BY BRAD SCHLUETER
If you’ve never given or taken an online lesson, here’s how to do Skype drum lessons—or any other long-distance virtual lesson, for that matter. This primer should help smooth out the wrinkles, whether you’re a teacher or student.
Taking online lessons can be beneficial for you because you can play on your own drums from the safety and convenience of your own home. Here are some tips that will help everything go more smoothly.
- Frame The Shot
One of the most important things you need to do is make sure your teacher can see your face, hands, and drums clearly. If you’re going to use your smartphone for lessons, invest in a mount and/or an inexpensive tripod so you can set it up offering your teacher a good view of you. The ideal view is from the side, rather than the front. It may be easier to reposition the drums than move a computer desk. It’s easier to see a student’s hands and what they’re hitting when the camera is positioned around shoulder height and angled downward.
- Use The Selfie Side
With both smartphones and tablets, you’ll need to make sure to use the front/screen “selfie-side” lens rather than the one you normally use to take pictures, so you can see the screen. The front lens is often lower resolution than the rear lens, but that shouldn’t matter very much for music lessons and this way the microphone will be pointing toward you. Also, if you position those devices sideways in landscape orientation (horizontal) rather than portrait you’ll be able to make the best use of your screen and have a larger view of your teacher.
- Laptop Vs. Smartphone/Tablet
Using a computer has a few benefits over tablets and smartphones. It may be easier to see what’s going on since the screen is larger, but placing it in the ideal spot can be more challenging unless you use a webcam on a cable. It may also be easier to reposition the drums than move a computer desk. Also, if you use a computer most services offer a downloadable app that may offer more features than a browser window or a phone or tablet. To avoid damaging your computer, there are dedicated laptop stands and table stands that can safely put the device where you want it.
- Microphone Check
If the device’s microphone is too close to the drums it can distort, but if it’s too far away it can be difficult for your teacher to hear you speak. Muffling your drums with towels or pads designed for the purpose can help.
- Test Tech Before The Lesson
Before your lesson take some time experimenting with the app or service your teacher uses so you understand how to navigate its various features. You don’t want your lesson to begin, as many of mine have, with the student leaving their audio turned off.
- Get Lit
You’ll also want to be in a well-lit room. Ideally you will not have a window behind you since the camera will expose for the bright window, leaving you appearing dark.
For us teachers, the good news is that there’s no need to get fancy. You can use whatever equipment you currently own whether it’s a phone, a tablet, or a computer if it has a camera (if not, you can purchase a webcam). You can always upgrade your set up later on if you need to, but most people will find it easier to get everything working if they follow the KISS theory: Keep It Simple Stupid!
- Plug It In
Most importantly, make sure both you and your student have plugged in your devices and are not running on battery power. You don’t want to have your lesson ended by a device unexpectedly shutting off.
- Use A Computer
If you have a choice of devices, I’d suggest using a computer since you may have access to audio settings not found on smaller devices. These can drastically affect the quality of the audio your student’s experience. You will want to explore your app’s settings for more advanced features. If your app offers options like “automatically adjust microphone volume/settings,” “automatic gain,” or “background noise reduction” you should try turning these features off. They work well with speech, but not as well with music or with instruments like drums. Typically these features “gate” the audio, which cuts off quiet sounds and make the audio unnatural. Since all set ups are different it’s important to experiment and test out your settings in advance. Since you and your students will be using the same service, your settings may also benefit your students so be sure to share them.
- Check Your Connection
Probably the number one problem you’ll run into is internet connection speed issues. Few things dampen your student’s enthusiasm for online lessons like sluggish service with dropouts. Unfortunately, your results will only be as good as the slowest internet service involved. For example, even though I have a relatively fast connection (300mbps download/24mbps upload), if my student’s internet connection is slower the results on both sides will suffer. You and your students should test your internet speed by using speedtest.net or fast.com. Also, the distance your device is from your router can matter, and a direct ethernet connection is always more reliable than wi-fi.
- Account For Delay Buffer
Even with a fast connection one of the biggest limitations of giving online lessons is that there will always be some delay between you and your student’s device, making it impossible to play together. For this reason, you’ll have to demonstrate a passage and then have your student play it. This alternating approach can be helpful, though I miss playing along with students because they often notice small timing discrepancies more quickly when we perform together.
- Use Headphones
If you notice echo or feedback it’s probably because a speaker is turned up and it’s being picked up by that user’s microphone. If both of you use headphones that should eliminate the issue.
- Speak Slowly
Speak clearly and a little more slowly if you’re not using an external microphone for speaking. There are USB mikes that connect directly to the ports on your phone or computer.
- Use Practice Pads
To minimize distortion from the fast and loud attack of your drums, you can teach reading and snare exercises from a practice pad rather than on a drum. You can muffle the kit by using Sound Off pads or Remo Silent Stroke fabric drum heads with low volume Sabian Quiet Tone or Zildjian L80 cymbals. Tell your students that their drums should be muffled especially if they’re on a tablet or phone and don’t have access to turning off automatic gain compensation (compression) or background noise suppression (gate).
- Try E-Drums
If you want to take things up another level, an electronic drum set can work superbly for online lessons since the audio is levels are so easily adjusted.
- Mike Up The Whole Kit
Another option and the one I’ve chosen to use is a fully miked drum set for my online lessons. I want to deliver the highest quality and most realistic lesson for my students, but if you’re not technically minded this presents issues that could fill an article all on their own. If you’re interested in miking your kit you’ll need a mixer with USB output that can connect to your device or an audio interface.
- Mike Up Part Of The Kit
One good and simple solution to using a fully miked kit is Yamaha’s popular EAD10. This combines a stereo microphone to pick up your entire kit and a bass drum trigger to reproduce low-end that is much simpler than individually miking drums. Depending on what you ultimately choose iPhone/iPad users may also need to invest in a dongle (such as the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter) that allows you to connect USB to your iPhone. Similar options are available for Windows/Android users.
- Zoom Vs. Skype
I’ve only used Skype and Zoom for giving online lessons so far because most people prefer this, and they are both affordable or free. Each has different benefits, and have switched between them. Zoom allows you to easily record the lesson from within the app, and you can share it with your student. On a Mac, you can also use Quicktime to make a screen recording of Skype or any service you choose. Zoom is free with one student, but if you teach group lessons they limit free “meetings” to 40 minutes.
- Examine Your Student’s Kit
One unexpected benefit I’ve found is that you can now see and hear your student’s drum set. Students’ kits are often set up awkwardly and sound bad. You can help your students reposition their kit so it’s more ergonomic and teach them how to tune and dampen their drums.
- Prepare More Than Usual
In general, you’ll need to be a little more organized and prepared for your lessons. If you need your students to play along with a metronome or recorded music, you’ll need to make sure they have it in advance since the connection latency won’t allow you to play it from your end and have them hear it at the same time. A hardware metronome is now a necessary purchase for your students rather than an app unless they can use their app on a spare device.
- Set Up Digital Payments
If your students would typically bring their payment to you at each lesson, you’ll need to set up a service like PayPal or Zelle to make receiving payments easier. Skype also allows you to request money from the person on the other end of the call.
I hope this has illustrated some of the differences and things you’ll need to deal with before trying online lessons, but overall it offers both students and teachers a lot of benefits and convenience. There may be better options out there that I haven’t had time to try, if you have further suggestions please leave them in the comments below.