Learning Online : Getting the Most from Virtual Private Lessons

Discover how to get the most out of virtual private lessons. The more effort you put in as a student, the more success you will have.

During the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, universities around the globe switched to online learning for what remained of their spring 2020 semester. For many of us, this change happened swiftly, and schools worked diligently to provide access for both students and faculty to learn 100 percent online. As I write this, many of us are at least one month into the process and we are experiencing both struggles and triumphs using technology to make music. We could argue that platforms including Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc., are not ideal for music making—but at the end of a university class or a private lesson, we can agree that technology provides a way to make a connection.

Music majors are social creatures by nature. Whether you sang in high school choir or played in marching band, chances are you found your tribe through music. Music rehearsals connect people, and the value of every participant in an ensemble is palpable. Feeling valued gives us purpose and joy, which inspires the work required to participate at our highest levels.

So, when the opportunity to rehearse together in the same room is taken away, what do we have? We have the music on the page and our determination to learn. Maybe this isn’t the fun part; perhaps online learning feels lonely or lacks the social construct of working side by side or face to face. But there is always work to be done, and this is a time for technical practice, stylistic research, IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) work, translating, and memorizing. By working on your repertoire now, you will be more prepared to resume conventional lessons and rehearsals when it is safe.

As our university transitioned to online learning, I assured my students that FaceTime/Skype lessons would be OK. My own teacher lives in New York and, over the last several years, we have had some fantastic FaceTime lessons when I needed her ears and expertise. She is an extraordinary teacher and we know each other well, so when I cannot hop on a plane, technology has been there for me.

I want to share some of the basics I worked on with my university students, so that you can make the most of your private lessons throughout the summer if you will continue to do them online rather than in person.

 

Set Up Your Space

It doesn’t matter if you are in a messy room or on your back patio, but you need enough space to be able to stand or sit on a straight-back chair so you can use your breath efficiently. Posture is always an important part of singing, so set up your laptop or phone in a way that you won’t have to look down or feel physically restrained in order to see. Do not call from your car—that will be a nice jam when you karaoke with James Corden, but it will not allow for your best breath/tone connection!

 

Equipment Needed

Good news: you probably don’t need more than you already own, but I do have a few suggestions for optimizing your online music making.

A smartphone or laptop with a Wi-Fi connection will get the job done. If you experience multiple glitches, you might try moving your device closer to the router for a better signal. Word to the wise, charge your device before your lesson or keep a charging cord close by. FaceTime and Skype drain batteries quickly.

One tool I have found helpful is a phone tripod. The UBeesize camera stand holder is available for only $20 on Amazon. This tripod accommodates all smartphones and sets up easily on a music stand or bookshelf, and the angle is adjustable.

Most smartphones have workable sound, but if you want to improve your sound quality for optimal lessons and prepare for your future podcasting careers, there are a few external mics that rank high with the voice teaching crowd. The Blue Yeti ($100) and the Audio-Technica AT2035 ($149) also found on Amazon are studio winners.

 

Sheet Music

For some lessons, I have not had the music in front of me and/or a student does not have access to a piano or keyboard. This is workable, but not ideal for restarting at measure 17, etc. To ensure you and your teacher are using legal sheet music, you can download public domain scores on IMSLP.org or obtain inexpensive downloads. Glendower Jones has built a large library of downloads at ClassicalVocalReprints.com and he offers multiple printings, so you can email the music as a PDF to your teacher.

Even when your teacher has the music, you still need to know your music well enough to sing a phrase without the piano doubling you. Sound delays are problematic for a teacher playing your part on the piano if the singer is on the other side of the call waiting to hear a pitch or the chord. In most cases, online lesson work is a cappella, or you might use a prerecorded piano track for running a phrase or verse and then stopping to assess. Appcompanist (Appcompanist.com) generously offered many piano accompaniments free when NATS needed to move regional and national auditions online. Their piano tracks have variable tempi and are a great resource for practicing and online lessons.

 

Expectation

The online lesson is not the same as a face-to-face lesson. We cannot pretend it is something it is not, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find some techniques work better when both parties are striving to communicate clearly. We can make the most of the technology that provides an important musical connection when we are separated during a time of physical distancing.

One way to make the most of the lesson is to keep practice logs and write down questions that come up throughout the week. When students are prepared with questions, the teacher can address the issue or listen specifically for underlying issues. This will make the lesson helpful for your immediate needs/concerns and better meet your expectations for making vocal and musical improvements.

Preparation is key. Learn your melodies before the lesson. Even if you are a freshman, as a music major you have had enough theory and sight singing to learn your notes and rhythms without needing a grand piano to practice.

 

Connection

The FaceTime or Skype voice lessons are a way to make connections with your teacher. It is one-on-one time for individual questions and an opportunity to invest in a caring teacher/student relationship. Continuing lessons keeps you accountable to practice, so you learn repertoire and continue to improve. Your teacher can keep you on track, remind you of ways to work on your consistency, and talk through foreign language texts for improving diction.

Although we aren’t in the same resonant room, we can hear you and we can see you, and this is enough for us to guide your technical production. We are here for you through our computer screens and we will be so happy to see you face to face as soon as possible.

Christi Amonson

Soprano Christi Amonson is an assistant professor of voice and director of Opera Workshop at Augusta University and a teaching artist in residence for the summer Festival de Opera de San Luis Potosi in Mexico. She earned her DMA at the University of Arizona, her MM in voice at the Manhattan School of Music, and her BM in music education at the University of Idaho. Amonson is an active singer, writer, and a member of NATS and NOA. She lives in Augusta, Georgia with her husband and three daughters.