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The Ongoing Debate: Online vs. In Person Saxophone/Clarinet Lessons

Are online lessons inferior to in person lessons with respect to the saxophone and clarinet? I seem to run up against this question often now. Let me put my 35 years of expertise as a saxophone and clarinet professional to work and examine this question in detail, to better serve the many inquiries I receive regarding lessons in this continuing era of Covid-19.

Prior to Covid for 20 years I spent three days a week in a small soundproof teaching studio at West Valley Music in Mountain View, CA. Most of my students are middle and high school students with the occasional adult student, often recently retired. Even before Covid disrupted our lives I was doing online lessons, teaching via Skype several students scattered all over the country. Not only was I teaching this way, I took advantage of Covid downtime to take a few lessons myself, from the esteemed legendary clarinetist Eddie Daniels, from a young clarinetist in New Orleans, and from Ted Brown, known for his recordings as a peripheral member of the Tristano School. In no way was the experience diminished by being conducted online. I consider these lessons to have been successful and informative, and well worth the money and time spent.

West Valley Music moved locations this past summer (2022), and are now located on El Camino Real. The transition has presented its share of challenges, not the least of which is the permitting and reconstruction of our teaching studios. Delays attributable to the City Of Mountain View have given way to more delays, and the result is we still have not been green lighted to put in the studios as of February 1st, 2023. We are hopeful that we will back to in person lessons there by April 1st 2023, but there’s no guarantee of that. While this is totally out of my hands, my default option is to continue with online lessons via Skype. I’d like to add here that over the past 50 years to my knowledge there have been teachers that did telephone lessons, and Warne Marsh reportedly studied harmony with Lennie Tristano in the late 1940’s by corresponding via US Mail. So there are some precedents for music lessons that don’t include in person options.

Online lessons have some tremendous advantages. Ease of scheduling and rescheduling would be the first thing that comes to mind. Having access to my large proprietary library of material right at my fingertips, ready to email out to any student mid lesson would be another. Having complete control over the volume via headphones is another big advantage. It can be hard on the ears listening to young students for hours at a time, having to deal with intonation issues and at times loud, unrefined playing. I have had some issues with ringing in my ears in the small studio, a direct result of the in person lesson paradigm. Additionally online students are generally ready to go right at the moment the lesson begins, so there’s no time lost setting up and breaking down instruments. Students in person often forget their lesson materials, neck straps, or reeds. They are often late to lessons. There are parking and traffic issues to contend with. All this ceases to exist with the online teaching methods. Regarding audio quality, I use a podcasting USB microphone on my end that I know sounds great on the receiving end. I also have a wired Internet connection to my home desktop iMac. On my end there are no issues with poor quality connections, and I suggest that you make sure you have a good quality Internet connection for best results online. You’d be surprised how many households have less than ideal wifi connections that can make this difficult. Again, if you want to get the most out of what I have to offer, be sure you have all your bases covered.

What are the advantages of in person lessons? Frankly there aren’t a whole lot of advantages over online teaching. Inquiring parents are often concerned with the quality of the online lessons, or suggest that because they had a bad experience previously with another teacher, or the large school class size Zoom lessons weren’t so great, that somehow my command of the lesson online isn’t going to measure up to a high standard. Let’s be clear here, if you had a bad experience online with a previous music teacher, chances are you would have a bad experience with that same teacher in person. Not everyone that teaches is a fully committed, talented and experienced teacher. Any good instructor has taken the time to figure out how to teach online, and has developed their own resources and materials to work this way. While playing duets with students in person was a regular part of my in person lesson routine, now I employ more of a “call and response” method where the student repeats a series of notes, a phrase, several lines or even a whole page of music after I’ve demonstrated it. The result has been more growth with the students with respect to their musical independence, developing their ability to play more accurately by themselves without me to work off of.

Generally students come to me at some sort of intermediate musical level, which is the ideal level to work online. A very beginner may need in person instruction, and at times a very advanced student may also need my refined ears to judge pitch and rhythm to improve, but those are special cases. No student can present any problem to me that I haven’t solved in my own playing and solved in literally a couple thousand students over the past 35 years. Every squeak, pop or burble is indicative to me of something that should be addressed, and it’s very clear what these issues are and how to solve them. As any experienced instructor in any discipline will tell you, we see the same handful of issues over and over and have figured out how to overcome them.

A huge advantage to working online with a student is the opportunity this presents to show the student how to utilize the computer to their benefit. As a professional musician and instructor I use the computer and related software to compose, transcribe, develop teaching materials, and record professional digital quality recordings. I also use software that slows the music down, making it easier to hear and decipher, and I use a program that provides backing tracks that I practice my improvising over. Put simply, this cannot be done in the music store studio, and it’s a substantial leap forward when a student masters these tools to develop their musicianship over time. It’s precisely what’s being utilized at the big music schools like Berklee, USC and the Manhattan School of Music. Frankly a student would be at a big disadvantage if they tried to begin studies at formidable music schools like these without this type of exposure.

In the future I envision a hybrid learning environment for my students, with some lessons being in person and some online. This will be the best of both worlds and a way to take advantage of the technological advances of the computer while providing some level of in person learning. Let me finish with a final cautionary tale. Covid is not over. I will require students to be vaccinated and I will turn away anyone showing cold or flu symptoms. Teaching 20 students a week in a small space who are breathing and blowing the whole time is a considerable risk. In the past I typically have gotten sick 3 times a year. The last 3 years I have, knock on wood, not had any colds, flu or Covid. While I’m not particularly Covid paranoid and have been fully vaccinated, I have to be mindful of the fact that a two or three week Covid illness would be a serious financial hardship, not to mention the possibility of contracting long Covid. So I ask any and all potential students to please be sensitive to this situation and understand that again this is a temporary situation that will iron itself out over time going forward.

I offer a reduced rate first trial lesson. You have nothing to lose by taking this first step. If you are serious about learning to play the saxophone or clarinet, have me show you the many ways forward. Once we have established a working relationship and you are on a solid growth path I am happy to discuss the in person options and make myself available for them under the right circumstances.

Thanks for stopping by my blog….Mark

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