It's just a lesson, but you’re not in the same room: Insights from an experienced online educator.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Greg Spence is a Yamaha Artist, and internationally renowned clinician and trumpet player, based in QLD, Australia. Greg’s expansive performance credentials and vast education experience has resulted in him being at the forefront of modern music education with his program Mystery To Mastery and Windworks. His masterclasses have taken him all around the world from the United States to Europe, and he has students from internationally recognised institutions such as the University of North Texas and the Academy of Music in Slovenia. He has played alongside Herbie Hancock, Shirley Bassey, John Farnham, Olivia Newton John and countless others all around the world including Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Greg, you have worn many, many hats over the years. How would you describe yourself and what do you do?

That’s a really, really interesting question that I actually ask myself quite often. I still tell people that I'm a professional trumpet player. However, I don't do a lot of gigs these days. My passion and contentment come from learning, and teaching brass and wind players. It's not just trumpet anymore - It's all brass and wind players, and even some singers. So, I kind of feel like I'm a specialist educator.

I still do some gigs here and there, but I’m also an IT guy, because I've got my WindWorks course, which is online, and I’m dealing with all that comes from running an online subscription course. So, a mix of: Educator, experimenter - always learning more, reading more books about the craft of sound creation on wind instruments - an IT guy, and occasionally playing some gigs.

Before beginning teaching online, you taught students privately, as well as through The University of Melbourne, Victorian College of the Arts, Monash University and many other institutions. How have you found that your lessons have needed to change in order to adapt to the new platform?

Surprisingly, not very much at all.

However, I recently did the Bob Reeves podcast. For those that don't know, Bob Reeves is an incredible instrument maker and mouthpiece maker over in California, and they do a very popular podcast called The Other Side of the Bell. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be interviewed for that. I think the previous month was Chuck Finley and the following month was Doc Severinsen, so it was pretty wild. One of the things that Bob said was that “you've got to get your students to hear the acoustic sound of the trumpet”. Not mp3, not CD, they’ve got to hear it live: people playing live, whether it be in the practice room, in lessons, in concerts, all that sort of thing.

Obviously a lot of people aren't going to be in the position to be able to do this at the moment, but when they can, I implore anyone who is a beginner or intermediate player to get lessons in person as well as anything they receive online. They need a professional sound model. I do all the technical stuff, I do all the psychology stuff, I do whatever is required, but they need to sit in the room, even if it's just once a month, to hear a professional play and get their acoustic sound, because no greater information can be sent direct to our brain than hearing that sound.

I never forget, I played with Wayne Newton back on ‘In Melbourne Tonight’ many years ago, and this lead guy named Kevin was touring. He was ex-University of North Texas and he was touring with Wayne Newton, and this dude’s sound: I've never heard anything like it. It transformed my playing for the next few weeks because I had the sound so deeply ingrained in my brain. It affected the way that I went about things in a real positive way. So, surrounding yourself with great sounding players is really, really important.

But, as far as changing the actual lesson format or anything, not really. It's just a lesson, but you’re not in the same room, so the acoustic sound is really the only difference.

For the next few months we've got students who won't be able to hear live musicians. Do you think that at least listening to recordings is enough?

Absolutely – It's a must. More so now, because they're not at band rehearsals or surrounded by friends that might play or listen to music. Now, more than ever, is the time to listen to as much as possible, and what I just try and keep putting out these days is that we’ve got every resource online available now.

Right now I could search “Mahler 5 Opening” and watch 10 different people play it, or ”Cherokee”. Search any song, and you've got 1000 versions of it at your fingertips. You've got transcriptions of the solos, you've got the chord charts. All at your fingertips. It's right there. We've got the access to all that music. That's why there are some young, incredible musicians coming through at the top level. There are a lot of young kids that are embracing the technology that's there, really working hard, and the standard is just astronomical. It's amazing, because they've got access to it.

I'd be suggesting to anyone reading this to just pick your favourite song, your favourite artist, it doesn't even have to be the instrument that you play. In regard to a sound model, find the best sounding things you can on YouTube, or on CDs and try and emulate, but when you can, make sure that you are going out to hear the real thing.

What do you think are the biggest challenges of teaching online? What challenges did you face early on?

Probably network issues. Especially at the moment, I'll notice that the audio is fine, but the lag in video can happen a bit. That's happening now because of the sheer amount of traffic. Everyone's online now, streaming Netflix and doing all sorts of crazy things. So, the toughest thing is having a decent feed coming through. But generally, it's fine.

I was surprised. Back in 2011, I had people asking me, can you teach on Skype? Someone booked a lesson with me on Skype, and I said to them “Listen, let's just try it. If it's no good, I'll refund you, no drama. We'll just have a chat, and we'll just see how it goes”. Then, we get on there and we chatted for two hours. And it was really, really good. You can spot everything. If you know what you're looking for, online or in the room, it makes no difference. I was blown away by how well it worked.

The other thing is sound issues. I’ve had a student go out and spend thousands of dollars on a microphone. They’ve got this really high powered microphone that's sending through this massive signal, and I had to ask them to unplug the microphone because it wasn’t handling it. They unplugged it and we used the built-in mic from his laptop, and it was perfect.

I use a low-budget microphone myself. I think when I'm playing, it is a little cleaner than when I'm using the built in microphone. Sometimes, if people play directly at the built-in microphone, it overloads and peaks. So, I generally don't have students pointing directly at the microphone. I have them playing into the room, away from the mic, and that stops any peaking issues.

The big thing to keep in mind is that things might go wrong, and it requires patience. You’re not in the room. it’s not perfect, but it’s OK. So, these little technical things that can happen are absolutely no big deal. It's just par for the course of working online.

When it works, it's great. When it doesn't, it can be frustrating, but it's better than not having it at all.

Have you found that there are any benefits to teaching online?

Yes, absolutely.

One of the big things that I've discovered recently: I'm teaching two guys, in California, both at the same time, they do half of the lesson each. I have one do their lesson, and then the other do their lesson, because they can sit there and watch what I’m saying to the other students, and it brings home, in a different way, some of the things that I said to the first student. So, just having that exposure, there's double the information.

I can also guarantee that I'm expediting the results both with my students because we’re filming the lesson, and when they see themselves back, I'm demonstrating it, then he's there watching himself.

I learned a lot of the things that I did by having a mirror and looking closely at what I needed to do. But for these students to have the footage of the lesson, and see what they're doing, to make the adjustments that they need to make, it's just so critically important. And just the mere fact that they've got a lesson that we did once, but they’ve got access to that forever. So, I download from Skype and upload it to an unlisted YouTube channel. I send the link across to the student and they can go away and watch it, watch what they’re doing, watch what I want them to be doing, watch how we unlocked it, listen to how the sound changed.

For teachers who aren’t able to record the lesson or sometimes even able to provide a live interactive lesson, there are still vast benefits to being able to send students video demonstrations and exercises which they are able to keep, and listen or watch on repeat. In asking students to submit videos back to the teacher, the students are being driven to create records of their practice which they can rewatch to see what they’re actually doing as they play. This footage can then be compared to what the teacher has demonstrated, and this can be enormously beneficial to both the teacher and the student.

On top of that, you can also send links in the chat window, you can send pictures, you can send files. It's such a great resource to share the information. Rather than sitting in the middle of a lesson going, “Oh, look, I'll have to email you that, I'll send that across, I'll get that to you, I'll photocopy that”. At the press of a couple of buttons, the student has got the resources that you want straight away. It's really cool.

Finally, a question a lot of us have right now – how do you set yourself up for online teaching? What gear/software do you require? What do your students need?

A phone.

Everyone's got a phone these days. They've got a microphone. They've got a camera. I've used my phone. I've used an iPad.

For quite a while there, I wasn't using a laptop, because the Wi Fi connection on my iPad was stronger, and the iPad itself was faster than my laptop. It’s only as of late that I've started using my laptop. I bought a new one because my old iPad was on the way out. So, I have taught on my phone when there was an issue with the iPad, I've taught on PC with no extra microphone - just using the built in microphone built in camera - and don't forget, if you have an external camera and external microphone, everything is extra.

Here's a story: One day, I got a phone call from a guy and he goes, “I'm just in my car”, and I say “I can wait. Go get sorted. I'm ready when you are”. He goes “No, I'm sitting in my car for the lesson”. He was using his works Wi Fi, outside of his office, for a trumpet lesson. He actually took a selfie and sent it to me to prove that he was sitting in his Dad’s car having a trumpet lesson.

So, you can do it anywhere. I’ve given lessons to dudes in the Caribbean where there's no Wi Fi, just using cellular data, so we couldn't talk for long, but it still worked. You don't need thousands of dollars of microphones and gear.

Just about everyone's got a smartphone these days, download Skype. There are a few different apps, but I prefer Skype. So, no, it doesn't have to cost heaps. It's easy to do.

If I was to sum it up, online teaching is easier and more effective than most people would think. Simple as that.

I was trepidatious at the start - very sceptical. Then I tried it, and thought “Wow. This isn't just good, it's really good.