In this article, I’ll be sharing a few tips on how to optimise your practice space for the best possible experience during live online piano lessons using ZOOM videoconferencing software.

This article is aimed at students: I will start from the simplest possible setup, and progressively build up towards more elaborate and effective solutions.

Piano + Smartphone

Pros: readily available when nothing else is, easiest setup of all.

Cons: small screen and speaker size mean not a viable long term solution.

This is the simplest setup which assumes you just have a keyboard / digital piano or a real piano, and a smartphone. A mobile phone as your only device will be ok in an emergency: for example if you normally take in-person piano classes but for one week you can’t make it and your teacher is offering the online option instead, that’s ok for one week. However the main issue with mobile phones is that they feature smaller screen than tablets or laptops, and that is going to make it difficult for you to see what your teacher is doing.

Piano + Tablet

Pros: most households have a tablet lying around, good screen size.

Cons: built-in speakers not great for music. Use earphones.Similar to the previous scenario, with a tablet at your disposal (whether iPad or Android) the situation improves dramatically: you now have a screen of a decent size on which your teacher’s instructions can be seen clearly and followed effectively. You no longer have to squint or get closer to the screen in order to see what your teacher is doing: you can maintain proper posture and poise while seeing clearly the instructions on screen.

While a tablet alone is already a viable solution for long term commitment to online piano lessons, there are a couple small additions which will improve the experience greatly.

Use earphones

Using a pair of earphones, earbuds, bluetooth headset, etc. will be a lot better than trying to hear you teacher through the built-in speakers of your tablet. One small addition, a dramatic improvement of the whole experience.

Use a tripod or stand

All students normally place their tablet on the music stand, because it’s easy to follow instructions with the screen right in front of them. However this configuration presents a problem when students must show their work to the teacher: with the tablet placed on the music stand, all the teacher is able to see is the student’s face and it becomes impossible to watch technique or posture, arms, wrists, elbows, etc. Although any music teacher worth their salt is able to hear whether the student is playing all the right notes, it is impossible to check all other important aspect of playing which require a look at the whole (upper) body.

Using a tripod or tablet stand will help greatly. When the time comes for your teacher to check your work, place the tablet on the stand, and place it in such a way that your teacher can have a good view of the piano and at least your upper body. That way your teacher can spot and address any technical issue which might arise. Smaller tripods are also available and you can elevate them to the required height by resting them on a stool, a chair and a pile of books etc. 

In this particular configuration with only one device available I like to go “Half and half”: in the first half of the lesson the online students show me their work, therefore their tablet is set on the tripod on either side. In the second half I give them feedback and show them the content of the day’s lesson, therefore their tablet is moved to their music stand on their piano. By doing so we only change device placement once halfway during the lesson, as opposed to too many times which would waste valuable lesson time.

Piano + Tablet + Smartphone

Pros: great for providing the teacher with optimal view of student. Equipment is available in most households.

Cons: accessing ZOOM meeting with an extra device before the lesson takes few extra minutes, but it’s worth it.Remember the smartphone we set aside a short while ago? As a second device it can actually become very useful in achieving the sweet spot for online piano lessons. 

Using two devices means that students can keep the the tablet in front of them on the music stand, enjoying a larger screen to follow teachers’ instructions, while the second device, a smartphone with a smaller screen, can be used as a webcam to allow the teacher to have a proper view of the student. It is possible to access a ZOOM meeting by entering meeting number and passcode on the smartphone.

It is important to mute the microphone of one of the devices to avoid feedback noise. I recommend muting the smartphone’s microphone.

Piano + Laptop

Pros: laptops offer greater flexibility, both for accessing and sharing lesson resources and in terms of expandability.

Cons: not every household might have a laptop available.

We are now back to a scenario where a single device is available, however a laptop is a considerable step up in terms of screen size: seeing your teacher with clarity is no longer a problem. The shape of a laptop means it cannot be placed on the piano’s music stand: the music stand of an upright piano cannot accommodate a laptop, and while I’ve seen people fully opening their laptop at a very wide angle and placing it on the music stand of an upright piano, I wouldn’t do that: you will have to place your laptop on top of the piano. 

An upright piano can be rather low or quite tall, depending on make and model: you are going to have to adjust the angle of the laptop screen in order to see your teacher and also to angle the built-in camera to allow your teacher to see you.

If you have a grand piano of any size, it’s much easier: just flatten or remove the music stand and place the laptop on top.

Everything said earlier about using earphones still applies.

If adopting the “Half and half” lesson strategy described earlier when using a single device, a laptop stand must be used to place the laptop on either side.If a smartphone is available it can be used as a second device just as it was described earlier: place the smartphone on either side and access the ZOOM meeting with the credentials provided by the teacher. Don’t forget to mute the smartphones microphone to avoid feedback noise .

This configuration is the sweet spot: students see and hear very clearly the teacher’s directions and at the same time the teacher has a full view of the student to check on poise, fingering, technique, etc.

The next best addition that you could introduce in a laptop-only setup is an external webcam mounted on a tripod or a microphone stand to your side. 

The ability to switch from the built-in webcam in front of the student to the external webcam to the side means the teacher has a view of the student’s upper body, allowing for a more dynamic exchange during the lesson. This is also the sweet spot for online piano lessons.

Further improvements

More tweaks can be applied for further enhancing the experience of live online piano lessons.

USB microphone

A simple piece of equipment such as a USB microphone for podcasting can make a huge difference in the quality of the sound going out from the student to the teacher.

Pros: massive improvement in the sound quality.

Cons: such a big improvement for a small extra cost, I can’t see no cons in adding a USB microphone.

Built-in microphones in laptops and tablets are generally just ok, sometimes not up to the task. Using an external USB microphone drastically improves the sound which gets to the teacher, ultimately allowing for better evaluation of the student’s performance.

USB microphones are usually plug-and-play and require no tech skills to setup, and they are also relatively inexpensive.

Audio interface

Pros: a massive improvement in the management of the sound going out to the teacher.

Cons: requires some setting up.

An audio interface is a piece of semi-pro or pro equipment which requires at least a certain level of tech know how or the willingness to learn the ropes of audio signal amongst other things.

If you own a keyboard or digital piano you can route the sound straight from the piano output into the interface, which in turn sends it into the computer. The advantage of this configuration is that the sound is captured straight from the digital piano and it doesn’t have to be captured by a microphone, resulting in extra clarity. A normal microphone (for example a standard issue SM58) can be used for the voice and plugged into the audio interface, which looks after the “USB” part of the story.

This particular configuration is above the average tech user, since not all interfaces are plug-and-play and might require some setting up, however there are immense benefits in routing the sound through an interface. I would only recommend it to people with a knack for technology.

With a little planning and the right equipment, you can transform your practice space into a springboard for online piano mastery. So, get creative, have fun setting up your space, and get ready to take your piano skills to the next level!