Becoming an online musician: Craig Ogden

ISM member, classical guitarist and teacher Craig Ogden shares his experiences of moving to performing and teaching online since COVID-19 hit the UK.

Responding creatively to the challenge

The speed at which six months of performance work has disappeared has been a shock for all performing musicians. Within the space of what felt like hours, a busy and varied series of concerts in my diary from March through to August has either been cancelled or postponed. So many people have stepped into a financial void and we can only hope that the government and other bodies able to assist will do so.

However, musicians are by definition creative, so the speed of transitioning to an enhanced online presence has mirrored the speed with which our work disappeared. The challenge is to make this produce any sort of income and I don’t think anyone has a well-structured answer to that just yet.

Pivoting to online performance

When my concerto dates with the London Mozart Players at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Fairfield Halls at the end of April were inevitably cancelled, the orchestra were impressively prompt at swinging into action to create online content. They launched At home with LMP, a series of livestreamed performances from musicians and soloists including Howard Shelley, Sebastian Comberti, Peter Wright, Simon Blendis and myself, which enabled them to raise funds to support their musicians.

You can watch my LMP Facebook livestream to bring the soothing sounds of the classical guitar direct to your living room.

Embracing digital opportunities

Some people are better equipped to tackle the technical challenges of streaming or creating videos than others. While young music students are now taught to make and upload videos, my generation tends to be a bit variable in their interest in and knowledge of how to do this. Cameras, microphones and software for editing audio or video have all become hot topics of conversation, and there is a wonderful willingness to help each other. Whatever the outcome of this whole experience, there will be many musicians more internet savvy than ever before.

I have managed to get hold of some decent microphones and an interface for connecting them to my computer and I’ve used my position as a staff member at the RNCM to buy a software bundle at education pricing from Apple including Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro X (ISM members can get 6% off pre-installed Apple software).

While admiring the skills and knowledge of the producers and technicians I’ve worked with over the years, I’ve always focused on playing the guitar to the best of my ability, and left microphone choice and placement, editing, lighting, camera exposures etc to the professionals in whose capable hands I was placed. I in no way expect to achieve what these talented people can do, but I’m quite looking forward to enhancing my knowledge of this world and hoping that I will be able to reach some of the people who would normally only see me perform live, with nicely produced performances that look and sound good.

Transitioning to remote teaching

For musicians like myself who both perform and teach, the teaching side of things is perhaps now assuming more significance than it has in the past. My role at the RNCM has always been extremely important to me and I continue to teach all of my college students online, but that too is proving to be a rapid learning curve. I was aware that graduate students of mine have been offering Skype lessons for some time now, but this was not something that I had contemplated offering myself until a couple weeks ago!

So far, I’ve given five one-to-one lessons and have run two performance classes. Zoom seems to be the most popular and commonly used platform, so I installed it and my students have done the same.

Tackling technical setbacks

My experience would suggest that internet speeds are central to the success of this whole endeavour. At the moment mine is slow, so I am moving to a very recently installed fibre network from mid-April. Anyone who has tolerated slow speeds up until now might give serious consideration to upgrading to fibre if, as appears possible, we may have periods of time in the future when we can only teach online. The RNCM is currently scheduled to be closed until 1 September so I expect to teach online throughout the next term.

It is great to make personal contact with the students, and I know they find playing live to a tutor, and to each other, is a valuable experience.

When internet speeds don’t allow real-time lessons, I get students to upload videos to YouTube with a private link. I watch these and provide feedback by annotating a score which I email back to them, or by using voice memos or short videos to illustrate certain points. I believe the students have found this means of receiving input very valuable.

Helping each other

Sharing experiences and knowledge of the technology continues to be central to the rapid application of teaching effectively online. The whole RNCM string department has been sharing experiences as well and some of these have been extremely positive. I have read excellent reports about the Microsoft Teams platform and there have been mentions of Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp Video. There is much chat also about webcams and microphones and certainly headphones are very popular (I steal my son’s gaming headphones which also have a microphone).

One of the very most important things we can do (and thanks to the ISM for facilitating this), is to share and communicate as freely and openly as possible. In this time of physical isolation, it feels better than ever to be in touch with one another. Good luck!

Craig Ogden is a classical guitarist and Director of Guitar at the Royal Northern College of Music. He has been an ISM member since 2003.

    More ISM COVID-19 guidance