So said one of my favourite guitar students, a man in his early 40s whom I teach on Wednesday evenings. I’ve been teaching him for nearly a year, since spring of 2020, when baking bread and Zoom cocktail hour still seemed novel and rewarding. We’ve covered a lot of ground: scales and arpeggios, theory, phrasing, cultivating a sense of personal style. We’ve become acquainted on a more personal level, and have shared jokes, memes and YouTube videos of compelling musical performances. We have not met in person.
“We’ll probably never do this in real life.”
Another student of mine, a young professional drummer who lives in Milton, who has been playing guitar casually for years. He’s been taking lessons from me in order to improve his skills, to better be able to play with his wife (a professional singer), and to be able to teach beginner and intermediate guitar students in his own teaching practice. We have not met in person.
“Honestly? It feels pretty normal at this point.”
Yet another student, when I apologized for any feelings of discomfort that he might be experiencing performing a full song for me through his phone. As you must expect, at this point: we have not met in person.
In the immediate aftermath of the March 2020 quarantine, I experienced an immense wave of anxiety about my ability to work. Nearly all of my professional activities are linked to in-person interaction, in one way or another. It was immediately obvious that live performances were off the table. Writing about music, for this magazine and for other clients, seemed uncertain. Private teaching, however, was the biggest question of all.
The initial stay-at-home orders came during March Break, when both public and private schools weren’t in session. (I teach privately, as well as at a friend’s community music school.) When students came back, I wondered, how many would be willing to make the switch to Zoom? If they did make the switch, would they get anything of value out of the experience? After a long day of working or attending class virtually, would anyone have the energy to care?
Teaching a private lesson is profoundly different, in many ways, than teaching a group in a classroom, even though the two formats share many similarities. Ideally, both involve instructor expertise and preparation, student engagement, and a shared sense of direction with regard to learning outcomes. They differ fundamentally, however, in the relationship between instructor and student. A class is just that – a “class”; in a private lesson, the instructor teaches an individual. By its very nature, the relationship between instructor and student in any one-on-one setting is intimate; in a private music lesson, this intimacy is underscored not only by the artistic nature of the subject, but by the shared aural experience of harmony, timbre, melody and rhythm.
Without access to this sense of a shared physical space, I wasn’t sure how effectively I would be able to communicate with my students, on either a musical or an emotional level. (Not that all moments in all lessons are moments of deep, spiritual connection, with the music and with each other; sometimes people are tired, or distracted, or silly.) The big surprise of early quarantine, however, was that Zoom lessons were, in fact, intimate, in a different way. Students could suddenly see a part of my home; I could see a part of theirs. This familiarity did much to compensate for the loss of a shared physical space. Though the lessons were mediated by electronic devices, the spaces that we were sharing were our own. Without the formality of the band room, both participants become more active in creating the structure of the lesson itself.
Within this new space, a new set of conventions emerged. I used to be in the habit of quickly scrawling scales and charts on manuscript paper for students to put in binders; suddenly, I began assembling PDFs that students accessed via email or Google Drive. Unable to play with students, I used my home studio setup – another facet of my professional life that has grown during quarantine – to create basic play-along tracks, as well as recordings of assigned material. Some of these tracks became opportunities for further collaboration, as some students used them to undertake at-home recording projects (in lieu of the conventional recitals and live-performance opportunities). Listening recommendations – a YouTube video of a live performance, or an album that illustrates a particular artistic concept – could be sent as links to students in real time, instead of simply being mentioned in passing.
Virtual guitar lessons required some quick pedagogical realignment, but teaching production skills – something that only really started for me during the pandemic – is, luckily, well-suited to online learning. Modern music production happens on software called, in the singular, a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). In educational settings, this already typically means students working on individual computers in a computer lab, with an instructor’s screen coming through a projector and speakers. Zoom’s audio-and-video-sharing capabilities obviate the need for the lab; students are able to work on their own computers, from the comfort of their own home studio setups, which allows for easy demonstration and effective guided work. It also allows an instructor to help students develop their own practice, within their own space. Software and hardware issues, physical setup conundrums and other questions can be addressed right away in concrete terms, rather than theoretically, as in a class setting. Again, a new kind of educational intimacy.
Amidst the positive developments, there remain limitations. The immediate and obvious one that’s lost in an online lesson is the capability to play with a student in real time. Time – rhythm – is communal, a shared temporal experience of sound. To be able to communicate it efficiently, one must give a student the opportunity to feel the pulse. Students have access to recordings, and can listen and imitate, but there is something about playing in time with another musician that can’t quite be replicated in other circumstances.
Through a screen, it is also harder to make corrections to a student’s physical technique. It is relatively easy, in a face-to-face scenario, to show a student why one posture might work better than another, or where to position one’s thumb on the back of the guitar neck. Over Zoom, however, this task becomes a bit more complicated; visual demonstration is helpful, but there is only so much one can see in two dimensions.
For better and for worse
The convenience of online teaching will likely mean that the format will become normalized, at least outside of post-secondary music programs. This normalization will likely affect community music schools; no longer bound to the band room, teachers have a greater financial incentive to establish an independent teaching practice. For students, online learning also means greater access to their preferred teacher, regardless of geographical location; over the past year, I’ve gained students from Vancouver, Brooklyn and towns across Ontario, none of whom I would be able to teach regularly under normal circumstances.
It seems impossible that online lessons will ever fully replace in-person lessons; there is too much to be gained from being in the same room as another musician. But the value of virtual lessons is such that it seems impossible that in-person lessons will ever look the same as they once did.
Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at www.colinstory.com on Instagram and on Twitter.