Online singing lessons – (how) do they work?

My first singing lesson took place at a local music school well over 20 years ago. The teacher wasn’t exactly the right match for me, but I kept going on regardless, because there was not much else around at the time. If I’d had the opportunities we are presented with today, I would have probably looked into online lessons – alas, it was not really possible back then.

Today, we can get all sorts of online instruction via Skype, Facetime and Google+ (just to name a few), from instrumental lessons to tutoring for school subjects. Sometimes they work, sometimes they won’t. It is nigh on impossible to judge if online lessons are the right choice for you, there is only one way to find out: You will need to try it!

So due to popular demand, I will give you an idea how online singing instruction works – from booking to actually having your lesson…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Singing Teacher/Vocal Coach

Obviously, this is the first thing you need to decide on. If you cannot find a good singing teacher/vocal coach in your local area, it might be a better idea to go for online lessons than not taking lessons at all, or being stuck in lessons you are not happy with. All the rules that apply to face-to-face instruction obviously also apply to online lessons. Think about your goals, and then do some research and pick your coach accordingly.

Not everyone who offers online singing lessons will be the right match for you: Some don’t teach beginners, others don’t work with more advanced singers. Some only teach Bel Canto, others only Pop. If their webpages don’t clarify what type of student they work with, just send them an email – most teachers I know are more than happy to answer your questions.

Of course you will need to think about your budget, but I would not generally recommend to just blindly pick the cheapest option on offer. The whole package needs to be right, and this has only partly to do with the price. Sometimes, it can be better to have fewer lessons with a more experienced teacher who charges a higher rate: Depending on musical style and your goals, you will maybe need fewer lessons with them, so you will actually pay less in the end. Of course, price is not a guarantee for quality, and you will find very good, and very bad, teachers in all price categories. As a general rule, you pay for experience and a good reputation however.

The Technical Set-up

It might be good to check a few things before you book a lesson. I already explained some of the technical prerequisites for online lessons here.

In short: You need a webcam and a microphone, and an Internet connection with decent bandwidth. Whether you prefer using headphones to speakers is merely a matter of choice – I do.

Bandwidth is really important for any  type of videoconferencing. The higher your up- and download-speed, the better the quality will be. Skype has published a list of rough requirements here, and the requirements for Facetime and Google+ are comparable (although Google+ has, in my opinion, a slight edge when it comes to group calls). You can compare these requirements online with a bandwidth checker like e.g. speedtest.net. It is advisable to try it at different times of the day, because up- and download-speed can vary significantly during the day, depending on your provider. After this, you will have a very good idea if the minimum requirements suggested are met, and if online lessons will work for you.

Generally speaking, I never had massive problems. Occasionally, the picture can freeze, or you will notice a slight delay, in which case it can help to just quickly restart the session. I only had to resort to switching to voice-call (without video) once during the past years, so I would say that all three platforms I work with are reliable enough. At the end of the day, you need to make sure though that your bandwidth is sufficient – this is really the most important thing.

The Booking Process

After you decided on the teacher and made sure all technical requirements are met, you will book your first lesson. Every teacher is different, and your chosen teacher will certainly tell you about all the details. I have an online calendar for my Skype students, from which they can pick a time to suit them. The great thing about this calendar is that it also does timezone conversion, so no one needs to worry about getting their times mixed up.

Most vocal coaches I know will expect you to pay in advance. You need not worry about this, it is a completely normal procedure and mainly a protection for the teacher – after all, they often don’t know you in person, so you could well take a lesson and then disappear into thin air without paying. You (and your money) however are protected if the teacher’s preferred payment method is e.g. PayPal. Some teachers will make you pay straight upon booking, others will send an online invoice you can pay within a set timeframe. I send out a PayPal payment order after I confirm the time slot. This is payable two days before the session at the latest; the booking is only finalised after the student has paid. Please also make sure you understand, and are happy with, other Terms & Conditions the teacher might have (cancellation notice etc) to avoid lengthy discussions later on.

The Session

Every teacher probably has slightly different preferences, so I can only speak from own experience here. I start the session from my end at the appointed time. Usually, I encourage the prospective student to add me to their Skype contacts beforehand, so we don’t lose valuable time by trying to “find each other”. If it is the first session, we will have a quick chat about the singer’s goals and perceived problems, after which we will do a vocal assessment straightaway. It helps me to check what needs work, and what already works well.

If it is a regular student, the session will pretty much be like any face-to-face lesson in my studio – with a few small, but important, differences:

Teacher and student are obviously not in the same room, so what can usually be done with a few small gestures in the right direction (especially when it comes to postural alignment) needs a bit more explanation online. I will sometimes ask the student to move away from the screen so I can see their whole body. This has led to funny contortions on occasion, depending on cable length of  headsets, having to run back and forth because of microphone distance/gain and so on. It is not a massive problem though and usually gets better with every session. In short: Even if I teach online, I can see and hear everything I see and hear during a studio session.

Another main difference is working with accompaniment. Warming up and technical exercises are not a problem, because they don’t need more than a few cue notes here and there anyway. Some students are very reliant on auditory feedback however (also known as “singing along with the teacher/piano”, which I don’t consider a good longterm strategy anyway), and might therefore need an adjustment phase. It is not a good idea for me to play, and you to sing, at the same time, for the very reason that it

  • doesn’t take the slight delay into account, which can lead to funny results
  • sometimes makes the connection cut out if you don’t have a “super-connection day”, because you are effectively uploading and downloading at the same time

The same applies to singing songs with accompaniment – you will need the accompaniment at your end. So you will either need to find a decent playback, or I can prepare a piano accompaniment for you and send it in advance. Ideally, you will not play it back on the same computer you use for your online session, and you should also close most programs you have running in the background (especially those that require online access).

This is how online singing lessons work. I consider them very effective, and get very good results with my students. It certainly needs a little adjustment if you are used to face-to-face-sessions, and not everyone is happy to make these adjustments. If you would like to give it a try though, I’d encourage you to go ahead!

Do you miss any information, or have any more questions? Fire away…

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© Petra Raspel 2013

3 Comments

  1. I had my first online lesson last week with my teacher. Although it wasn’t as good as face to face, it was still good. I would recommend it. However it would depend on your level and what you’re comfortable with. For me, it enabled me to have a lesson when I was too ill to travel (it’s a 3hr round trip) and I didn’t want to spread my germs. It gives a new meaning to anti-virus software!

    Like

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