This is a short series of articles, with lots of info about how to prepare for distance lessons, either as a teacher or a student. While practically anything will "do", as we look to perhaps another year of this, it may be time to invest in the equipment to make your teaching and learning a success and a pleasure while connecting by computer. Along the way I'll share some stories about what I've learned over the past 5 years of Zoom sporadically and over the past 4 months of Zoom all day! But I'll talk about other software as well - Zoom is certainly not the only choice.
The device, the connection to the internet and the software
You need a device - a cellphone, a laptop, a tablet, a computer. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.
Cellphones - usually really good microphones for good sound transmitted. Incoming can be good as well, but headphones are almost a necessity. The big con is the size of the screen, so if you rely on looking at your teacher, it is good for once in a while, maybe not perfect for weekly. But it does work. Bit small for teaching - hard to see what people are doing, but for closeups it is fine.
Tablets are great because they have larger screens, the mics range from terrible to good, but there are features of most of the software applications that are not available on phones or tablets. They can be even cheaper than phones, and one that is fairly new will work well. They do tend to last a while, and if you have one that is 8 years old, it is time for a new one for your lessons. You can still use the old one to take notes on or record your lessons! I've used a tablet (either an ipad or a surface pro 3) for the past few years for distance lessons, but rapidly switched over to a new laptop when it became hours a day.
Another advantage of tablets is that they may be easier to position so that the hands may be seen. Kind of important in music lessons.
Laptops - by good fortune, I had replaced an ancient laptop with a new Surface 3 laptop last fall. But I was mostly using it to take notes for the students and myself, and using the tablet for the actual lesson. I also used both laptop and tablet when I wanted to have two sessions going so I could have 2 cameras. That worked when I was travelling between studios, but once I was only in my home studio, it was time to look for a more elegant solution to that problem. I'll talk about it later.
A laptop is a great solution if you type during the lesson, (you can have your lesson session taking up most of the screen, while having a little chunk left for writing). Depending on what you're playing or teaching or learning, it can be awkward to both see the screen and have the camera see you.
Desktop computers - newer and powerful ones are fantastic. They are usually wired by an ethernet cable to your internet router, so wifi is never a problem. They don't usually have microphones or cameras, so these must be added to make the system work. But if your computer is where you'll be doing the lesson, and you can position it so you can see what is usually a much larger screen, and then position an independent camera to show what your hands or body are doing, it can be just terrific. Good speakers are often connected, and many people (or is it just me?) have more than one monitor connected. This means you can expend your display in your app. Can be a great solution if your instrument or your desk are mobile.
Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Discord, microsoft Teams
I have been using Zoom for about 5 years, after cycling through all the options, it was clearly the best. I'm not sure it is now, as I have not tested many of the others recently, but it is certainly a fine solution. I also like Discord a lot for the lack of latency, but they don't have a two camera setup/share screen setup, and it is best for one to one. I've heard that Microsoft Teams is excellent, but I have no subscription and no experience. So Zoom it is for me.
If you are a teacher, I highly recommend the two camera route, which I'll talk about in a later post. If you're a student, one is fine. Of course you need to change the settings to deal better with instrument sounds rather that speaking voices, but it is all easy to do. And groups are handled well, though the restraints of only one person being heard at a time can be frustrating.
a late update from my tech consultant-(some of you know him :) "Teams is now free for use, although you need to sign up with a Microsoft account. Most PC people have Microsoft accounts, as you typically get one set up when you buy a laptop with Windows on it. - Teams does have some of the best sound quality of all the collaboration apps I've used, so it may be a good option for some people". On the strength of that I plan to work with it a bit over the summer and report back.
The internet - the fastest speed connection your circumstances of location and budget allows! The software is getting better at reducing demands for slower bandwidth, but in this case, the faster the better. Especially important is upload speeds. Telus is almost always better than Shaw Cable for this, as Shaw emphasizes download to deliver you your tv or movies. But teaching, or playing for your teacher, means sending out the signal - the upload. I just checked the Telus page and if your studio is in the "pure fibre" territory, you can get very high speed (gigabit) rates at the same price as people were paying for much less a few years ago. So if you haven't called them lately, you may get a pleasant surprise when you do. Here's where I checked - If you are not in BC, there are similar options for your provider. (more info now in comments below)
You may wish to think about how old your router is - if you get an upgraded internet connection, you'll likely get a new one for free, but it is worth asking if your wifi signal could be improved in speed or power by a new router.
At very high speeds, you wifi will be the limiting factor so a ethernet cable connection will get the maximum value out of those high speed, high cost connections to the internet.