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Online, hybrid and multi-modal piano lessons

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

While searching online for resources and options for my students, I have come across a few articles written pre-covid19 predicting what piano lessons could be like in 50 or 100 years. I remember reading these when first published with interest and excitement for what could be. Coming across these same articles, blogs and vlogs during covid19 has made for bittersweet reading. Why? Read on!

The word hybrid means combining two or more distinct elements. It may refer to such diverse areas as economics, electronics, transportation, biology, physics, sports, organisations and media.

In education, hybrid usually refers to lessons where there is a carefully planned blend of both traditional instruction and online learning activities. In other words, hybrid lessons combine the best of both styles of instruction.

Multimodal learning includes activities that engage different senses (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) so that learners experience engagement in a variety of ways to understand and remember more. If you are a piano teacher, then you are already doing this whenever you do rhythm or pitch games, aural dictation, improvistation or listening analysis. Any time you mix it up and do something other than sitting at the bench and playing, you are utilising a multimodal approach.

In the last few years both have become the norm as schools and universities focus on preparing their students for our hyper-interconnected world. And thanks to Covid19, this practice has accelerated at an unprecendented rate, and into unexpected areas such as piano tuition.

Around the world, educators scrambled to offer online tuition during lockdowns with very little time to prepare or explore the available options. At the same time service providers responded as best they could with additional platforms and capability to cope with the increased traffic.

A few months on, and I find it amazing how much our expectations have changed, as well as the trends that seem to be emerging, which is what has prompted me to write about this topic.

Multi-modal piano lessons have been around forever. As any teacher will tell you, reading and sitting at on a piano stool will produce a piano player but including additional activities where the student is engaged internally will produce a musician.

Music is an aural and emotional experience and musicians (as opposed to instrumentalists) use music and their instrument to express what they feel and see in a sound format. To find ways to do this online has been the main challenge. And this is where hybrid platforms and approaches may help integrate multimodal experiences into online lessons.

A hybrid lesson could include mainly online lessons with the occassional face-to-face experience. Or it could utilise a variety of platforms and programs. Or it could offer a mix of pre-recorded and one-on-one online meetings. There are many more options available now than even a few months ago and the whole profession seems to have boiled down to two preferences:

1) those who have found online lessons to be difficult, unworkable or sub-standard

2) those who have found a way to make online lessons work

For group 1, both parents and teachers, it is understandable that moving to online tuition was frightening and stressful as it was heavily dependent on the availability of internet and devices at both ends as well as the tech-knowledge of the teacher and student. Initially, most in groups 1 and 2 would have been in this situation but as time has passed, group 1 has not found a solution that works for them, or has been able to provide the hardware or internet connection to make this work. This means that the only option one or both have is to wait and then return to face-to-face lessons.

For group 2, (and some started in group 1!) the steep learning curve and setup involved high levels of stress and frustration but now that we're a few months on, most have to time to reasses and streamline their processes and service offerings.

If you're still on the fence as either a teacher or in choosing a teacher for your child, here are some suggestions to:

1) help you decide if you are still unsure and

2) make the most of online learning while still using a multimodal approach.

Your setup will ideally use a hardwired LAN cable rather than wifi at both ends. This is because the signal will be better and faster. You can't do anything about your internet speed but using a cable will help with a better visual and sound than on wifi.

The device you choose will also make it harder or easier for both ends. A desktop or laptop with a LAN cable is best and if budget allows, external microphones and speakers rather than built-in ones. A good quality headset or in-ear buds will keep the sound contained and not bleed into the microphone so you don't get endless feedback loops or echos.

The communication platform you choose to start with doesn't really matter, but looking into alternatives when you are more confident of your online skills is a good idea. And you don't have to use just one. I have found that having Plan A, Plan B and Plan C ready to go has saved many a lesson when one platform freezes or won't connect. Also, it will depend on the devices at both ends as to which platform you end up using. Some users are Apple based, others are PC or Android based, and some have both. Knowing what devices you and your students have will help you help them with their setup.

Troubleshooting basics:

1) at the start of the lesson, remind student what to do if the signal drops out (I tell them that I will call them back)

2) when giving verbal instructions, set a time limit eg start the backing and then stop after bar 8 or play the first 8 bars then stop

3) have students run the tech from their end eg play with a backing or metronome

4) power outage - can you use your mobile to theirs?

5) student engagement: decide if you want parental involvement at the student end (I prefer a parent or older sibling until at least age 10 to support verbal instructions or directions)

6) start to wrap up 2-3 minutes early so that you have time to say goodbye and then log in to the next lesson

7) connection issues: turn off all other background apps at both ends; clear the browser cache; check that wifi is off and that the LAN cable is connected; check battery length (may need to be plugged in to adaptor if low)

Platform basics - decide on your biggest immediate needs in order of importance, then find the platform for those. For example:

1) clear sound, image or both

2) screen and sound share

3) annotate pdf

4) demonstrate/share technique or video

5) simple connection

6) device-friendly for what student owns

I LOVE Musico ( as it allows me to use whichever communication platform I like (for now it's Zoom but we often switch to Skype or Google Duo depending on the student's connection). I can upload my electronic resources to my lesson library and then share particular pieces and exercises with each student. There is an audio tab and video tab for backings and metronome, both with adjustable tempo buttons. Students can record themselves too. The whiteboard means I can upload flash cards, games or use the piano/whiteboard during a screen share then save that work into the student's account. I will also be using it for group theory lessons soon. Musico's support for teachers has been phenomenal too.

Communicate with parents and be involved in their setup. I have held set-up lessons via skype or zoom and showed them how to screen share so I can talk them through what to download and what settings they need to have (eg enable original sound in Skype). I have also held a separate lesson on how to use the software eg Musico, Zoom, Skype etc and emphasised the value of the hybrid lesson model.

Upload a 'how-to' pdf onto your website, and email it to existing students. For a sample have a look at

Most importantly, seek out whatever help you need. Join teacher groups that specialise in your offline or online choice. Google and YouTube should become your new best friends, or contact us at PianoZone for help in transitioning to full-time online teaching and building your studio.

Have fun!

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