Voice Lessons… via Video Conference

The world is shrinking. Technology has changed the way we communicate and, for better or worse, it is here to stay. The world of education continues to seek methods for incorporating these new media in meaningful ways.

One question that has come up for musicians in the age of online degree programs is how effectively studio voice can be taught through videoconferencing. Students traveling to auditions may find it beneficial to have a touch-up lesson while geographically away from a teacher. When on the road for engagements, professors can quickly fall behind on lessons or find it difficult to monitor students’ progress. Many have already embraced vocal lessons through programs like Skype and FaceTime. But what are the potential advantages and drawbacks of lessons online?

To find out, I decided to conduct a lesson via videoconferencing to see firsthand how the process works. I have been using Skype for years as a way to stay in contact with out-of-state family members and friends, but had never before used it for teaching or singing.

For this test run, I wanted to work with a student I was already familiar with in order to have a baseline of vocal comparison between what I know and what I would be hearing through the computer. Also wanting to test the connection over a significant distance, I contacted a former student studying on the East coast, two time zones away. As a music major at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Micaela Mannix had only ever had vocal lessons in person but was intrigued by the idea of a “virtual lesson.”

Since we both already had accounts set up, we decided to use Skype for our experiment. All Skype programs can be downloaded at www.skype.com. While some features must be purchased, like the ability to place group video calls, there is no charge for an account or for the basic program that we used. While Skype is popular, other programs can be easily obtained for videoconferencing, such as Zoom and FaceTime as well as video chat programs built into both Gmail and Facebook.

Firing up my four-year-old MacBook Pro, I “Skyped” Micaela’s Samsung PC. Once we began the lesson, the potential stumbling blocks became clear right away. First, it was difficult to coordinate playing the piano while Micaela was singing. Whether attempting to accompany vocal exercises or passages of repertoire, the sound through the computer would sometimes delay or even just cut out, leaving me listening only to myself. Having experienced this issue previously over Skype, it was not a surprise. When people on opposite sides of the connection are speaking at the same time (an all-too-frequent occurrence in my family Skype conversations), the microphones often do not pick up everything being said.

The obvious fix, then, is simply to give a starting pitch and allow the student to sing a cappella. This may limit the ability to work as an ensemble or hinder certain aspects related to the repertoire, but should not inhibit addressing technical issues. If a pianist was in the room with Micaela, we may have had more success with accompanied singing—but as it was, we continued the lesson a cappella.

Secondly, Micaela’s voice had an unfamiliar tinny quality as it came through the computer. Knowing her voice, I felt this was likely due to the limitations of the built-in speaker and not something she was intentionally doing vocally. In order to hear her better, I plugged an outside speaker into my computer to boost her sound (a Roland 30-watt Cube) and that did improve both the timbre and presence of her voice. With the added speaker, it was much more like we were in the same room. Of course, this particular speaker also has the capability to further “enhance” her sound electronically, but in the interest of hearing her voice accurately, I kept the levels even.

While the initial setup proved to be a struggle for Micaela and me, other students who use videoconferencing for voice lessons have not experienced the same problems with sound. Lindsay Lehman is a 23-year-old soprano with a music degree from Chicago’s DePaul University. Currently applying for graduate programs, Lehman often uses Skype for lessons with her teacher while one or both of them are out of town. Neither Lehman nor her teacher use any outside speakers or cameras during lessons, relying solely on what is already part of the computer. Whether singing or listening to her teacher demonstrate, Lehman always feels she is hearing—and being heard—accurately.

The only real issue related to sound that Lehman and her teacher experience is the same one Micaela and I noticed with competing sounds temporarily canceling each other out. However, they have come up with a relatively simple solution—a personal code, so to speak, using gestures. “I had to learn the hand signals to follow and to keep an eye on the camera,” Lehman says. “If I see both of her hands up on the camera, that means stop. It’s harder to cut somebody off through a video stream than in person.”

Lehman also experiences occasional delays in the audio when it is not completely lined up with the video, or even instances when the video freezes while the audio continues. While infrequent and brief, this could certainly interfere with a teacher’s ability to completely monitor a student’s singing. The frequency of these issues is sometimes dependent on the strength of each participant’s Internet connection or sometimes the specific program being used to videoconference.

The interruption can certainly be frustrating. “It happens once in a while,” Lehman says, “but when I close some of the other programs and only have Skype running, there are hardly any moments of freezing.”

Once both teacher and student are convinced that the sound is reliable, the other primary issue at hand is the video. Whether in person or on screen, it is necessary for teachers to see their students from different angles to accurately address certain technical aspects of singing. Similarly, teachers wishing to demonstrate personally must be assured that the student is seeing what is pertinent to the instruction. Therefore, it is best if both participants can be flexible with the placement of their computer cameras.

One of the first things I asked of Micaela in our lesson was to adjust her camera level. Her computer was sitting on a desk, which created a less-than-ideal viewpoint when she was standing and singing. This may be more difficult to remedy when using a desktop computer, but a laptop that can be easily moved will allow more options. Setting a laptop on a sturdy music stand or two may be an easy way to raise and lower the angle without too much hassle. Or, perhaps, the different levels of a bookshelf could allow for a varied point of view by moving the laptop from one shelf to the next. Once a satisfactory camera angle is established, both student and teacher can simply step closer or farther away from the camera, as needed.

In Lehman’s lessons, she finds herself frequently moving her computer around to give her teacher the best set of eyes necessary. “If there are times she wants to focus on my breathing, the camera will be on my stomach,” Lehman says. “If she wants to focus on my mouth position, it is more on my head and neck.”

The easy ability to move the camera around will also ensure that the student can stand and sing the way she normally would without creating any undue postural problems by leaning in toward the camera.

Similarly, the teacher may need to move around in order to demonstrate for the student. At times during Micaela’s lesson, I stepped closer to show something related to the mouth and jaw while other times I would back up so full gestures could help convey the instruction.

In Lehman’s lessons, her teacher tends to keep the camera that is focused on herself fairly steady, but she can then move around as necessary. “The camera is usually on her head and shoulders,” she says, “though she will occasionally back up so I can see her whole body for breathing demonstrations.”

Generally, issues related to sight tend to be recognized quickly and remedied easily, if not creatively. Micaela did not have a music stand or a bookshelf on hand for our lesson, so she elevated her camera angle by placing her laptop on a stack of textbooks.

We also discovered that the lighting in Micaela’s room was casting some shadows, inhibiting full view of some of her facial movements. We attempted to fix that with what was immediately available to her, though we never were completely satisfied. Were we to have a second lesson, I would recommend a different room with better lighting or simply borrowing a lamp.

My supposition is that the majority of teachers who use videoconferencing for voice lessons also meet with their students in person when possible. Having already built a frame of reference and understandable means of communication, both teacher and student may be more willing to continue “meeting” electronically. But Lehman feels that, since she is familiar with the medium, even a first lesson with a new teacher could be effective online.

“It could honestly go either way, like any first voice lesson would,” Lehman says. “If you are able to clearly understand the instructor and his/her way of teaching, a first lesson over Skype would be fine. However, if there is some incompatibility between the two of you, then I don’t think a Skype lesson would work. But that is also the case for having an in-person lesson—if you don’t click with your teacher, you don’t click.”

Overall, Lehman is pleased with the options to stay in touch with her teacher that voice lessons via videoconferencing provide. Similarly, Micaela expressed a willingness to have additional lessons over Skype, especially as she continues to become comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of the medium. While both are quick to point out their preference for being in the same room as their respective teachers, they also feel it can provide opportunities that just a few years ago would not have been as readily available.

“I miss a lot of the hands-on approach,” Lehman says, “but [my teacher] is very diligent about watching through the camera. Overall, I think it is a fantastic way to work on technique while my voice teacher is away. I would gladly do it anytime.”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, D.M., is an assistant professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the National Center for Voice and Speech. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing and he blogs at drbrianmanternach.blogspot.com. Visit brianmanternach.com for more information.