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With so many children now adjusting to learning from home, for Australia's remote communities this has long been a way of life. Annual Music Competition alum Mark Walton discusses his experience of distance music teaching in Australia and how the technological improvements over the years have made it that bit easier.

It all started so long ago that I’m not sure exactly which year it was. It was certainly in the 1990s after a conversation with Randell, an adult student, who at the time worked at the Macquarie Bank here in Sydney. I was discussing with Randell how I could find a way to help those young musicians across regional and outback Australia access the wonders of music lessons. Randell said “Have you thought about video conferencing”?

At that stage I didn’t even know what video conferencing was but a couple of weeks later on a Saturday afternoon I took two students to the Macquarie Bank in the heart of the business district of Sydney. Kim and Ben were on the 5th floor and I gave my first remote music lesson from the 9th floor. The video lagged and the sound crackled but even so we all agreed that one day this was going to work…it was only a matter of time.

At every opportunity I twisted arms to persevere with the idea of teaching via video conferencing. Pilot programmes were set up and university grants were applied for. Early links were challenging at best but I remember fondly a trial link from the Sydney University Campus to Broken Hill on the edge of the outback. A group of Conservatorium elite came along to observe my lesson and I wanted to impress. For once everything went to plan with the technology - however the student forgot to turn up! We sat there and admired the quality of the carpet and curtains in the Broken Hill video conferencing centre, then disconnected and went home.

Eventually my perseverance was rewarded when the latest equipment was bought by the Conservatorium costing close to $100,000 and I started a programme teaching a group of students in remote Coonabarabran. The cost of delivering these lessons over multiple telephone lines was prohibitive and on top of that we had to pay hire charges at the other end for the local teleconferencing centres around NSW. On one occasion the Deputy Prime Minister visited Coonabarabran, sat in on one of the sessions and was mightily impressed. He said he could see that if it could work for a saxophone lesson then they needed to consider using video conferencing more in Canberra. At that point we pretended to shake hands although we were over 500klms apart and photos were taken for the Coonabarabran Times.

Looking back now, what we were trying to achieve was really and truly all quite ludicrous. What it did prove, however, was that these country students flourished in the same way as the desert does after good, soaking rain. Warm and lasting friendships were formed and some of those early students are now successful music teachers.

Over time, the technology caught up with my rampant imagination and along came Skype. Now I could do house calls at very little cost. Parents became more involved in their children’s music lessons and I got to meet the family pets. Although the technology was better, people’s home computers varied in age and quality and bad connections could turn the lessons upside down. Often there were huge gaps in musical phrases and I was left to improvise with comments such as ... “Now tell me Olivia, how would you rate your performance? Give it a mark out of 10.” or “Which line do you think I would like to hear again?”

Nindigully pub

I quickly realised that it didn’t matter what the sound quality was like at my end as the important thing was that the student was preparing and playing for a teacher. This is always a daunting thing for all students but at the same time is an essential and motivating part of their musical journey.

In reality all music lessons are made up of four parts.

  1. The warm greeting that reassures the student that they are the most important person in their teacher’s life.
  2. Hearing the work set from the previous lesson.
  3. Setting new goals and explaining new concepts.
  4. Congratulating the student and possibly suggesting that with a little more practice they could be the next very big thing to take the music world by storm.

All of these things can be done by distance but the one area I found I had to be careful with was the third one. My explanations needed to be very clear and concise.

As the years go by, connections and equipment have improved but it still requires great patience and expertise. I quickly learnt never to show any frustration or irritation with the technology because I knew that if things got really bad I could resort to continuing the lesson by phone which is remarkably effective. Mind you, I do remember one particularly challenging phone situation when teaching a young boy on a remote property, the trombone. He didn’t have a speaker phone so I would be shouting instructions down the phone whilst he was happily gliding around on his instrument, oblivious of his teacher. At the time I thought this was perfect material for the Monty Python team ... did I mention that you need a well-developed sense of humour to survive distance teaching?

In the end, it is always human warmth and good humour that make distance teaching work. I have taught some students whom I’ve never met but I know if I’m lucky enough to meet them in person it will be really wonderful.

Now in 2020, with music teachers all around the world having to teach remotely, I’m heartened to hear from many teachers how excited they are by their new experiences. They are delighted to see their students’ happy and relaxed faces and of course they are thrilled to meet all the family pets.

Never before have music lessons been such a lifeline. I predict that from these times of home isolation over the next few months we will produce some extraordinary results.

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