Can I teach using a Smartphone?
Strictly speaking, you could teach using just a smartphone (many online teaching platforms have a mobile app). There are practical reasons why it pays to think a little bigger, here, though. The screen on a phone is too small to be practical for seeing the detailed movement of somebody’s fingers on say, a violin fingerboard; likewise, smartphone speakers sound too tinny sounding for teaching purposes.
Although they can run the software, and although they can be connected to other equipment (such as speakers, or TVs), tablets and certainly smartphones are not really designed to host real-time music lessons. Whatever device you use to teach, it will need to be kept steady somehow, so if you are using a tablet, you’ll need a stand to hold it in place. This will allow you to move more freely while you teach and play, if, you do use a tablet, longer-term.
The bottom line: using a smartphone for teaching could be an emergency solution, just as in other areas of life, let’s say if a student needs a lesson to calm their nerves before a recital, while you are away on tour; but in the long-term, investing in a larger device with better sound and a bigger screen will be beneficial to both you and your students.
What sort of equipment will I need, in addition to my device?
Effective online teaching is possible on many different kinds of equipment. Indeed, where technology presents an obstacle, creative solutions often serve to enhance the teaching. However, as a guideline for an obstacle-free ‘shift online’, a professional-quality set up for someone who makes their living as a musician/music teacher might comprise:
- A computer (desktop or laptop)
- A microphone (external to the computer)
- 1 or more video cameras
- A pair of speakers
- A pair of headphones
- An audio interface (optional)
Most computers and other devices have built-in microphones and speakers. They’re fine for everyday use, although for music lessons, extra money spent on enhancing the sound quality is well worth it, for obvious reasons. That’s not to say that you need to spend a fortune on top-quality microphones and speakers, but if you are serious about teaching online, it is worth investing in a decent set up – you will be offering a higher quality teaching service to your students, and it will make your own online teaching experience more pleasant, not least by improving the audio quality!
You can get a decent USB microphone that will plug directly into your computer for under £100 ($120), this will greatly improve the audio quality going out to your students, and on any recordings you might make. Roughly the same amount of money will buy a pair of speakers (audio monitors) which will give a faithful rendering of the sound coming out of your computer – standard speakers are usually biased towards low or mid-range frequencies. Some speakers will plug straight into a headphone socket on your computer, but other speakers require amplification, powered by an ‘audio interface’.
An audio interface (sometimes known as a ‘sound card’) is a separate piece of equipment to your computer – a little box, into which you can plug speakers and microphones (for which you can control the strength of the signal – the loudness – going into the computer. There are various features, and simply put, you pay for the advantage of being able to plug in more microphones. (In a recording studio, this means you can record more separate sounds at the same time, and edit them independently, afterwards.) A basic, two-channel audio interface (one for your instrument, if it is electric; one for a vocal microphone) is around £80.
Just as they have built-in microphones nowadays, computers usually have built-in video cameras; but just as for audio, video capture is usually enhanced by external equipment. A cheap webcam is around £15, while more advanced ones can be far more expensive. The prices go up as the resolution of the image increases – the ‘standard’ resolution levels for online video are 720p or 1080p, with 4K being the highest. You can, of course, connect video recorders and digital cameras directly to your computer. For some instruments, it can be very useful to have a second camera. For example, a guitar teacher might want to have a second camera showing the left hand, as well as a general shot of their face and body.
It goes without saying that tablets, laptops and almost all desktop computers have screens. Depending on your set up, you may wish to enhance your set up with a bigger screen, although you should bear in mind that a lower resolution image (such as one captured on a student’s smartphone) may be irritatingly blurred when increased in size. As online software interfaces develop, it may well pay to use a touch screen, given the opportunities they offer for annotating images, and the frequent need to specify exact body position in instrumental teaching.
For more tips on getting started, Duncan Lee from XYZ Music talks to us about setting up a home studio.
Image credit: Matheus & Rudityas