Skyping Guitar Lessons
20-some years ago I envisioned the day the internet would evolve to the point where I could give guitar lessons online in real-time and geographical distances would become irrelevant. I'm still waiting. I thought it would be here by now.
At the time, I was collaborating with other musicians online, but it was not real-time. We all had dedicated phone lines and would share files back and forth.
Say I needed a keyboard track on a tune. I would upload an uncompressed .wave file with a quick-mix of the song. My keyboard player buddy would download the file, load it into whatever recording format he was using, record a keyboard track to it, and upload the track to me as an uncompressed .wave file which I would then load into my mix. I traded recording and studio services in this way with a network of like-minded musicians.
Internet access was still dialup and the upload might take several hours - thus the dedicated phone lines. I usually uploaded tracks at night. I would start the upload before I went to bed and when I got up it would be done, hopefully!
I mention all this to illustrate that I was not a technophobe; I saw the potential for the internet at a fairly early stage and did my best to position myself to capitalize on it.
In the late nineties, I had a student that moved from Kansas City to Alabama. This guy was tech savvy on a level that I had not been exposed to before. He was actually making a living as a currency trader and he was doing it all from home on the internet, which, as I said, was still dial-up at the time. He did most of his work in the middle of the night when the markets on the other side of the world were open.
He wanted to continue to study with me after he moved and thought it would be possible via the internet. He bought all the software and cameras and gave me what I would need. I installed everything (on Windows 95!?! What were we thinking?) and we gave it a try.
Not surprisingly, it didn't work. The connection wasn't fast enough, the video would freeze while buffering, the sound was horrible, the lag-time was significant and on and on. After 2 or 3 failed attempts at a guitar lesson we gave up. The technology just wasn't there yet.
Things are much improved now what with Skype, Zoom and FaceTime, as well as much faster internet speeds, but there are still significant obstacles that make teaching guitar lessons in real-time using those formats problematic:
I say, "real-time." It's not real-time. For simple conversation it's as good as real-time, but there's still a lag even if only for a fraction of a second - and a fraction of a second of lag-time is enough to make a student and teacher playing a song together impossible.
THAT is the main problem with Skyping a guitar lesson; my student and I can't play together. There are other problems;
Unless the student and teacher both have good microphones and use headphones the sound is horrible. When the student is using a webcam with a condenser mic the sound can be so bad I have trouble hearing what I need to hear; chord voicings, bass lines etc. It's also hard to hear things like dynamics, tone, timbre and a multitude of other inflection techniques - all of which are part of what I teach. When things don't sound good, I don't have fun.
I can't see the student's hands in 3 dimensions; I can't touch their hands to help them achieve proper hand position or to sensitize them to their inefficient movement. If a student's fret-hand pinky is waving around out of control, merely touching it is a waaay more effective way of instilling awareness of the problem than verbally pointing it out. It's very difficult to deal with technique issues without being able to do those things. That's one reason why I will not take on beginners as Skype students. Beginners generally need a lot of technique guidance.
I can't write on the student's lesson sheet, neither can I write on the student's song chart if we're doing songs. Many of my students will do 2, 3, 4 or 5 songs weekly out of the Real Book. Many of those songs will be done multiple times on different levels as we advance through the theory. For instance, the first time through a particular song might be root-position 7th chords. The second level would be using 7th inversions to create smoother voice leading. On each of these levels I would be playing the melody as they play the chords - the lag-time makes that impossible. The third level would be using open and close position voicings and incorporating the melody. The fourth level would be full-blown arrangements using everything we've done up to that point - 7th chords, 7th inversions, open and close voicings, 9th chords, 13th chords etc. On every level, I write stuff on the chart. Not being able to do that in a Skype lesson is a problem.
Now, having said all that, in certain circumstances I will give Skype or FaceTime lessons, and I have developed workarounds for most (but not all) of the problems stated above which I will talk about below. However, it's still a suboptimal process and I make sure the student understands that. Even so, skyping a lesson can be beneficial in spite of the negatives.
By far the best use of Skype in my experience occurs when a current personal student moves away and continues their weekly lesson via Skype or FaceTime. They've already studied with me for a time and have the concept of my approach. We've dealt with technique issues and I have inculcated sufficient self-awareness so that the student can identify and deal with any further technique problems on their own. The jist of the lessons are conceptual and Skype can be adequate for that.
I also use Skype for personal students who go on an extended vacation, have to travel now and then for their job, or temporarily can't make their lessons in-person for whatever reason.
I've used Skype to take teachers who are interested through my method so that they can incorporate my approach into their own teaching activity. Again, the nature of these types of lessons is conceptual; the guy can already play.
Skype has also proven useful for Master Guitar School Site Members. I sometimes will have a site member contact me with a question about one of the free lessons or want some feedback on their practicing of one of the lesson PDFs they've purchased. If I can't deal with the question adequately via email or text, a one-off Skype lesson will work for that. Sometimes we may set up a limited series of Skype lessons. 2 or 3 or 4 - just for the feedback loop and quality control.
I've also used personal videos for students. A Site Member or a student will have a question that requires me to demonstrate something on the guitar and so I'll produce a quick-and-dirty webcam video and send it to them. That would be an alternative to skyping.
I've spent decades teaching 80+ students a week. I've let my load attrition somewhat as I enter my "retirement" years. Right this moment I'm teaching 44 personal students a week. Three are Skype or FaceTime lessons. Two of those are former personal students who have moved away. One is a personal student who is on an extended vacation in Florida.
Occasionally a Site Member will request a one-off Skype lesson or consult. In addition there is a Site Member who has paid for two Skype lessons and took only one. He is saving the other one for when he needs it.
The point is, skyping guitar lessons is a very small percentage of my teaching activities.
Some workarounds for the above problems:
There is no substitute for playing together. Period. As I said, that is the biggest issue when it comes to skyping. If we're doing a Blues and I'm working with the student on improvising solos, I listen to them jam to a backing track rather than provide my own accompaniment. If the student is a little more advanced and working out of the Real Book all I can do is listen to their chord playing. Backing tracks can be found for most Real Book tunes and I encourage students to use them as much as possible, both for comping and melody playing.
At this point, I don't insist the student use a decent mic and headphones, I just grit my teeth and bear it. If I did Skype lessons exclusively I would have a required protocol in place to deal with this issue. But for now, because Skype lessons are such a small part of what I do, I choose convenience.
I deal with technique issues as best I can verbally and by demonstration. However, I generally avoid taking a Skype student in the first place if they're a beginner or I perceive that they have major technique problems.
When it comes to writing on the student's lesson page or song chart, I dictate and the student writes. This takes a chunk out of the lesson time - it's not as fast as me writing - but I've found it to be preferable to anything else I've tried - like me writing on a copy of the song and scanning it or taking a picture on my phone and emailing or texting it to them.
When it comes to skyping, I avoid teaching beginners and people who just want to learn songs. The approach wherein most of the lesson content is conceptual and I listen to the student drill to make sure they're practicing things correctly is the best use of the medium.
I know that there are guitar teachers out there who do Skype lessons exclusively and have huge loads. If you are one of those guys I would be interested in your take on what I've said here and your strategies for compensating for these deficiencies.
Admittedly, I am somewhat of an "old guy" and my attitude is old school - nothing beats a one-on-one, in-person guitar lesson; not YouTube videos, not PDF downloads and not Skype. There's a reason the personal student-apprentice/teacher-mentor model has been in use for centuries - it works the best.
Perhaps there is technology on the horizon that I'm not aware of that would enable teacher and student to play music together in real-time, just like in a personal lesson setting.
If so, tell me about it; I'm all ears!
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