Can you teach a musical instrument online?

Lena, my seven year old cello student, sits patiently whilst the world’s noisiest train goes by outside her house, drowning out my attempts to explain how to shift to third position. The trains in Bangalore are frequent and impossible to ignore, and I’ve learnt it’s easier just to wait them out. But how come I’m having to deal with trains in India when I’m a cello teacher who lives and works in London? I teach Lena over Skype, you see, and have done for the past four years.

Research into online tuition

A recent report into online tuition by The Tutor Pages has demonstrated that music teachers tend to be quite sceptical about the prospect of teaching a musical instrument or singing online. Apart from the obvious auditory, visual and kinaesthetic limitations of teaching via the Internet, survey participants expressed concern over other less quantifiable elements such as presence, motivation, rapport and support.

Having said that, music teachers were also quick to recognise that there were significant advantages too, such as not having to travel, being able to access a wider student base, and having more flexibility in scheduling (by being able to teach pupils abroad during the day, for example).

Only 16% of musicians in the survey had taught online before. So, what is it like, and can it work?

Teaching the cello over the internet

When people find out I have a Skype pupil, the same questions tend to come up: why doesn’t she go to a local teacher? How did they find you? What about the time difference? How does it work?

I first met the family at a two-day course I was teaching on in London. They were visiting from Germany, and were very keen on the Suzuki method for learning the cello, having started with it several months earlier at a summer course in Dorset. They asked if I might consider teaching Lena over Skype and I agreed. Neither of us was quite sure how it was going to work out, but since there were no Suzuki teachers within travelling distance from where they lived in Germany, this was really their only option.

More recently the family moved to India, and one of the great things about our situation was that a move of thousands of miles to a different continent made no difference to us. We have had to overcome poor Internet connections, dying microphones and overly curious house pets, but somehow it works.

We generally try to have a lesson once a week, but the day and time varies according to both our schedules, so sometimes that can mean an 8.15am lesson at my end to accommodate the time difference.

The role of touch in teaching

There has been some debate over the past few years about the role touch should play in instrumental lessons, but it’s clear to me from my own experience that not being able to adjust posture during a lesson slows the process of learning considerably. Lena’s mother is a cellist herself, so she is able to be my hands - and sometimes even my ears. Without her pre-existing knowledge and expertise, I honestly don’t think the set up would have worked.

The family are extremely committed and they try to visit the UK at least once a year, so I am also able to give a series of lessons to Lena in person. These periods are vital times to catch up, both technique-wise, and also relationship-wise. You might call this a ‘hybrid’ model of online/face-to-face tuition, which is an approach mentioned by a number of teachers in the report.

Finding a real connection

Not everyone will agree with me, but I feel that something is lost in the human connection between people if you only interact via video link. The subtleties of communication are missed, which can be difficult. I can’t always tell when Lena is tired or unfocussed, and so fail to adjust my lesson style appropriately. In ‘real’ life, this would not be a problem – it’s much more obvious! So when we actually meet (often on a summer course) it’s a chance for me to get to know Lena properly again, and for her to do the same with me.

Skype is an amazing tool, but I think it will be a long time before distance learning can truly rival face-to-face lessons for instrumental teaching. Having said this, as my experience with Lena shows, online tuition can give students learning opportunities that would otherwise be closed to them.

About Emma Butterworth

Emma grew up in the Suzuki Method, beginning the cello aged four and learning with Christine Livingstone until eighteen. Whilst taking the rather unconventional route of studying Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University, Emma played regularly with a number of orchestras there, performed with the Christ's College Music Society and formed a five-cello rock group, for which she composed and arranged all the music.

Whilst writing her final year dissertation ('Children Are Seedlings: Personhood and Learning in the Suzuki Method of Teaching') Emma grew more interested in the philosophy of the Method and later trained as a Suzuki teacher. She now teaches in central Bristol and writes music for film and TV. More information can be found on Emma's websites www.celloteacherbristol.co.uk and www.emmabutterworthmusic.com.