Communication Communication… Online Private Lesson

Original post: March 2021

Do you remember those times when you had a flow of students in front of your studio with their parents, those short conversations happening when they pick up their kids? Now that a lot of lessons turned online, do you still keep the notebook for students? Or, let me ask this way, how do you communicate with the parents/guardians?

image from BoClips

Although online piano lessons have been offered since the pre-pandemic era, working with young children almost always happened in person with parents’ help. Since the music lessons were turned online, teachers need extra care on their own lesson plan and additional help from the parents. From the simplest thing like pointing at the book to the routine homework check-up, online lesson involves same or more attention of the parents.

For the 2021 virtual MTNA National Conference, CCM Collegiate Chapter has put together a presentation that summarizes online private music lessons’ issues and solutions. It encompasses a survey result, concerns, and suggestions for online lessons. The survey responses are from teachers from all over the United States, who have various ages and levels of students, who have different choices of their video calling/conferencing platforms, and who have different organizing and billing methods.

For a part of this presentation, I conducted interviews with my fellow teachers. The summary and a few cases will be presented at the MTNA conference, but I want to share them fully. I focused on gathering their experiences on the communication with parents. Some cases below would be relevant to the readers, some would be exemplary, others would show an extreme end of the spectrum. The teachers were mostly student-teachers in their late twenties with various amounts of experience. Out of seven teachers, six were piano teachers, and one was a voice teacher. This set of interviews only represents a short spectrum of private music teachers, so readers should take it with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it gives good food for thought.

* I used pseudonyms for teachers.

**Unless the lessons had begun online before the pandemic for various reasons, most of the lessons turned online in March 2020. All the teachers I interviewed use Zoom.

*** There is a small but powerful tip at the end of the post!

Teacher 1. Ashley: piano. national.
6 online students + more in-person students

Compared to pre-pandemic, Ashley considers the lesson quality to be the same as before or compromised because there is less parent involvement. She thinks there is no improvement in how the lessons are conducted when they are moved online. Except, the recitals have been easier to manage and more enjoyable for students because they don’t have to be in one place, and they can share it with their extended families.

Ashley shared both positive and negative experiences with the parent involvement.

There is a sibling of a five-year-old and a ten-year-old that she teaches online. For the younger one, the mom is committed to being present. So Ashley has the mom help during the lesson, such as pointing out things on the book and making sure that the student is doing what Ashley is telling. Ashley also gets help from the mom as she helps the students practice during the week. So the progress has been similar to what it had been before the online lesson.

On the other side of the spectrum, Ashley has been teaching a six-year-old boy and his mom for two years, and they turned online during the lockdown in March 2020. The mom was in the room during the lesson when in-person, but she now disappears. She does not want to participate and be a part of the struggle. There is hardly any communication between Ashley and the mom about the boy. Eventually, the student stopped improving after turning online. For the eight months, he improved maybe 5% of what it could have been in person.

Ashley uses Google Doc for weekly assignments. It’s useful, especially for adults. If there is any way to notify the shared users (students/parents), she would definitely use it.

Teacher 2. Jun: piano. national.
5 online students + more in-person students

Jun finds it difficult to teach online because of the limitations, such as pointing out the book physically or in demonstrations. During the pandemic, he found his way to organize his private studio and made a website. It manages the payment, provides space for teaching material and student videos. He can create a forum, send messages. And there is a permanent Zoom link that students can use when it’s their time. The website gives him a structure and regularity that he can rely on, and the students and parents have positive experiences.

The teacher’s website. It is an administrator for the teacher, and a playground with lots of resources for the students.

Among his 5 online students, the youngest is a ten-year-old girl. They started online, and it has been 3 years. She is now on Faber 2B. For her, the mom comes in after every lesson and writes down what Jun has to say on a sheet. So the mom monitors the student’s practice during the week.

Teacher 3: Serena: piano. national.
10 students, all online. Students are in Ohio and she is in another state.

Serena keeps a downsized online studio after moving. She used to teach an in-person studio of a decent size. She has purchased a higher-end Internet service for the online lessons and usually uses Zoom to use various functions on it. When the students’ Internet connection is not stable, the lighter platforms like FaceTime or Skype work better.

For keeping assignments organized, she uses a notebook. She takes a picture of what she wrote down after each lesson and sends it to the parents. She chooses a text message over an email because of the amount of emails parents would get during the pandemic. Serena keeps everything simple.

The parents of her students are involved in different levels. One of the most involved parents is that of a five-year-old girl. The student is very independent so does not need her parent to sit in her lesson. However, Serena sends the lesson note at the end of the lesson, and the parent takes a video of the student playing a piece two days before every lesson. The student is brilliant in learning readings and playing faster than others, but it is still hard for the teacher to correct her posture. If there is any moment that the student kept a good posture, Serena records it on Zoom and sends it to her parent for reference.

It was interesting to hear how the family’s circumstance affects the parent involvement through her various cases. There are a couple of students who are twelve years old, an intermediate level. A mom of one of the students sits in the lesson. She does not work. Another mom does not sit in the lesson, but Serena knows that the mom is aware of what is happening in the lesson roughly. This mom has a full-time job.

There is another family, five of which Serena teaches. The age ranges from 8 years old to high school, and the younger ones play Faber 2A and 2B. She keeps the same way for organizing the assignments. The mom does not work but cannot be involved because her seven children keep her busy. It has been the same before the lockdown.

Serena picks transparency as her priority in terms of communication. She texts how the students are doing, whether there was no progress or meaningful progress, about the practice outcome. She is not afraid of pointing out to the parent that the student is not working hard. Her expectations were sometimes considered to be harsh, and the communication be blunt at the beginning, but now they have mutual understandings and built trust, so everyone is on the same page.

Teacher 4. Elli: voice teacher.
Downsized her studio since last fall and let go of her young students below 12 years old. Her stories here are about before last fall.

Elli maintained a busy studio until last fall. Elli made her students keep a notebook to record ‘how-to’s in warming up and practicing. The community music school through which she taught used My Music Staff through subscription. There the teacher can manage schedules (rescheduling and make-up lessons), attendance, location for lessons (on/offline), repertoire, messaging, etc. It was easy for her to navigate; also the parents found it useful and were happy with it.

Teacher’s screen of MyMusicStaff. Skype is connected

Elli’s studio also turned all online during the lockdown in March 2020. It was already enough stress for everyone to stay engaged in everything they need, so she turned the level of strictness and the amount of communication a little down. Instead, she tried to keep her lessons interesting by implementing a theme every week.

There is less parent involvement overall in voice lessons than instrumental ones since it’s very internal (physically) and personal (emotionally). Unless the student practices little, the communication is not needed frequently, and when it is, she chooses whatever method the parent had selected in the past.

Teacher 5. Elaine: piano. 1 student. local.

Elaine finds it challenging to teach online, especially when teaching something physical and requiring minute time control, like pedaling. Elaine was maintaining a small number of students before the pandemic. Most of her students dropped at the lockdown. One remaining student online is around 10 years old, and they started in September 2019 as in-person.

Both of the student’s parents work full-time in town, but the mom works from home. She is actively engaged in the student’s piano lessons. The mom used to write down the homework when in-person, and now Elaine sends an email every week with assignments and the student’s progress. Since the mom is always around, she monitors the student’s practice. Before the lesson, the mom takes pictures of the homework and the repertoire for the day and sends them to Elaine.

Elaine did not know that there is an app that manages assignments. Even if she knew, she would have needed the parents’ cooperation. Adding any new technology can be a burden for them.

Teacher 7. Tabitha: piano. around 12 students. local.

Tabitha also turned her lessons online at the lockdown in March 2020, so all her students are local. She finds that the parents prefer online lessons since they don’t have to drive around. However, because of that, the wrap-up conversation at the end of the lesson happens less online. When teaching, Tabitha finds it difficult to teach hand shapes and other techniques online.

For organizing homework, she mostly uses a notebook. For young students as seven to nine years old, she puts homework on the Zoom chat, and their parents make a note. For older students, ten to twelve, Tabitha makes them write and set the time at the end of the lesson for that.

Tabitha thinks that using an app for the lesson would be cumbersome when there is already so much for the families, and she actually encountered many complaints from the students on installing/using the app.

There are sisters whose story she shared. Let’s say it’s Amy and Brianna. Amy is developmentally delayed, and Brianna has been helping her ever since. The dad is an avid supporter of music and used to help the daughters practicing. The sisters spend some time of the week in their dad’s place, any other time in their mom’s place, as the parents are divorced. So when it’s their mom’s turn, practicing piano is not on their to-do list. The dad got exhausted last year when everything turned online, and the sisters’ school work was already enough for him. So he is not as involved as he used to in the piano lesson. Brianna helps Amy and Tabitha relies on Brianna to a certain degree. To keep track of the assignments, Tabitha updates a Google Doc regularly and sends a text message to Brianna. Whenever she needs anything special, she texts the dad or Brianna.

Teacher 8. Joy: piano. 7 online. local.

Joy has been teaching in the area for about three years, and she turned the lessons online during the lockdown. She teaches 7 students and has them keep their own notebook.

Like Elaine, Joy had a parent who stopped communicating at the beginning of the pandemic, but there are two families that can show positive experiences. The first is a home with a 6th grader and a 4th grader. It has been three years since she taught them. Joy talks with the parent at the beginning and at the end of the lesson.

The second home has three children, all of whom are her students, and the younger are twins of seven-year-old. They worked with her for a semester before the lockdown. During the lesson, their mom is in the room, writing down the assignments and controlling the phone (camera).

Whenever homework needs to be written down during the lesson, she picks up her notebook on her side, and the student picks up a notebook on their side. So they write down things at the same time. That way, the student is more engaged, and Joy can tell if they actually understood the homework. Joy has discussions with parents frequently.

She believes that writing their homework on their own on something tangible leaves this piano lesson human, especially when students cannot physically present somewhere. She has also been picking up the cues and catching parents’ needs from their conversations and observations over the Zoom.

Some teachers quickly turned the students and parents to the new online platforms while others are coping with the old way of communication, hesitant to introduce anything new and overwhelming the learners and/or the parents. The popular compromise was Google Doc. Although Google Docs helps both students and teachers keep track of the lesson summary and homework simply, most teachers found it challenging to have the students/parents check when it is updated without sending another reminder.

I found how Google Docs sends the user a notification email when mentioned in the document. Here is the step-by-step guideline for my fellow teachers.

  1. Have your students and parents turn on the notification settings. How? Here:
  2. Update the lesson summary and homework.
  3. At the end, create a comment.
  4. In the comment, put “@” and start typing the email address of the student/parent. Google can auto-complete.
Create a comment with the button and add the user in the comment to notify

Ta-da! They receive an email. You didn’t have to create another “Dear John.”

“Assigning an action item” is another option but not necessary

The interviews were, for me, meaningful conversations and chances to realize different circumstances of different homes and families, and their relationship to the teaching strategy. I admire all the teachers out there who are teaching online as it requires far more preparation and extra communication. I hope this transcription helped you by giving you chances to empathize with other teachers or to learn from.

Hang in there, everyone!

**** I conducted these interviews via phone, from 15 minutes to 30 minutes maximum. Again, the names of the students and teachers are not real. The summary of the interviews will be presented at the 2021 MTNA National Virtual Conference between March 13 through 17. The Q&A Session for our chapter members is on Monday from 9:15 AM to 9:35 AM.

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