Video lesson tips
I started teaching online before the pandemic, so these recommendations come from many hours of hands-on experience.
The short version:
1. Use a laptop of desktop computer for Zoom – NOT a phone or tablet.
2. Use an Ethernet cable, not WiFi, to connect to your network. (See below for a link to Ethernet adapters for laptops.)
One possible exception is if you have a good mesh WiFi network and one of the satellite units is in the same room, easily visible from your computer.
3. Set up in a quiet space. Place your computer or web camera at one of of your keyboard as in the photo below.
4. You need a speaker separate from your computer for playing back accompaniment tracks: a boom box, wireless speaker (Bluetooth, Sonos, etc), or stereo receiver and speakers.
5. Get a USB mic. See below for recommendations.
6. Set up Zoom as described below. Check that everything is running correctly BEFORE your lesson or class starts.
For details, read on.
For successful online lessons, you need:
- reasonably fast internet service, preferably with an Ethernet connection
- a speaker for playing back accompaniment tracks
- a web camera – preferably separate from your computer
- a USB microphone – optional, but highly recommended
Use a laptop or desktop computer for Zoom, not a mobile device. The mobile version of Zoom lacks important features we need for music lessons, and phone and tablet screens are too small.
If you have fiber internet, congratulations – you’re good to go!
If you don’t have fiber and it’s available in your area, get it!
Cable internet is usually sufficient for online lessons, but some plans have very slow upload speeds, which can be a challenge for video conferencing.
Please check your upload speed at speedtest.net. Note that real-life speeds often differ from what your provider advertises.
Your upload speed should be at least 4 Mbps.
If others in your household will be doing video chat, online gaming, or other bandwidth-intensive activities at the same time as your lesson, you need faster than 4 Mbps upload, or you should schedule your lesson for a time when others aren’t online.
Connect to your router with an Ethernet cable instead of Wi-Fi.
This is critical. WiFi connections are inherently unstable for video conferencing. The result is choppy video and audio on my end, making it all but impossible for me to give you feedback.
Ethernet cables are inexpensive; here you can get a 20 ft. one with a lifetime warranty for under $5.00, and many other lengths are available.
If your router is far away from the lesson location, it’s worth the effort to run a long cable. If a cable running across the room or down the hall is a nuisance, disconnect it from your computer, coil it up, and store it near the router between lessons.
Connect one end of the cable to a “LAN” port on your router and the other to your computer.
If you own a recent Apple laptop, you’ll need an Ethernet adapter or a hub. Here’s Apple’s Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet adapter ($29).
2. Speaker for playing back accompaniment tracks
Accompaniment tracks are essential practice tools for studying jazz and Latin music.
You need a speaker that’s loud enough that your piano or keyboard doesn’t drown it out, and that has good low-frequency response so you can hear the bass player.
For video lessons, it’s also important that the speaker is separate from your computer system.
Speakers on laptops, smartphones, and tablets are too small. So are pocket-size Bluetooth speakers.
A home stereo system is a good option. If you don’t have one, or if it’s not in the space where you’ll be taking lessons, then consider getting a wireless speaker.
Wireless speakers are controlled by an app on your phone or tablet. Some connect via Bluetooth, while others connect via WiFi.
Here are some recommendations. Prices are accurate at the time of writing (November, 2020) but are subject to change.
Let’s start with Bluetooth speakers:
Smallest is the Ultimate Ears Boom 3 ($130-150). Two of my students use a Boom 2 (the previous version), and it sounds good! Larger models from Ultimate Ears are probably fine too.
For a larger portable, consider the JBL Xtreme 2 waterproof Bluetooth speaker ($199-250 ), rated the best-sounding portable at The Wirecutter. Two of my students use this.
If you don’t need a speaker to be portable or waterproof, consider the Monoprice Soundstage3 ($199), The Wirecutter’s runner-up for best home Bluetooth speaker.
The most popular WiFi speakers are made by Sonos. The sound quality is generally better than Bluetooth, and connecting to the speaker is easier.
Consider the Sonos One ($199) or Sonos One SL ($179, without voice control) or the portable Roam ($169) or Move ($399).
If you’re new to all this tech stuff, I’m happy to help you get set up.
3. Web camera
Web cams provide better quality video than built-in cameras in laptops, iMacs, etc. And they’re easy to move into position so I can see both your hands on the keyboard and your face (see the photo below in “Setting Up”).
The Logitech C920s ($70) is a popular USB web cam. These have sometimes been in short supply during the pandemic. Check Amazon, B&H Photo, Best Buy, Adorama Camera, etc.
If using a Logitech web cam, get the Logitech Webcam Settings app and disable auto-focus.
An external microphone is optional but highly recommended. The sound quality will be much better that of the built-in mic in your computer or mobile device.
If you already have a microphone and audio interface, use them!
Otherwise, a USB mic is easy to use: Simply plug it into your computer and select it as an input in Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc.
Note for Yeti users: Since the Yeti has a headphone jack, sometimes Zoom automatically selects it as a “speaker”. If you don’t hear sound from your computer speakers, check Zoom audio settings and if necessary change the speaker back to your computer speakers.
A smaller and less costly option is The Wirecutter’s “budget pick”, the Amazon Basics Desktop Mini Condenser Mic.
You’ll need an adapter to connect USB mics to iOS devices, newer Apple laptops, and most Android devices. Check device compatibility before purchasing. General info on connecting the Yeti to iOS and Android devices is here.
Ideally, have a light behind your web cam (not behind you), slightly off to one side.
Avoid lighting from directly above you and from behind you if possible. Light from above casts shadows on your face, giving you raccoon eyes; light from behind you can reduce the camera’s exposure so I only see your silhouette. If there’s a window behind you with curtains, shades, or blinds, close them.
6. Setting up
The photo below shows an excellent setup for video lessons (courtesy of student Marilyn O.).
Play-along tracks and apps are stored on the iPad, which connects via Bluetooth to the speaker.
Note that the laptop is set at a right angle to the piano and is propped up on books.
The speaker should face the microphone. (Don’t place it behind the mic, or I won’t be able to hear it.)
The web cam (mounted on a music stand) and the USB mic are connected to the laptop.
7. Zoom Settings – Version 5.4.9 and later
In the Zoom desktop app (Mac and Windows), go to “Settings” by clicking on the gear icon in the upper right as shown in the screen shot below.
Click on “Audio” to access audio settings, as shown below.
Un-check the box “Automatically adjust microphone volume.”
Set “Suppress background noise” to “Low”.
See screen shot below.
In the section “Music and Professional Audio”, check the box “Show in-meeting option to “Enable Original Sound” from microphone.”
If using an Ethernet connection, check the boxes for “High fidelity music mode” and “Stereo Audio”.
Make sure that “Echo cancelation” is checked.
Scroll down and check the box “Automatically join computer audio when joining a meeting.” See screen shot below.
Now click “Advanced” at the bottom of the audio settings window to go to advanced audio settings.
Echo Cancellation should be set to “auto.”
In the meeting
After joining a meeting, click on “Turn on original sound” in the upper left corner of the main window, as shown below. This removes some of Zoom’s sound processing, which is optimized for talking but isn’t good for music lessons. After clicking, it will change to “Turn off original sound.” This means that original sound is on, which is what we want.