Piano Lessons in a Pandemic

For the past few years I have been taking weekly piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music in downtown Toronto. March 12, 2020 was my last in-person lesson. As I was traveling home, I heard the news: lock down effective at midnight.


It took a few weeks for the RCM to pivot to on-line learning and virtual music lessons via Zoom.

A steep learning curve ensued. I had spent 25 years as a 911 operator and police dispatcher. I was accustomed to sitting at a desk with 5 monitors, several keyboards, and a headset and phone. Pretty much the definition of multi-tasking. I had also recently completed my M.A. which was done entirely on-line, interacting with others in my courses via text. How hard could a Zoom piano lesson be?


The first lesson was a disaster. I downloaded the Zoom app, entered the link and set up my iPad on a music stand beside the piano. Unbeknownst to me, the mic on my iPad was not working. I could see and hear my teacher. He could see me, but not hear me. Not ideal for a piano lesson. So I connected my desktop computer to Zoom. Now my teacher could hear me, but not see me because of the placement of my desktop. We muddled through and the next lesson was much better. I have now re-positioned my desktop, on a box sitting on a chair, so that he can see my keyboard. An external mic was added to try to improve the sound.


There are still minor glitches: usually one of us forgets to turn on video or sound, but quickly resolved. In a year I've only experienced one internet outage, forfeiting the last 10 minutes of a lesson.


Zoom was never designed for music lessons or performance and the sound quality is not the greatest since it is delivered through less than adequate computer mics and speakers. The time lag is annoying. Occasionally, the internet speed changes producing freeze time. The view is static. My teacher normally hovers around the piano, checking my positions from every possible angle.

Another unanticipated problem arose. I am working on a lot of unknown or neglected repertoire by famous as well as more obscure composers and my teacher does not always have the score, or, if he does, it is not necessarily the same edition I am using. Problem solved by scanning and emailing scores prior to my lesson.


However, I have found that there are several advantages to a virtual lesson. I don't have to spend hours traveling to and from my lesson that has involved a stressful combination of driving, sometimes VIA rail, then the GO train, followed by the TTC subway. I also get to play on my own piano! And I am always warmed up ahead of time. Those are all my advantages. My teacher is just happy that he is still employed.


Final analysis: Virtual lessons are a great stop-gap measure. Nothing can completely replace in-person lessons, much like in-person concerts, but it is much better than nothing.


Hopefully in the upcoming months, we can all return to making and experiencing live and in-person music!





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