Archive for the ‘Practicing’ Category

Teaching Lessons through Online Video Chat: An Interview with Kathy Parsons

Monday, December 7th, 2009

By Kathy Parsons
Republished with permission from Music Teacher’s Helper

In case you haven’t heard, it’s a WONDERFUL time to be alive and involved in the world of music!

With the continual advancements in technology, the way that we create music, share it, and teach it is so incredibly different than how it was only just 10-15 years ago.

kathy1Meet Kathy Parsons – a piano teacher from Florence, Oregon who recently relocated from the San Francisco area. Not only does she teach, but she heads a website called where she writes music reviews for a plethora of renowned musicians. She has had the pleasure of working with artists like David Lanz, Suzanne Ciani, and Spencer Brewer to name only a few.

And what is even more intriguing, is that despite having recently left California to move an entire state away to her Oregon coastal home, Kathy still teaches a good number of her Californian students by way of modern technology and the internet.

How is this done? Find out as I share my interview with Kathy Parsons on how she utilizes technology to advance her teaching studio…

JT: You have been teaching piano for many years. How did you decide to become a teacher, and was it something you had always planned to do?

KP: As a young person, I divided my time fairly equally between the piano and visual arts. My plan was to teach piano and continue doing my artwork part-time, but, as so often happens, life had other plans. I have been a full-time piano teacher for 27 years and part-time for the past two. I’ll have my 29th anniversary in January. I’d say it was more of a calling than a plan.

JT: You recently relocated to the central Oregon coast. While this was a huge undertaking for you, you managed to come up with a way to retain some of your piano students despite living in a different city. Can you explain how you were able to do this?

1KP: When I decided to move from the San Francisco Bay Area to the central Oregon Coast, I knew it would be difficult to find new students and I hated to leave some of my students in CA. I was talking to one of my adult students about moving one day, and she told me about her video chat conversations with her brother in Spain over Skype. I had never heard of video chat at that point, so I started doing some investigating since this student was confident that we could continue lessons that way. I have some good contacts at Yamaha in the academic division, and they were kind enough to put me in touch with their “internet guru,” who was doing online lessons. He sent me some very helpful info and once I understood the basics, it was actually easier to work things out on my own.

I started talking up internet lessons with my students and their parents before I moved. When I left CA, it sounded like close to twenty of my existing students would continue lessons over the internet, but once we got down to reality, only a few followed through.

JT: Did the thought of using the internet and video seem intimidating at all? How was the learning curve?

KP: Starting anything this new and different is intimidating, especially when so few other people have tried it. At the same time, it is very exciting to be a trail-blazer of sorts. Learning how to do remote lessons was really fairly easy – it was convincing the parents to try it that was difficult. Early on, the pianos sounded like they were under water, which was obviously a big problem. The video feeds had good and bad days, and initially, the service froze up quite often. The service has improved tremendously over the past couple of years.

2-300x225JT: Is there a specific internet service or software that you use in order to teach this way? Can you list the equipment involved?

KP: I have been using Skype, iChat, and Google video chat services. They all have good and bad points. iChat has the clearest video by far, and the sound quality is usually quite good. For Mac users, it seems to be the best option. Google’s video chat seems to be very stable and the sound quality is really good. The video is so-so, but adequate. Skype is very good, but is prone to freezes and dropped calls from time to time. Skype and Google are both free services.

Most laptops now come with cameras built in, so that makes it easy. Students who don’t have those use the separate webcams. On my end, I’m using a MacBook laptop with a 13” screen. I hope to upgrade to a bigger screen next year, but the 13” screen is fine. The most important ingredient seems to be a fast internet service. I’m using wireless broadband and am very lucky to be working with a small local company called OregonFast. They are very interested in what I’m doing with the technology and have been extremely helpful and supportive.

JT: Okay, so I’m starting to understand what equipment it takes to do this, but, explain this to me: How do you have this set up? Both you and the student have pianos at each end of the camera. The student plays as you watch, and vice versa?

KP: Yes. When I am talking to students or watching or listening to them play, I have the camera aimed at my face. When I am playing for students, I angle the camera so that it is on my hands. Students have their cameras positioned so I can see exactly what they are doing. On the screen, from my end, the video of the student fills most of the screen, and then there is a smaller box inset so I can see what they are seeing from their end.

Piano2JT: Do you charge the normal amount for these lessons? I thought perhaps they might cost a bit more because of the equipment involved, but I don’t know.

KP: I have been charging the same rates I was charging before. I used to travel to lessons, so even though there are some expenses on this end for lessons, I’m saving a lot of travel time and gas.

JT: Do these types of lessons take the same amount of time as traditional in-person lessons?

KP: Yes. I still do 45-60 minute lessons weekly.

JT: How do your students enjoy doing lessons this way? Were they pretty open to the idea?

KP: My students seem to really enjoy online lessons. One of my adult students absolutely loves that she can do her lessons in her pajamas after work! My youngest students right now are twelve, but they have been doing lessons online for a couple of years. At least for now, I wouldn’t take any very young beginners. I think the teacher should be there and very hands-on for beginners. The kids I have now started with me when I was in CA. My adult students say they think this is just as good as having me in the room with them. In some ways, it ’s actually better since it is so focused and adult students don’t seem to get nearly as nervous.

JT: Have you obtained new students through this method, or do you only retain the previous students?

KP: I started the mother of one of my younger students online once she could see that it was working well for her daughter. So far, I have only started one student who found me on my website. He is a retired man who lives in Wisconsin. We’ve been doing lessons for about eight months, and he says he just loves it.

JT: Do you feel that you are able to teach as effectively using this method as you would if you were right there in person? For either/or, can you please explain the differences, pro’s, con’s, etc.?

KP: It’s a little hard to say because I was getting very discouraged as a teacher in CA. There is just too much competition for time and students seemed to be less and less willing to practice enough to advance very well. I’m not sure if I’m enjoying teaching online more because it is going well or because I’m no longer teaching 43 lessons a week! For adult students, I think this method is just as effective as being in the room. They don’t seem to get nearly as nervous, which is a plus. I feel there is still a very big distrust of the technology from people who have not tried it. This will change over time, but right now it’s a bit of a hard sell.

JT: Do you think that this method will be the “way of the future” in the teaching world? For example, perhaps instead of searching for a local teacher, a person would just be able to go online and take piano lessons from a music professor in Italy.

KP: I think that’s possible, but piano teaching seems to be very tradition-bound in a lot of ways. I saw a demonstration awhile back where a pianist in NY was playing a Yamaha piano with a computer hook up to a piano in Los Angeles with the same hook up. The pianist in NY was actually able to play the LA piano remotely. It was astounding! The keys on the LA piano moved, as did the pedals! With that technology, there would be very little difference in doing lessons in person or remotely, but not a whole lot of people have the kind of money it would take buy the equipment.

JT: Well thank you for taking the time to talk with me, and for giving your perspective and valuable insights to the readers of The Music Teacher Helper’s Blog. This has been very fascinating for me, and I think it will be equally so for other piano teachers out there as well.

If you have any further questions for Kathy Parsons, you can contact her via her website at

Creative Christmas Carols

Friday, November 27th, 2009

By Nicole Murphy
Republished with permission from Music Teacher’s Helper

CarolingIt’s that time of year again, when all my students are begging to play Christmas carols. If your students are anything like mine, they start requesting carols around October (possibly coinciding with the time that shops start putting up their decorations – I’m sure the requests are coming earlier every year), and no matter how long you manage to delay it for, it is inevitable that there will be some weeks when student after student turn up to their lessons, proudly displaying their version of Jingle Bells. So, how do you find pedagogical value in Christmas carols, and how do you keep it interesting for both student and teacher?

I find that books of Christmas Carols aimed at students are usually only useful for one or two years at the most, before students have made too much progress to find much enjoyment in sight-reading music that seemed like such a challenge a year ago (although it is a wonderful way for them to see how much they have progressed). So I prefer to approach carols differently than merely learning them as additional repertoire.

Depending on the capabilities of the student I use all or a selection of the following steps.

Younger students are given the melody of the Christmas carol in a simple key; while more advanced students aurally dictate it. Once the melody is written down and the key is established, we build triads on each scale degree, and play through the primary triads, discussing the function of each chord (for example, the tonic sounds like home, the dominant 7th acts as a signpost pointing towards home). For younger students I discuss how a chord progression can behave like a journey – starting at home, traveling away from home, exploring a new area, finding signs that point us towards home, and finally returning home.

Once the student is familiar with the harmonic language, we examine the melody and allocate chords that are appropriate. Each chord is checked for its effectiveness in the context of the preceding and following chords.

We discuss inversions of chords as a way for making block chords easily playable and then discuss a variety of styles of piano accompaniment, which are then applied to the chord progression. Students enjoy inventing their own variations on given formulae.

For more advanced students, the final step of the process is sight transposing their arrangements into different keys.

Hopefully these are some ideas that other teachers can employ in the lead up to the festive season this year.

Student-centered pedagogy

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

By Leah Coutts
Republished with permission from Music Teacher’s Helper

The term student-centered pedagogy alludes to the student being the teacher’s main priority, rather than the music that is being taught. It’s main objective is for teachers to become increasingly dispensable to students by developing them as independent learners. So what can teachers do to achieve this?

Allow students to become active participants of their musical education

The philosophy behind student-centered pedagogy is that students learn through three stages:

* First by hearing
* Then by doing
* Lastly by conceptual understanding – seeing the music, knowing the name, and understanding the theory

Rather than telling a student what you want them to know, allow them to experience it first. This could be through movement, playing on the piano, creative activities or singing. The student’s and your imagination are the only limitations.

Understand that new knowledge is built upon that which already exists within the students

Rather than telling the student a new concept by its name straight away, allow the student time to come up with their own metaphor that is relevant to them. A great example of this is ’staccato’. The student may call it ‘bouncy’ or ’short’ or anything else that makes sense to them. This gives them links to their prior knowledge and makes sense of this new concept in their own minds.

Knowing how something is put together is worth a thousand facts about it

Takes scales for example. If we teach each scale as a new sequence of notes, then each scale becomes something to memorise and learn. If we teach the patterns behind the scale though, the student is then able to discover the notes of any scale using its pattern. This leads to independence from the teacher, which is what student-centered pedagogy is all about!

This also allows students to problem-solve to further their own knowledge. For example, if students know and understand Binary form, and you would like to introduce Ternary form, they could work out the structure based on what they already know about form.

Creativity is highly motivating

Let’s face it, if students are not motivated, they are not going to stay for the long haul. If they are not motivated, it doesn’t matter how independent they become, they still won’t use what they know. Being active, as mentioned above, is one way to increase motivation. Another way is creativity.

As well as students enjoying the composition/improvisation/movement tasks, etc, it also gives students the opportunity to apply learned concepts on their own. This gives teachers a great indication of how much the student has grasped.

The teacher as facilitator

Student-centered pedagogy aims to change the role of the teacher to that of facilitator. Their role is to discover and build on students’ experiences and prior knowledge, and to help them develop their own understanding. This quote, taken from Rhodes and Bellamy (1999, p. 21) sums it up nicely:

“A teacher tells, a facilitator asks; a teacher lectures from the front, a facilitator supports fromt he back; a teacher gives answers according to a set curriculum, a facilitator provides guidelines and creates the environment for the learner to arrive at his or her own conclusions; a teacher mostly gives a monologue, a facilitator is in continuous dialogue with the learners.”

Thus, facilitators ask questions

Not just any type of question though. If a teacher asks a question that only has one answer, then the student is being asked to recall a fact. The student could learn answers by rote quite easily without actually understanding what it is that they are saying. Asking questions that require comprehension, application, or analysis to produce an answer promotes critical thinking and helps students to apply concepts learned to answers given.

Getting out of the seat

Another thing to remember is that even though we may teach specific instruments, we are all also responsible for teaching music as a language as well. Don’t feel the student needs to remain glude to their chair, or even their instrument over the cours of the lesson. By moving and changing focus regularly, the student is more likely to stay alert, have fun, and remain active music-makers in the long-run.

I hope there have been some useful tips here for you. Please share any others that spring to mind.

Look out for future blogs on students as individuals, catering to different personality types, and ways to find out who your students actually are!