Music by remote control
Remote living or lack of transport need no longer be a bar to having music lessons. Claire Jackson, who’s learning the flute, is one of many to adopt online teaching
It is possible to learn an instrument online, reports Claire Jackson
MY flute teacher asks me to play a piece I’ve been working on. I muddle through a few lines of Fauré’s Morceau de Concours, then apologise profusely for not practising enough. The teacher gently offers constructive feedback, repeated performances yield incremental improvements and I promise to work on my scales. It’s like any other music lesson, except that Ellie Haines, my tutor, is peering out at me from a laptop. In this online era, almost anything can be translated to screen—including music lessons.
In 2013, piano teacher Olwen Macleod was struggling to find a viable business model—not surprising, as she lives on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, where one-toone tutoring can be impractical. However, Mrs Macleod was a regular user of videoconferencing software Skype. She describes the evening she and her sister, Abigail Steele, were part of a 60th-birthday celebration via Skype as a lightbulb moment; from that was born Your Space Music Lessons.
‘I realised that teaching via Skype would not only be great for me, but also for those living in similarly remote areas or with difficulties with access,’ she explains, via Skype (naturally). However, as recently as five years ago, few people on the Scottish islands had the bandwidth to support online video calls. ‘The only people who had good connections were those with satellites, but, in 2017, we got BT Broadband, which has made a huge difference—the lessons have really taken off.’
It’s not only far-flung places such as the Uists that have been held hostage by internet speeds. My Surrey village only got fast broadband a few months ago (cue a celebratory street party). Ofcom recently revealed that 67% of rural areas in the UK have an average speed of less than 10Mbit/s, whereas their urban counterparts tend to enjoy 40Mbit/s. That said, progress is steady and more people are in a position to tap into the Pandora’s Box of live streaming, blink-and-you’llmiss-it download speeds and video calls. This is having an impact on how we consume things: now, online consultations with doctors, nurses and pharmacists are becoming commonplace and ‘how to’ Youtube videos and web tutorials are being replaced by lessons in real time.
‘The growth in online learning is amazing,’ agrees Mrs Steele. ‘We started with piano and accordion and we now have 16 teachers with 18 different specialisms. Piano is still the most popular by far.’ Isn’t it complex to teach—and learn—on screen ? ‘If you’re an experienced teacher, you just adapt,’ explains Mrs Macleod. ‘I use an overhead camera, which gives a bird’s-eye view of the keys.’
It took some experimentation to get the view right for my flute lesson, but, once I’d propped the computer up on a chair, I could stand and play in a way that felt natural. Larger instruments may require a different approach. ‘We’ve left drums until last,’ says Mrs Steele, ‘but there’s demand—we’re working out how to position the cameras.’
We set up a call with five or six players and it creates a real sense of community
Joanne Laing, 16, lives in South Uist and, although it’s linked to North Uist by a causeway, single-track roads and inclement weather can make it a three-hour round trip to Mrs Macleod’s house. Given that Miss Laing travels 50 miles a day to school, there’s not a lot of time left. ‘If it wasn’t for the online option, I probably wouldn’t be able to have piano lessons,’ she points out. ‘It works really well and I don’t have to get someone to drive me around all the time.’
Your Space Music Lessons has students who find the set-up more efficient than traditional models and the company has attracted expatriates who want to continue their musical development, including a student living in Iraq with her military family. It also works well for people suffering from social anxieties and physical disabilities. One of Mrs Macleod’s piano students has a single hand, for example.
When Skype created the option for multiple users on the same video call, the developers probably didn’t envisage it being used for chamber-music concerts, but that’s exactly what Your Space has adapted the platform for. ‘We set up a call with five or six players
and it creates a real sense of community,’ explains Mrs Macleod.
Online tutors are finding that their pupils stay with them for the long haul and many go through the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) examinations, although examiners still travel to invigilate for pupils.
‘I thought it [learning on Skype] sounded a bit strange at first,’ says Miss Laing, who’s passed Grade IV and is now focusing on traditional Scottish music, ‘but it’s really no different to having a lesson in real life.’