Socially-Distanced Piano Lessons: 7 Positive Things

Socially-distanced piano lessons can be a good thing. Hannah O’Toole shares 7 positive things she has discovered, and explores how COVID-19 restrictions can actually refresh our teaching.

My socially-distanced set-up for piano lessons at one school. The window (and a skylight) remain open, there is a perspex screen between us and I can beam from my iPad to a student iPad. The microphone stand with phone adapter allows me to use my phone as an overhead camera so that the student can see my hands on the keyboard.
My socially-distanced set-up for piano lessons at one school. The window (and a skylight) remain open, there is a perspex screen between us and I can beam from my iPad to a student iPad. The microphone stand with phone adapter allows me to use my phone as an overhead camera so that the student can see my hands on the keyboard.

Socially-distanced piano lessons; a third way of teaching in 2020?

One thing I have found myself saying a lot since July/August 2020, is that face-to-face piano lessons post-COVID are actually a third way of teaching. 

Firstly, there was the pre-COVID model, where teacher and pupil share the same piano keyboard. The teacher would demonstrate using the higher octaves, and duet playing would mostly be four-hands. 

In March 2020, when many countries went into lockdown, we moved to the online model. We taught from home or our piano studio, our students learning at their home, with parental support. Whilst many teachers (me included) are continuing online, many others have made the decision to “return” face-to-face, with COVID-safe restrictions in place (also me).

When schools re-opened in England in September 2020, I found myself adapting to this third model; socially-distanced piano lessons. And, if I’m totally honest, initially I wasn’t looking forward to it. Of course I was really looking forward to seeing the students in person again after so long! Of course I wanted to play duets with no lag… But I’d enjoyed online teaching, found ways to engage the students, and show them exactly what I meant on their screen… How was I going to be able to do those things from 2 metres away? 

And don’t get me started on the cleaning! Gloving up and carefully disinfecting the piano at the end of every lesson wasn’t (and still isn’t) my favourite thing…but I’m getting used to it. My students have a very clear routine at lesson changeover. They wait outside for the other person to leave, sanitise hands, unpack their books at their piano the other side of a Perspex screen, and nobody complains. I think it’s because the watermelon hand gel smells so good…

Preparing for a new job??

Practising using Zoom to beam camera views and score annotations to a second student iPad.
Practising using Zoom to beam camera views and score annotations to a second student iPad.

The day before term started, I was reclaiming an elderly iPad for the students, and practising “Zooming in the room” to help them mark up their own sheet music. Preparing for socially-distanced piano lessons felt like starting a new job! I decided that having a portable online setup with two iPads, and a  phone would be essential for me to continue teaching the way that I wanted to. I now carry a lot more kit around with me!

I’m now seven weeks into socially-distanced piano teaching, and despite my initial misgivings, I’m learning a lot from the experience, and there are some real positives!

1. Two pianos = interesting duet textures!

I’ve been really fortunate in that each of my schools have provided large, well-ventilated rooms with a second piano. Until now, I’d never really made full use of having two pianos in the same room in my lessons. Now it’s required, and I love it! The first time I improvised duets with a student on a second piano, my ears almost did a double-take! I just wasn’t used to hearing the same register that I was playing on my piano come straight back at me! The effect can be really interesting.

I love that I can double the student’s melody line at pitch (instead of in another octave) to support their playing. Once students have attempted to read new music for themselves, I can support by playing it through how it should sound. It’s a bonus when they can’t see my hands, and they have to use their ears as they look at the score to figure out what I played, rather than copying what they can see my hands doing. Side-by-side is definitely my favourite configuration for the two pianos, having tried it several different ways. The student can clearly see my hand shape and wrist alignment.

2. Ownership of their instrument

Having a second piano in the teaching room also helps the student claim ownership of their instrument. Woodwind, brass and string players are all used to having lessons on their own instrument. However, the norm is for piano students to share the instrument with their teacher. This is often due to the cost and space implications of having a second instrument in your teaching room. Many of us teach piano from our homes. There’s no doubt though, that having your own instrument makes you look after it. You also think more about your posture. It also just makes you feel more like a musician.

3. Encouraging and maintaining student independence

A big plus of lockdown online teaching has been the independence and resilience that my students have developed. They got used to me not doing everything for them. In online lessons, they had to find a pencil and make their own notes on the score. They had to adjust their posture at their piano…and so on. My teaching style became much more collaborative.

My students use the online practice notebook, Cadenza, for their weekly assignments. As I screen-share, I ask the student whether they want to keep the task, or whether it is finished. This gives them ownership of their assignments, and a say in what they play. It makes them reflect on whether that task really is finished. They can also ask me for more of particular activities that they enjoy. As I screen-share to the student iPad, we keep this dynamic going in distanced face-to-face lessons. They can also dust off their practice notebooks, and make their own notes if they prefer the low-tech option.

4. More musical “flow” in lessons

We have 7 Guiding Principles for teaching piano the curious way. First on the list is, “Making music is at the heart of all lessons”. Our number one priority should be to ensure that the pupil experiences music-making for themselves in their piano lesson.

Back in February, William Westney, author of The Perfect Wrong Note, spoke at the graduation webinar for our first 90 Day Teaching Challenge. He spoke about the need for the weekly lesson to be an “oasis” for the student. Whatever challenges they face, our students know that they can come to us once a week for something totally different. Westney gave this speech to us before we’d even felt the full force of 2020, before even the first lockdown. How much more true is this now?

Socially-distanced piano teaching with two pianos allows for much more freedom in improvisation. The student can explore the whole piano with ease. When we demonstrate, the student sits further away, observing our posture properly, and mirroring our movements. When we play them an idea, they can play it straight back to us, without us having to say, “Oops, sorry, excuse me, would you mind if I just borrow the piano stool?” I love the sense of flow that lessons now have as a result.

5. Personal space

Linked to the above point is the importance of giving the student personal space. There are so many reasons why this is really, really important, even in a non-COVID world. Giving students more personal space protects us from a safeguarding perspective. Some students also just thrive when we back off a bit and give them space to be themselves. This is especially true for older children and teens. I teach very young children, and there is a need to give them more support, which can be challenging under the current guidelines. Designing lessons with lots of short activities, and lots of “beginnings” to keep them engaged is one way around this problem. And, let’s be honest, we might protect ourselves from a few seasonal illnesses (not just COVID) as well.

6. More off-bench activities

Decorating the piano with Duplo. A COVID-safe way to get young beginners to recognise the patterns of two and three black keys on the piano, and learn basic keyboard geography.

Teaching in a larger space has also had me thinking about ways I can engage the student off the piano bench. I’m particularly thinking of my youngest students again, here. As I reflect on the first seven weeks of socially-distanced piano teaching, I will design more COVID-safe activities to help build musicianship skills.

We’ve already adapted the “decorate the piano” activity to use washable Duplo (the blocks are exactly the right size for this). Instead of pipe-cleaners and pom poms, we have a Perspex screen and plenty of ventilation so that we can still sing safely. The larger space is ideal for teaching pulse and metre through movement. I’m planning to order a Manumat set from Blackrock Music UK (also totally wipe-clean and washable) to explore some other ideas. If you have any favourite “off-bench” activities, please feel free to share them in the comments below. We are all about the conversation here at The Curious Piano Teachers.

7. Opportunities to support students with special educational needs and disabilities

Beaming content to a second student iPad can help support students with specific needs. I can enlarge a section of a piece of music for a visually-impaired student. I can annotate a score digitally using colour to help a student with dyslexia to see the patterns. It is exciting to think that we can keep using the technology we have mastered in online lessons to help our students with specific needs face-to-face. These are just two real situations I have encountered in the last seven weeks. We’d love to hear how socially-distanced piano teaching is giving you ideas to support students with special educational needs.

I am sure that you can think of many more examples of how socially-distanced lessons can be a positive thing; these are my seven. There’s no doubt that 2020 has made many of us re-examine our teaching. I’m trying to take what I can from this year, learn from it, and use it to improve my teaching where I can. Continuing to use the techniques we learned online in socially-distanced piano lessons will make the transition easier if we lock down again.

We’d love to hear from you with your positive experiences of socially-distanced piano lessons in the comments.

If you’d like to explore this conversation further, click here to try a month’s membership of The Curious Piano Teachers for free, and see how our community of piano teachers are finding ways to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions.

Hannah O’Toole

Community Manager, The Curious Piano Teachers

Hannah O’Toole Community Manager

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