21st Century Lesson Plan: Learning Jazz Remotely

How both teachers and students can make the most of remote video lessons

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Greg Fishman via Skype

At a time when information and media are conveyed almost instantly, it’s easy to forget that in the not-too-distant past, a remote music lesson meant something very different from what it does today—and it was a painfully slow and tedious process. Greg Fishman, a saxophone and woodwind player, educator, and writer based in Chicago, Ill., says, “I used to do correspondence lessons by cassette or CD and through mail, where I’d listen to a person, give them a critique, write out a lesson plan, and then mail it back. And wait. It wasn’t often until a month later I’d get something from them!”

Fishman, an early adapter of Skype lessons in 2006, now gives instant feedback to students around the world, aged 12 to 80, sharing the information he gleaned from his personal studies with heavyweights like Joe Henderson and Dave Liebman and his friendships with Stan Getz and Michael Brecker. Many other jazz teachers are spreading their knowledge in the same way, and, if done smartly, the benefits to both students and instructors can be staggering.

The Basics
One great thing about remote video lessons, for instructors and students alike, is that a fancy setup is not required. You might in fact already own all of the equipment you need for teaching and learning. If you have a recent desktop computer, laptop, or tablet and an Internet connection, then you’re probably all set, as the built-in microphone and video camera are likely more than sufficient for your needs.

“Some of my students do have fancier mics,” Fishman says, “but I’m using the most current iMac, and I can hear students’ tone well enough to tell if they’re tonguing properly, as well as clearly seeing their fingerings. Students will even do transcriptions I’ve assigned, and when they play along to a recording of Charlie Parker or Sonny Stitt, I can hear well enough to judge the accuracy of their work.”

Though optional, using headphones is a good way to help with focus during lessons, and even prevent certain audio problems. Adam Levy, a guitarist, session musician, and educator in Los Angeles, says, “I always wear a pair of headphones—Grado Labs SR80, though any will do. Sure, this looks dorky, but it keeps us both more focused and less prone to distraction. It also eliminates the echo effect that sometimes happens when your laptop is both microphone and speaker.”

There are multiple digital platforms that will work conducting the lessons—a Skype session, Zoom videoconference, Google Hangouts, or Apple FaceTime call, for example—but each one of them comes with certain quirks that you may or may not appreciate. FaceTime, for instance, doesn’t allow teachers to send notes or files during a lesson (more on this in a bit). Fishman adds, “Google Hangouts works okay and you can message within the app, but the video and audio quality haven’t been as good for my purposes. Zoom is excellent in that it’s got built-in software that lets you record, and Skype doesn’t have that until you get up to the business model, but I do prefer Skype all around.”

 

One great thing about remote video lessons is that a fancy setup is not required. You might in fact already own all of the equipment you need for teaching and learning.

 

The Good
Whatever digital platform you use, video lessons offer many obvious advantages over traditional in-person lessons—the foremost being flexibility of scheduling for both teachers and students, greater choices for students in search of instructors, and an incredibly wide audience of potential students for teachers to reach. Fishman says, “The other day I taught a woman in Switzerland, and I just taught a man in Canada, a guy in the United Kingdom, and another student in North Carolina. I’ve even got a guy in Dubai that I teach.

“It’s funny, some of my students just don’t want to deal with Chicago traffic,” he continues, “so they call me on Skype, even when they live just a few miles away!”

Videoconferencing can be done anywhere there’s an internet connection—handy for touring musicians—and in the comfort of home, which can be a major plus for some personality types. “Some students are more at ease in their own home environment. They may be less nervous, so may actually perform better and/or be less shy about asking questions,” Levy finds.

Another advantage is that—provided the audio and visual elements are working optimally in a session—a remote video lesson can make the most efficient use of time. At a typical in-person lesson, there’s some time lost up front as a student unpacks his or her instrument and gets set up, but in a video lesson, the entire session can be used for teaching. “The second you call a student, their horn’s out and they’re ready to go,” Fishman says.

With Skype you can send and receive supplemental materials—audio, PDF, and other files from your hard drive or the internet—during the lesson. For instance, a teacher might jot down some notation on paper, take a smartphone photo of the manuscript, and send it to a student, or send a link to an essential recording or reading assignment to check out later. “I’m a record collector,” Levy says, “and if something’s not available on CD, I’ll sometimes even find an LP on eBay and send a student a link to the auction during a lesson.”

Adam Levy giving an in-person lesson
Adam Levy giving an in-person lesson (photo: Reuben Cox)

Skype in particular is also great for archiving. The program saves notes typed in during lessons—not unlike electronic medical records—which can be a boon for keeping track of what’s been covered, making it easier to review and plan future lessons. Be aware, however, that this feature is not failsafe; you shouldn’t expect months of notes to be permanently available. “I’ve had instances where there’s been a major software update, and I’ve lost a lot of data,” Fishman says. “So I tell the students that, to be safe, they should copy the notes after a lesson, paste them into a Word doc, and date the file.”

Lessons can also be documented in a more traditional way, of course—with pen and paper—and videoconferencing allows for this to be done discreetly during a lesson, rather than afterward. Levy says, “I always keep a notepad next to my computer. I take notes throughout the lesson—things that we may circle back to. I don’t keep a running note for in-person students. That would be distracting, so I tend to keep notes in my head at those times.”

The Bad
Remote video lessons come with disadvantages as well—internet issues chief among them. For a lesson to proceed smoothly, both the teacher and student must have a strong internet/Wi-Fi connection. “Internet connectivity is unpredictable,” Levy acknowledges. “Sometimes the audio or video is wonky, so bits of conversation have to be repeated. This can be distracting or frustrating.”

Even when the internet’s functioning optimally, there can be some times when it’s difficult to connect for other reasons. Occasionally, for instance, Skype is overloaded with users, and a chat becomes prone to freezing. “I recently called a student on Skype at our scheduled time,” Fishman says, “but he didn’t answer. After 10 minutes, I sent him a text saying, ‘Hey, I’m calling. Are you ready for the lesson?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m here waiting for your call.’ The problem turned out to be that the student just needed to update Skype. He did that, and sure enough, everything was then fine.” Take this anecdote as a reminder: Be sure to check regularly for software updates.

Videoconferencing can be an excellent tool for players who have good technical foundations, but the technology has its limits when it comes to beginner students. It’s not yet possible for a teacher to reach through a screen and place a new guitar student’s fretting fingers in the shape of a barre chord, for instance. “If you have a woodwind student who’s never played before, you really need to be physically present to make sure that they’re breathing properly and to touch their fingers in demonstrating correct hand positioning,” Fishman says. “But other than that, it works fine for most things.”

Another major limitation of videoconferencing is that, no matter how good the internet connection—or the clarity of the sound source at either end—audio technology doesn’t yet allow for duo playing. “We can never really play music together in real time,” Levy says, which is unfortunate because “jamming can be a useful part of learning.”

That needn’t be a deal-breaker, though, as a lot of other ground can be covered by taking turns playing in a videoconference. Indeed, this audio restriction can turn into a positive when used for teaching the fine art of trading fours, eights, and the like. “I might not be able to play a duet at the same time with a student, but I can play four measures of a tune, and then the student will improvise a four-bar phrase on the next part of the song,” Fishman says. “But I’m sure a time will come—perhaps in the not too distant future—when a student and teacher can play together simultaneously in a video lesson.”

 

“Some of my students just don’t want to deal with Chicago traffic, so they call me on Skype, even when they live just a few miles away!”

 

Rules Still Apply
This brings us to some questions of etiquette. In traditional in-person lessons, a teacher usually doesn’t hear from a student until after he or she has woodshedded for the next session. But given how connected people are these days through texts, emails, and social media, it can be tempting for students to fire off questions between lessons. This might seem innocuous enough, but it can place an undue burden on instructors. So if you’re a student, it’s important to be respectful of a teacher’s time; if you’re an instructor, it’s wise to have clear boundaries.

Fishman says, “I’m actually fine with a few questions every couple of weeks. But when someone asks me 30 questions within a few days—and this has happened—I might say, ‘You know, if you’re having this much trouble, we should just schedule another Skype lesson sooner than we had planned.’ Or, if it’s nothing urgent, I say, ‘Just make a master list for the next lesson.’

Finally, there’s the issue of recording. As we all know, you can easily capture video of just about anything with ease today, and remote lessons are no exception. It’s a breeze to record a lesson on Skype or most other platforms without the teacher knowing it, and in extreme cases, this can cut into an instructor’s livelihood. Fishman, who has created a large volume of instructional books and apps, encountered this problem early on in his Skype teaching. “A guy recorded a bunch of my stuff without my permission and put it out there on the internet,” he recalls. “When I confronted him he said, ‘You never said I couldn’t do it.’” This proves that it’s important to have a clear policy with students regarding the taping of lessons.

On the other hand, as long as students are considerate, it can be a big asset for them to document their video lessons, whether in-app, through a third-party app, or by using a freestanding recorder. As Fishman says, “You never know what kernel of wisdom you’ll get from a Skype lesson and want to revisit, again and again.”