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  • David Barach

Setting up for online learning as a student

With schools closing for COVID-19, it's time to start doing remote learning for piano lessons. This post is intended to provide basic setup instructions for my students, but I hope it can be helpful to other teachers' students as well. I have three levels of complexity: level 1 (what you can do with what most households have on hand; you can do it for $0 or throw in up to $30 to enhance the experience); level 2 (requires a $60-$100 investment for a webcam plus tripod plus ethernet cable; worth it if you're gonna do long term remote lessons); level 0 (all you have is a phone).

The simple start: level 1 setup

The simplest way to start is propping up a device where my head would be if I were next to you teaching. For example, an iPad on a music stand can work:

From this view, if you angle it right, I can see the student and the keys. Here's a photo taken from my iPad in the above setup, so this is what the teacher wants to see:

The device in question can be a computer, tablet, or phone. Here, the phone is probably the last choice, because that's now a really small screen the student is looking through to see their teacher.

My tripod is a music stand, and I know most households don't have one. But you can probably find something around the house that will work, like a laptop on a table or chair. That said, you might consider throwing $20 or $30 at a tripod that goes really high, cause it's nice if the setup can be a bit adjustable so the teacher can see different angles.

If you use a laptop, you can hook up an ethernet cable instead of using wifi, and the speed will multiply in my case by 10, and the possibility of lag is greatly reduced. The cost is about $10. Get a long one.

Level 2 (for people who take lots of remote lessons)

The above setup works, but makes it harder to get the student's attention if I want to stop them from playing and say something. A little planning can work around that ("play just the first line"), but if you can manage it, a better setup is when the screen (aka "the teacher") is right in front of the student's eyes, but the camera is to the side. Also that setup can lead to a more detailed image for me, the teacher. If you'll be taking remote lessons for more than just a few weeks, this "level two setup" is what to aim for.

When I'm the student in a remote lesson, I put my laptop on the piano, but hook it up to a webcam.... on a "gorillapod tripod" (very optional) on a music stand on a chair:

This is great! I can see my teacher and any sheet music right in front of me, and she gets a great bird's eye view and can really see what's going on with my hands, body, and the whole keyboard at once. I use a logitech C920 webcam, which cost me about $60:

Don't worry: just finding the highest tripod you can get (probably a boom mic stand and adapter so your webcam will attach; $30) would be less haphazard than my personal setup and also get the same result. A USB extension cable helps (about $5). Again, as with level one, since you're using a laptop here, an ethernet cable is great ($10).

In this situation, if you have an upright piano, you just put the computer on top of the piano, and maybe the student has to look up a little to see the teacher, but it's still great. If you have a grand, here's a detail shot of how I balance the laptop:

Level 0 (worst case, we can still get things done)

If we have to use a phone, and there's no phone tripod, worst case scenario, we can still get a lot done with just the phone, and nobody will catch the coronavirus from the encounter. Here's the phone leaning on the side of the piano so it can see the keys:

And I will see this:

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