Zoom and Online Lesson Basics: How to Create an Online Piano Lesson Setup

Joseph @ Flex Lessons
Apr 12, 2021
If you are a piano student or teacher who has just stumbled into the world of online lessons, you might have many questions on how to set up before your first lesson. This post is aimed at addressing these questions and getting you started.

In this post, I will go over some general setup tips and talk about camera views, microphones, and any other related information that may assist you in your online lesson setup. I have created this post because I am an online piano instructor and I notice a lack of material on this subject. Rather than repeat the same things to all my new students, I’ll instead share my ideas with everyone here.

This post applies to both students and teachers. With that said, you should know that I have an entire section of this site dedicated to educating teachers.

With that said, here’s what you need to know when setting up for online piano lessons.

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Be sure your network connection is reliable. 

While there are many factors to take into consideration when setting up for online lessons, consistency of your network strength is the most important one, in my experience. You may have a fast download speed, but if your network is constantly fluctuating between different speeds, you probably won’t have a good experience. 

The reason that this is so important is because Skype (and similar platforms) constantly adjust the audio and visual quality according to the bandwidth. If the bandwidth is constantly changing, the client will lag or the video and audio will come out of sync, and the audio and video quality goes out the window. In this situation, a perfectly timed metronome will appear to be inconsistent, which is no good. 

The best thing you can do is have your lesson in the same room as your router, or use an Ethernet connection. You may also want to use a newer router that supports the most recent WiFi standards. If you can’t be this close to your router, try to at least be within one room or so. You might even experiment with moving the router around and setting up on different sides of the piano. Sometimes, even a few feet may make a large difference. 

If the room occupied by your piano is across the house from your router, you may wish to look into a mesh network or something like a Netgear Orbi (this is what I currently use), which expands the network wireless at full speed across an entire house and allows your devices to connect via Ethernet cable directly into one of the satellite units.

This is a satellite extension of the Orbi system, which plugs directly into my PC.

Use a modern laptop, desktop, or tablet.

Next to the internet reliability, your choice of computer or tablet will be most important. In my opinion, modern laptops work best for Skype lessons because they can be placed on a stool or a stand with the built-in webcam pointed at the optimal angle. My current setup uses a laptop and this stand

Surface Laptop and Onstage laptop stand

Tablets such as the iPad, iPad Pro, or Surface Pro work quite well if you can work out a good mounting solution. These devices often have better cameras and microphones than laptops, but aren’t as convenient to mount. In cases such as these, I recommend a sturdy floor stand which can allow for simple adjustments in all directions. The stand needs to be sturdy enough to not tip over, which rules out most of the cheaper options. You don’t want your expensive tablet falling over and shattering the screen. 

Lastly, you can use any laptop or desktop device plugged into an external webcam such as the Logitech C920 or the Logitech Brio. If you are in the market for a webcam, I recommend the Logitech Brio over anything else because the wide field of view allows the camera to be placed relatively close to your instrument. Check out my video review if you want to see this camera in action. 

Webcams are significantly easier to position while allowing the viewing device to remain in an optimal viewing position. The only downside here is that you will not appear to be looking at the camera when viewing your screen, unless you position the camera right above the screen (which is what I currently do). 

Logitech Brio 4k Webcam

One last thing to mention about your choice of device is that newer computing devices tend to have better WiFi chips and perform better farther away from your router. If you have an older generation device, you may need to be in the same room as your router to get smooth performance. 

Position your webcam optimally.

The best viewing angle for online piano lessons may depend on your instructor’s preferences. This may change depending on your skill level and the subjects being discussed. Having said this, I will give you an idea as to what I generally prefer for my students so that you can have something to reference. 

For most of my students, the camera should be positioned from a similar vantage point as someone who would be sitting in a chair adjacent to the piano. I generally prefer this to be on the left side of the piano, but the other side works fine if you are limited on space or network strength. Try to place the device a few feet on either side of your bench, where the screen is mostly perpendicular to the keyboard.

This view is ideal but may not be comfortable to use when using a built-in webcam.

This view is a good compromise while still displaying the keyboard at the right height and angle.

This view is a bit too far forward but could still work if you are limited on space.

The height of the camera should be about eye level, or at least high enough so that one hand doesn’t block the view of the other hand. If you are very invested, you may wish to use a top down view as a second camera, but this isn’t necessary for most people. I do recommend you consider such a thing if you plan to use this type of instruction to become a professional yourself, as the instruction will need to be fairly nuanced in this case.

C922/C920 webcam in overhead configuration, complete with dust!

These preferences are based on my attempts to maximize comfort for the student, while still allowing me to see mostly what I need to see. Provided I am working with copies of material that the student is playing from, what I hear is far more important than what I see. This is probably true of most other instructors as well. Additionally, I do prefer a setup where face to face interaction is possible, as the lesson feels more personal and natural this way. 

One last thing I’ll add regarding webcams is that good lighting goes a long way towards improving picture quality. In fact, lighting typically makes a more noticeable difference than improving the camera itself. One reason why this is important is that many webcams slow down the frame rates in low lighting to get a better exposed image. For piano lessons to work well, we need a smooth framerate!

Choose the best audio for your setup.

The audio quality is a critical component of an online piano lesson. Although communication clients only allow the audio quality to be so high, microphones really do make a big difference on what audio is actually captured.

AT2035 XLR Microphone (requires audio interface)

For most people using a modern tablet or laptop, the audio quality will be fine from the build-in microphone. However, you may wish to invest in something such as a Blue Yeti or other similar usb condenser microphone if you want your sound to be more detailed. If you are using Zoom, you may want to consider the Blue Yeti because Zoom supports stereo audio, which is incredibly nice. Any external mic will be helpful because you can position it on the piano or somewhere away from your speakers, which decreases the occurrence of feedback loops. 

I also highly recommend using a nice pair of headphones (preferably without a mic), which will eliminate the occurrence of feedback loops and allow you to experience an online lesson in a much more immersive way. No speakers on any tablet or laptop will come close to replicating the sound quality of a good pair of headphones, so this will have a very positive impact on your lesson. 

Sennheiser HD 598

I recommend using a pair of open-back headphones such as the Sennheiser HD559 or HD598 (which is similar to what I use). Try to avoid noise-cancelling headphones as you will need to be able to hear your own playing. Open-back headphones allow you to hear yourself and other sounds in the room. 

Other tips for your Skype piano lesson set up

Here are a few other things to keep in mind to ensure your online lessons go smoothly:

  • Make sure your device and Skype client are fully updated before beginning of every lesson. You really need to be in the habit of doing this so that unwanted updates don’t interfere with the call. 
  • Allow yourself at least 15 minutes before your scheduled lesson to warm up and check for updates. In fact, you should warm up while checking for updates! It is also a good idea to make sure your computer has been restarted recently. 
  • Be sure to plug your devices into wall outlets or ensure they are fully charged before the lesson. For those of you who use iPads, you must use the larger power adapter that came with your iPad (or an equivalent one). The smaller phone adapters don’t charge the iPad as fast as the battery drains during a call. 

These tips are based around avoiding issues that I frequently encounter during lessons. If you are interested in improving the quality of your Skype lessons and wish to avoid other issues that can get in the way, check out my article 9 Things that Ruin a Skype Piano Lesson. This article spells out all the things that can get in the way of a good lesson and what you can do about them. 

Minimum requirements for online piano lessons using Skype or Zoom

To summarize, here is the minimum that I need from a student in order to teach effectively:

  • Strong internet connection
  • Viewing angle needs to be high enough so that the hands do not block one another.
  • Lighting should be bright enough to ensure a smooth framerate.

That’s basically it. You would be surprised how smooth lessons can be when students can hit these basic requirements. Lesson setups that focus on these things should allow for a pleasant and reliable experience where quality of instruction rivals in-person lessons.  

If you are a music teacher looking to skip the whole trial and error process with online lessons, I would like to encourage you to become a Flex Lessons Member. I have been through this process and I am making all of my knowledge and experience available to you! 

This post was originally published on the Clarion Clavier blog in April, 2019. It has since been updated and relocated to this site.