Teaching long distance is nothing new, so don't expect anything earth shattering to be written here. I did read a lot about other's experiences using Skype for lessons before I tackled it on my own. Some of the opinions I read were negative, but others were positive. My advice? Try it for yourself with a friend. What's the worst that could happen?
I've decided to split this into two posts. This one will discuss more of the philosophy behind everything, and the second will explain my own personal hardware setup, including the software that I use. For now, let's discuss some of the positives of this medium, how it is different from face to face lessons, and some of the challenges that you will face. Since I teach piano, I'm going to write from that perspective, but many of the things discussed are applicable to other instruments as well. Let's begin, shall we?
Geography is no longer an obstacle. Have you ever had a student move out of the area only to find that they're having trouble locating another teacher? Sometimes they even quit because of this. But with Skype, this doesn't have to happen. I live in Seattle. I currently have students in Scotland. While the time difference is something to consider (8 hours difference in this case), the thought that I can teach students half way around the world in real time is simply fascinating.
Most people already have the necessary hardware. Almost everyone has high speed internet and either a desktop, a laptop, or a tablet capable of running Skype. Does it help to have a better web cam and microphone than the built in ones? Sure. But even the built in ones will suffice. Let me insert here that I encourage my students to use the largest screen they have access to so they can watch as well as listen when I need to demonstrate.
You can expand your income thanks to an expanded student base. Now who doesn't want more money? And with almost everybody having Paypal, creating and sending an invoice so you can get paid is super easy, secure, and quick.
Your teaching will be enhanced due to having to work around some of the quirks of the medium. Let's face it. Not everything will be the same over video chat. There will be some challenges that you will have to work around. But these challenges will only suffice to make you a better teacher, both on-line and in your studio. Already, I've found myself preparing more thoroughly than I ever did when I was teaching in studio. And, last time I checked, preparation is never a bad thing.
There will be challenges, but they aren't deal breakers. There will be things that you cannot do the same way you would in studio. Are such challenges inconvenient? Of course. But they are not deal breakers. Many can be handled with a little thought and preparation. Let's look at a few.
Certain standard teaching practices don't work over video. For example, you cannot clap along with your students to help them keep time or count out tough rhythms (due to latency issues). I've found that making up sayings for my younger students that match the tough rhythm has helped in this area. You also cannot write directly on their music. I've had to explain to them what I want marked and had them do it themselves. Speaking of music, you'll need two copies. This isn't really a big deal, but it is a little more cost on your part. But if you use the same method for multiple students the cost comes down. You also cannot play student / teacher duets like in the Alfred series. Advanced skills like shaping tone quality can present a challenge due to microphone sound quality limitations. Visual demonstration becomes a little harder due to screen size, so students are challenged to listen more than watch. These are just some of the challenges that I've faced, but so far, I've overcome and so have my students.
What type of students can succeed using this method? This is a tough question to answer. As a teacher, you always have to do your due diligence in evaluating students and their needs and capabilities. For Skype lessons, it is no different. I must make sure that my students can handle long distance lessons before I offer them. Personally, I would hesitate to start a young child out over Skype. The limitations we discussed above about clapping and timing would really make me think twice about it. But an older beginner? Sure. Older children, teens, and adults have the ability to follow verbal instructions without needing a visual demonstration.
What about the nuances of music, like phrasing, tone quality, etc? Surprisingly, these things can still be worked on. Is it perfect? Of course not. But for my situation – dealing with younger children in methods books and also church pianists and hymn improvisation or ear playing – such highly technical details don't come into play as much as they would if I was strictly teaching intermediate and advanced classical piano.
So what's the verdict? For me, the verdict is yes. Absolutely yes (otherwise I wouldn't be writing this post)! But for you, all I can say is, "Try it out." Be sure to prepare yourself well on the technology side of things (my next post will explain the setup that I use), but give it a shot. After all, what have you got to lose?
Stay tuned for Part II where I explain my technology setup for my own Skype lessons.