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Cultivating Community on the Internet

By Dave Isaacs | April 8, 2020

Cultivating Community on the Internet

The internet is a crucial part of every business’ marketing and promotion, but it’s never been more important than it is now during the COVID-19 crisis. For music teachers, it’s the only option we have: music stores and studios are shuttered, but our students are home and many have more time to practice than they may ever ordinarily would. Playing music is also a welcome distraction from the steady stream of bad news. So there’s an important need on both sides: for music teachers to be able to maintain our income and keep our students engaged and connected, and for students that suddenly have much more desire and time to practice.

Institutions of all kinds have been implementing online classes for years, especially in universities. New models like asynchronous classes, where the student does the work according to their own schedule rather than logging into a set class meeting, are becoming more and more popular. But if you teach private students, of course, we need to maintain the one-on-one relationship.

With that said, though, our students need more than just their lesson assignments. You already know this. I’d be very surprised if you only practiced our assignments when you were learning, or you never would have built the skills you have today. It’s important that music learning is multi-dimensional, with ideas and inspiration coming from many different sources. And having moved our musical life online, we can make use of some of the learning and connecting tools that technology gives us to enhance and encourage our students to engage on a deeper level.

Connection

I believe the sense of connection we get from playing music together or for others is one of the main reasons we play. But while we are physically distanced from one another, we need to find another way to stay connected. This is where technology and social media come into play.

If you work for a formal institution, you’re probably teaching online now, and both you and your students may be struggling with the transition. It’s impossible to maintain the dynamic of a live classroom, even with the most engaged group of students. Encouraging additional interaction both with the instructor and between the students can help reinforce some of what the remote experience loses, especially if your classes are asynchronous and don’t have a regular meeting time.

If you teach privately or out of a music store, you’ve likely moved your lessons to Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime. Working one-on-one makes maintaining engagement easier than teaching a class, and many of you may have been teaching remote lessons already. So the transition might be a little easier under those circumstances. But the experience still needs to be reinforced, because both you and your student could easily be much less focused on the lesson than you would be when you’re in the room together. Having the screen open in the first place offers infinite possibilities for distraction. So let’s explore some ways to use it productively.

Logistics of Teaching Lessons Online

To teach lessons remotely you’ll need a video chat platform. I have used Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom, and prefer Zoom for its ease of use and functionality. But the basic experience is the same: you’re at the mercy of your connection, and since they all have a certain amount of latency (time it takes for the signal to travel from device to device) playing together isn’t really an option. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give an effective lesson.

First of all, make sure you and your students are using a laptop or at least a tablet if possible. We’re all used to looking at phone screens, but you want any visual demonstration to be clearly visible, especially if you’re using any written or printed music. A larger screen also creates a larger presence, and holds attention better.

On your end, use the largest screen possible. That point was driven home to me the first time I taught my entire day of lessons online via a 13.5” laptop. I had significant eye fatigue by the end of the day, and realized that unlike a live lesson I spend almost the entire session looking in one place. I haven’t added a larger wall-mounted monitor to my studio yet, but it will be a must if I continue a heavy online schedule.

As far as the limitation on playing together, you can still reinforce rhythm by having students use the metronome, or backing tracks I create in Logic or find online (a quick YouTube search for “drum tracks” is a gold mine for rhythm practice). And you can still have them play along with you, you just won’t be able to hear whether they are accurate. But if you can screen capture or record, using another phone/device or within the app like Zoom allows, they can record their performance and then play it back for you.

Sharing Online Content

Odds are, you already use the internet to support your lesson content. I frequently use audio and video examples from the web to illustrate an idea or provide an example. If you use Zoom or another platform that allows screen sharing, this is a very useful way to work and much more effective than sending links back and forth. I can also easily share documents and music from my own library.

The idea matters more than the platform, of course. You may find yourself sharing music by texting files and photos from a cell phone. A cloud service is very useful for this as well. I keep Dropbox folders full of exercises I’ve created that I can share links to or download and share directly. Not only can you make a larger library available to a dedicated student, you don’t have to worry about students losing their music or forgetting to bring it to their lesson. To be thorough, follow up each lesson with an email or text that summarizes what the lesson was about, including any relevant links or attached files, and spells out what to practice.

If you have students that are unable or unwilling to go to online lessons, you could also use the asynchronous method like many online courses. This would involve giving the student an assignment and asking for a video progress report after a week, or whatever the appropriate interval would be, and following up with feedback. Used in conjunction with a cloud-based curriculum or library, this could be an excellent way for a self-motivated student to work.

As I write this today, with some students holding off on lessons until they can do them in person again, this approach gives me a way to stay connected and keep them working instead of just waiting out a hiatus with no guidance. This approach takes more planning and thought on the instructor’s part in advance, but also offers a convenient and more affordable option to students that might want to continue working but aren’t able to budget for private lessons.

Social Distance Networking

If students have permission from their parents to have social media accounts, social media platforms offer some excellent ways not just to stay connected to your students, but also for them to connect to each other. Many schools and instructors maintain dedicated Facebook groups for discussion and for sharing resources; you may have one yourself and probably belong to several others.

One great advantage of Facebook groups is that you can control access, and only people in the group see the posts. You can easily share audio, video, and links, or course, but also conduct polls and surveys to gather information and feedback. Keep students engaged through challenges: a tune of the week, or lick of the day for the student to learn and then post video of their performance. Share things that YOU are passionate about and want them to see.

Post your own music as well, because everyone loves to hear their teacher play. I recently started posting videos of myself practicing, mistakes and all, to illustrate my problem-solving process. Someone told me recently they thought that was brave, and I’ll admit I braced myself for unkind comments. But it’s also a way of showing my students that I struggle too. That my skills are hard-won through a proven method they can follow too. Ultimately, showing off what you can do as a player has its place if the performances are compelling, but there’s real teaching value in showing how you attack the things you can’t do yet.

Integrate and Organize Your Platforms

Keeping up with all the various online platforms is a never-ending task. In the scrolling universe, where things disappear quickly, regular content updates are crucial. The more you can tie your various accounts together, the easier it is to stay on top of what you share, and it’s also easier for your students (and prospects) to find you.

Use the same of very similar usernames on all platforms. My website, Facebook page, Instagram, and YouTube are all nashvilleguitarguru.com. The Instagram account can post directly to Facebook (and you do have a dedicated account for teaching, right? Not the one where you post the picture of last night’s dessert). This is a big time-saver, but I do find I need to go to Facebook and adjust the formatting so the look is right. Long lists of hashtags are appropriate on Instagram but not so useful of Facebook.

If you can, hire a social media consultant/assistant. It’s very helpful to have another set of eyes on your content, and if you’re teaching a class you may be able to deputize a student to manage it if the content is part of (or reinforces) the classwork. Whether you are doing it yourself or not, come up with a schedule. It keeps you accountable and helps build engagement because your followers will know when to look for new material. It’s probably impossible to keep every platform updated all the time, so I use a staggered schedule:

  • Instagram/Facebook posts daily
  • Posts to my own FB group and the three others I’ve chosen to participate in two or three times a week
  • New lesson content to YouTube every 2 weeks
  • A bi-monthly email newsletter that spotlights significant new teaching content as well as upcoming events (online, or live when that becomes possible again)

I have a blog on my website that I posted on weekly for several years. Now the library is large enough that it’s unlikely anyone would run out of new material, and when I add new posts—which are featured on the website layout—I choose content that’s relevant to a broad range of students. The YouTube videos are more specifically focused, and I rotate styles and concepts between several broad areas.

I should mention that I find YouTube very useful as a representation of my teaching, and have gotten lesson inquiries from around the globe for years because of it. Don’t underestimate what giving away some free content can do for you, and after ten years of building a channel it’s now my largest follower base. YouTube videos can also be shared to other platforms, but be aware that Facebook’s algorithm favors direct uploads to FB - so more people will see the video if you upload it separately to each platform. Organize videos into playlists and title them by category to make them easy to find.

Your Platform

Ultimately, all this work is an investment in building your platform, your audience. This can and should include several tiers of relationships:

  • Your current students, private or classroom
  • Former students
  • Prospective students from your community, physical or virtual
  • Prospective students who find you by searching or surfing

Make your professional socials available and encourage interaction as long as there’s no institutional prohibition. Your students can continue to follow and engage with you long after they’ve left your classroom or studio. Make sure that engagement continues by giving them a steady stream of material, sharing content from one to another to streamline the process. I find I can frequently use material from a class in a private lesson, or vice versa. This way my library continues to grow and my ability to cross-reference—to use existing material to reinforce a new lesson—becomes better and better.

Ultimately, working online has its limitations but also offers many ways to reinforce the learning experience. Without the in-person interaction, your content library and resources become that more important. See upkeep and addition to that library as an important part of lesson planning. Encourage your students to follow, engage, and support each other in their work, and use the distance as a way to reinforce the need for self-motivated practice. You can make this work, and maybe even begin to transition to a new model for your teaching that doesn’t require you to wear shoes.


Dave Isaacs

A career musician and teacher, Dave Isaacs has taught music for thirty years in private lessons, workshops, and college classrooms. Since moving to Nashville in 2005, he has become known in the music community as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row” for his work coaching performers and songwriters. He maintains a busy private studio teaching guitar, piano, theory, and musicianship in private and group settings.

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