related: Youtube video “5 Quick Tips for Teaching Piano Online”
Keep a digital resource or two handy in case of unplanned moments, like yesterday, when a student of mine showed up and announced they’d not prepared their assignment and what else was there to do? Well, I had a TopMusicSheets digital book available, and we did that. Next week I’ll have a left-hand patterns exercise for her.
Pro Members: find TopMusicSheets in your library! Or learn more about TopMusicPro here.
Let’s talk about what to do when things go wrong in online piano teaching!
For starters, there’s disrupted internet service. Hitting the highlights here — take care of basics like using good internet with an ethernet cable, if you can. Close other computer programs you have open, and reboot if necessary.
I give about five minutes to try with a student to get back on track, rejoin a meeting, etc. But after a polite amount of try-agains, I’ll call the parent, inform them I’ll record this lesson on video and send a link instead.
Then put it on YouTube and email it. This is a solid plan B and cuts the stress without losing the lesson.
No-shows? What about these? Send a reminder and link ahead of time. Especially now with disrupted schedules, families appreciate the extra nudge.
Here’s another case I would use the plan B video lesson for a no-show. Simply teach what you had prepared and send it and regroup about next week’s lesson time.
I personally avoid the drama of “where were you?” texts and that sort of thing. A personal trainer friend taught me that PR tip. Help them, but move on gracefully.
With music lessons, whether in-person or online, we still are in the relationships business, and we offer continuity to families about musical progress and personal connection.
This is so needed right now. Students need their communities and their support people — they need their tribe.
Also, there is time at home for students to practice and sit at the piano again. This can be a golden time for getting musical practice done, if we present it that way!
In my letter to parents, I simply said — I want music to still be here for your child, when so much has been taken away right now. I’ll do all I can with you all to keep this going for them.
On the topic of getting paid — it’s an excellent time to take credit cards, or at the minimum, ACH (bank transfers).
Pro’s of online payments include:
Bottom line, during COVID-19, and ongoing — I believe businesses with autopay are going to survive better than cash and check-only services.
Again, like your teaching platform choice, keep it simple.
Choose one method to take online payments and set it up once. They usually run each month like clockwork without either you or the client having to deal with things like invoice emails or late fees.
(In an upcoming blog post, we’ll cover online payment options for music studios in-depth.)
What about families with financial difficulties? If you can and you have margin to absorb a scholarship or two, it’s a beautiful gesture to offer sliding scale currently.
While charging regular rates as the standard (lessons are no less valuable because of a format change!), you can also offer a sliding scale to affected families who’ve lost a job, if you wish. This is a win/win.
Artists are the original improvisers.
It’s a good time to adopt the beginner mindset and ask what one can learn in this process.
Just find your starting place and let us know how it goes. You’ll be in good company – most of us are here right now as well.
Emily Laney is content director for Topmusic.co, and teaches piano privately in Texas, where she's given over 19,000 private lessons. She's helped develop the careers of concert artists through the Van Cliburn Foundation's International Piano Competitions, and promoted classical concerts from Lang Lang to Yo-Yo Ma. She holds a BA Music/French and is on an MBA track currently.