Will the Covid-19 pandemic change singing teaching forever? Alexa Terry weighs up the pros and cons of virtual and face-to-face teaching.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the enforcement of lockdown measures, the likes of Zoom and Skype have become popular avenues for getting a dose of social interaction (another quiz?). Many have also been forced to adopt an online platform to deliver their business services.

In a poll conducted by ITV’s This Morning (daytime TV is the new “normal”), 39% of their participant viewers voted “yes” to experiencing “Zoom Fatigue”, compared to the 61% majority who voted “no”, and who were likely to continue using the platform beyond the pandemic.

So, what have been the experiences of vocal coaches conducting online singing lessons? And will they change the way they conduct their lessons post Covid-19? I scoured the voice teacher forums and spoke to some vocal coaches to find out.

In the red corner…. It’s the “HECK, No” crowd

Tech difficulties

While the age of technology has made it possible to chat to an astronaut floating around in zero gravity, singing teachers have found themselves silently cursing weak internet connections and audio blips while teaching a client online who lives in the next neighbourhood. In the studio, students aren’t usually blurry, don’t often freeze and disappear, or intermittently sound like robots (unless it’s a helpful vocal quality, of course), and so such technical glitches have become frustrating obstacles for both parties, especially for the technophobes among us. Additionally, some have found that the added digital barrier has made it more challenging to identify such things as breathiness and unmodified vocal registers. As a result, selecting the most appropriate technical exercise has become more difficult.

A con for the extrovert

The Covid-19 pandemic has stifled human contact, something particularly difficult for the self-proclaimed extroverts who thrive in social conditions. The lack of interaction with friends, family, employees and students has had a negative impact on some people’s mental well-being and, potentially, the quality of their service delivery.

Increased distraction

Lockdown lessons have meant more distractions for both teacher and singer, be it the family dog bounding around the living room or parents squabbling in the kitchen. Lockdown has also played havoc with our sense of day and time, with some students forgetting that it’s Tuesday and that their lesson started half an hour ago.

Eye-strain and postural aches

With all lessons currently having to be conducted through a screen, the increased exposure to blue light has led to a generous dose of headaches and eyestrain, as well as neck and back pain from being hunched over the computer at a desk or piano.

Mental and vocal fatigue

Some teachers have found themselves speaking at louder volumes during online classes in order to compensate for and penetrate that digital barrier. As a result, they have found an increase in their own vocal fatigue, as well as a sense of being mentally drained from the added energy that they feel is required to maintain the attention and motivation of the singer.

Business loss 

Inevitably, businesses have experienced a financial hit with clients being unable to afford to continue lessons or unable to do so in their lockdown environment. Leaders of choirs and group classes may have found it particularly challenging as ensemble singing in its natural form is trickier to conduct using the online platforms.

In the green corner…. It’s the “Hell yeahs!

Refreshing a stagnant routine

When a routine activity becomes regimented, we can enhance productivity by changing our environment. Some teachers have found that being forced to change their set up and conduct singing lessons online has sparked their creativity and added more variety to their teaching. To complement this, some singers are dedicating the extra time they have been gifted to practice their craft with noticeable progress, thus enhancing their motivation.

Full session recordings

Zoom allows us to record the full online session meaning the student has a reference to practice with and a means of recognising progression, as well as giving us teachers a resource to reflect on and improve ourselves. Additionally, some coaches have encouraged their students to engage in practice recordings which they can submit over the likes of WhatsApp or the Marco Polo app, providing the teacher with another chance to hear their student’s voice clearly if those technical glitches have occurred. Some have found that this “extra” has added value to their service and has increased student motivation.

Note: it is advisable to ask the student’s permission (or that of a parent if they’re a younger singer) before recording the session. Once the session is complete and the file has been converted and sent to the student, we advise that it is then deleted from your device to keep in line with GDPR guidelines. If you don’t want to get involved with recording sessions and the extra admin of issuing them, then you can give the student permission to record it themselves and the file will then be saved directly to their own device.

Ear training

When working in the studio, the teacher would usually accompany the singer, especially during scales, but with the delay and audio restrictions, this is not possible online. However, with the student now having to sing exercises a cappella, both the teacher and singers’ musical ear is being challenged, and thus bringing an ear training focus into the sessions, improving musicality and pitch accuracy.

A pro for the introvert 

If you’re more wallflower than social butterfly, choosing a night at home with a cup of tea and some jazz (yes, please) over a raucous group gathering at the bowling alley (I’ll come if we can have the barriers up), then the reduction of social interaction may not have been too much of a burden. For some, being in the comfort of their own home and in the company of familiar surroundings has reduced feelings of anxiety.

Reducing travel

Many teachers now have more time on their hands as a result of the reduced travel time. Their journey into work now consists of a short walk from the bedroom to the living room (with a detour to the kitchen). Additionally, since Covid-19, the environment has seen positive changes with a reduction in pollution levels. Therefore, some teachers are considering swapping a day or two in the studio for online sessions to hold on to the valuable time they have been gifted, and to do their bit for the environment. There is of course the added advantage for the professional performer and those a little more strapped for cash who could use their travel money to fund their next singing lesson.

Fewer cancellations

When transport is cancelled, snowstorms bring the country to a halt, and a dodgy prawn biriyani leaves the stomach a little tender, online lessons are a handy alternative meaning the student doesn’t risk losing their lesson against the cancellation policy in place.

Regular breaks

As a result of eyestrain and postural aches, many teachers are finding that they need more regular breaks and are, therefore, making more of an effort to schedule a lunch break or a short rest between sessions to refresh and recharge.

Business gain

Online lessons have been a service that many previously avoided but being forced to embrace the virtual platform has had a positive impact on business for some. Online lessons mean that we aren’t confined to our own community radius but, instead, can extend our reach globally.

Turning the frown upside-down

For those singing teachers who are itching to ditch the virtual (or who find themselves continuing to avoid it), here are some tips which will hopefully help to relieve some of that frustration, and maybe turn that hailing “No” into a resounding “Yes”.

Online set up

Regarding the physical set up, it’s advisable that the screen is level to our eyes and that we aren’t contorting ourselves into a pretzel. We can raise the laptop computer by resting it on a stack of sturdy books, or it might even be worth investing in an adjustable laptop stand to help alleviate neck and back pain (mine has been a spine saver, and I have noticeably fewer neck aches!)

In terms of audio efficiency, there are several settings that both teacher and singer will need to have in place, as well as shutting down other running applications whilst the session is occurring so that Facebook and takeaway delivery sites aren’t clogging up the connection. Have a gander at this article by vocal coach Chris Johnson and check out our tips for teaching online.

Combating distraction

Where possible, keep the door closed on fluffy companions and remind those who are isolating with you of upcoming online schedules. If you’re easily distracted by seeing yourself on camera, select the singer’s camera to be the larger focus (which is more beneficial for observation, anyway). Ignore the self-conscious natterings and create an online set up that is advantageous for posture and well-being, rather than being guided by “Instagram” angles.

Self-Care

Health and Safety regulations encourage short and frequent breaks from screen work. The general advice is to take a five to ten-minute refresher after each hour of screen exposure. This doesn’t mean hopping from the computer screen to mobile phone but allowing yourself time away from blue light by making a cup of tea or taking a stroll around the block in the fresh air.

When we find ourselves including physical movement within lessons – maybe a shy singer needs to march on the spot for an energy boost, or perhaps a singer with tense shoulders would benefit from some rolling rotations – we can get involved too. This can help to combat those feelings of stiffness and pins and needles from lack of movement. We can also alternate between sitting and standing, with some teachers finding solace in a standing desk and from the gentle bounce on a gym ball.

Mental and vocal fatigue may be a result of overcompensating for that digital barrier. To reduce this, some voice teachers have advised using a headset where the visible microphone piece can be placed directly in front of the mouth. Additionally, we have more tools in the shed other than having to exude a high energy buzz in the hope it will penetrate the screen. We have language, facial expression and postural positions to call upon too, so we are allowed to swallow that chill pill and preserve our own mental and vocal health.

Maintaining retention

The vehicle by which we provide lessons may have temporarily changed, but our value as vocal coaches hasn’t diminished. We can still offer a beneficial service from behind a screen, regardless of the pet peeves. Therefore, we should avoid voicing our frustrations or highlighting the negatives to our clients, as this might suggest to them that they’re receiving a lesser service.

With many singers not able to take lessons at home at this time, we can still keep their interest in a potential post-pandemic return by continuing to engage with them. This could be through indirect social media posts or by inviting them to participate in online open mic night events that you host. For those group leaders, check out our blog for tips on leading a virtual choir!

Overall, the general consensus among voice teachers seems to be that, despite advancing technologies, in-person singing lessons are more favourable. Nothing quite beats the sharp sting of a high-five when celebrating a singer’s success. However, with the pandemic rendering online lessons mandatory, and the return of in-person and group singing is still some way off, the alternative service has been embraced. It is proving to be just as rewarding with regards to learning, finances, and the time we have been given. It’s quite possible that, as a result of this pandemic, vocal coaches will feel more confident in marketing digital delivery and will conduct more online lessons as part of their regular service (I know I will). This will expand their audience reach – a positive outcome from such unprecedented times.

As High School Musical taught us (among many other things) “we’re all in this together”. So if you would like to share your online experiences, have any helpful tips for conducting virtual singing lessons, or just need some company from fellow voice loving “quarantiners”, find me here at the BAST Trainers Facebook group.

About Alexa Terry

Alexa TerryAlexa Terry is a vocal coach, singer and writer based in Hampshire. She initially trained in Musical Theatre obtaining a BA Honours Degree from Bath Spa University and has since performed as lead vocalist onboard Aida Cruises, and for new musical theatre projects in London’s West End. Alexa regularly reviews for BritishTheatre.com and studied with Book, Music and Lyrics (BML) as a Musical Theatre librettist.