Let’s Nail Your Online Lessons

(LAST EDIT APRIL 27\, see bottom of page for list of updates)

Everyone is working out brand new routines and expectations right now.

Before – and hopefully again, before too long – your pre-lesson routine involved getting your materials together, warming up ahead of time (ideally), and getting on the road early enough to make your time.


Expectations? You knew you’d play by yourself, with a metronome, with your teacher, with a track. You’d play on instruments and pads, and whether you were aware of it or not, you were using your five key learning processes – Seeing, Hearing, Moving, Understanding, Feeling – in concert constantly.

For the time being, the gold standard, in-person, private drum/percussion lesson is not an option but we are fortunate enough to be able to do things remotely. Making some adjustments to both your expectations and especially to your routine is your best bet for having a great experience.

The below will help our Zoom lessons go a smoothly as possible. Since everyone’s options are a bit different, I’ve included some ideal configurations as well as ways to optimize things, even if you don’t have a lot of equipment to make use of.

Zoom Audio Settings (desktop)

The below settings will help prevent you sounding like “robo drummer” on my end – listening to a few hours of robo drumming each day is basically the worst. If you don’t check these settings, there is a pretty good chance your drums and percussion will sound *awful* to me. While this may not be a big deal to you yet, it will go a long way to getting better comments PLUS it’s always good to care how you sound.

Depending on your platform, your screen may look a bit different.

How to access the Zoom settings or “preferences” (Mac)

Under the “Audio” Settings:
“Speaker” should be set to “headphones” or your bluetooth headset
“Microphone” should be set to your Bluetooth headset or Built-in/Internal
Then click “Advanced”

In the “Advanced” section of Audio Settings:
*Make sure this first option is checked – if it isn’t showing up on your computer, check to see you have the most up-to-date version.
*Disable the two background noise options
Make sure “Original Sound” is turned *ON*
(doing this automatically disables the above “Audio Processing” functions so there is some redundancy to doing both)

Technical Set Up: Your Connection, Communication, and Presentation

  • Your Device of Choice: Desktop vs Laptop vs Tablet vs Phone
    • Ideal
      • Laptop with a fully charged battery.
        You want something that:
      • Stands on its own
      • Has a bit of flexibility with respect to camera position and angle
      • Isn’t hindered by a cord

        Most important, the Zoom app works best on a Laptop
    • Optimal
      • Either way, make sure your Zoom app is updated. FYI, within a week of first installing Zoom, it required an update. I imagine with the huge influx of users and income, the company is going to be updating fairly often at the moment.
      • Also make sure that everything else you’re not using is closed.

EDIT: Appliances that draw a lot of power (microwave, space heater, dehumidifier, etc.) can interfere with the wi-fi signal and/or cause a hum in the audio.

  • Your Internet Connection
    • Ideal – Ethernet connection, instead of wi-fi
    • Optimal – If you can, get as close to the wi-fi router as possible. You need at least 2mbps up/download speed for Zoom to work, but the faster, the better! Check your wi-fi speed around the house using sites like fast.com
  • Audio-In (your mic) – How I hear you. A few options:
    • Built-In Mic – better than a tin can and some string, but your device’s built-in mic will always favor the instrument or keyboard range that it is physically closest to. That’s generally not a huge deal, but the best mic proximity is hard to really dial in if your microphone is physically attached to your camera. (This is why movies and TV record audio on different equipment from the cameras.)
      • Crucial tip – If you don’t have a great mic, lowering its level will help improve your sound (you’ll just have to talk a bit closer or louder)
    • Your bluetooth headset – a step up, particularly because it will better approximate what you yourself are hearing.
    • USB Mic (e.g., a podcasting mic, the mic from a video camera that sends its audio out) – especially when in conjunction with the “Original Audio”, this will give you the best sound quality and dynamic range.
      • I use this digital recorder connected to my laptop for my marimba/vibes room, but the same company makes a less expensive one that will get the job done and still be useful for high quality recording elsewhere.
    • (“Pro” Option) 2-channel USB Audio Interface – If you have your own pair of “real” mics with an XLR cable, this gives you a chance to catch more sound – say on a drum set or timpani or marimba/xylophone. I use this one for my kit.
  • Audio-Out – How you hear me.
    • Use headphones, not a speaker – “sound isolating” headphones that block out external sound are particularly great.
    • If possible, use bluetooth headphones like these (which are also sound-isolating) to keep you clutter free . If not, run the headphone cable down your back to keep it out of the way – longer cables are better.

      *For Audio In/Out, a gaming headset may be a tidy solution, if you have one already

  • Playback System (for playing along with tracks)
    • Make sure your drums and the playback are in balance. You can check this by recording a bit of yourself in an empty Zoom meeting.
      • If it sounds in balance while you’re playing, and the mic is somewhere near your ears, there will be a good chance the Zoom audio will be decent.
    • You generally need a separate device and speakers to play in order for me to hear it. The Zoom “share audio” feature for computer sound (YouTube, Spotify, etc.), while handy, doesn’t tend to sync well with live audio (unless you know how to create an aggregate output device, which is beyond the scope of this post).
  • Video
    • Your camera angle should be as neutral and centered as possible – if all I can see is your left forearm, I can’t exactly walk around to see your other side.
    • Although it is great to see your face, when you’re playing, I (more) importantly need to see:
      • The playing surface of the instrument
      • The entire range of motion of your sticks
      • Your hands, and maybe arms and feet
    • If you have to use your phone, getting something like this to stably mount it makes a huge difference. If not, pop sockets, triangle clips, rubber bands on a block of wood, or a household item combined with some ingenuity will help you along.
    • If possible, have two positions you can place your camera in: one at “Sea level” and one a bit more overhead. It’s sometimes useful to share a different vantage point, especially when evaluating technique.
One thing that’s great about Zoom is that signing in to multiple devices – here we were both using a laptop and a phone – allows you to show multiple angles simultaneously (though with slight sync issues for the 2nd camera).

Lighting

We rightfully talk a lot about the audio aspect of teaching online, but lighting is pretty important as well. Here’s an inexpensive approach that will improve your results:

A simple way to keep yourself lit decently


Clip lamps cost around $7 and I use a high wattage LED bulb to make it extra bright without too much heat right next to my computer. I have my laptop laying flat on a thoroughly tightened music stand and the lamp clips quite sturdily to the lip of the stand. Angling it up diffuses the light nicely and prevents too much glare right in my face. The mirrors I have on the wall for when students are/were here in person also help to illuminate the room.

Btw, you can see in the picture of my setup that I also have a special power outlet accessory that adds a couple of USB power jacks, in addition to the standard 3-prong outlet. Given the number of hours I now am tied to this position in this little room, having extra USB power ports is a very handy!


Prepping Your Equipment and Materials

  • Instrument positions – have everything essentially within reach so that you don’t have to spend time walking around the kit, or across the room to access your keyboard, metronome, and track playback.
    • FOR BELL KITSHere is a great way to make your instrument a little friendlier on mic and in person in 2 steps. For the first one, please DON’T USE DUCT TAPE! If you aren’t sure what painter’s tape is, please ask! I’ve already had one student kind of ruin their bell kit using duct tape 🙁
  • Pencil – Have one around as you’ll still need to write things into your music.
  • Sheet music, Exercises, and Method Books
    • Please have everything on hand, in the room, and organized.
    • Add measure numbers at the beginning of each line of an etude , solo, or longer material for easier reference.
  • Your new “notebook”
    • Since I don’t have access to your manuscript notebook any more, we’re going to upgrade to Google Docs. Both of us will be able to type in entries for each lesson and even better, you can add in questions, comments, links, pictures, and music scans (like this pic) in between lessons.
      • The most recent lesson is at the top of the doc. Before each lesson, if you can, type a brief to-do list at the top of your new lesson entry

Etiquette

  • Get dressed, please 🙂 Wearing something you’d be ok wearing to school is a good benchmark. Presenting yourself seriously also has the benefit of working from the outside in – you’ll end up taking yourself and the session more seriously!
  • Politely ask others in your household to limit network use during lessons – Video streaming takes a lot of bandwidth so see if others in the house can hold off on hi-bandwidth use during your lesson.
  • Find a way to keep your environment noise-free. Extra sound makes it very difficult to hear what you’re doing.
  • Don’t hesitate to have your parents pop in to say ‘Hi’! A little bit of “Waiting room chat” is good for keeping us all connected.

This all works both ways, too, by the way. . .

I only say all of this because I have first applied it to myself. I want your experience to offer as much as possible for you.

Advantages of Online Lessons:

  • Recording – You have the option to record your entire lesson in a way that normal, in-person lessons don’t allow. Take advantage of it!
  • Your own gear – You get to be coached on your own instruments. I get to see and hear what you have to work with and see if any instrument positions or heights need to be adjusted.
  • Weatherproof! Snow cancellations are a thing of the past! Even after our lessons go back to “normal”, having this experience makes us all much more skilled for when we need a Plan B!
  • Our Daily Group Practice Sessions – It’s been so much fun getting everyone together every day to build up our chops!
If you’re interested in my Daily Zoom practice sessions, send an email to pjsaleh@gmail.com for the Meeting ID and materials.

My setup includes:

Useful stuff: Pad on separate stand, “talkback” mic
Lotsa wires!
  • A USB Audio Interface connected to a multi-channel mixer with the following running through it:
    • A mic’ed drum kit (kick, snare, overhead)
    • A talkback mic
    • A metronome
    • An iPod/phone input
  • Vic Firth Stereo Isolation Headphones
  • Cables and adapters used
    • 1/8″ male to male patch cable
    • USB extension cord (connecting my Zoom h4n recorder for marimba mic’ing)
    • 1/8″ stereo extension cable
    • 1/8″ Male to RCA Male “Y” Cable
    • 1/8″ Female to 1/4″ Male stereo adapter
  • My laptop stays plugged in, positioned atop another music stand just to the left of the practice pads. Once my second webcam arrives – sometime after the Olympics, probably – it will be a bird’s-eye view of the kit.

TL;DR – Summary

  • Headphones are better than speakers
    • For percussion: Wireless > Long Wire > Short wire
  • Hardwired connection is better than wifi
  • Your mic and camera should be positioned to capture your sound and image as neutrally as possible. Show both sides equally.
  • Your Sound Quality
    • Have “Original Sound” ON
    • A lower mic level will help prevent distortion

I hope this is helpful – let me know how things improve for you each week!

Pete

EDITS:

  • 4/27 – Added Zoom Daily Practice info, filled in TL;DR a bit
  • 4/27 – Added a tip for bell kit users
  • 4/18 – Added TL:DR Summary
  • 4/18 – Added lighting tips
  • 4/18 – Added additional advantage
  • 4/18 – Added details about your lesson notebook

Other sources (check back here as I discover more valuable resources)

from Manhattan School of Music – helpful with mic settings, usage, and selection

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