We can’t change the fact that online music lessons mean teachers and students don’t get to play their instruments in the same room. We can however do several things to optimize the sound experienced in virtual lessons.
Music students always do better with a good instrument in their hands – one that fits, is set up correctly and in tune. Think of technology in the same way. If it works well, it can help a student make the most of online learning.
1. Improve the internet connection. Working on rhythm, for example, is nearly impossible when audio hangs during a lesson. An ethernet cable can give a significantly faster and more stable internet connection than a wireless network. When I run speed tests on my home internet, speeds dip a lot over WiFi, but become rock-solid stable when I plug in the ethernet cable. You can get an adapter if your device doesn’t come with an ethernet port.
If a wired connection isn’t an option, try moving closer to the WiFi router. If latency persists, consider talking to your internet service provider about other ways to strengthen your signal.
2. Plug in a microphone. Microphones that plug into a USB port on a laptop or tablet don’t need additional equipment and are far better at picking up low notes than the small microphones built into most devices. They also eliminate clutter sounds like a laptop ventilation fan. Prices start around $30 and even the low-cost ones will be a step up. After plugging in the microphone, adjust the volume in Zoom or on the microphone to eliminate crackles and distortions. Teachers can help students do this, or families can do it themselves by using Zoom’s “test microphone” feature. In Zoom, remember to turn on the “original sound” setting.
3. Wear headphones. Like microphones, the speakers built into devices don’t deal with low sounds very well, or with dynamic range. That can make demonstration of crescendo rather pointless. External speakers connected by Bluetooth or wire are better, but they also can give echoes and feedback to your teacher. Open-back headphones (with perforations in the ear cups) are ideal for lessons because they allow students to hear the teacher’s playing as well as their own. They can be found for around $50 to $100, although any set of headphones without sealed ear cups, or earbuds worn loosely in the ears, may also help.
4. Utilize pre-recorded video. When preparing for a performance, or as a last resort for overcoming sound challenges, make a video to share with your teacher. A recorded video will be higher-quality because it doesn’t depend on the speed of an internet connection.
I’m continuing to experiment with new technologies and platforms for improving sound, and I look forward to hearing students’ ideas as well.
Ryan Ash teaches piano and cello at CYM, and performs and records as a member of the Beo String Quartet.