Teaching Lessons through Online Video Chat: An Interview with Kathy Parsons

This article originally appeared in The Music Teacher’s Helper’s Blog, where Jennifer appears as a monthly writer. http://www.musicteachershelper.com/blog/teaching-lessons-through-online-video-chat-an-interview-with-kathy-parsons/#more-1003  

In case you haven’t heard, it’s a WONDERFUL time to be alive and involved in the world of music!  

With the continual advancements in technology, the way that we create music, share it, and teach it is so incredibly different than how it was only just 10-15 years ago.  

Meet Kathy Parsons – a piano teacher from Florence, Oregon who recently relocated from the San Francisco area. Not only does she teach, but she heads a website called http://www.mainlypiano.com where she writes music reviews for a plethora of renowned musicians. She has had the pleasure of working with artists like David Lanz, Suzanne Ciani, and Spencer Brewer to name only a few.  

And what is even more intriguing, is that despite having recently left California to move an entire state away to her Oregon coastal home, Kathy still teaches a good number of her Californian students by way of modern technology and the internet.  

How is this done? Find out as I share my interview with Kathy Parsons on how she utilizes technology to advance her teaching studio…  

JT: You have been teaching piano for many years. How did you decide to become a teacher, and was it something you had always planned to do?   

KP: As a young person, I divided my time fairly equally between the piano and visual arts. My plan was to teach piano and continue doing my artwork part-time, but, as so often happens, life had other plans. I have been a full-time piano teacher for 27 years and part-time for the past two. I’ll have my 29th anniversary in January. I’d say it was more of a calling than a plan.   

JT: You recently relocated to the central Oregon coast. While this was a huge undertaking for you, you managed to come up with a way to retain some of your piano students despite living in a different city. Can you explain how you were able to do this?   

KP: When I decided to move from the San Francisco Bay Area to the central Oregon Coast, I knew it would be difficult to find new students and I hated to leave some of my students in CA. I was talking to one of my adult students about moving one day, and she told me about her video chat conversations with her brother in Spain over Skype. I had never heard of video chat at that point, so I started doing some investigating since this student was confident that we could continue lessons that way. I have some good contacts at Yamaha in the academic division, and they were kind enough to put me in touch with their “internet guru,” who was doing online lessons. He sent me some very helpful info and once I understood the basics, it was actually easier to work things out on my own.  

I started talking up internet lessons with my students and their parents before I moved. When I left CA, it sounded like close to twenty of my existing students would continue lessons over the internet, but once we got down to reality, only a few followed through 

JT: Did the thought of using the internet and video seem intimidating at all? How was the learning curve?   

KP: Starting anything this new and different is intimidating, especially when so few other people have tried it. At the same time, it is very exciting to be a trail-blazer of sorts. Learning how to do remote lessons was really fairly easy – it was convincing the parents to try it that was difficult. Early on, the pianos sounded like they were under water, which was obviously a big problem. The video feeds had good and bad days, and initially, the service froze up quite often. The service has improved tremendously over the past couple of years.   

JT: Is there a specific internet service or software that you use in order to teach this way? Can you list the equipment involved?   

KP: I have been using Skype, iChat, and Google video chat services. They all have good and bad points. iChat has the clearest video by far, and the sound quality is usually quite good. For Mac users, it seems to be the best option. Google’s video chat seems to be very stable and the sound quality is really good. The video is so-so, but adequate. Skype is very good, but is prone to freezes and dropped calls from time to time. Skype and Google are both free services.Most laptops now come with cameras built in, so that makes it easy. Students who don’t have those use the separate webcams. On my end, I’m using a MacBook laptop with a 13” screen. I hope to upgrade to a bigger screen next year, but the 13” screen is fine. The most important ingredient seems to be a fast internet service. I’m using wireless broadband and am very lucky to be working with a small local company called OregonFast. They are very interested in what I’m doing with the technology and have been extremely helpful and supportive.
  

JT: Okay, so I’m starting to understand what equipment it takes to do this, but, explain this to me: How do you have this set up? Both you and the student have pianos at each end of the camera. The student plays as you watch, and vice versa?   

KP: Yes. When I am talking to students or watching or listening to them play, I have the camera aimed at my face. When I am playing for students, I angle the camera so that it is on my hands. Students have their cameras positioned so I can see exactly what they are doing. On the screen, from my end, the video of the student fills most of the screen, and then there is a smaller box inset so I can see what they are seeing from their end.  

JT: Do you charge the normal amount for these lessons? I thought perhaps they might cost a bit more because of the equipment involved, but I don’t know.   

KP: I have been charging the same rates I was charging before. I used to travel to lessons, so even though there are some expenses on this end for lessons, I’m saving a lot of travel time and gas.  

JT: Do these types of lessons take the same amount of time as traditional in-person lessons?   

KP: Yes. I still do 45-60 minute lessons weekly.   

JT: How do your students enjoy doing lessons this way? Were they pretty open to the idea?  

KP: My students seem to really enjoy online lessons. One of my adult students absolutely loves that she can do her lessons in her pajamas after work! My youngest students right now are twelve, but they have been doing lessons online for a couple of years. At least for now, I wouldn’t take any very young beginners. I think the teacher should be there and very hands-on for beginners. The kids I have now started with me when I was in CA. My adult students say they think this is just as good as having me in the room with them. In some ways, it ’s actually better since it is so focused and adult students don’t seem to get nearly as nervous.   

JT: Have you obtained new students through this method, or do you only retain the previous students?   

KP: I started the mother of one of my younger students online once she could see that it was working well for her daughter. So far, I have only started one student who found me on my website. He is a retired man who lives in Wisconsin. We’ve been doing lessons for about eight months, and he says he just loves it.
 

 

JT: Do you feel that you are able to teach as effectively using this method as you would if you were right there in person? For either/or, can you please explain the differences, pro’s, con’s, etc.?  

KP: It’s a little hard to say because I was getting very discouraged as a teacher in CA. There is just too much competition for time and students seemed to be less and less willing to practice enough to advance very well. I’m not sure if I’m enjoying teaching online more because it is going well or because I’m no longer teaching 43 lessons a week! For adult students, I think this method is just as effective as being in the room. They don’t seem to get nearly as nervous, which is a plus. I feel there is still a very big distrust of the technology from people who have not tried it. This will change over time, but right now it’s a bit of a hard sell.   

JT: Do you think that this method will be the “way of the future” in the teaching world? For example, perhaps instead of searching for a local teacher, a person would just be able to go online and take piano lessons from a music professor in Italy.  

KP: I think that’s possible, but piano teaching seems to be very tradition-bound in a lot of ways. I saw a demonstration awhile back where a pianist in NY was playing a Yamaha piano with a computer hook up to a piano in Los Angeles with the same hook up. The pianist in NY was actually able to play the LA piano remotely. It was astounding! The keys on the LA piano moved, as did the pedals! With that technology, there would be very little difference in doing lessons in person or remotely, but not a whole lot of people have the kind of money it would take buy the equipment.   

JT: Well thank you for taking the time to talk with me, and for giving your perspective and valuable insights to the readers of The Music Teacher Helper’s Blog. This has been very fascinating for me, and I think it will be equally so for other piano teachers out there as well.   

If you have any further questions for Kathy Parsons, you can contact her via her website at http://www.mainlypiano.com  

Kathy Parsons has been teaching piano privately since January 1981. Based in Hercules, CA (SF Bay Area) until the summer of 2007, Kathy has taught students from the age of 5-66, enjoying them all. Now located in Florence, OR, she is continuing to teach via the internet (explained here).
Kathy grew up in Oakland, CA, and started playing the piano at about age 5. Art and music were always the driving forces in her life, and she graduated with a BFA degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1974. Once she started teaching piano a few years later, music became her driving passion. She started writing a monthly newsletter for her students that opened a variety of doors, allowing her to communicate with many composers and artists, especially as the so-called “new age” piano style began to grow. Finding new age to be a bridge between pop and classical music, Kathy discovered that students of all ages could readily identify with this style of music. As sheet music came into print, Kathy incorporated the best of it into her teaching repertoire. She also mixed contemporary composer bios and interviews into her newsletter along with the classical composers, and eventually started doing in-home student workshops with some of her favorite contemporary composers. The list of artists who have performed for and worked with Kathy’s students is impressive, and includes David Lanz, Suzanne Ciani, David Nevue, Robin Spielberg, Kevin Kern, Spencer Brewer, and many others. The newsletter and online music newsgroups in the mid-90’s led to Kathy becoming one of the staff writers for the print version of Bill Binkelman’s “Wind and Wire” magazine. When that was discontinued, she was offered a place to continue writing CD reviews and artist interviews on the site that became Solo Piano Publications. She was the primary writer for that site until early 2008. She then set up her own site (www.MainlyPiano.com), which allows her to expand her endeavors into other areas.
 
Kathy moved to the central Oregon coast in July 2007, looking for a quieter lifestyle and to be closer to the ocean and nature. She continues to teach and write, and is looking forward to expanding her online presence.  
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