Remote music teaching: ‘We have to do it. We have to find ways’

Using online communication as substitute for the traditional face-to-face music lesson is a complicated undertaking

Distance learning is nothing new. One of the maids in the TV series Downton Abbey, in an episode set more than a century ago, managed to better herself through a correspondence course. It is more than half a century since the Open University in Britain brought off-campus learning to a new level, and for more than 30 years university course material was broadcast on television by the BBC.

In the world of classical music there are famous Music Minus One recordings of orchestral and chamber music pieces taped with the solo line missing, so that students or enthusiastic amateurs can experience their own playing in the context of the instrumental complexity of a full performance.

The time-lag makes it impossible to co-ordinate exactly. Music practice is mostly a solitary affair, but music-making is not

But using online communication as substitute for the traditional face-to-face music lesson is a much more complicated undertaking, one which can make a Zoom business meeting seem like the acme of perfection in immediacy of interpersonal communication.

William Dowdall, professor of flute at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, went through a massive turnaround in his teaching life when the country locked down over Covid-19. "The schools closed down on March 12th, and I started remote teaching on March 18th." In between, he had a hip replacement operation.


Mixed experience

Dowdall’s experience has been mixed, involving a lot of trial and error, beginning with earbuds and the microphone on his phone, and ending up with separate loudspeakers and a shopping list that now includes a high-quality microphone.   The experience has got better, he says, as both he and the students have adjusted.

But, he says, echoing the many weary tales of people who spend hours on Zoom calls, “it’s extremely tiring”. He puts this down to the kind of concentration involved being so different from previous teaching. He even had to remind himself not to be glued to the screen, and remember that he could get up and move around the room.

When it comes to wifi and technology at home, people might be sharing one computer between the whole family

Dowdall also misses the fact that the technology does not allow him to play along with students, which he describes as a particular drawback with younger pupils — his youngest is just 8-years-old. The time-lag makes it impossible to co-ordinate exactly. Music practice is mostly a solitary affair, but music-making is not. So the fact that he can’t play duets with students removes a whole world of musical communication and interaction.

We’re all familiar with phone reception that makes voices seem like they’ve come through a tunnel. When it comes to listening to music under similar circumstances, Dowdall says that the assessment of tone colour is effectively impossible. As he talks about this, it’s clear he’s become almost obsessive not just about the quality of internet connections, but also the finer detail of microphone placement.

He needs to hear all the nuances to be able to deal with matters of interpretation with the most advanced students. He can’t do this over the internet; instead, he finds himself listening to recordings that students have made.

‘Air and whistle’

You don’t really want to listen to what’s coming out of a flute, face-on, he says. The sounds the instrument projects forwards and sideway are quite different and, he explains, “Students need to angle themselves in relation to the phone. You would never record with just one microphone straight in front of the flute. You’ll get a lot of air and whistle.”

Yet, in spite of the frustrations and his clear conclusion that remote teaching could never replace the face-to-face lesson, he does think that everyone has been forced to adopt a kind of greater efficiency. The academy had a webinar for staff, and one of the points made was that “early is the new on-time”.

“I’m always conscious of keeping to time anyway,” he says, “because I don’t like having students waiting outside. But staring at a blank screen waiting for a phone to ring is something else altogether. And students can now warm up before the actual lesson starts.”

On the upside, he can see a real future for Zoom concerts. “They form a little community and people get to know each other. Usually students only know someone from an ensemble they’re in together, or someone whose lesson is directly before them or directly after them.”

Teachers can no longer write in markings or reminders directly on a student’s copy of the music. The students have to do it all themselves, “Which is no bad training, at all.”

Smooth transition

Gemma Murray is the co-ordinator for Music Generation Louth, which she describes as running "in-school programmes, ensembles, and a mix of individual and group learning instrumental and vocal classes". Both ensembles and the individual and group lessons, where the delivery was after school, have shifted online fairly smoothly, she says. But "we no longer had access to the students we would normally see in schools".

“We would have been prepared to teach them,” Murray says, “but some of the primary schools have little or no engagement with online learning. You’ve got to realise that although we’re living in the 21st century, when it comes to wifi and technology at home, people might be sharing one computer between the whole family, and the mother might be using it all day while she’s working at home doing her office job.”

There's no immediacy. People can't sing together. Nothing can happen. There's no simultaneous sounding of instruments or voices

She describes her business model as “a mixed product portfolio” and says that because of that “we were able to keep the place afloat, and keep a presence online through the ensembles and lessons. And I do a little bit of flute teaching, just to keep my hand in and to see what the teachers are going through.

“It was really interesting. I’ve been teaching kids at upper primary school level, and they’ve all made great progress this term. And other teachers have felt the same. Kids are used to looking at a screen and interacting and learning and absorbing information.”

Success has varied across different instrument types and genres and also in relation to the quality of technology that individual teachers have access to. And Murray sees the value of keeping communities active at the moment for their own sake, as well as for the musical output that’s possible.

Is there anything that she’d want to retain from the whole experience?

“One of the aspirations we’ve had was to deliver tuition in rarer instruments. If there doesn’t happen to be an oboe player or a French horn player knocking about here, you could certainly run a programme with online lessons. All the better if you could get together every so often for a face to face. You could build a community of people playing these instruments across the country, and develop a scene over a wider geographical area. That would be something we would do again.”

Like everyone else, Murray finds the online experience very tiring. But she’s also started to think more about pooling resources with other Music Generation schemes. “It has forced us to think about communicating and teasing ideas out in faster, smarter ways. Travelling half way around the world for a meeting is really not necessary, you know.”


Bernie Sherlock is conductor of the prize-winning choir New Dublin Voices and a music lecturer at TU Dublin. "It was a baptism of fire," she says. "Everything closed on a Friday and the next Monday we were all teaching online as best we could. Some of it with great success, some of it with less success."

If the Zoom teaching was one-to-one or one-to-two, she says, it worked well. “It’s very direct. You don’t have a group to deal with.”

Sherlock teaches keyboard techniques, which include reading scores with multiple musical lines, reading different clefs (yes, there are more than just the ones for treble and bass), elements of improvisation, sight reading, transposition (performing something in a different key to the one the music is written in), as well as aural training, which hones a skill that has been likened to musical intelligence.

She does, however, voice concerns about the wide variability in the sound quality that can be achieved, depending on people’s phones, laptops, and connection quality. “Some of them were genuinely appalling,” she says, “and it could be hard enough to tell what a chord actually was.”

Whole classes, she says, are the most challenging, “because there’s no immediacy. People can’t sing together. Nothing can happen. There’s no simultaneous sounding of instruments or voices. For me, with an approach that’s about learning through making music, particularly in the aural area, it’s very limited.” And, like everyone else, she finds it all “hugely time-consuming”.

On the other hand, she understands that “we have to do it. We have to find ways. We have to upskill. Because the odds are in September it will be blended, it will be a mixture of one-to-one, a lecture with a smaller class, depending on the size of the room, and some people watching via live camera.” So she’s expecting to have to train herself over the summer in how to handle all the new issues that have arisen.

The problems of simultaneity over the internet present horrendous problems for choirs. “I’m rehearsing with New Dublin Voices over Zoom,” she says, adding a word that The Irish Times does not like to print. Private practice, she makes clear, is no substitute for the communal experience of choral rehearsals.

The future for public performances is still unsure. The next concert date Dowdall has in his diary is for November. But as to the next concert by New Dublin Voices, Sherlock says, “I simply have no idea.”