For a piano teacher on Skype, lessons in the key of see

When the student hits a key, the same key depresses on the teacher’s instrument, precisely conveying the student’s tone.

Currently, distance lessons generally require that student and teacher each obtain hard copies of the same music. But several companies are competing to devise display software that allows student and teacher to view the same on-screen music. In one version, when the instructor circles a measure, the marking also appears on the student’s display.

Orman teamed with Jennifer Whitaker of the University of North Carolina to probe differences between face-to-face and distance lessons for three middle school students learning tuba and saxophone, analyzing nearly 30,000 frames of digital video and getting written comments from teachers and students.

Their results, published in 2010 in the American Journal of Distance Education, showed that there was less idle chitchat and joke-telling during videoconference lessons. Students made more eye contact and spent more time actually playing their instruments than those who studied in person, where there are arguably more distractions. (Being middle-schoolers, though, one student did point out that it was easier to cheat on fingering during the remote lesson, because the teacher’s view was limited.)

Resistance is understandable, given that the in-person master-apprentice model has a long and storied history.

“That’s how Mozart was taught. That’s how Bach was taught,” said Orman, who with Whitaker is researching virtual-reality instruction methods for conductors.

But advanced students often travel long distances for the right mentor: Orman went all the way to the Conservatoire National de Région de Bordeaux, in France, to study classical saxophone performance. For those unable or unwilling to make such a commitment, cutting out the commute is increasingly being recognized as a worthwhile goal.

Among the converts is New England’s Berklee College of Music, whose online offerings include 12-week courses and multi-course certificate programs in bass, piano, guitar, orchestration, theory and more.

“The college of music that started it all has started it all again, online,” reads the school’s slogan for its distance arm, which has paired its faculty with tens of thousands of students in 90 countries.


For Sheron, blending remote lessons with her visits to Tolchin was a perfect solution.

The 62-year-old singer shuttles between homes in nearby Novato and the Sierra Nevada’s Truckee and craved continuity with her music. Her classical piano training left her feeling as though she couldn’t just noodle around with music. To overcome that barrier and improvise to her jazz vocals, she turned to Tolchin, who years ago gave lessons to her son, now a professional musician in Portland.