Updated: Feb 19
Let the good times roll!
Prior to Covid-19, traditional face-to-face music lessons were the norm for most music teachers, with some progressive teachers venturing into online music lessons. Covid-19 has turned the world of music teaching upside down, by ushering complacent music teachers into the brave new world of online teaching just to keep their business afloat. Whilst teaching content has remained unchanged (referring to musical notation, grooves, rudiments etc.), teachers have had to hurriedly adapt their studios and teaching techniques to deliver lessons differently through online channels. Music teachers have also had to become rapidly proficient with IT, setting up IT equipment and becoming familiar with online tools. This proficiency enables the music teacher to provide the lessons, but importantly, it also allows the teacher to give IT advice to the pupils so that they are well set up to receive their lessons online.
I was one of those who enjoyed operating a traditional studio where pupils came and went through my doors. Online lessons were not something I had planned on offering now, rather it was something I had earmarked as a long-term goal. The weeks-long lock down in New Zealand however catapulted me into online teaching within a week – not the gentle introduction I would have preferred!!
Having now taught a few online lessons, I have assembled some tips on how to get yourself set up for receiving on-line drum lessons with the equipment you are likely to already have in the house. These instructions are written for machines running Windows 10 but may be adapted to other operating systems. In this blog, I discuss options for connecting to the internet, how to download a video conferencing tool (Zoom), configuring this for best results, and picking the best camera angles.
A machine. A basic requirement would be a computer and screen, a laptop, or an iPad/Surface. I would not recommend having an online drum lesson through a mobile phone, due to the small screen format and the speaker/microphone on the phone.
An internet connection.
A Skype or a Zoom account
Access to Dropbox which I’ll use to share music transcripts as well as the usual lesson plans. Dropbox is free for personal use.
A webcam. For best results use an external, USB-attached HD web camera. If you don’t have one of these units, then use the machine's inbuilt camera.
A microphone. The external webcam is likely to also have a microphone, but if not, then use the machine's inbuilt microphone.
An external amplifier if you have an electric drum kit, so that your microphone can hear the sounds coming from the electric drums.
A stand or a table to position the machine so that I can see you and your drum kit clearly.
A well lit room. Position the webcam so that the light is behind the camera. This ensures that you are not a silhouette.
A basic printer. This is to print out any music sheets or lesson plans that are provided on Dropbox.
An Ethernet cable (optional) which is discussed later in this blog.
Downloading and configuring Zoom
There are plenty of different video conferencing tools available. Skype, Zoom, Google Meet and Teams are just four I can name. I started teaching online lessons through Skype, but I found that Zoom offered features such as integration with email for lesson scheduling, more flexible screen sharing options, and wider configuration options. Of course, this may change over time as software companies battle to stay ahead of the competition.
Firstly, download and install Zoom. Zoom is free for one-to-one chats with no time limit. For a multiple-people group chat there is a 40-minute time limit with the free version. The paid version, whilst not necessary to have for online drum lessons, does allow for extended group chats with no time limits. For our purpose of having one-on-one drum lessons, choosing the personal-use (free) option is fine when registering.
The challenge with Zoom is that it incorporates smart audio processing to eliminate background noise. Unfortunately, tom toms, bass drums and snare sounds are interpreted as background noise and Zoom tries to remove these sounds. The result is that the listener hears a garbled sound, very much like the drums are being played under water in the Karori swimming pool.
You can turn off the audio processing in Zoom’s settings, by following these steps:
Select the Audio option, and suppress background noise by selecting the Low setting.
Then click Advanced which can be found in the bottom of the screen. Here is what the Advanced screen should look like. You’ll need to turn off the first item.
Check the sound card on your laptop/PC
The sound card on your machine might also be suppressing the drum sounds as background noise, so it is worth checking the sound card settings too. Go to the Control Panel on your machine. For the View by: option, select Category. Choose the Hardware and Sound option
The Hardware and Sound screen looks like this. From this screen, choose Sound.
The Sound screen might look like this. It will have a Recording tab. Choose the Recording tab and find the default microphone (or the microphone that you’re going to be using).
Double-click on the microphone that you are planning to use. Note: The rest of these steps may vary depending on the type of microphone that you have (and you may not necessarily see the options that follow in these instructions, or the options might be worded differently).
In Microphone properties you may see a Levels tab. Go to this tab, and set the Microphone level to maximum (100 on my machine) and set the microphone boost to anywhere from +10.0 dB to +20.0 dB.
Also in the Microphone properties, you may see an Enhancements tab. Go to this tab and deselect anything that suggests Noise Suppression or Noise Cancellation.
Your machine should now be good to go. You can test the sound quality by going back to the Zoom settings (which you did earlier in the Zoom setup section) and clicking the Test Mic option. Play the drums for 2-3 seconds and then listen to the automatic playback. Make sure that the drums don’t sound garbled on playback.
Screen Sharing settings
Another setting you may like to explore is Zoom's screen sharing feature. For example, if I am sharing a piece of music on the screen, then you might like to have that window of the music side-by-side with the video stream of me explaining the music to you.
To do this, go to the Share Screen menu in Zoom, and click the Side-by-side mode option.
The (all-important) internet connection
The trick to getting a fast internet connection is to first understand that the connection between your machine and the internet is like a hosepipe with water running through it. If there is a bottleneck or a ‘bad’ section in the hosepipe then water isn’t going to flow as well. Here are some potential bottlenecks that may be worthwhile looking out for in your setup.
Bottleneck 1: Wireless vs. Wired
There are many ways to connect to the internet, including using wired method (direct Ethernet cable connection from your machine to the router), or wireless means such as WiFi or mobile hot spotting. How you connect your machine to the internet can make a big difference to how well Skype or Zoom performs.
A wired method is likely to give you results that are superior to WiFi or mobile hot spotting. You can test the speed of your internet connection by conducting a simple speed check that will look like this:
In most cases WiFi or hot spotting will yield slower internet connections than wired connections.
My recommendation for online lessons is to use a wired Ethernet connection.
Bottleneck 2: The Ethernet cable type
You may skip over this section if you are using WiFi.
Not all Ethernet cables are equal, and the type of cable you are using may be causing a bottleneck. To find out what type of cable you are using, look for any specifications that are printed on the cable itself:
Cat 5 or lower, will give the slowest results.
Cat 5e is faster than Cat 5.
Cat 6 should give you the best results.
Speed gains may be possible by picking the right cable, which will bring your internet speed closer to the data plan that you are paying for.
Bottleneck 3: The data plan
Whilst you may be doing all the right things in connecting your machine to the router, if you are on a slow, or older data plan then you may not see much of an improvement in your internet performance. Using the hosepipe analogy, this is like having the tap only partly open. No matter how clear the hosepipe is, you only have a small quantity of water trickling through.
The fix here, is to open the tap fully and allow more water to pass through the hosepipe. Translating this into broadband terms, this means upgrading your current data plan to one that provides faster upload and download speeds.
Bottleneck 4: Time of day
The speed that you get might also be influenced by the time of day, so if lots of people are on the internet then you may get lower speeds.
Bringing all of this together, in my drum studio I have plugged a Cat 6 cable into my 7-year old machine. The other end is plugged into my router and I am consistently getting at least 330 Mbps!! The fastest that I have seen my speed dial go is 670 Mbps but I don’t always get those breath-taking speeds. It depends on the time of day. In my home I am currently subscribed to a Fibre Max service which is supposed to give theoretical download speeds of 700-900 Mbps and upload speeds of 400-450 Mbps.
The trick is to iron out the bottlenecks to give your machine every opportunity to work optimally on the internet.
How you position your camera and drum kit may be limited by the floor space that you have and the proximity to access doors (that could be opened accidentally causing damage to the drums), walls and windows.
I like to set my machine with it's external camera up on a strong music stand, which gives me plenty of options on what I want to show in Zoom. Ideally I like to show as many of my drums and cymbals to my pupils. This is an example of what they might see (minus the camera man in the red shirt!)
The final result looks like this, where the pupil gets a side-on view of my drums. The laptop is positioned so that I can show myself striking the drums and cymbals:
To bring the best out of the lesson, I recommend that you imagine what I, as your tutor, will be seeing at my end of the Zoom conversation. Will I be hearing garbled sounds and seeing poor video?
I recommend that you review and act on the tips this article has to offer. Arrange a one-off Zoom meeting with me to confirm that you can be heard and seen clearly at my end.
Thank you for taking the time to review this article. Stay safe during this historic Covid-19 lock down. Happy Easter, be blessed, and of course, happy drumming!!!