I love teaching flute on Zoom! And I’ve truly been on both sides of the table because my first lessons post-university were done online. Luckily my teacher was super professional and I learnt a lot about how to embrace online learning. Whilst it may be different to the in-person experience, there are some advantages. I have students in Kuwait, Germany, and around the corner in Leeds – I love hearing about all their different experiences and seeing how they use them to shape their flute playing. Although at it’s core my pedagogy is still the same, it shifts when I’m teaching online to take advantage of the available technology. Plus, I don’t have a commute which is the dream.
In this article, I’m going to be giving you some advice on how to set up your own online teaching studio; ideal hardware set up, the things you’ll need and how to get the best audio on Zoom for both you and your students. Although I teach flute, this advice is pretty universal so hopefully teachers of all instruments will find it helpful.
The most important thing about your set up is your internet connection. It needs to be fast and reliable. Student’s will be fairly understanding if you’re having a problem as a one off, but they will quickly get frustrated if the lesson they’ve paid for is constantly being interrupted by bad signal on your end. You need at least 1.5 Mbps download speed for Zoom, and the more the better. You can check your internet speed by typing ‘speed test’ into google.
To give yourself the best chance of getting that speed, don’t use Wi-Fi. Plug in using an ethernet cable. They’re cheap and you can get them up to 100m long, so even if your router (that box the internet comes from!) is far away you should be able reach it. And it’s literally just a wire; one end goes into your computer and the other into your router, it’s super simple and you don’t need to be a tech genius to set it up. If you take one thing from this article, it’s plug in!!
This ethernet cable is 10metres long but you can go way loooonger.
If you absolutely have to use Wi-Fi, there are a few things you can do to help. Try and position yourself as closely to the router as possible, minimising the objects between your computer and the router (big, heavy objects like cases or furniture can sometimes cause more problems than walls). Try out a few places before your first lesson using speed test so you already know your optimal place. If you’re in a fixed place and you can’t move towards the router, you could consider a Wi-Fi extender, to reach where your router can’t. These work either by sending the internet signal through the electrical systems of your home, or by placing a second router to boost the first one’s signal a little further.
My dad lives in a quite maze-like house with lots of walls that block wi-fi and uses something like this.
Another thing to consider is minimising the amount of internet being used by everyone in your house whilst giving lessons. Think about all the devices that are using Wi-Fi; phones, gaming systems, Alexa. One of my student’s signal would always drop dramatically halfway through every lesson until she realised that her brother started watching a show every week at 6 on their smart TV. So keep your eyes peeled for the sneaky internet users!
I would not advise using your laptop microphone – it won’t be able to pick up your beautiful playing or allow your students to hear the intricacies that you’re trying to show them. Most laptop microphones are really small so that they’ll fit in the laptop, and therefore they’re not able to accurately capture sound. It’s worth purchasing either a USB microphone like this, or a mic with an audio interface (this mic and this interface is what I use for all my recordings, and I often get compliments on how good the quality is). For high-level students I would recommend the best mic you can afford. With young students and beginners, you can probably get away with something a little cheaper.
The second most important thing to take away from this article is… use headphones! For some reason people can be reluctant to do this. But without headphones there’s going to be more issues with feedback and echo, as the microphone picks up the sound your student sends and then sends it back to them, creating a loop. In the interest of minimising latency (the delay between you speaking and your student hearing), make sure they’re wired. And the quality of sound is going to be much better through headphones than laptop speakers, so you can actually hear what your student is doing.
“Naomi seemed to be able to hear tone and pick up on aspects of articulation or breathing without any problem. She listens very carefully and the on-line ingredient didn’t present any serious barrier”.David, student
The secret to the testimonial above? Decent headphones!!
These are the ones I use and I love them. Plus they have a really long wire so if I want to get up and move around they don’t restrict me.
When you’re thinking about where to set up, it’s best to position yourself with a plain-ish background, so that students don’t get too distracted trying to read what books are on your shelf! Make sure there’s not a bright light behind you, or else your students will just see your silhouette. And a soft light in front of you will make sure your students can see you properly. I have a lamp behind my laptop which means my students can see my face and my hands in detail.
Set up so that you can be comfortable throughout the lesson. You should be able to sit or stand, so being able to adjust the camera might be helpful. I raise my laptop on books so that the camera’s at eye level whilst sitting, and I only have to step back so my whole body from my knees up can be seen. I also move around a lot during lessons so that students can see what I’m trying to describe. They don’t always need to see your face, sometimes focusing on the hands or the abdomen to show breathing might be more important. An advantage to online lessons is that you can focus much more closely than in real life. If I’m trying to explain something specific about the embouchure for instance, I can get really close to the camera to show exactly what I’m talking about, without making my students feel uncomfortable.
This is the webcam I’ve used for the past 5 years and I’ve always been happy with it.
I used to teach online using Skype but I moved over to Zoom with the rest of the world in March 2020 and I’m pretty impressed with it. It’s easy to use, there’s lots of options to make lessons interactive and the sound is easy to optimise. The instructions below are for Zoom, but if you’re using a different platform I’d encourage you to do a bit of research into optimising your sound quality – it’ll make a huge difference for your students.
These instructions are for a laptop/desktop computer- you can’t currently use these settings on a phone/pad.
Open Zoom using the desktop app and in the top right corner click on ‘Settings’. Choose ‘Audio’ on the menu on the left. Choose the speaker and microphone you want to use on the drop-down menu and then test them before the lesson. Under microphone make sure ‘Automatically adjust microphone volume’ is not checked. You can then set the microphone volume yourself; make sure you have tested it both speaking and playing flute.
Under the ‘Supress Background Noise’ section, check ‘low’ (not Auto). This is best for music as it will try and keep as much of the original sound as possible, whereas higher ones may supress your playing.
To really get the closest sound, under ‘Music and Professional Audio’ check ‘Show in meeting option to turn on original sound’. Zoom was originally built for speaking, and it uses various tricks to decrease the amount of internet it’s using, and prioritise making speech clear. By turning on original sound, your students will get the signal your microphone is picking up, before Zoom starts being clever with it. They’ll be able to hear your playing much clearer in this way.
You also want to make sure that you’ve ticked ‘disable echo cancellation’. This setting stops your speakers picking up students sound and creating an echo, but you don’t need it on because you’re using headphones (again for the people at the back, wear headphones!)
In the ‘Advanced’ menu at the bottom, make sure both options are set to auto.
You’re now set for lessons. When you open a meeting there should be a box in the top left hand corner that says ‘Turn on Original Sound’. When you’re playing make sure that it’s blue and turned on.
Setting up your Students Sound
The more subtleties you can hear from your students, the better you’re going to be able to help them. For my very young beginners I don’t worry too much about going through all these steps, but for my more advanced students it’s a must.
As the ‘host’ on Zoom, you have to allow your students to turn on the original sound. To do this you need to go to the Zoom website (zoom.us), you can’t do it on the app. Log in, and then click on ‘Settings’ in the menu on the left. Select the ‘In Meeting (Advanced)’ option on the left and then scroll down for aggggges to ‘’Allow users to select original sound in their client settings’ and turn it on (it will go blue). You’ll only ever have to do this once and it should then allow all your students to have this option.
Now in the lesson, have the student turn on original sound when they’re playing. You may have to direct them through the audio setting to make sure they’ve ticked the box to allow for this option.
And that’s it- you should be all set up to teach on Zoom!
Stay tuned for Part 2- where I’ll tell you all about how I teach online, along with some activity ideas, and tips for getting the most out of online platforms.
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