Skyping Guitar Lessons: Where's the SOUND?
Updated: Jun 20
In December of 2019 I wrote Skyping Guitar Lessons. I listed all the things about it I didn't like:
It's impossible for student and teacher to play together
The sound is horrible
Technique issues cannot be properly dealt with because I can't physically touch/adjust the student's hands
I can't write on the student's music chart or lesson sheet
Now, as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown and moving the bulk of my students to Skype or FaceTime for over a month, in addition to the above I have a litany of additional complaints about it.
The student has to be trained. A large percentage of the first Skype lesson was getting the camera angle I need. The student was using his phone or tablet propped on a coffee table while sitting on a couch. Great crotch shot guys. I HAVE to see the entire guitar neck. Use landscape mode. I don't need to see your face. I need to have the camera angle perpendicular to the fretboard so I can SEE which strings your fingers are on. You know why? I can't trust my ear because the sound is so BAD! That means you need some kind of holder because if you try to prop your phone or tablet at a right angle to your fretboard it will fall over. Some people NEVER resolved that issue.
Many weren't ready at lesson time. Be ready when I call. Have your guitar tuned. Be in the room where your amp is. Have your book ready. Have your phone or tablet at the right angle.
Don't set up in front of a window or a light. If you're backlit I can't see your fretboard. Pay attention to what I'm seeing.
Because of the delay, when the student makes a mistake and I say, "Wait! That should be minor, not major!" They're already playing the next thing, they say "What?" and I have to go over it again. We wind up talking over each other, I have to say everything 2 or 3 times - it gets ridiculous.
All this was predictable.
But I realized something I hadn't known before I taught 50 students a week online for a month. It started with the question,
"Why am I so tired after teaching 10 or 15 students a day?"
That doesn't happen normally. All the above were contributing factors but I realized there was something else that was most of it.
What I discovered was that the thing that enables me to tolerate, not just tolerate, but enjoy giving one half-hour lesson after another for hours at a time, no matter the student - good or bad - the thing that gratifies me the most is just the SOUND of the guitar. I freakin' love the guitar and I love the sound of the guitar. It gratifies and nourishes me to hear that sound.
It has to be the plucked string vibrating, making waves in the air and washing against my ear drum. No matter how bad the student is, no matter how many mistakes he makes - even that definitively wrong note has a sound.
My response to the sound is gut-level and visceral. The sound is therapeutic.
And I have to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that sound is not present coming through the computer speakers - not even hi fidelity, expensive speakers. Because the speaker will only broadcast out what is put into it. And that input is from a teeny-tiny mic on a phone or tablet that consists of a highly compressed signal with tons of missing frequencies and it sounds like a big stinking pile of steaming buffalo pucky. And I hate it.
That is why after teaching 10 or 15 lessons on Skype and FaceTime I found myself exhausted. I was missing the therapeutic value of the sound - because "the sound" is not there!
Don't get me wrong, I'm thankful for Skype and FaceTime. They have enabled me to save my teaching business and continue to create income during the shutdown and if you want to hear what I consider to be the positive, functional aspects of remote teaching guitar lessons you can read Part 1.
It'll do in a pinch, but there is no way I'm willing for all my students to be remote indefinitely.
The discovery of what it is that gratifies me and thereby enables me to teach the way I do is one of the silver linings to this shutdown situation.
Another silver lining is that my students are realizing the suboptimal nature of trying to learn guitar via Skype/FaceTime - especially the younger &/or more tech-savvy ones - the ones enamored with the novelty of the latest tech. Generally, the old guys already know that remote lessons are suboptimal.
Sometime during the 2nd week into what was originally supposed to be a 4-week shutdown (that's now entering its 9th week, although things are starting to open back up) I got the word that the music store (Guitar Dock) where I teach about half my students was not going to reopen. Fortunately I was prepared. Last year I sunk a bunch of money into renovating my home studio in anticipation of that very thing - only it was supposed to happen 18 months from now when the owner retired.
So I emailed all my students, informed them of the store's demise and said,
Therefore, since I don't need to wait for Guitar Dock to reopen to go back to in-person lessons - when that happens is your prerogative - I am willing to immediately teach in-person anyone who wants to show up (several of you already are). If you want to wear a mask that's fine. If you want me to wear a mask that's fine - just let me know. My studio is bigger than Guitar Dock's; we will be more than 6 feet apart. There will be way less than 10 people here at any given time. After a month of remote guitar lessons I hope that y'all can now understand why I say Skype/FaceTime lessons are suboptimal and inefficient. I would rather wear a mask and teach in person than Skype/FaceTime lessons without one. Having said that, when YOU decide to return to in-person lessons is totally up to you - but I'm letting you know that MY agenda is to return to in-person lessons as soon as people are willing. I do not want the bulk of my teaching to be remote indefinitely, it's too frustrating for me.
Immediatly people started returning to in-person lessons.
I've been saying for years that kids don't know any better - they think a YouTube video or a Skype lesson is a real guitar lesson. Now they know - at least my students do. So much so that I only have a couple still online - everyone else is showing up. Some with masks but still in person.
I've lost 3 due to the location change. That's way less in lost income than I was paying in rent - so I came out ahead money-wise. Plus I'm not driving 20 minutes one-way twice a week as well as eating out both days. Way ahead.
I currently have 3 non-local students who I will continue to teach via FaceTime. I can handle that. All 3 are advanced students and the lesson content is mostly conceptual, which is the best use for remote teaching anyway (see Part 1).
But when it comes to one-on-one guitar lessons, face-to-face is the place! There's no substitute that comes close, and my experience of Skyping 50 guitar lessons a week for a month due to the shutdown has reinforced my feelings about that.
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