I have been running a private saxophone studio in Seattle for nearly twenty years, and last week I moved my entire studio online due to the COVID-19 outbreak. If you are considering moving your private studio online, this guide will help you get up and running right away.
FaceTime, Skype, and Google Hangouts all work for online lessons, but I prefer Zoom video conferencing for several reasons:
- It’s free (meetings with 3+ more people have 40-minute time limit unless you upgrade to pro)
- Students don’t need to register for an account
- You can automatically record lessons
- Strong connectivity
- Audio settings are customizable
- Works well for group meetings
The desktop app provides the best experience for lessons, but Zoom is compatible with smartphones and tablets. Any device with a built-in camera will work.
Quick Start Guide
- Download the Zoom App.
- Copy your personal meeting room URL.
- Schedule a lesson and share the URL with your student. Ask them to click on the link at their lesson time.
- A few minutes before the lesson time, click “Start Meeting Now” in your Zoom account—or paste your meeting room URL in your browser which will prompt you to open the app.
- Click “Start Video” and unmute yourself at the bottom of the screen.
- Once your student joins the lesson, they will be muted but can hear you. Ask them to unmute themselves and click “start video.”
Optimize Audio for Acoustic Instruments
- Use headphones on both ends.
- Loud instruments can overload computer and phone microphones. If your student’s sound is highly distorted, ask them to back away from the mic.
- External microphones make a huge difference in sound quality. I use an audio interface with a studio mic, but the most affordable and convenient option is a USB mic. The Shure MV5 USB mic provides good quality, EQ settings, and comes with a lightning adapter for Apple.
Zoom is optimized for meetings, not music. The filters that cut out background noise and echos can disrupt the audio quality. Adjust the settings below, and ask your students to do the same—this will make a huge difference in the audio quality. From the desktop app, go to the audio settings and:
- Test your microphone level while playing/singing. If the meter maxes out, lower the Input volume.
- Uncheck “automatically adjust microphone volume”
- Click the Advanced button
- Check box for “Show in-meeting option to ‘Enable Original Sound’ from microphone”
- Suppress Persistent Background Noice: Disable
- Suppress Intermittent Background Noice: Disable
- Echo Cancellation: Auto
These audio settings are on the desktop app only—unfortunately, you can’t make these changes on mobile or iPad apps.
No matter which platform you use, there will be a delay in the audio, making it impossible to play together in real-time. I love playing duets with students and accompanying them on drums and piano—unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well to online lessons without a massive tech investment on both ends. Some ideas:
- Instead of playing with your student, model sound and phrasing through call and response.
- If students have backing tracks, they need to play them on their end from a separate device (make sure you have disabled the background noise suppression).
- Play sustained chords or drones for your students to play along with.
Scheduling Back-to-Back Lessons
If two students overlap in your Zoom room, this triggers a 40-minute timer for your meeting. Instead of using your general meeting room link, you can schedule different meetings with unique links for each lesson. Alternatively, create one meeting for the entire day and enable the “waiting room” feature. This ensures that your students won’t overlap.
Assignments and Sheet Music
I create a Google Doc for each student that serves as a lesson notebook. I also email handouts, sheet music, and recordings during the lessons—I ask students to join the lesson on a desktop or laptop so they can open this material in another window. You can find apps for music teachers that offer sophisticated online lesson management.
Share Your Screen
Zoom’s screen sharing feature is really cool, you can share a specific window on your screen for your student(s) to see. If you are sharing something with sound, check the “Share Computer Sound” box while selecting a window.
Record the Lesson
You can record the entire lesson by selecting the option when scheduling a meeting, or click the record button to record an excerpt during the lesson. After you end the meeting, Zoom will email you an mp4.
Group meetings will allow you to have group lessons, studio masterclasses, or group jam sessions (with latency of course). All the schools in my state are shut down for at least six weeks, so I’m going to utilize this feature to connect everyone for masterclasses and just to chat. The free version caps meetings with 3+ people at 40-minutes.
PayPal and Square Cash are all viable for lesson payment. I use an awesome service/app called Fons that automates scheduling and billing. Students can reschedule themselves and it eliminates invoicing and chasing late payments. (Full disclosure, this is a referral link). Fons has made my life much easier!
If you have troubleshooting questions or want to dive deeper into multiple camera angles, higher-quality audio, and on-screen tutorials, check out Stephen Hughes’s wonderful Virtual Music Room Facebook Group. He has been teaching online full time for years and is very generous with his expertise.
Good luck, stay healthy, and keep your studio humming 🔥
Steve Treseler is a Seattle-based saxophonist, teaching artist, and author. His music has been featured in the New York Times, DownBeat, and NPR. Steve is on faculty at Seattle JazzED, Seattle Pacific University, and Pacific Music Institute in Honolulu. Learn more at stevetres.com