I have been teaching bagpipes face to face and using Skype for several years, with a number of successes. The Skype approach is a compromise compared with face to face tuition, but has proven to be a very good one for many situations. This article discusses using Skype, or other similar internet based tools, for remote bagpipe instruction.
Over the last few years, I have taught several pupils over an extended period of time using Skype, several of them winning prizes in solo contests. One I have been teaching for over 2 years, and I have only met him 3 or 4 times; he has now been winning first prizes in C grade solos at major contests. This article is based on practical experience of this approach to tuition.
Note that the effectiveness of any teaching vehicle depends on the skill of the tutor
Note that the effectiveness of any teaching vehicle depends on the skill of the tutor, not just the value of the tool. Having over the last 2 or 3 years myself gained a number of placings in A grade solos in substantial fields of players, I respectfully add the comment that prowess as a player does not always mean effectiveness as a tutor; while it is beneficial, tutoring is a separate skill to musical performance. (It’s not about what I know and can do, it’s about what my pupils know and can do after tuition).
It has also been my experience that, over time I, as a tutor, have taught my “ear” to hear things on Skype with the feeling for what Skype is doing to the sounds, such as very occasional, short bursts of increased tempo, caused by Skype playing catch-up, rather than by the pupil rushing, and also the minor distortion of sounds, making differentiating grace notes a hearing skill of its own.
First – it’s not all or nothing
I’m a great believer in looking at tools available for any purpose and seeing how they AUGMENT what can currently be done, not just how effective they will be at REPLACING it. Wherever feasible, I have regular (weekly or fortnightly) lessons with my pupils using Skype, and add to that an occasional face to face lesson. The occasional face to face session both helps to pick up and assist with some of the things for which Skype is not such a good tool, but also gives me further feedback to make the next Skype lessons more productive. This hybrid combination works extremely well.
Whether or not an occasional face to face lesson can be organised, Skype lessons are a good, albeit not perfect, tool for tuition where other options are difficult or unavailable.
What can you learn in Skype lessons and what is not so easy to learn?
Using Skype, I have successfully taught:
- Technique -fingerwork – exercises – correct embellishments – correcting crossing sounds
- Tuning – understanding and carrying out drone tuning, including learning a good process for tuning drones. I have now had some experience in teaching chanter tuning over Skype and it is certainly viable to do.
- Expression – timing, phrasing, pointing, tempo consistency
- Piobaireachd – the good news is that my singing voice is not so consequential over a Skype connection. 😊
I have not taught music theory in a structured way using Skype, but the option of sharing a Windows screen is one I have no doubt would be useful for the purpose.
I have not tackled these areas using Skype or have found them less than optimal thus far:
- Blowing skills – detection of blowing issues is possible, but correction is better done with physical proximity
- Posture – once again detection of issues (which I do have a concern are not being given due consideration by tutors, and are a health risk) is fine, but correction is better done with a good ability to physically demonstrate
- Playing together – Skype introduces delays in transmission, typically a half a second or so. So, actually playing tunes together is essentially not possible. I have found a useful compromise in muting the sound on my phone and asking pupils to play along with me. I can’t hear them, which means I can keep my own tempo steady and my technique and expression strong. My experience is that my pupils are good at detecting for themselves when they are not in sync with me and we then discuss why and look at adjustments.
- Tone – Skype gives me a good view of the fundamental pitch of the sounds being produced by the student, but there is no way at this point I can take TOO seriously the tone from the instrument I am listening to e.g. a mellow chanter sound can sound metallic over a Skype connection.
- Anything where physical viewing is needed – such as chanter and drone reed manipulation, where I can’t easily guide a student’s hand, or demonstrate (e.g., shaving or using a mandrel on a chanter reed or shifting a drone reed bridle) and show the effect. I have had occasion to want to undercut a chanter hole (after persistent reed manipulation attempts), but this is not something one does lightly and without good, strong visibility and control of what’s happening. I have done it (successfully on a small adjustment) on one occasion, but I prefer not to.
Upsides of lessons using Skype
There are many benefits to using Skype for tuition. Here are a key few of them that I have recognised over the last few years:
- The tyranny of distance – Australia is a vast country, with some populated areas being many hundreds of kilometres from potential piping tutors. In perspective, Australia’s population density*1 of 3.22 people per square kilometre (8.35 per square mile) is lower than, but similar to Canada’s of 4.06. It is less than a fifth of New Zealand’s at 18.04, less than a tenth of the USA at 35.72 and only just over 1% of that of the UK at 275.18.Where distance (or other issues) means there are no other realistic options, of course Skype is a great vehicle for tuition.At the same time, travel across major cities has become increasingly difficult and time-consuming. I live in Sydney, mid- distance between the Central Business District and outlying suburbs, and two of my students live in a suburb at the edge of the Sydney suburban area. OFF PEAK, travel time each way is typically nearly an hour, according to Google maps. So a 40 minute weekly face to face lesson would take nearly 3 hours for them to accomplish, compared to 40 minutes and a bit using Skype. And time to find a parking spot near my home, the cost of using tolled roads, the cost of car fuel and vehicle wear and tear add to the equation.
If you had the choice between 3 hours a week for a face to face lesson, and 40 minutes a week over Skype, would you now see an option for tuition?
If you would like to have lessons from an overseas tutor, it also becomes a realistic option.
And let’s not forget the “oh no – I forgot my sheet music” situation.
As a side note, the implications of population sparsity on the ability to hold and get to competitions is pretty clear.
- Time zone issues – scheduling time for any activities in the modern era is problematic for many people. Most people think of music lessons as being an evening activity, but what if your desired tutor is booked out in the evenings and you work in the day time? What if you do shift work? You can find a good tutor anywhere around the world at a time that suits you.
- Mobility – you can instruct and/or receive Skype lessons anywhere. I have on several occasions taught a regularly scheduled Skype lesson from a hotel room. Most sounds in a Skype lesson are produced by the student, so earphones generally remove any noise issues.I now run my lessons from my mobile phone and have been doing so for a couple of years, with better apparent quality than my Windows 10 laptop provided. My students will vouch for the fact that I don’t miss much (an incorrect grace note, an imprecise taorluath, a miniscule crossing sound).
- Cost – depending on the situation (i.e. an instructor’s charging regime), it may be less expensive to have a Skype lesson than paying for an instructor’s travel time to and from your location. If you would like a tutor/adjudicator to have a listen to your band and offer critique/advice, this could be very pertinent.
And the downsides?
While Skype-style tuition has a lot going for it, and overall is a tremendous medium for the purpose, it does have downsides. Here are a few that I have noted along the way:
- Ease of interrupting the pupil mid-flight – because of the network propagation delays and the apparent muting of sound in one direction when the other is sounding, interrupting a pupil’s playing is sometimes difficult. At the same time, my pupils have learned to notice out of the corners of their eyes when both my hands go up. 😊
- Ease of indicating a specific place in the music to discuss – rather than using a finger to point to “there”, it’s a matter of “2nd part, 2nd line, 3rd bar, the dotted B in the 2nd group”. Mind you, it does enhance understanding of musical structure.
- Visibility of fingers – some of my pupils like me to see their smiling faces, rather than their fingers. It would be better to see their fingers, but at the same time, pipers’ fingers move pretty fast and Skype’s video sampling rate sometimes makes it difficult to see exactly what is happening. I have not GENERALLY found the video sampling to be a major issue, but there have definitely been very occasional circumstances where it has caused some difficulty in solving a specific problem.
- Technology issues and failures – there have been occasions where Skype has simply failed mid-lesson, or I or my student couldn’t get it working at the start of a lesson. I perceive this as a less and less frequent issue over time – in fact, it’s now pretty rare. A recent case in point was a pupil having a household power failure during his lesson. He switched over to his mobile phone and reconnected, with a loss of about 2 minutes. There’s that mobility factor at work.
- Interruptions – I occasionally have incoming phone calls during lessons (usually from a likely spammer). While I do not answer them, Skype may put the lesson on hold for 5 or 10 seconds while I react to and reject the incoming call, and of course, the student doesn’t know what’s happening. To a lesser degree, incoming text messages can disrupt a little as well.
- Bandwidth – I have an adequate, but relatively small amount of data (monthly bandwidth) available to me. A Skype session seems to vary for me between a half and one gigabyte of data, so this is a consideration if you use mobile data for your connection.
Skype and similar tools are a compromise, but a good one. They can be a great enabler for improving your standard and enjoyment of playing and can be used to maximise the convenience and minimise the disruption of having lessons.
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. I have tutored pupils over Skype for several years and have seen them achieve success in solo contests, but just as importantly, increase their enjoyment in playing this great instrument.
The Bagpipe Academy
*1 United Nations figures 2018
© 2018 The Bagpipe Academy