The Lockdown Skype Room

Teaching face-to-face finally resumed this week, so what better way to remember the disruption than to admire my “triple-screen” setup.

My evolving setup went from using my iPhone 5S with headphones plugged into a laptop. I went from sitting in a computer chair to standing.

There’s almost a game of ‘spot the object’ in this picture.

The evolution of my Lockdown setup is on display in the above photo (I improved it further when some of the lockdown restrictions eased). I had a blank wall and a cupboard door behind me, so to the student, everything was tidy, but obviously the room was utter chaos. I had all my day job Navico gear occupying a lot of space, and, because I’m not the most organised of people, my music books were spread out on the couch and floor.

My resulting ‘triple screen’ was my laptop to see the student, the secondary monitor to see the digitised version of music, and finally, my super robust music stand which, is so rock solid, I kept loosing my books as I had about five of them on the music stand and forgot they were there.

Getting the most out of Skype’s audio

I had never used Skype for teaching music up until the lockdown, but what I did know was that a phone microphone typically couldn’t cope at recording a video (or voice memo) of a roaring saxophone. Sometimes, when a parent would sit in on lessons, they’d ask if they could record me playing a piece of homework for their child and the audio quality was clipped pretty heavily. Still, once the resignation of having crappy audio was dismissed from one’s mind, a phone is actually a reasonable option

Headphones seemed to be a must. Maybe it was an illusion, but I think if both the teacher and student have headphones, Skype’s algorithms have less work to do because it’s not trying to adjust the microphone when audio is in turn coming through the speakers. This resulted in a better overall experience because it felt like you could ‘talk over’ the student, because they could actually hear me over Skype while they were playing. We didn’t have to take turns, basically.

You could almost hear the metaphorical cogs of Skype’s algorithms trying to automatically readjust the gain for when an instrument is played, to when someone speaks. That was one of the first things my students observed during class; when I started speaking, it took a while for Skype to increase the volume of my voice just after playing. That was the nature of a built in laptop microphone unfortunately. Later on, I experimented with different gear.

It’s Exhausting

Lessons online are actually exhausting, especially if you’re standing. I would do a continuous 3 1/2 hours on a Thursday night, and broken up 8:30am to 12:30pm on Saturday. There were some interesting observations.

The first was that headphones are tiring to wear. Not so much they get a little uncomfortable to wear after 3 1/2 hours (they’re a Sony MDR-7506), but the direct-to-ear audio just seems to dull one’s brain cells after a while. Perhaps that’s also in combination of looking at a computer screen during that time, rather than a non-brightened sheet of music.

The other major aspect was that there was no downtime between lessons; it was straight from one to the other. I’d finish one lesson right on the hour or half hour, and then it was straight into the next. “Bye”, “hi”, and and the next student would almost always be ready to go. I didn’t have to wait for students to pack up gear (and yikes, some haven’t mastered the quick pack up), and I didn’t have to wait for the next student to put their instrument together.

The result was that, strangely enough, Skype allowed the student to get maximum lesson time. For me, it was almost like a relay race where I was passing the baton to myself for a few hours.

Skype is a viable option

This whole experience has demonstrated to me that Skype is a viable alternative for those days when the student can’t make their lesson. It’s not something that seems sustainable long term because so many skills are only obtained by playing along with the teacher (appreciating a sense timing, movement and tuning etc), but rather than credit a lesson because “sorry, I can’t make it because the school band has a concert next Thursday”, it could be, hey, how about we do an online class on Friday after school.

An online alternative seems to be an ideal way to keep the lesson routine moving, and continuing to get the feedback.

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