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REMOTE LESSONS: Tech Tips / Improving Sound Quality

Wednesday, April 15, 2020 | Practicing and General Education

About this post: With several weeks of experience, we’ve gone through some tech troubleshooting and we’ve written this Tech Tips Checklist (below) to help you get more out of your LIVE VIRTUAL LESSONS. If you’re unfamiliar with the basics, you may wish to review the post below this one. It describes how we will teach LIVE VIRTUAL LESSONS and CORRESPONDENCE LESSONS and has a basic checklist of how to prepare. If you haven’t seen that yet, start there. Then come back to this “tech tips” post.

FIRST THINGS FIRST Use whatever you have. Don’t be discouraged by technical challenges. Any device that works will be OK for a few lesson and for most elementary students.

IMPROVING SOUND QUALITY There are two issues to consider: delivering better-quality audio to your teacher; and receiving better-quality audio from your teacher. Audio matters more than video for our purposes, and most of the steps below to improve audio will also improve video.

There are many factors at play when it comes to delivering and receiving better-quality audio. In the checklist below, we cover the steps most likely to deliver improvements in your audio, in the order that will make the most difference. How much effort you should invest in this task varies based on your circumstances. Better-quality audio matters little for an elementary-level student taking just one or two remove lessons. Better-quality audio is absolutely vital for advancing students taking remote lessons long-term.


STEP ONE Ask your teacher how you sound! You don’t know how you sound to teacher! Your teacher may tell you that you sound great already. If that’s the case, and you’re not an advanced student, skip the rest of this post! The inverse is also true: if your teacher sounds terrible to you, they won’t know if you don’t tell them.

STEP TWO Use a high-quality laptop (such as a MacBook Pro) if you are lucky enough to have one. Turn off any microphone signal processing features that your operating system may be running. In Windows: find the sound and microphone settings in the Control Panel. Look for "enhancements," "noise suppression," etc. On a Mac: Find the sound and microphone settings in System Preferences. Under the Input tab, turn off anything related to noise reduction.  

STEP THREE Use a wired internet connection if possible. You can buy very long Ethernet cables for $10 to $30.

STEP FOUR Test your connection speed. If you are relying on wireless, take your device and sit down next to your piano. If you can use an ethernet cable, plug it in first. Go to speedtest.net and run a speed test. To receive good-quality audio from your teacher, you need a minimum of 10mbps/sec download. You probably have that already. To deliver good-quality audio to your teacher, you need a minimum of 10mbps/sec upload. If you are not able to test at or above 10mbps at your piano, troubleshoot your internet connection. There are too many possibilities to cover here in detail, but here are some things to consider: upgrade your service with your provider; upgrade your wireless router; buy a wireless signal booster; buy a very long Ethernet cable; reduce network traffic on other devices in your home. If you are relying on a wireless connection, keep in mind that in some cases, you can test at very high speeds but you may still experience inconsistencies and momentary drop-outs in your Wi-Fi signal which may significantly degrade your sound.

STEP FIVE Learn how to manage audio settings in Zoom: 1) Turn off automatic mic level setting and adjust the mic level manually. 2) Enable original sound. 3) Disable background noise processing. Not all of these features are available for the Zoom iOS and Android apps. Find audio settings by clicking on the little ^ next to the microphone icon within the Zoom meeting. Detailed directions are beyond the scope of this post. Look up “original sound” on the Zoom support website. Or check out this tutorial on Youtube. If you get static after adjusting these settings, adjust your mic input volume in audio settings within the Zoom app.

 STEP SIX Buy an external USB condenser microphone. A better microphone won’t make much difference if you haven’t taken care of all of the above steps first. But once you’ve taken care of those steps, a mic can really improve the sound you deliver to your teacher. The most popular are made by Blue, but there are many brands from which to choose. A pro-audio dealer such as Sweetwater Sound can provide high-quality devices and personal recommendations, at higher prices ($80-$200). But probably any USB condenser microphone selling for around $30 or more will be a huge improvement over your computer’s internal microphone. For ease of use, choose a USB microphone. Unless you already have a computer audio interface, avoid microphones with analogue connections (sometimes called TRRS or XLR).

STEP SEVEN External speaker(s). Even on expensive laptops, the internal speakers on your device can’t give you great sound quality. And because they can’t be moved, your internal speakers may interfere with the sound you’re capturing. The microphone will pick up the sound coming from your speakers, which can create echo effects, fuzz, and otherwise degrade the audio you are hearing and/or sending. Any decent Bluetooth speaker will give you a big upgrade. Separating the speaker from the microphone (one device points one way, one points the other way), will further improve the sound you are hearing and/or sending. Use a wired connection to your speaker if you can, but if you can’t, the Bluetooth connection will probably work just fine.

STEP EIGHT Temporary hacks and setting changes. Even after doing all of the above steps, you still might need to adjust settings as you go. Unlike the steps above, these tips are all situational. You won’t need to try everything!

• Try headphones. For better listening to your piano and for hearing safety, avoid wearing headphones throughout the entire lesson if possible.

• Turn off your original sound when you are not playing.

• Move closer to your microphone when speaking. The mic settings for playing the piano may not be optimal when speaking.

• Mute your speakers when you are playing extended passages

• Mute your mic when your teacher is playing extended passages

• Move your external speakers and microphone, experiment over time to find good placement. 

AND LAST Don’t be discouraged. Use whatever you have. Only advanced students and those who are really interested in audio quality will find it useful to go through every step.



REMOTE LESSONS: Getting Started Guide

Tuesday, March 31, 2020 | Practicing and General Education

In a LIVE VIRTUAL LESSON we will use a video conferencing app to conduct a lesson of similar length and content to the student’s usual lesson. After the lesson is over, the teacher will email an updated assignment sheet.

In a CORRESPONDENCE LESSON, you will send a video or audio recording of each piece, section, or task you want attention on. You can send clips of all the different things you are working on, or just one piece. It’s up to you. You may also wish to send written comments or questions. Your teacher will review the materials you send and reply with written comments and/or a teacher video. The teacher will create a new assignment sheet which will be emailed to you.

Most students will do better with a LIVE VIRTUAL LESSON. We are offering the CORRESPONDENCE LESSON option only because it might be better for a very small number of students. A few students may do best with a combination. Ask your teacher!


LIVE VIRTUAL LESSON: BASIC CHECKLIST

♪ For the first lessons, parent help may be required.

♪ Choose a quality laptop computer with a good camera.

♪ Set it up ahead of time, and make sure it works by taking a video recording.

♪ Listen to the recording to make sure the audio quality is acceptable. Troubleshoot ahead of time.

♪ Find a stable place to put it where the student can see the screen AND the teacher can see the student’s face, hands, and keyboard.

♪ If you have EVER used a metronome before, it will be helpful to have a separate device available. You can always buy an old-fashioned metronome on Amazon or locally at Foxes Music. (Pretty much any option in the $10 to $30 rage will work.)

♪ If you have long hair, pull it back so your teacher can see more of your face!

♪ Plan to be present and engaged throughout the entire lesson. Probably your child will maintain appropriate behavior but…it can’t hurt to supervise them the first time. After the first lessons, you’ll have an idea of how much support and assistance your child needs going forward.

♪ Don’t be discouraged. Start with whatever you have, however you are able. 


LIVE VIRTUAL LESSON: ADDITIONAL TIPS & NOTES

♪ If you can’t use a laptop, a tablet or phone will work. Getting the set-up right, so that your teacher can see the student’s hands, face, and keyboard may be harder.  

♪ Placing your device on a soft surface may in some cases improve the sound quality. 

♪ A wired connection is better than a wireless connection. A wired connection isn’t practical in all circumstances but use one if you can. You can purchase very long ethernet cables for $10 to $30.


CORRESPONDENCE LESSON: BASIC CHECKLIST 

♩ Make a test video ahead of time. Make sure the audio quality is acceptable.

♩ Find a stable place to put your video recorder and make sure that your hands, face, and keyboard are visible.

♩ Get organized ahead of time. Decide what questions you will ask and what pieces and tasks you will record. If you’re not sure, go through your assignment sheet in order.

♩ If you have long hair, pull it back so your teacher can see more of your face!

♩ When you are ready to make your recording, announce each question, piece, or task clearly, so your teacher knows what you are playing and/or what you need help with.

♩Edit or trim your video(s) to remove long blocks of silence.

♩ Send it to your teacher just once each week. Send it on your normal lesson day if you can.

♩ Send it to your teacher in a standard format, and use a standard service (Dropbox, iCloud, One Drive) to send it. Or compress it. Probably, it will be too big to send by standard email.  


CORRESPONDENCE LESSON: ADDITIONAL TIPS & NOTES

♩ Send in as much content as you can, but you don’t have to send in everything. You can choose what is going to be useful to send in.

♩Placing your device on a soft surface may in some cases improve the sound quality. 

♩ The built-in mic on your phone, tablet, or laptop is probably acceptable for elementary students. It may not be acceptable for advancing students. Try recording with whatever you have, then listen. It may sound pretty good! If it doesn't, you can consider further troubleshooting and/or upgrading your equipment.

♩ Your teacher will reply by sending you a video response or by sending written commentary. Your teacher will decide what they think is best. Your teacher will also follow up with a new assignment sheet. If you submit your video on the same day and time as your usual lesson, you can expect a response within 24 hours. If you submit it after your usual lesson day, you can expect a response within one week.


ADDITIONAL CONSIDERTIONS FOR ADVANCING STUDENTS

The built-in microphone and built-in speakers in your quality laptop or tablet are probably acceptable for elementary students. For advanced students, better sound quality may make a big difference in the usefulness of either VIRTUAL or CORRESPODENCE lessons. We have a separate "tech tips" post on improving your sound quality. 

Summer MUSIC Camps for Ages 12 and Under: Yes You Can!

Monday, January 27, 2020 | Practicing and General Education

About this post...

In the short article which follows, I describe what led me to seek sleep-away music camps for students age 12 and under. Following that, I have listed and linked five recommended summer camps. This list was developed from my own research and from personal recommendations. This article is not ad-supported and there is no sponsored content. 


Each year in January...

I recommended sleep-away summer camps and festivals to some of our advancing teens. Only very rarely has anyone taken my advice and actually attended a program. It’s OK, I don’t take it personally! Plus there are good reasons why students and parents haven’t often chosen to pursue this opportunity: the tuition expense; the need to travel away from home; schedule conflicts; competing interests. And I never push very hard—I mention and recommend the possibility, but I rarely follow up with persistence.

But I suspect that there is an additional factor keeping more students from participating: the influence of what I would call anti-specialization pressure: “I’m not one of those kids.” “I wouldn’t go to a music camp unless I was really serious.” “What’s the point if I am not going to major in music?” It's OK, I don't take it personally. And I don't expect any student to major in music!

This winter, I started looking for music camps that serve students age 12 and under and I had a thought: If our older and advancing students have pre-formed ideas and competing interests and obligations which keep them from considering summer music programs, maybe there are some younger students out there who might be interested!?

I undertook a search for quality programs suitable to our many somewhat-serious-but-not-necessarily-elite younger students (age 12 and under). I looked for camps that were non-competitive or minimally competitive in both entrance process and camp environment…but that were also “real” music camps—which to me means that the program offers and requires individual music lessons from qualified adult teachers and supervised practice on quality instruments. After a pretty thorough search, I was a little surprised to find only a handful of such programs that are open to younger students. (I only looked for camps in the eastern U.S.)

These sleep-away camps aren’t just for future professional musicians and they’re not just for advancing students. They are suitable for any kid who loves music and is interested in an immersive experience. They also offer all of the traditional summer camp essentials like outdoor recreation and evening programs. 


Recommended music camps accessible to students age 12 and under

SONATA/SONATINA (sonatina.com) Bennington, Vermont.

Unusual piano-focused in-town program. Four one-week sessions which may be combined.


ENCORE/CODA (encore-coda.com) Sweden, Maine

Traditional summer music camp in a lake-side setting. Most instruments and voice including musical theater. Two three-week sessions which may be combined plus a shorter two-week option for ages 8/9/10.


INTERLOCHEN CENTER FOR THE ARTS (interlochen.org) Interlochen, Michigan

Traditional summer music camp in a lake-side setting. Two-week sessions plus other programs for advanced/elite students and many other disciplines.


POINT COUNTERPOINT (pointcp.com) Leicester, Vermont

Chamber-music focused program for strings and piano. A more focused and slightly more intense program than the others on this list. Traditional music camp experience in a rural setting with lake access. One one-week session in August for ages 12 and under plus multiple sessions for advancing older students in June and July.


WALDEN SCHOOL (waldenschool.org) Dublin, New Hampshire

One five-week session plus a shorter three-week option for ages 13 and under. Creativity and composition-focused program.


To parents and camp directors

I’d love the opportunity to expand this list. If you know of good programs in the United States, let me know about them! I’ll look into any recommended programs and consider adding them to the list.


Summer in our little studio

We sometimes dream of running our own piano day camp at the Studio…but not this year! But we’ll be open and here for you all summer, every summer, with easy flexible scheduling and no minimum requirements or monthly tuition. We post general details to the Summer Programs page of our website each year in early spring with full details and all schedules posted by May 1.

Practice Habits of Successful Beginners

Thursday, March 21, 2019 | Practicing and General Education

Who Are We Talking About?

Ages 5 to 10 in method books labeled level 3 or below.


What Does Success Even Mean?

Students come to class/lesson happy and leave happy (usually). Students complete/finish one or more pieces most weeks. Students find the material accessible, and have no trouble playing pieces together with teacher accompaniments (or with other students) in class. As a result, students demonstrate substantial month-over-month growth in their skill and their understanding of musical concepts.


How Much Parent Support Is Required?

In short: it varies. Many younger students (ages 5, 6 and sometimes 7) will need 100% parent assistance totaling up to three hours per week, meaning they will be unable to implement any of these habits on their own, ever. This is normal for young beginners! On the other end of the spectrum, some slightly-older students (ages 8, 9, 10) might be able to demonstrate all these habits entirely on their own. Typically, even older students will still require parent assistance to maintain all habits consistently.


But How Much Time?

It varies so much by student that it may be better to think in terms of tasks, repetitions, songs played, and most importantly in achievements rather than in minutes. At the very beginning stages of our Bright Starts 1 class, students may get by on just 5-7 minutes per day. More typically, practice could take 30 minutes or even longer. It does not need to, and should not, take exactly the same amount of time every day.


1. Students Practice Daily

It is uncommon to miss more than one day per week, and rare to miss more than two. There are about 38 weeks in the school year*, and students practice at home five or more days per week in at least 34 of these weeks. Students continue a similar routine through many break weeks and at least half of the summer session. At-home practice is independent of lesson attendance: if a student misses a lesson, their practice routine is not affected. (*This is weeks of instruction, not counting weeks with holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break.)


2. Students Complete First Steps Learning Accurately

At the earliest levels, this includes just three elements: notes (sing the note names), fingering/hand position (check the hand position, then sing the finger numbers) and rhythm (say the count). When you are looking at rhythm, both unit counting (half-note, half-note, ta, ta, ta, ta) and metric counting (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4) can be helpful. Unit counting is usually simpler for the youngest students to understand and remember.


3. Students Repeat Pieces Multiple Times

Students practice all the pieces on their assignment list each day. The number of repetitions varies from student to student, piece to piece, day to day, and section to section. Students complete multiple repetitions of most pieces or sections. Several times each week, one or more pieces or sections receives six+ consecutive repetitions.


4. Students Play With an External Beat

This can take many forms: playing the student part along with the student; playing the teacher accompaniment along with the student; singing along with the student (sing the words, or note names, or finger numbers, anything works); using the metronome; using the publisher’s recorded accompaniments; using the Piano Maestro or Piano Adventures apps. One or more of these forms happens at least three times each week on all pieces that could be completed in the next two lessons. If the starting tempo is slow compared to the suggested tempo, the student or parent increases it. This may be spread out over many days, especially for fast pieces. Of course, different parents have different skill and comfort levels with these tools. Not all parents will be comfortable with all tools.


5. Parents Assist By Making Limited Corrections...And By Asking and Answering Questions

Be cautious! Praise is way more important than criticism! But, sometimes, a student will practice with the palms of their hands resting on the strip of wood beneath the keys. Sometimes, a student will practice a piece faithfully but never notice the piece contains half notes! While problems such as these certainly can be corrected in lesson, it’s a habit of the most successful students that these and many similar basic issues are noticed at home. Likewise with questions: your child may have questions about how to practice a piece. You may or may not know the answers! But your availability to explore possible answers with students is a success habit.


Feeling Overwhelmed? Relax!

Use this list as a guide, not a straightjacket. Our Studio programs are built to be serious but accessible, and most students will experience progress and positive results even with imperfect habits. Seek to build in missing habits gradually, with a sense of exploration. This little list is intended to describe behaviors that highly-successful students have in common, and is not intended to describe the one and only path to success. Neither is it intended to describe larger issues of effective practice.


Addendum: Ideas for Additional Support

Consider Group Classes

Bright Starts group classes include a lot of time listening, singing, and playing together with others. If you are uncomfortable singing along with your child, or your child resists playing with accompaniments…these habits are built right into our classes. 


Observe Lessons

We welcome and encourage observation of lessons. You may be more comfortable answering questions and making small corrections. 


Learn Your Child's Music!

Most pieces from book 1 can be played by parents…with just a little bit of practice! Eventually, your child’s skill will probably exceed your own, but by attempting to play your child’s music, you can delay the moment when that happens, perhaps by a year or more! 


Practice Partner

Sometimes, finding a practice partner in your neighborhood (an advancing student age 12 to 18) can help students practice at home and can take some of the pressure off parents.