Talc Tolchin ducks into the music studio he built behind his Marin County cottage, where the sun filters through a towering redwood tree and his daughter has dotted the flower beds with fairy houses. It’s time for his next piano lesson.
An hour’s drive northwest of San Francisco, this woodsy town tucked among rolling golden hills claims only 500 or so dispersed residents. But not all of Tolchin’s students are close by. When it’s time to greet his second student on a recent Friday, he reaches for the laptop perched on his upright piano and summons her — via Skype.
Madeline Sheron pops up, peering at Tolchin from under her dark bangs. They banter — about an app that offers piano, bass and drum accompaniment, adjusted for groove and tempo. Then they dive into “All of Me,” the song Sheron had chosen in hopes of mastering jazz improvisation.
Her computer camera is aimed over her shoulder and Tolchin watches her left hand as it bops from sevenths to thirds. Tolchin has two cameras — one mounted on the ceiling so students can watch his hands, the other trained on his face.
“Go, girl!” he exclaims, tapping his foot as she masters the first turnaround.
Sheron was 200 miles away, in the Sierra Nevada ski town of Truckee. But she could just as well have been across the globe.
This is a music lesson, 2013-style, with tailored software, a growing array of videoconferencing platforms and, for Tolchin, a powerful cable Internet connection that on this day allowed him and Sheron to play their pianos simultaneously — with no delay.
It’s not for everyone. The world of music instructors is filled with late technology adopters on such tight budgets that even basic equipment needed to conduct online lessons is a stretch, said Rachel Kramer, director of member development for the Cincinnati-based Music Teachers National Assn.
Then there’s tradition. “There will be always be teachers who feel it would never ever work,” she said.