Why Skype Violin Lessons Are Cool


by HeartStrings, Sabine Gonelli, 18/03/2016

I have used the last holiday break to particularly check my posture when I play. How is everything in place? What effect does it have when I change this or that? Is my bow straight or has my old bad habit returned? Is my vibrato relaxed and in control? How does it feel to play with tense shoulders and how do I best explain the difference to having relaxed shoulders to my students?...
Luckily, I had a violin teacher many years ago, who made me aware of my subtly tensed up posture affecting my shoulders, arms, and neck, which sometimes even lead to back pain. With the discovery of the Alexander Technique I finally got rid of the tension, but until today I need to stay on top of it. This problem likes to creep back in. Like with everything in life, there is a good side to this: I am extremely aware of the problem and very conscious about my responsibility towards my students. Good posture and being relaxed is the basis for good, pain free playing. I wish somebody had told me when I was little.

I started to play the violin at the tender age of 5. Thinking back to my first teachers, I am quite sure that posture started to become an issue when I had that one teacher who must have hated me or at least she hated teaching me. I sought help and asked my mum to come along to lessons because when she was with me this teacher wasn't quite as cruel. I was too young to explain to my mum why I wanted her to come along and often I had to endure this teacher on my own. I think I was just too dreamy and playful for her and she wanted older, more focussed students like the student whom she taught before me. He was much more mature and knew 'everything', it seemed, and she often demonstrated this to me at the beginning of my lessons when this student packed his violin up and was given the opportunity to shine with his music theory knowledge which at that time still was a closed book for me.

Why am I telling you this bullying story? Well, something like this can't happen with Skype lessons. Tuition happens in the private space of the student. There are no other students to put peer pressure on you or your child before or after lessons. Even if my younger students prefer not to have anybody else with them during Skype lessons, it is still good, particularly for shy students, that they know that mum or dad are just behind that door. I like to ask parents to stay a while at least during the first few lessons anyway.
Also, some students learn a bit slower at the beginning and get hooked later when they catch up easily. I rather have my students going on, following their own learning curve, than giving up because they realise that everybody else gets it faster than them.

Sometimes parents are not aware of the issues their children have to deal with. It is a miracle I didn't throw my violin out of the window. When my parents finally realised I was not making the expected progress they cancelled my violin lessons altogether but for some reason I kept moaning and cried a lot because I wanted to keep going with my violin. I just needed a different teacher! My parents stayed tenacious for a few more months. I then had lessons with my grandfather for a while.

All his children, three sons and my mum, had gone through his violin schooling. It was successful but tough. This was probably why my mum had been reluctant to hand me over to him for violin lessons.
My grandpa's violin story might be worth a blog post on its own. It was always fascinating for me to hear the stories about how the violin shaped my grandpa's life and made him and others survive the war.  He and his three sons regularly came together for house music, the family string quartet: my grandpa playing first violin, with his sons playing 2nd violin, viola and cello. My mum was still too young to be part of it. Her time to shine came after the war.
Today I'll just relate to you how my grandpa survived the hunger years as a refugee, back in Germany after the war (WWII), by teaching the violin, leading a little string-orchestra and church choir and playing the organ in church. It was purest barter trade: a violin-lesson for an egg. This was how he made the remnants of the family, my grandma and my mum, survive. I never met my uncles. They did not come back from the war.

Long after my mum had passed away I found out that she was supposed to study violin at the conservatory. She had been the pet of the family, with the eldest brother being 18 years old when she was born, and was to become 'Fräulein Mozart'. I have seen pictures of her. Dressed like a doll did she have to stand on the table and play the "Puppentanz" 'faster, faster…!'
I can imagine the disappointment of my grandpa when his only daughter decided to become a Pan Am flight attendant instead. It was the opportunity for my mum to break out of her musical cage, I guess. Also, back in the late 1950s, she would have been a real eye-catcher, flaunting down the reviving boulevards of Berlin in a Pan Am uniform with gloves and high heels after work. Just like in the  movie  "Catch Me if You Can", starring Leonardo di Caprio. She met Louis Armstrong once on a flight and had a picture taken with him. He was a very gentle and humble passenger. She always talked very fondly of him.

I had many more violin teachers after my grandpa. Some were good, a few were outstanding. Some had good teaching skills others were just good on their violins. I've learned something from each of them and have enough reason to be grateful. They planted the seeds that made me become first a teacher and then a violin teacher, too!

What I Love About Teaching Violin Online

When I got myself into this experiment of teaching violin online I was sceptical whether it would work. The idea was born from necessity. I felt very bad that I had to leave my students behind when I followed my husband and his new job to a different town. Skype lessons were all I could offer to my students.
From the very beginning I was greatly surprised how easy the transition was with those students who gave Skype lessons a chance.

I realised that lessons were substantially more focussed. There is a lot more eye-contact on-screen and a lot less room for stories about what happened over the course of last week. We just get a lot more done!

Secondly, when you use Skype, there is a smaller window where you can see yourself, while the person you are talking to is on the main screen. I have found that my students often understand my instructions or suggestions a lot faster when they can see themselves in the smaller window during the lesson. They see immediately what I am talking about. Sometimes we also work with screenshots. It is a great way to analyse what is going wrong and also what has improved!

Clearly, online teaching is different from being in the same physical space, although it absolutely feels like a 'normal' lesson. It needs some slight adjustments and an open mind on both sides of the screen.

Personally, I had to get used to explaining what needed to be done differently, instead of adjusting it physically, but I must say that I like this approach. It forces me to think it through and explain it well and it empowers my students to recreate the change a lot better then when I keep doing it for them during lessons.

With absolute beginners, very young children or when a problem occurs that needs a physically helping hand, I will ask for a parent or friend to be there during the lesson and I will explain and show them what they need to do and be my extended hand. This is particularly helpful for posture issues, like twisted backs, raised shoulders, tense wrists, - arms, or - hands. Having a person of trust available has a number of positive side-effects: my students can choose who they want to be hands-on with them and that person is going to be available during practice time when I can't be there. I've seen some students making big leaps of progress from one week to the next because they have their instructed helper right there for them, ideally any time.

One of my students records her lessons and checks back on these videos during her practise time. This can also be extremely effective. Some lessons touch on a number of aspects around playing the violin and my student says it helps her enormously to remember to take it all into her practice time not forgetting half of what we had talked about.

Some students prefer getting their practice guidelines written into Skype messenger to remind them what and how to practice until our next lesson.

If you are a very busy parent or if you have more than one child I know you will love Skype lessons. You will save a lot of time and nerves being at your child's lesson on time. Even when you sit through lessons with your child, you can still have the cradle next to you at the same time to take care of the younger sibling.

Also, when you have these situations or appointments when you can't leave the house like having a sick family member at home that you have to look after, or a thunder-stressed dog, or the expected tradesman that still didn't come… You don't have to leave the house and you don't have to cancel the lesson either.

There are some other fascinating side effects with online violin lessons, that my students or their parents have reported back to me:
Most children like to play with their computers and parents can still make it 'special time'. Having this one-on-one time online often adds to the excitement of having violin lessons for children.

Children as well as adults find it extremely rewarding that they can keep practising straight after the lesson, when what has been learned is still fresh in their heads. I will sneak out of your practising space with the push of my 'end call' button and you just keep practising! No more packing up, travelling home and and re-opening that case… (the biggest practice-hurdle for many students)!

Time usually is the biggest issue for my adult students, and extremely precious. I am sure you will appreciate Skype lessons which are happening in your space without any additional travelling time after a day at work.

Skype lessons are also environmentally friendly: your car can save that fuel and doesn't need to contribute to air pollution to get you and your violin to your lesson.

And last but not least: should I move on to a different place, your violin lessons will just continue!

Really and truly! I love teaching violin online! Why not try it for yourself?!

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