5th May 2021

BLOG: Paula Boyagis – How have the limitations of online tuition affected progression?

This last year has been an enormous learning curve for music educators. Adapting to teaching online, contending with the vagaries of the internet, keeping our pupils enthusiastic, and having to completely change our game plans.

Initially the intention was to keep up a rapport with our pupils and to maintain an interest in playing our instruments. The outside contact and a break in routine was invaluable for many, albeit on a screen. Making progress was a different matter.

Some pupils blossomed and took advantage of the extra time to practise that home schooling afforded. Playing was a release and it gave them the enjoyment which is always the best recipe for success.  Others, and particularly those who had their goals of concerts and exams whipped away from under them, went into retreat and lost enthusiasm. My best pupil has completely stopped, a sad reflection of the pandemic.

Positivity and enjoyment was my aim with online lessons. I teach flute and to begin with I dispensed with scales. Ditto aural practise. I have rarely had a pupil that embraces aural training and I felt that trying to achieve anything online was more than I or my pupils could cope with. This of course is reflected in the new online exams that the exam boards are offering. I have mixed views on this. Whilst developing aural skills is indisputably helpful to progress, lessons are far too short to embrace all exam criteria, with the exception of the very talented. There are some wonderful apps and videos out there to help, but again the pupil has to be self-motivated to try these. With the move towards online recorded exams without aural testing, last September I found myself bringing some of those elements into the lesson more informally, in direct relation to repertoire. Eg: discussing key changes, rhythm repetition by clapping, singing a phrase back (instead of playing) as a way to learn a difficult passage, which with some pupils was surprisingly successful.

Sight-reading is again crucial to progress. I attempted this online. It took prep and involved emailing music to pupils. I suggested they didn’t look at the music until we were in lesson. Generally they didn’t – at all – and mostly the music wasn’t printed out in advance, and even forgotten about! Again it had the potential to add stress to an already delicate situation of keeping a lesson fun. I scrapped that idea too.

Ultimately we used grade pieces as sight-reading, which was more of a challenge. But the result was added interest in learning new pieces. Without the definite end goal of an exam I now have pupils with most of their grade books pieces tackled – so if, and when we come to do an exam the question will be which pieces to choose? Why concentrate on exam pieces you might ask? – the answer simply is availability of music.  Normally I would share my music with pupils when exploring repertoire in a real lesson. Unsurprisingly I found parents reluctant to invest in new music.

Exams themselves have been a small nightmare with last minute cancellations. The new online AB Performance exams seemed a good compromise.  No aural, sight-reading or scales but 4 pieces instead. Despite being theoretically ideal, there is a lot of detail that needs to be addressed to do these accurately. This doesn’t begin to take into account those of us who have older ‘devices’ that don’t meet the exam spec. Nor the finance to afford a new mobile or ipad. I was tearing my hair out trying to make space, improve the sound quality etc. And as for allowing pupils to use a pre-recorded backing track or even perform them unaccompanied, we all know how impossible that is! It felt as though these exams were geared towards pianists alone.

I entered 7 pupils for AB Performance exams in October half term. Thankfully my school lent me a camera and their facilities.  I then discovered the hard way that uploading big files in the middle of the country doesn’t happen. I ended up on the floor of a corridor in a friends’ office, outside the loos, eternally grateful for the use of a wifi that had some juice!  Luckily Wiltshire Music Connect funded me to buy a camera specifically for this but with the latest lockdown it has sadly only been used once.

The exams were generally a valuable experience for my pupils but I was disappointed with most results and was heartened to read on the ISM blog that other teachers had found the marking unnecessarily harsh, especially given the circumstances.  One grade 6 exam ‘disappeared’ off the system, and then I discovered the impossibility of communicating with the Board. You can’t phone, and emails were never answered. The exam miraculously ‘reappeared’, 6 weeks after the others, marked more sympathetically by a different examiner – it was almost worth the extra grey hairs!

Same problem cancelling entries for Performance exams in January. I had no response to several messages about cancellations and refunds until almost the day before the exams. I really did lose sleep over this one, wondering how my pupils could record an exam at home, without accompaniment, my support, the lessons we’d anticipated in the run up, or a suitable device. Not surprisingly all parents declined and for a while I thought I was going to be seriously out of pocket.

My experience with Trinity was somewhat better. I only entered one pupil, and thankfully there aren’t the same time restrictions for submitting the exam, nor the hideous scramble with AB to get a slot, as the dates fall away before your eyes!  We recorded a grade 7 in the Christmas holidays and my pupil showed me the grade 5 piano recording she made on her mobile phone. It made me wonder how many exams have been submitted with a lack of suitable guidance.  She was unaware of the recommendations on the website.  Fortunately we were able to record and submit it that day too both with successful outcomes.

The only alternative to taking exams I feel, in order to encourage progression, is having the opportunity to play in ensembles. At present my school have no plans to reinstate these – they have enough to contend with. For many pupils the logistics of playing in a group outside school is too much for parents to tackle. I would like to enter willing pupils for exams but don’t feel there are any ideal solutions yet. I have recently been looking at the MTB exams (all online) which could tick the boxes, particularly in the freedom of repertoire. There are some downsides, so I ‘attended’ a webinar they held recently, but there was a lot of ground to cover and the presenter ended up gabbling at a million miles an hour, and answering questions typed into the side bar that weren’t displayed onscreen. I was barely enlightened at the end of an hour and a half.

Reflections on student progression

Returning to school last September I was heartened by some pupils and worried by others. It was interesting to see how they had developed during the months of online lessons. The extra work that some had put in, really paid off.  Others had clearly found their confidence dented, not only with their playing but with life in general, undoubtedly related to developing early teenage years and the crucial lack of social interaction. Breathing, tone and posture had either suffered or improved in ways I couldn’t appreciate online.

As a wind teacher I was inevitably put in the biggest room with the most windows, along with superfluous equipment which I’d have to forge a path through to create an area to teach in – with windows fully open and the north wind blasting through! I brought in extra heaters, wore hats and scarves to my pupils’ amusement, struggled to keep my flute warm– it did at least provide some laughs!

How will students progress now?

I started back in school in April. It’s been a long haul and it will be interesting to see what I find. I am pretty fed up with trying to achieve online all that is so much easier in a real lesson.  Staying positive and continuing to encourage has been key. There were times when, due to a bad connection, or when a pupil was using an inappropriate device I could barely hear. I got adept at pretending and keeping fingers crossed! Fewer of my pupils took lessons this time than in the previous lockdown.  Many were sick of online lessons, and it was too stressful for some parents to support.  I am fairly certain that, as previously, most of my pupils will return to lessons at school, and again I am hoping that I will get some nice surprises. Maybe just the relief of real lessons will be inspiration enough to practise. The difference this time will be that school work, lessons and homework were more demanding during this last lockdown. There has definitely been less practise, and markedly more so since they returned to school in March as they seem to have been under continuous pressure to do exams and assessments.

I feel that for some of my more mature students the online experience has focussed them into an appreciation of the value of playing an instrument and being able to continue it, when so much of everyday life as we knew it suddenly disappeared. I am hopeful that this will continue to be reflected in their playing and practise, particularly when the opportunity to play in ensembles is reinstated at the school. For some of my younger pupils with parental support, I am hoping that the routine of practise during lockdown has become more of a habit, and parents will continue to take more interest. But for those with parents juggling home schooling and work, many lost the routine of regular practise and I am wondering whether that discipline will return as ‘normality’ returns.

Until I am regularly seeing my pupils face to face I don’t know whether I will be aiming for exams (though I feel most need the structure and goal, whatever form the exams take) – polishing up some of the many grade pieces we’ve been working on. Or for some, having had several exams cancelled, do we leave behind those polished pieces and skip a grade without having had a chance to showcase them?  I think for many that will now be a relief.

Paula Boyagis is a flautist, mezzo-soprano, Choral Music Director, and Wiltshire Music Connect Associate. You can view her profile here.