Using online lessons to help students who stop at the bar-line!

Hands up music teachers if you have ever used the words “don’t stop!” during a music lesson.

Often this is when a student pauses to think at a bar-line or automatically comes to an abrupt halt when they make a mistake. As this rather humorous quote points out, “Some pianists have alcoholic rubato – they stop at every bar” (Peter Mack).

A big advantage of teaching online (which I didn’t anticipate when the pandemic started) has been the opportunity to fix this problem with the serial offenders!

Take duet playing, for example. During in person lessons I love using duets with students as they are so great for developing both sight-reading and ensemble skills. Quite naturally though, the tendency is to keep with the student – slowing down a little if they are struggling with the notes and following their tempo.

Online teaching makes duet playing like this impossible. Like many other teachers I have grumbled to colleagues about the time lag during zoom or skype lessons as it doesn’t allow for us to play together in real time. It’s something I have really missed.

However, there has turned out to be a hidden benefit! I ask the student to mute themselves so I can’t hear them but they can hear me. I count in one or two bars and start to play the accompaniment while the student plays along with me.

Obviously this doesn’t really work with very young beginners, but with my older students and those who are more advanced, it has meant they have to step up and really listen or count carefully for themselves. There’s no chance that I will be soft and keep up with them as I can’t hear them and I usually put a metronome on too for extra rhythmic emphasis.

We try not to walk before we can run, and chop up the music into sections so the whole experience isn’t overwhelming. Our first task might be just to play a few bars and see if we can end together at the same time. They know they can always unmute and shout to me if they get horribly lost.

Often I get students to record the duet on their end so I can listen back afterwards, checking for mistakes and how it sounds as an ensemble. The results have been really pleasing.

I have joked with many students that I will have to get some noise cancelling earphones for when we return to the studio in person! This way we can carry on with this valuable exercise. I haven’t let on that I am seriously thinking about purchasing some!

What unexpected benefits have you found for online music teaching?

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