How do I teach a trombone lesson on Zoom?

Trevor Mires is a leading performer and arranger who teaches jazz trombone at the Royal Academy of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Trinity Laban. 

In the Spring issue of The Trombonist Magazine, Trevor wrote about 'remote possibilities' - how musicians around the world are exploring ways to share their knowledge and experience with others...

"The self-isolation we are all going through presents so many challenges. For us musicians, it can feel like someone has pressed the ‘pause’ button on our creative and professional lives. However, it is clear that musicians around the world continue to be tenacious and positive in their search for ways they can present their art, hone their craft, and also share their knowledge and experience with others.

I have been teaching a small number of students for a few years now. I want to make sure that the fruits of their hard work continue to develop during this period of self-isolation. Since ‘physical’ one-to-one lessons are now out of the question, the obvious alternative to this is to meet up on the internet, via a video conference application of some kind.

I quickly found out that my students use a variety of different hardware devices (Macs, PC’s, iPhones, Android, and such). Therefore, I needed to find a platform that was accessible to all of my students rather than attempt to do FaceTime lessons for three students, Skype for two of them, and so on. Actually, my first thought was to try using Skype, as this was the last video conferencing app I’d used previously. However, I couldn’t remember my password and the process of trying to reset it seemed to be taking longer than it does to watch the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy (and was a lot less enjoyable).


Zoom-LogoAfter posting a request for advice on Facebook (I also tried Friends Reunited, Myspace, and videosofcatsdoingthefunniestthings.com, but none of these seemed to be of any help), a number of people suggested using something called Zoom. I checked it out. The basic usage package is free. This package puts a 40-minute time limit on calls involving three or more people, however, as I am teaching one-to-one, this is no problem for me.

After reading several bits of advice on configuring the Zoom application for better video clarity, clearer microphone reception, and lower latency levels, I quickly concluded that the smartest move would be to just turn it on and do a trombone lesson. This plan of attack has consistently served me badly in the past, including highlights such as attempting to construct a child’s trampoline without the instructions (7 hours, one broken finger), and the assembly of a bunk bed using a YouTube instructional video for a completely different bunk bed (13 hours... the result looking like something out of one of Picasso’s nightmares).

On this occasion, I was lucky.

There are a number of ways to set up a ‘meeting’ on the app. The way I do it is to click on ‘host a meeting’, and then ‘invite’. From here, I select the option to send an invite via email to my students. I do this around 15 minutes before each lesson.

On the first occasion, everything seemed to work great, given the circumstances. I could hear my student crystal clear, and the student could hear me (unfortunately for them). Latency (the level of delay to an audio signal being delivered to the intended listener) was pretty low and the lesson was able to flow without too many hiccups.

The second lesson presented a few challenges. Teacher and student seemed to be unable to get the video working, and also couldn’t hear each other properly. Apart from that, everything worked amazingly! After both of us restarted, we were able to do the lesson. From then on, I make sure that ‘video on’ is always selected…

black pBone + micI have so far opted to use the audio input from my computer’s built-in microphone, rather than use one of my studio microphones. This has generally worked fine. I have selected the output audio to go through my studio speakers as they have good quality sound (and they are loud).

Some students have experimented with using headphones. This seems to work fine, although there have been problems when using Bluetooth headphones: they seem to add to the levels of latency. They can also add ‘compression’ to the student’s audio when they play the trombone, especially if the headphones have a ‘noise cancelling’ facility, something my neighbours would love to install around my whole house.

Compression, in an audio sense, is basically a process where either a quiet audio signal is amplified to make it louder, or a loud signal is reduced. In the context of a lesson, we would find that when students use noise cancelling headphones, I could hear them talking clearly, but once they play trombone this loud signal would suddenly cut to barely audible after a few seconds.

Audio latency also seems to be affected by the quality of the student and teacher’s Wi-Fi connection. On one occasion, the Wi-Fi connection for the student was so bad that we had to continue the lesson without any video feed. We still managed to have a productive lesson, despite this.

The slight latency, and not being physically in the room with a student, mean that the lessons flow in a different way. I try to play in the lessons as much as possible - both on my own, and also with the student. This can range from giving examples, accompanying the students with a bassline whilst the student blows over some chord changes, trading solos, duets, and so on.

Because of latency, I quickly realised that playing together with the student, in real time, was not possible. We also quickly realised that we were accidentally interrupting each other when talking. Therefore, we find that we have to listen to each other play in turn. This actually works very well, and in some ways can be more valuable. Student and teacher are forced to be a little more patient and listen to each other before playing back to them. A more considered approach manifests.

We often use a metronome in our regular lessons and I am keen to continue this. If both parties have their own metronome, we find they can use this when playing. Latency means that it doesn’t work for the teacher to use his metronome for the student to play along with.

I have found that we are listening to records a lot more. I have a record player in my studio, and during this isolation time I have taken the opportunity for revisit my collection. There’s Wayne Henderson, Bill Harris, Frank Rosolino, Bob Brookmeyer, Craig Harris, J.J. Johnson, Benny Green, Joseph Bowie, Curtis Fuller, Kai Winding, George Bohanon, Conrad Herwig, Ryan Porter, whatever I dig out of the shelves. I save my Cast of EastEnders Sings Pub Singalong Classics for my own personal evening listening.

 

One feature that we have found particularly useful has been the ‘share screen’ function. This enables users to share the outlook of their respective desktop screen with the student. We have used this to study example scores, transcriptions, exercises that I write out, and also watching videos of musical performances together.  

At time of writing, I have been using Zoom to teach for about three weeks, and it has enabled us to continue the hard work that my students have been putting in so far. I would therefore recommend the Zoom application to anyone wanting to teach online during this time.


This article first appeared in the The Trombonist magazine (Spring 2020) and has been shared with kind permission from the British Trombone Society and Trevor Mires.