It was only a matter of time before online music lessons became fashionable. But just because something is fashionable doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. While technology enthusiasts loudly proclaim that everyone needs the latest device, software or virtual experience, many others would disagree.
Perhaps when doing a search for music lessons you found teachers near you, but also noticed advertisements for online instruction. In fact, there are now several options for studying music online, such as learning without a live teacher by watching a series of videos. So to keep it simple, this post only compares the advantages and disadvantages of taking synchronous (i.e. live) music lessons with a remote teacher (typically via Skype or FaceTime) vs. traditional in-person lessons at a teacher’s studio.
From A to Z, I present a comprehensive list of factors to consider. The “pros” and cons” refer specifically to the advantages and disadvantages of online lessons.
Access to Teachers
If you can’t find a quality teacher in your area, or any teachers at all, then obviously studying online will open up many potential options. Also, you’ll almost certainly be able to find someone that teaches exactly the repertoire, technique etc. that you’re interested in. Online lessons with a superior teacher are likely to be more worthwhile than in-person lessons with a mediocre teacher.
- PROS: Access to more high-quality teachers.
- CONS: None.
Most method books include accompaniments for teachers to play with students. Duets are a valuable opportunity to experience playing with a better musician. The nature of delays in online instruction, even if measurable only in milliseconds, means that playing such duets is difficult if not impossible. To some extent, this issue can be ameliorated by playing with prerecorded accompaniments at home. Still, live duet playing is better.
- PROS: None.
- CONS: Playing live duets with your teacher isn’t possible.
Distractions in your home environment may interrupt online lessons. However, keeping household members informed can prevent such problems.
- PROS: None
- CONS: Greater likelihood of distractions during lessons
Even though I received a certificate in distance education in conjunction with my master’s degree (which implies I’m 100% in favor of online learning), I think the value of human presence is undervalued when weighing the costs and benefits of virtual instruction. So many of us live isolated lives mediated by technology (as I am experiencing at this very moment). From a teaching perspective, I’m grateful that I get to spend 30 hours a week in one-on-one interactions with live, breathing human beings. How many people get to do that? There are obvious benefits for students, too. Not only do you get to interact with a live, breathing human, but the possibility of connecting more deeply with your teacher is enhanced when you are together in person.
- PROS: None.
- CONS: No interaction with a live, breathing human being.
If the size of your instrument (e.g. piano) means you can’t bring it to in-person lessons, you may sometimes feel frustrated having to play a different instrument than you practice on at home. Online lessons allow you to experience the comfort and security of playing your own instrument for your teacher. This has downsides, though: you can no longer make the excuse “I can play it better at home” (i.e. on my own instrument)!” Also, and more seriously, if your teacher’s instrument is superior to yours (which it usually is), you miss the benefits of performing on it. Playing a superior instrument at lessons is especially useful for more advanced players.
- PROS: Play your own instrument in lessons.
- CONS: Can’t play your teacher’s (likely) superior instrument.
Most music teachers like to offer recitals. While some online teachers may compensate for the lack of recitals by having students share performance videos with each other (perhaps even live performances), this isn’t the equal of a live recital. If you’re studying online and enjoy performing and/or want more experience performing, you may need to find such opportunities locally. On the other hand, if you dread performing, and can’t find a local music teacher who will let you skip recitals, then online lessons could very well be your thing.
- PROS and CONS (depending on you): No traditional performance opportunities via recitals.
The nature of online instruction means it’s also easy to record your lesson. You can save the recording for posterity, replay parts, or even replay the entire lesson again and take notes. (I’ve videotaped, re-watched and taken voluminous notes from my lessons many times). Of course it’s also easy to record in-person lessons, as long as your teacher is comfortable with it (and most are). But have you ever done it?
- PROS: Ease of recording your lesson for archival or learning purposes.
- CONS: None, though recording of in-person lessons may have better fidelity and lack delays in transmission that sometimes occur in online lessons.
The sound quality of Skype or FaceTime lessons, for both conversing and playing, will never match in-person lessons. Neither you nor your teacher will hear as many of the subtleties of each other’s playing as you would in person. Of course, this can partially be ameliorated with excellent microphones, lightning-fast internet, etc.
- PROS: None
- CONS: Poorer sound quality
Online teachers are more likely to use tech than in-person teachers. This may include supplementary videos, phone apps, online games, computer software, etc. It’s also true, though, that many teachers who don’t teach online use state-of-the-art tech in their studios.
- PROS: If you like tech-heavy learning, you’re more likely to find it in online lessons.
- CONS: If you aren’t comfortable using too much tech, online lessons might be frustrating for you.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of studying online is that no travel is required (unless you count walking to your computer!). Of course, the size of this benefit depends on your location. If you live in a small town and your teacher lives a few blocks away, you might not mind the walk. But if you live in a big city, especially one renowned for terrible traffic, then online lessons might be perfect for you. When I lived in Los Angeles the average round trip time to my teacher’s studio was 90 minutes!
- PROS: No commuting to lessons, saving you time and money, etc.
- CONS: None, unless you like getting out of the house, or particularly like your teacher’s studio – there is something to be said for hanging out in a professional music studio.
Many superior teachers like to be able to physically adjust your arms and hands to improve your technique, just as a tennis coach will physically correct your strokes. In online lessons you will need to follow your teacher’s precise instructions to get the same benefits.
- PROS: None
- CONS: You teacher cannot physically manipulate your arms and hands to improve your technique.
Both online and in-person music lessons have benefits and drawbacks. Considering and weighing the factors above that are most important to you will help you decide whether traditional or online learning is the best approach for you.