In today’s hectic world, more and more events are taking place remotely. University instructors deliver lectures and hold conferences remotely, and there are services to match up job seekers in many different fields to remote jobs. It is even possible to have a medical consultation with a doctor thousands of miles away. It should be no surprise, then, that singers and their teachers have found ways to meet for voice lessons even when separated by many miles.
I sent informal questionnaires to quite a few teachers, including teachers with famous names and famous students, teachers at the university/conservatory level, and teachers still making their reputations. Most of those who responded do offer remote lessons.
Some of these teachers offer remote study only to students with whom they have an established teaching relationship, while others make them available to all students. More than one teacher mentioned students they had never met in person.
No teacher who responded has a required number of in-person lessons. While one teacher stated he charges a slightly lower fee for a remote lesson than he does for a standard one, none said they charge more. One teacher mentioned that remote lessons can require more preparation time than traditional lessons.
There are many benefits. Most who offer remote lessons mentioned the advantage of continuity when either the teacher or student is traveling. Also, students could have access to a higher level of expertise remotely than might be available to them locally. During cold and flu season, the opportunities for spreading illness through personal contact are decreased. Many consider it an opportunity to help more students. And there is the obvious benefit of availability regardless of weather, transit conditions, car trouble, or other challenges.
Not every teacher offers remote lessons. Some find that technical challenges can far outweigh any benefits seen. One teacher no longer teaches using Skype, citing the audio lag he experienced as an insurmountable problem. Audio quality also creates problems. “I work a lot in facial mask resonance,” stated one teacher. “I find that via the Internet there is no way to hear overtones and proper resonance.”
Even teachers who do offer remote lessons mentioned these limitations and the problems inherent in poor Internet connections, particularly while traveling. Some also mentioned the difficulty of seeing the student’s posture or body alignment. Scheduling with different time zones can be a challenge, especially if adjusting for daylight savings time.
For some, technical limitations have forced them to adjust their teaching manner. One teacher mentioned he couldn’t play along with vocal exercises, forcing the student to sing them a cappella. Another stated he is usually very hands-on in person and has had to create ways to explain to remote students what feedback he would be looking for and how they might recognize the effect he is seeking. Many mentioned they were forced to focus on what they could see of the student—usually just the head position, face, jaw, and tongue. “In some ways, my observations become more attuned in the online format,” said one teacher.
When asked about tools, most teachers mentioned Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom using standard laptops or tablets. One teacher stated he uses two iPads side by side—one for the actual lesson and one for sheet music. Some had upgraded microphones and encouraged students to use upgraded equipment as well.
None of the contacted teachers stated they had adjusted studio layout to accommodate remote instruction, although some mentioned concerns about the setup of the rooms the students use—the size, layout, and acoustics can vary widely and can change from one lesson to the next, depending on the student’s situation and what is available at a remote site.
Based on this very unscientific study, it seems remote instruction is here to stay. Even those who were the most vocal about remote instruction’s problems stated they might try it again if the technology improved. Although nearly every teacher contacted said that lessons in person were better, most accepted the need for remote instruction as a tool and a means toward an end. One teacher summed it up astutely by noting that “the student/teacher relationship has to be strong and needs to click, regardless of online or in person.”
Most teachers who responded to my questionnaire had complaints about the technology they were using—usually Skype, FaceTime, or some other tool intended for video conferencing. Audio lag was the most frequently mentioned problem. VoiceLessons.com, a new platform for remote instruction, promises to solve that problem.
I contacted VoiceLessons.com to see how it works and spoke with Mike Elson, the company’s founder and CEO. Elson is trained in vocal music and in software development. We had a brief discussion via VoiceLessons.com using the audio and video capabilities of my several-year-old MacBook Pro, and Elson demonstrated the platform for me.
Instruction is conducted using an app that can be downloaded to Mac and PC computers and an electronic keyboard. Although students participate with the app from their computers, a practice app for students can be downloaded to iOS and Android smartphones. The app allows teacher and student to schedule the lesson, as in business conferencing apps, and both student and teacher log in at the agreed-upon time.
Whereas sound only travels in one direction at a time with traditional meeting technologies, with VoiceLessons.com sound can travel in both directions simultaneously, allowing for a truly interactive experience. Further, the lesson is recorded so the student can review it. The student can also extract any or all the vocal exercises the teacher uses during the lesson.
Teachers can pay for the service by the individual lesson, on a monthly subscription with a set fee per student, or on an unlimited plan, where they pay for unlimited service up front.
With such new technological advances, even the most resistant of teachers might reconsider their attitudes toward remote teaching. —David Browning