Saturday, April 21, 2012

Piano Lessons via Skype

Traditional Lessons
In the past four years, my piano skills and overall musicality have improved dramatically by simply hanging out with some concert pianists whom I have the fortune of befriending. I never had regular formal lessons with any of them but they were kind enough to demonstrate sporadically to me some of their secrets of the trade. They also opened the doors for me to perform in a number of reputable venues, for which I will be forever thankful.

However, after mainly going solo on my piano education, I have decided to get myself a teacher. I only have two requirements: 1) he/she must be a concert pianist 2) he/she must be comfortable instructing amateur pianists (such as myself).

These sorts of performer-pedagogues are mostly found in conservatories and music colleges but will only take in students enrolled in those schools. Unfortunately, I am now based in a small town without any advanced music school and all piano teachers (I personally know most of them) are adept in teaching small kids and beginners but not somebody at my level.

The Quest for a Teacher

While randomly watching tutorial videos on Youtube, I stumbled upon a pianist who had both performance and instructional videos. First, I watched, listened, and evaluated intently what the pianist had to say on matter of practice and technique. Is he for real or just bluffing his way with the unsuspecting viewers (like many Youtube tutorial videos out there)?

I know and already do many of his tips but there were some matters that were completely alien to me. His willingness to share them in public is admirable (some performers tend to hold back on their "secrets"). For this, he passed my first test.

Second, I watched, listened, and evaluated closely how the pianist interpreted some pieces. Do I like his musical aesthetic? Is his playing nuanced and balanced? It is not enough for me that my would-be teacher play cleanly. He must be able to connect with me artistically. Nothing turns me more off than a musical mechanicus and somebody who just plays fast and loud.

I really like his interpretations of Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart. His playing was more on the nuanced side rather the bombastic type. There were some places in his playing where I feel he could be more passionate and "big" but it is really a matter of taste. I know he could do it but perhaps he chose not to.

Online Lesson Trial

So, I contacted him to ask him about lessons. I have heard of online private lessons through video conferencing such as Skype but I was skeptical. How can one learn the piano from somebody half the world away? More than 15 email exchanges later, including an MP3 I sent as an audition, we finally had our first session last night.

A Typical Online Lesson Setup
I am happy to report that my doubts about online private lessons have dissolved.

It is essentially the same as traditional piano lessons. Through videoconferencing (e.g., Skype), I get to interact with my teacher as if he were in the same room. Each of us has a piano. I play on my own piano, which I am used to, and he instructs me using his piano.

In most traditional piano lessons, there is only one piano which the student uses while the teacher watches on the side like a hawk. The teacher would only have access to a portion of the piano to play along. In online private lessons, it is like combining the teacher's studio and the student's home in one, a virtual master class so to speak.

The obvious limitation of this setup is that teacher cannot make "physical" interventions, especially on matters of technique. In online piano lessons, the teacher demonstrates to the best of his ability how to execute a particular technique. In the traditional setting, the teacher sometimes holds the student's hand, wrist, arm, or wherever to demonstrate or reinforce the concept. However, in my case, I am an adult and I am not at all comfortable being held or touched by a stranger. Thus, this non-physical contact actually suits me quite fine.

Another limitation is on the technology itself. More often than not, the built-in laptop mic or off-the-shelf web mic is meant for capturing and streaming voice, hardly adequate for capturing the range of pitches and dynamics of the piano. A lot of nuance could be lost and one may have to play louder to be heard better at the other end. Thus, it may be tricky to execute pianissimos and light touches.

Supposedly Improves Sound Quality
However, this is easily overcome by using a professional condenser mic. My teacher recommends the Yeti USB mic from Blue. I have yet to receive my order so I cannot really say much about it. I did attach a Shure microphone to my laptop and my teacher did not complain thus far.

One thing that my teacher and I are still getting used to is the time difference, a huge 14 hours. By the time he is about to start his day, I will have been ending it and vice versa. Another thing that I'm still trying to get a grip of is the price of the lesson. I'm in a country wherein typical piano lessons start from as little as $5/hour to high end ones (such as in a conservatory extension program) at $30/hour.

Since my teacher is based in the US, his fees are double that. But the alternative would be to go to the US to study with him, a very expensive proposition. A round-trip ticket to his city, not even counting living expenses, would be enough to pay for one year's online lessons.

The Verdict

The bottom line is online private lessons can be as effective as traditional piano lessons. I do not recommend it for total beginners, especially young children. At that level, physical contact is necessary to reinforce some basic technique and musical principles. When the student reaches the late intermediate or early advanced level, then he/she may consider online lessons.

The success of piano lessons, be it traditional or online, largely depends on two factors: the interest and determination of the student and the competence and knowledge of the pianist-teacher. A disinterested student may just be wasting his time and money while an inadequate teacher may just be blindly leading the student to irreparable technical and artistic damage.

I am still astounded by how internet technology has changed the world. Online music lessons was in the realm of science fiction in my teens (many moons ago). Perhaps within this lifetime, saying "beam me to Carnegie hall" is not a ridiculous proposition.

Happy learning!

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