A Guide To Teaching Music Online

The threat of COVID-19 vastly changed teaching and learning environments throughout the world. For the first time in their careers, many instructors have had to deliver their classes remotely. Yet, the learning environment we have grappled with since mid-March – interacting with our students in an emergency remote teaching (ERT) environment – is substantively different from that of a well-planned online course.

Now, as we turn our attention to fall, we continue to face unknowns. Will we be able to teach our students in our classrooms and studios? Will we continue to connect via video conference? Or, perhaps, will we have some sort of combination of the two?

With the potential for large-scale sweeping change, limited campus support and uncharted pedagogical territory, how can we prepare for the unknowns of the fall semester? 

Capitalizing on more than a decade of online course development and teaching experience, I would like to share what I have learned about the online teaching mindset and the best practices in online pedagogy.  

Teaching Online: What It Is and What It Isn’t

Online learning has a stigma of being lower quality or less effective than face-to-face education. Yet, research proves the exact opposite. Studies show that students in well-structured online learning environments regularly retain more substantive content than their face-to-face peers while simultaneously improving soft skills such as time management, self-motivation, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.

However, creating a high-quality online course takes, on average, six to 12 months. In the ERT environment, instructors had hours, not months, to deliver an online experience to our students. Thinking towards the fall, there are mere weeks to come up with a plan that may include all remote learning or a plan that pivots between face-to-face and online learning. Thus, we may not be able to prepare a fully developed online course, but we can use trusted online teaching strategies to improve both student and instructor experiences. 

It is critical to adjust your thinking from “How can I re-create the face-to-face experience online?” to “How can the student demonstrate the learning outcome in the online environment?”

At its core, online education is the same as all education: It’s all about the learning outcomes. There are very few, if any, learning outcomes that cannot be achieved in either a face-to-face or online environment. Take, for instance, two of the course learning outcomes from an applied voice syllabus:  

  • Demonstrate good diction including crisp consonants and clear vowels; and
  • Develop a capacity for singing based on healthy vocal/instrumental production and technique. 

Both these learning outcomes can be achieved either face-to-face or online. However, you might guide the student to achieve them using different techniques and strategies (more on this later). 

When shifting your mindset to teaching online, it is critical to adjust your thinking from “How can I re-create the face-to-face experience online (e.g. placing my hand on the singer’s back to reinforce good posture)?” to “How can the student demonstrate the learning outcome in the online environment?” 

As is the case for preparing outcomes, developing a quality online learning experience is most effective when educators adopt a student-centered mindset.

Setting Expectations

Online education has been around since the 1980s. But for most instructors and students, online learning is a new and unavoidable endeavor forced upon them by COVID-19. In this new environment, the onus of setting the expectations for classroom etiquette falls on the instructor – just as it would in a traditional studio space. However, if you, as the instructor, are also new to online education, you may not know what to expect of students. 

To promote the most successful online learning environment, you will want to describe and disseminate your expectations for the class. Make no assumptions about what the student should know about your expectations.

To promote the most successful online learning environment, you will want to describe and disseminate your expectations for the class.

I logged into one of my ERT class sessions to find a student in their pajamas, in bed, wrapped in a comforter and eating cereal. I thought it was obvious that we should show up to our ERT class sessions much as we would in a face-to-face class. It was obviously not clear to that particular student – and I realized I had not expressed my expectations to the class. 

Work beforehand to think through any expectations you have for the class including required technology (more on that later), appropriate preparation for a lesson or class, guidelines for assignments, submission instructions for assignments, policies on late submissions and how students should communicate with you. Put all these expectations in writing and reinforce them periodically through assignment instructions and in your communications with students. 

Synchronous, Asynchronous or Both?  

Many online courses are built to be delivered asynchronously, meaning everyone does not need to be online at the same time. This is often preferred because it allows for student flexibility: They can can log in and complete their work during a time that is best suited for their learning. It also eliminates the concern over time zones, work schedules, family demands and other class schedules. 

Synchronous sessions, which is what most faculty used during ERT delivery, requires all students and the instructor to be online together, typically via a video conference platform such as Zoom. For smaller, discussion-based or interactive courses, this may be advantageous in that it allows for quick and familiar exchange. But with synchronous delivery comes all the disadvantages that asynchronous delivery offsets. 

It’s practical to teach some music courses – like history, theory, education, business, world music, composition, audio engineering, law or entrepreneurship – in an asynchronous format. For other types of courses, such as technique, you may wish to combine both formats. 

In the combined approach, you would provide course content (your lecture, lesson, etc.) asynchronously and allow students to schedule meetings with you individually or in small groups. For instance, you could prepare an asynchronous lesson for your students on scales or etudes using a variety of mediums – text explaining the value of exercise, audio with correct execution of the exercise and/or video demonstrating how the exercise should be completed. Your students could log in to your course and review the lesson at a time convenient to them (but by a deadline). Following the lesson, the students could record an assignment and submit it to you. Individually, the students could schedule a meeting with you to review their recordings, discuss how to improve and allow you to do some individual coaching. 

Technology

Only incorporate technology that will truly enhance the student’s ability to achieve the learning outcomes.

In an online environment, it can be easy to become bogged down trying to research and use every flashy piece of technology out there. This is a distraction to pedagogy. Focus on the basics, and only incorporate technology that will truly enhance the student’s ability to achieve the learning outcomes. 

Most universities, colleges and even secondary schools use a learning management system (LMS). The most popular ones in higher education are Canvas and Blackboard. While many LMS companies offer a free version to teachers, use the one that your school provides. While you might personally prefer one LMS over another, the easiest and simplest way for your students to engage is to use the one they use for all their other courses. Requiring the student to learn a new LMS while also trying to focus on the learning outcomes and content of your course will likely lead to frustration. (If your school does not offer an LMS, I would recommend Google Classroom or Canvas. Both are easy to use and have intuitive navigation for the instructor and student.)      

If you will be doing any type of video or live conferencing in your online teaching, you will want to purchase two devices: an external microphone and a light kit. (A ring light is portable, affordable and does the trick.) Additionally, if you plan to demonstrate how to play an instrument, you may consider purchasing an additional webcam so you can set up multiple shots to toggle between. If your students will be singing or playing an instrument, at minimum, they should also purchase an external microphone. 

Of course, everyone knows they will need an internet connection. But not everyone realizes that a wired connection is far superior to the wireless connection. If you are doing any type of synchronous activity, it is best to have your computer plugged into the internet via an ethernet cable. Encourage your students to do the same. A wired connection offers significantly better speed, latency, security and stability. 

Most schools are using Zoom to facilitate synchronous activities. This stable video conferencing software allows you to share your screen, brainstorm on a whiteboard, chat within the call and record the session, and resources are available on how to optimize Zoom for teaching music. However, as many music teachers have already learned, one thing about Zoom that is good for meetings and bad for music lessons is that the default settings work to even out volume. You and your students will want to change these settings if you conduct any type of music lesson. 

Building Connections

For an online instructor, it is critical to establish a personal connection between you and your students. The best strategies for doing this are to require activities that facilitate this. Here are some suggestions: 

  • When introducing yourself, include your education, background, interests and a current photo. Have students do the same. 
  • Include a discussion in the first week of class that helps students get to know each other. Some conversation starters might include: What was the best concert you have ever been to, and why was it so great? Who is the most inspirational person to your art? Share a photo of your favorite location and tell us why it is so special.  
  • Post a weekly video announcement of yourself reflecting on students’ work last week and sharing tips for the upcoming week. 
  • Be sure to host weekly office hours via video conference so students can connect with you for extra help. 
  • For students that you don’t know yet, you may even want to require 15-minute individual introductions so you can engage with them synchronously. 

All these strategies will help let the student know that you, as the instructor, are there on the other side of the computer. You don’t want the student to feel like you are missing in action when they need you. 

One of the best aspects of teaching online for a music instructor is compelling the student to listen to their own work.

Capitalizing on the Positive 

Some basic realities of teaching online cannot be changed – you won’t be able to physically manipulate a student’s hands, fingers or embouchure. However, one of the best aspects of teaching online for a music instructor is compelling the student to listen to their own work. By having students prerecord a selection, you can coach the student to listen to their own work and help them hear what you are hearing. 

Another benefit of online learning is the democratization of the classroom. The traditional classroom space is not typically equalized to support introverted or quiet learners. In an asynchronous online classroom, all students have the ability to process and share their perspectives on questions and issues. By assigning reflective discussions, students will have the opportunity to think through their own ideas and you, as an instructor, will have more insights into your students.

The Takeaways

Moving into an emergency remote teaching or planned online environment is challenging, and it can be stressful for both the instructor and student. By implementing some or all of the strategies from above, you can reduce the worry of your students and feel more prepared as an instructor. The key takeaways are: 

  1. Focus on what the student needs to learn to be successful. 
  2. Set and disseminate clear expectations for your students.
  3. Use the delivery option (asynchronous, synchronous or both) that allows your students to be successful in achieving the learning outcomes.  
  4. Employ the LMS provided by your school, combined with a wired internet connection, external microphone and light kit, and make sure your Zoom settings are configured for music lessons, if appropriate. 
  5. Create activities that allow you to get to know the student personally and aid them in getting to know you. 
  6. Maximize the advantages of online learning for both your students and for you as the instructor. 

Remember, regardless of the teaching modality (face-to-face, EMT or online), you can still develop a relationship with your students and engage them in the learning process. 

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Rachel Shane

Dr. Rachel Shane is the Department Chair and an Associate Professor of Arts Administration at the University of Kentucky. She oversees and teaches in three degree programs: B.A., …more 

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