In this post-pandemic piano teaching blog series, guest writer Karen Marshall talks about the disruptive effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on students and teachers, and how to adapt and adopt best practices in music learning, teaching and appreciation.
It’s over three years since our first lockdown now, and many of us are reflecting on those surreal times. The term ‘things will never be the same again’ often springs to mind when we consider the effects of the pandemic, and it is certainly true when it comes to my piano teaching. So, what exactly has changed? After this extraordinary experience, how should our post-pandemic piano teaching be altered and how do we best deal with those changes, in particular the explosion of ‘online teaching’?
- First things first – it’s important to acknowledge it’s a different learning environment. This is the first thing to embrace.
- Secondly, what implications does this different learning environment have? There are a whole range of things to consider, I’ve outlined a few here with some information on how I’ve handled it within my teaching practice.
- And finally, online teaching is here to stay. There are many benefits here too – as long as we use it in a way that is best for our students. How can we do this?
Learning environment and the implications
Quality of connection
If your connection isn’t very good then you really must consider whether this is going to work for your student or whether you need to find an online hybrid version. Different platforms – for different students – can help. However, when connection quality is a major issue, a plan ‘B’ can be helpful. I have had much success with students providing video recordings and sending them written feedback. Doing this, with a follow up conversation, can be something to consider as a different model of online teaching. This can help enormously when internet connection really makes a ‘live’ traditional lesson unviable. Why? The sound quality is so much better and you as a teacher can listen over and over, meaning you can provide a vast amount of feedback with extremely helpful practice activities and strategies. Poor sound quality can create problems in assessing pedal quality and not correcting bad hand-positioning can lead to poor technique. Poor technique over a long period of time can be problematic to resolve. Forewarned is forearmed here.
Teaching in a village, I’ve always had the luxury of most pupils living in walking distances. I’ve regularly done home visits to check heights of stools and hand/seating positions at the piano. Colleagues across the UK have communicated seeing students in situ for the first time has been quite an eye opener. If you are doing online teaching, a pre-call checking the set up, camera position, and ensuring seating position amongst other is time well spent: poor technique is often linked to a poor sitting position (especially with early learners). Having a parent present is essential for safeguarding – check out the Musician’s Union and Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) advice. A parent can help point things out on the music, take notes about tasks to do and correct hand/seating position. Consider getting an external microphone. This can make a considerable difference, some good affordable options include: the Samson C01U or more simple microphones like the AKG P3S Vocal & Instrument Dynamic Microphone.
More Preparation, both pre-lesson and post-lesson!
Be organised. You will need to be more organised with all the music you will be teaching, notes about the previous lessons to-hand and the ability to further record keep. I always tend to have a list of things to provide post-lesson, using post-it notes. This may be an email to the parent about things they need to support their child, to videos demonstrating practice technique, details of fingering we didn’t have time to do in the lesson and a quick summary of key things to work on the next week.
Invest into teaching material and gear. Being skilled at screen sharing and investing in an iPad and magic pencil in teaching theory can make things much more effective. Be aware that some materials can work better when teaching online than others. Why not experiment with a few? Pacing is essential as well as good structuring (technique, repertoire, musicianship) particularly with younger students. And knowing when to get them off the piano stool and move around is also important.
Keep students engaged
Finding other ways to ensure ensemble playing still takes place and aural or theory teaching isn’t missed. One of the biggest losses I found in online teaching was the inability to provide a duet accompaniment or to play at the same time with my students. Providing duet parts to play at home can keep ensemble playing alive. Some publishers do provide accompaniments so you as a teacher don’t need to provide them. If you are doing ‘only’ online with a student, do consider still doing the odd face-to-face lesson where you can do lots of ensemble playing and in-person demonstration. Let’s also not forget Aural training that can be tricky to deliver online for a range of reasons. Remembering singing is still easy to do online (hopefully if your student is willing). For Music Theory, agree a plan with the parent or student about how you are still going to cover this. From workbooks to online resources, past papers to apps. Do have a plan!
Things take longer in an online lesson
That is both a pro and a con. I am very aware you simply don’t get as much done in the online lesson. This does have some advantages; you must be very clear in your explanations. Your student needs to become more independent. However, there are disadvantages too. It can take a lot longer to explain something which, when face-to-face, would have been done in a second. Taking this into account when lesson planning or working out how long it will take to prepare for an examination, Graded or the performance element of public exams like GCSE/A ‘level is important.
Human connection – losses of communication channels
We pick up far more information face-to-face than online. As teachers we need to be very aware of this. How is our student feeling about their learning? Are they enjoying the material we are giving them? How can we more effectively check the quality of learning – such as ‘teach me’ activities to test understanding? We may not be able to pick up a lack of motivation about repertoire or when our student is saying ‘yes I understand’ when in reality, ‘no they don’t’ as we are not in person to pick up the cues. It’s important to consider this.
Self-care and screen time fatigue
Teaching online can be more tiring and also cause eye fatigue. I did end up getting glasses that were for online use as well as dealing with my long-sightedness. My headaches became really debilitating before my ‘blue light’ glasses. Whenever I am teaching online, I always ensure regular breaks and follow my 0pticians advise of not always looking at the screen directly, and giving my eyes a bit of a break. This has certainly helped me.
Online teaching is here to stay. Let’s maximise the positive
There’s much to celebrate about online teaching, and indeed the new digital exams. But as part of our teaching practice, for me personally, it won’t replace my preference for face-to-face teaching or indeed face-to-face exam entries, but I must confess to being pleased the digital option is available. Here are my greatest wins:
- No cancelling of lessons due to transport problems or sickness.
- A hybrid teaching method has highlighted areas for greater focus not picked up in the live lesson. Having the odd online lesson along with face-to-face has highlighted areas for greater focus not picked up in the live lesson. As mentioned, it is a different learning environment. You can test learning in different ways, you can see how independent your student is, such as being able to write in their own fingering and start on the score in random places without you pointing to the music.
- Teaching digitally online has made me, as a teacher, use technology more on an ongoing basis from demonstrating practice videos to having a WhatsApp channel between myself and parents where I share performances of their child (from lessons) demonstrating progression. We have a digital footprint of their playing (do ensure you have written consent for this) which is wonderful!
Adapting to online teaching has been, for many of us, a professional development baptism by fire, but it’s something that I can honestly say has truly improved my practice overall. Change helps us to grow as teachers but in turn helps to provide a better teaching experience for our students, helping them to better experience the joy music and the piano can bring to them throughout their lives.
From Karen Marshall:
The PianoTrainer series provides an inspiring and thorough curriculum that develops well-rounded pianists through repertoire, technique and musicianship activities, from post-beginner level right through to Grade 8.
The series was devised by highly experienced pedagogue Karen Marshall, accompanied by leading educationalists David Blackwell, Heather Hammond and Mark Tanner for the different levels of the series. The books feature a rounded, holistic approach to learning, bringing together musicianship, theory, repertoire, music history, quick studies, exercises and technique, all reinforced by fun activities.
Get Set! Piano
Get Set! Piano is an exciting new course by Heather Hammond and Karen Marshall, written specially for the twenty-first century child. The tried and tested progression guides beginners from theirvery first lesson through to Prep test level. Note learning is taught alongside aural, theory and composing skills providing a holistic approach to music.
Packed with favourites such as Jelly on a plate, Animal fair, Jingle bells, engaging new tunes and teacher duet parts, Get Set! Piano Tutor inspires, entertains and builds confidence from the start.
HerStory: The Piano Collection
HerStory: The Piano Collection presents invaluable repertoire by remarkable female composers across the ages. This important collection is progressively graded, suitable for intermediate to advanced level players (approximately Grade 4 to Grade 8) and also features a piano duet and a trio for piano, clarinet and viola/cello.
Each piece is accompanied by a fascinating ‘snapshot’ of the composer, providing invaluable insights into how they lived and composed, alongside quotes from them or about them. In addition there are suggestions of other pieces to try, personal observations from Karen Marshall and pedagogical activities and suggestions.
Piano Star Skills Builder
Piano Star Skills Builder develops musicianship skills for young pianists who are working towards Initial Grade level and beyond. It provides a firm foundation in scales, aural, and sight-reading skills, building essential techniques progressively.