Online Piano Lessons – What Works and What Does Not Work?
What “Does Not” Work
Piano lessons taken with a live teacher over the internet by Skype should not be confused with other online piano courses such as purchasing a “DVD” course or subscribing to a library of piano lesson “videos” on the internet that promise to show you how to “learn to play the piano in 30 days”.
Plain and simple, online videos and DVD courses don’t work. In some circumstances online videos and DVDs may provide a useful addition to supplement a student’s regular course of piano lessons, taken with their regular teacher, but even the usefulness of this is often limited as the material covered in the DVDs is usually not relevant to the individual student’s level of ability.
There are not many teachers (if any) that give their students DVDs to watch as part of their course of lessons. If watching “how to play” DVDs had any value then mainstream teachers would incorporate these tools into their teaching curriculum. They don’t. They don’t use these DVDs not because they are unable to do so or because they are too expensive but because they offer little or no value as a supplement to the lessons they teach.
In order for effective learning to take place concepts and ideas must be introduced to the student in a pedagogically correct way. Learning to play the piano is not just about acquiring knowledge; it is about developing a skill.
The skillful teacher will ensure that each concept has been adequately mastered before moving on to more advanced concepts. The information presented in teach yourself piano DVDs is often centered on “providing knowledge” to the student rather than developing the skills and abilities of the student.
Students will not benefit from studying a particular area of the piano curriculum unless all the prerequisite learning has taken place.
This means that if, for example, the student watches a DVD lesson on “Intervals” they are highly unlikely to benefit from this experience unless the musical foundation required to understand intervals is first in place. Internet video and DVD “courses” can never replace the experience students gain by studying with a skilled teacher that knows the students strengths and weaknesses and has the skill and the expertise to develop the individual students ability in the most appropriate way taking the students capabilities and past experience into consideration.
It is my belief that no student ever gained a place at a good graduate music school by learning to play piano on their own using only DVDs.
Students that try to learn in this way will find progress very limited and they will most likely convince themselves that they “don’t have the talent” to play piano.
The truth is that they probably do have the talent but a video course on how to play the piano is totally inadequate to enable the student’s natural talent to grow in any meaningful way. It is simply not possible to progress beyond the very basics of piano playing by using only videos and DVDs.
A student must be “ready” to learn a particular concept before it is introduced. If the student is exposed to concepts that they are not fully prepared to take on board they will be left confused. It may seem obvious that taking advanced calculus before learning how to add and subtract correctly would be a fruitless endeavor. Trying to learn the information presented in online videos would be exactly the same as doing this. Without expert guidance students themselves are often not in the best position to know what is the most appropriate way forward in their musical studies and are therefore not always in a good position to choose what to study next.
A good teacher knows the most appropriate time to introduce new concepts to a student based on the students individual level of ability and will not over burden a student by presenting too much information all at once, which is a common problem with DVD courses.
A good teacher is more than somebody who tells the student what to do next. A good teacher has been through the learning process themselves and has worked with many students before and understands the difficulties students encounter along the path of musical discovery and is well placed to help the student overcome any obstacles they may encounter in their learning. A DVD can never do this.
Did anyone ever become a great Gymnast by watching “How to become an Olympic gymnast” DVDs? No.
Did anyone ever become a great ball player by watching “How to become a professional baseball player” DVDs? No.
Then why do people expect this should happen when buying a “how to play piano” DVD?
Much of the time when working with a student they will be unaware that their playing contains errors in timing, accuracy, hand position or other important areas of musicianship. A crucial part of the teacher’s role is to provide regular feedback to the student about these areas of their performance and provide guidance and advice on how these areas may be improved. Without this kind of regular feedback the student is likely to continue making the same errors which will result in the student developing bad habits in their playing which will eventually become problematic if they continue to go unresolved. Without correction these bad habits will likely continue to grow in significance until substantial damage is done to the students playing ability. By the time the student becomes aware of these inefficiencies in their playing the process of correction may become significant.
It is much harder for the student to "unlearn" incorrect approaches to playing than it is to learn them correctly in the beginning.
Students learning to play piano by watching online videos do not have the benefit of this continuous correction on a weekly basis and may eventually get to the point where a great deal of time would be needed with a teacher to correct the issues that have been allowed to form. This would mean that not only has valuable time been lost while trying to learn from a DVD but additional time for correction would then be required should the student then move on to working with a teacher. Students are therefore advised to begin their piano studies with a good teacher from the beginning.
It is often a mistake to believe that you can give yourself a "head start" in your piano studies by trying to learn from DVDs before taking lessons.
Despite what the marketing materials tell you about how quickly you will learn from the new "revolutionary" DVD course they are selling, the truth is that you will learn more in 6 months of taking regular piano lessons with a good teacher than you will learn in 6 years trying to learn by watching DVDs and you will avoid the significant pitfalls that students who try to learn in this way encounter.
Make a commitment to yourself to study with a good teacher for 6 months and you will be highly unlikely to ever consider trying to learn piano by watching a DVD ever again.
Some DVD courses appear to be offered by "reputable" music schools. It is unfortunately the case that many teachers who start out with good intentions for their students see the potential to make large amounts of money by selling DVDs and will compromise their values in order to do so.
Like so many others they will tell you that you can play piano "in days rather than years". Who wouldn't want to believe this, especially if it came from a seemingly credible source? Unfortunately this is not true. A large part of learning to play the piano is concerned with developing the fine motor skills and efficient hand movements that are required for playing more complex passages of music. No DVD can give you the necessary feedback needed in order to achieve this. Learning to play the piano is an art.
When you learn to play successfully you will be an artist. The guidance of an established artist who knows how to facilitate your journey of musical discovery is required to achieve this. The only people that will tell you that it is possible to learn how to play piano by watching DVDs are the people trying to sell you the “miracle piano DVD courses”.
As a music teaching professional with 25 years’ experience it is a concern to me that beginner students are presented with misinformation about what it takes to develop the skills necessary to become an accomplished pianist and misled by people looking to profit by producing expensive marketing materials to sell products that look very impressive and convincing that clearly cannot deliver on their promise. No good music teaching professional or accomplished musician believes that the piano can be learned only by taking online video courses or by watching DVDs.
What “Does” Work!
<strong>Taking Piano Lessons Online With a Qualified and Experienced Teacher</strong>
The music teaching community is gradually coming to the realization that remote music instruction over the internet is a viable and effective way of working for many music students and teachers. This is evident by the postings on professional music teacher forums and credible “groups” of teachers on websites such as LinkedIn. Skype piano lessons work because they are merely the modern extension of the way piano instruction has been conducted for hundreds of years.
The interaction between student and teacher is largely the same and the effectiveness of this style of learning is maintained intact. The basic setup when taking piano lessons on the internet using Skype can be as simple as making a Skype call between two webcam connected computers.
For many students this basic setup is enough to ensure productive lessons and steady progress. Using this system both the student and the teacher have copies of the necessary tutor books or sheet music being studied. The teacher can demonstrate and explain new concepts in a way that ensures the student understands what to do during their practice on a weekly basis in the same way as they would do in a traditional piano lesson. The important point here is that the teacher will work with the student on a weekly basis providing crucial feedback to the student on the practice they did during the week and will offer suggestions on how the work they have done may be improved and will spend time concentrating on areas that the student may need extra assistance with. This will be different for every student. This type of feedback, which leads to students gradually developing the necessary practice skills to become great piano players simply does not happen when taking any video course. Video courses can never be an effective way of teaching a student how to play the piano because the learning process is a two way dynamic relationship between the teacher and the student.
To be effective the learning of an instrument must be a consistent dialogue between the student and teacher. A skillful teacher will be able to help shape a healthy mindset in the student when approaching their studies, encouraging the student to work in ways that they may first be reluctant to try. No DVD every encouraged a student to overcome their natural tendency to take the “easy route” in their studies and help instill in the student the virtues of approaching their work in a way that may first seem difficult or counter intuitive but this is an essential part of the work a music teacher does. Helping to develop the student’s character and work ethic is integral to a good teachers approach to helping their students achieve their full potential. Without this students are likely to fall at the first hurdle.
It is the communication between the student and the teacher that helps the student learn and gain confidence in their music making. When a teacher tells the student “good job” the student can take pride that their efforts have been recognized and that their teacher is proud of the work they have done. What does it mean when a DVD says “good job”? A piano teacher can never be replaced by a DVD.
The experience of taking lessons by Skype can be enhanced in a number of different ways, helping to make the learning experience richer and more productive and therefore more rewarding for both the teacher and the student. The first way that lessons over Skype can be enhanced it to make sure both the teacher and the student have the best possible listening and viewing experience. In addition to voice and video calls Skype also offers screen sharing. This means that the student is able to see everything that is on the teachers computer screen. In order to take full advantage of the screen sharing capabilities of Skype both the teacher and the students should have a large screen monitor. I would recommend a 24 inch screen for the best results. A good set of speakers connected to the computer is also essential in order to get the best possible listening experience. The dynamic and tonal range of the piano is very wide and therefore a very good set of speakers is required to accurately reproduce the subtleties contained in even the most basic of piano performances.
In order to accurately hear the subtle differences in sound produced by a piano the student and teacher will need excellent speakers. The ear is far more discerning than the eye and can detect much smaller differences in sound than the eye can detect visually. Students will learn faster and gain more out of lessons when they can clearly hear the teacher’s performance. In addition to good speakers the teacher should also have a studio quality microphone so the student receives the best sound possible and a Skype certified high definition camera. We have already mentioned that lessons can be enhanced by using the Skype screen sharing capabilities but what exactly does this mean and what kinds of activities can the teacher provide to make the students learning experience as rich as possible? Screen sharing can work using any size monitor but a large monitor offers better results. Ideally the monitor should be placed on top of the piano next to the student’s sheet music in direct view while the student plays the piano. When taking regular lessons it is common practice for the teacher to make hand written comments and markings on the student’s sheet music to emphasize a particular point or to help the student remember something they need to think about during their practice. The same thing can be achieved using screen sharing with a PDF copy of the student’s music and on screen annotation software.
The Legends Piano Studio uses a Wacom graphics tablet for marking the student’s music in real time. The marked up PDF may be later emailed to the student so they can print it out and use it during their practice. Alternatively the student may use the PDF to mark up their own copy of the music or copy the teachers hand written notes into their own tutor books.
Classroom Maestro is a great tool for helping to demonstrate important musical concepts and ideas in a fun and engaging way during a Skype music lesson. The Classroom Maestro screen can be easily shared with the student using the inbuilt Skype screen sharing capability. The teacher can then use Classroom Maestro to help explain chords, scales, intervals, inversions, harmony, note names, chord symbols and much more. Classroom Maestro is linked to the teachers’ MIDI keyboard and displays on the screen the notes that are played on the piano together with information about what chords, notes and scales are being played.
Classroom Maestro is most effectively used when installed on both the teacher and the student computer and combined with “Internet MIDI” (described below) but remains a very effective tool when installed only on the teachers computer and shared using Skype screen sharing.
“Internet MIDI” is software that must be installed on both the students and the teacher’s computer. The software allows the two pianos to talk to each other over the internet. When the teacher plays their piano the student’s piano will play back what the teacher is playing in real time. This is most impressive when using two MIDI enabled acoustic pianos but is very useful when using two digital pianos. For this to work correctly the student’s digital piano must be connected by MIDI to their computer. When working in this way the student will hear their own piano playing when the teacher performs or demonstrates a passage of music which provides a better experience than listening to the teachers piano through their computer speakers. During my testing of "Internet MIDI" I found it to be buggy and prone to crashing and it is also relatively complex for the student to set up and install. For these reasons I am not yet recommending my students currently use this software however I do believe that this technology has the potential to be a valuable addition to the Skype Piano teachers toolbox in the near future.
The software is produced by Zenph who have just struck a deal with Yamaha and have none other than Quincy Jones on their advisory board, so this is a company to watch out for in the field of internet piano instruction. <a href="http://www.zenph.com/" >www.zenph.com</a> has a number of videos that demonstrate the power and the potential of teaching the piano on the internet by Skype. One of the best ways to enhance a student’s experience of piano lessons is through the use of background accompaniments. These come in many forms from MIDI accompaniments, audio accompaniments and accompaniments supplied on floppy disk for specific models of digital piano. The use of background accompaniments in the lesson helps students gain a better understanding of playing in different musical styles and gives them a wider appreciation and awareness of musical genres. Students may be encouraged to purchase background accompaniment disks for the tutor books they are studying and these can be used effectively by the student in the course of a Skype lesson in a similar way to a regular lesson in the teachers own studio.
Home Concert Xtreme is a software program that does an excellent job of playing back MIDI files for use during the lesson. The MIDI files used can be any type of MIDI file however the most common types of MIDI file to use in the lesson are the ones that go along with the student’s tutor book. The piano part is automatically displayed on the screen and the volume and tempo of the song can be easily adjusted. The software makes it very easy to play the MIDI file back in different ways including the option to easily remove the piano track when the student is ready to play along. The right and left hand parts can also be removed for a fun way to do hands separate practice. I would like to add that most modern computers have the ability to play back MIDI files without the need for additional software such as Home Concert Xtreme, however, there is usually very limited control over the playback of MIDI files on a computer without a better MIDI file player installed and it is usually not possible to adjust the tempo of the MIDI file playback which is a very useful for the student to be able to do during the lesson and during their own practice. I would therefore recommend that both the teacher and the student have their own copy of Home Concert Xtreme when taking Skype piano lessons.
There may be a small additional investment in time, hardware and software on the part of both the student and the teacher to fully maximize the learning experience the student may receive when taking lessons over the internet by Skype however for any student serious about making progress this investment will be well worth while. By making use of the tools and techniques mentioned in this article Skype piano lessons can become a fully immersive experience that can offer students the ability to study with a much more qualified and experienced teacher than may otherwise be possible. A good music school that offers lessons by Skype should not only be experts in playing the piano and teaching the piano but also have expertise in the technology required to best serve their students.
The teacher should be able to offer the best advice to their students about how to gain the most from their lessons and be a leader in researching and using the latest technology to deliver lessons with the maximum impact. The Legends Piano Studio has considerable experience with technology and has been a leader in the use of computers and software to enhance the students learning experience for the past 20 years. Now the technology is finally in place to allow remote piano instruction to become mainstream The Legends Piano Studio is well placed to become a leader in this area also. The Legends Piano Studio offers <a href="about/skype-lessons/learn-more" title="Skype Piano Lessons">Skype Piano Lessons</a> to students anywhere in the world.