I am aware that some people experience technical problems with their internet connection or their audio or video quality. There are others who would like to know how they can improve the quality of these on their systems. I have asked my husband, Stefan Stackhouse, to make some technology recommendations for my students. While he is not an electronic or audio engineer, he was responsible for the internet connectivity and office networking at his workplace prior to his retirement. He thus knows a little bit about these things.
The very first issue which anyone taking online piano lessons (or doing any other type of work from home) must consider is their internet connectivity. Bandwidth is especially important for video conferencing quality, especially where audio quality and synchronicity between the audio and video signals are critical (as they are for online piano lessons). Unfortunately, video conferencing platforms such as ZOOM were designed for offices with high-speed, high-capacity internet connections – something that residential users just do not have. It is therefore essential that residential users try to secure the best possible internet connectivity for themselves that is available and that they can afford.
Most residential users will have two options: cable and DSL. Cable internet will be available through your local cable television company; these days they also offer internet connectivity, either as a package with the television service or as a stand-alone service. DSL will be through your local “land-line” telephone company – again, either packaged with telephone service or as a stand-alone option. (There are a few other options available for those who lack both of these. These tend to be expensive and generally offer more limited bandwidth. This is especially true for those using a satellite ISP. We understand that some people in remote locations have no other option, but we have found that the upload bandwidth for these is typically limited to the 2-3 mbps range, and performs much too poorly for an acceptable online piano lesson. In contrast, the use of a “hotspot” with the cellular network might perform somewhat better. The download bandwidth will certainly be adequate, but the upload bandwidth will only be marginally better than what is available by a satellite ISP. Much will depend upon how close one is located to the nearest cell tower.)
Both the cable and the DSL systems will generally offer progressively greater bandwidth/higher speed options for a higher monthly charge. In most cases the cables to your home remain the same, but they will issue you a higher-speed modem for a faster subscription. The higher-speed options are not cheap, but may well be worth it. We have had prospective online students who were not able to proceed with online lessons because their internet service bandwidth just was not good enough to support the intensive demands of online piano lessons. Bandwidth speeds will be quoted in terms of mbps (megabits per second) both for downloads and for uploads. The download speed will usually be much higher, and usually just about any level of service will suffice. It is the upload speed that is critical. While we have seen some sources state that 2.5 mbps is an acceptable minimum upload speed, this really is only barely true just for plain video conferencing between two people only. We have generally found that something in the range of 10-20 mbps is going to provide a far more reliably satisfactory experience for online piano lessons. (Be aware that companies will often quote speeds that users rarely, if ever, realize. This is another reason to subscribe to the fastest service that you can afford. The way to check what bandwidth your provider is REALLY delivering is to use speedtest.net.)
While in some cases the cable or DSL modem that your service provider will supply contains a built-in router, quite frequently it will be up to the user to supply their own router. You might want to do this in any case, because the router is another critical component that can impact bandwidth. Many people are still using the same old router that they bought years ago. Be aware that there have been improvements in router technology, and these do make a difference. Look for a dual-band router with “802.11ac” support and an Ethernet connection rated at 1 Gbps. It is generally true that “you get what you pay for.” Note that we recommend that you reboot (turn off or unplug and then turn back on) both your router and your modem prior to your lesson. This does apparently help sometimes.
Ethernet cables (and adapters):
Many people consider Ethernet cables to be “yesterday’s technology” and haven’t used them in years. Everyone uses Wi-Fi for everything now. Unfortunately, while Wi-Fi is adequate for most everyday uses, its bandwidth is going to be inferior to what can be achieved through an Ethernet cable. We have found that this can and does make a big difference for online piano lessons, and we thus recommend that students try to connect their device to their router by an Ethernet cable if at all possible. There are different grades of Ethernet cables, with “CAT8” being the “gold standard” and we highly recommend using it if you can. A “CAT7” cable is almost as good. Lower graded cables (“CAT5” or “CAT6”) are still going to perform better than Wi-Fi, but if you are going to invest in an Ethernet cable it is worth paying a little more to get the best quality. It is OK to run a cable clear across a house if necessary, and the farther you are from your router, the bigger the improvement you are likely to notice compared to Wi-Fi. If you cannot afford to pay a technician (it need not be a licensed electrician as these are not power lines) to permanently install a cable between your router and the room in which your piano is located, then you could just make do with a cable strung safely around furniture and under rugs and taken up between lessons.
While most desktop and some laptop computers have an Ethernet RJ-45 port built-in, many other laptops and most tablets and smartphones do not. These will need an adapter, with a female RJ-45 port at one end and a USB plug at the other. Once again, “you get what you pay for” and it is worth paying a little extra to get good quality. For an Apple iPad you will need what we use: An Apple USB Ethernet Adapter (model MC704LL/A) paired with an Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (part MK0W2AM/A). Note that it is essential that you use BOTH of these. For other laptops and tablets with USB ports, any Ethernet-to-USB adapter will do. We use the Anker USB 3.0 Gigabit Ethernet Adapter (model AK-A7611011) and have had very good results with it.
Desktop vs. Laptop vs. Tablet vs. Smartphone?
We have some students who use a smartphone for their online piano lessons. In the absence of anything better, this sometimes can be made to work. However, there are problems with smartphones. First, both their screen size and camera range are going to be limited, so it will be a problem both to take a good image of the student and the keyboard and for the student to see Dr. Stackhouse and her keyboard. Second, smartphones relay on Wi-Fi, and I don’t know if it is even possible to connect them to an Ethernet cable; their bandwidth will thus be extremely limited. We thus recommend that students try to secure either a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer to use for their lessons if possible. These will either have a built-in camera or will be capable of having a remote camera attached. As explained above, it will also be possible to connect all of these by Ethernet cable. The older your device, the more likely it is that you will experience problems with video and audio quality. A device that is only a few years old at most, that has a “quad core” processor, and that has at least 2GB of RAM (and preferably as much more as possible) will perform better. You need not get the “top of the line” but it is generally true that “you get what you pay for.” A relatively affordable choice that we use and can recommend is the Apple iPad 10.2 inch 32GB (model MW752LL/A); this cost us under $300. (Note that for a desktop and for some laptops that do not have built-in cameras you may also need a webcam. A number of different models are available. This is one case where the most expensive may not be necessary; a mid-range model will undoubtedly suffice.)
Clamp or other solution to hold device and/or camera:
A challenge that many of our students face is to locate and secure their computing device (and webcam). They need to be able to see the screen, and at the same time the camera needs to be situated so that Dr. Stackhouse can see the keyboard and their hands. The solution that we have found works best for us is to use the MAGIPEA Tablet Stand Holder (model 8541529141). This features a clamp that can be attached to a bookshelf (as we do) or table or whatever; a long gooseneck arm that can be moved to any position; and a clamp that can resize to hold anything from a smartphone to a large tablet. There are other devices available, and of course some people are able to devise their own creative solutions.
Microphone and speakers:
Dr. Stackhouse needs to be able to hear both you and your piano, and of course you need to be able to hear her and your piano as well. We have found that the built-in microphone and speakers in most devices are not adequate, and a headset won’t work for this application. We thus recommend that a small, good-quality stand microphone and a pair of computer speakers or headphones (NOT a headset with built-in microphone) be used. There are many, many different options available, and this is another thing where the highest-priced models are not necessary. The lowest-priced options may be of questionable quality as well, so we recommend that students shop for something in the middle of the price range. You may need extension cables or adapted cords in order to plug these into your device.
Note: Be sure to place your microphone so that it is facing AWAY from your speakers to avoid feedback. Using headphones (not a headset with microphone) will totally avoid this problem.
Note: If you are using an electronic keyboard, it may be possible to connect it directly to your device. This is likely to result in much improved audio quality. However, Dr. Stackhouse is still going to need to hear your voice as well, so you are still going to also need a microphone. In this case, a headset with a built-in microphone would work. Note that you will need some sort of small audio mixer to combine the keyboard and microphone signals. These are available, but we have no experience with them. A store that carries electronic equipment for bands and other musicians might be able to help you with this.
Competition for bandwidth:
One other technical problem that our students frequently encounter is competition for bandwidth with other devices and users. The typical home will have several devices running and all competing for bandwidth, sometimes in the background and not even noticed. Given the high bandwidth demands of an online piano lessons, however, we need all the bandwidth we can get. We recommend that all other devices that are connected to the household network by Ethernet or Wi-Fi (including smartphones – this might be happening automatically without your even being aware of it) be shut off during the scheduled lesson. For similar reasons, we recommend that other applications on the device that you will be using be ended and all other browser tabs be closed.
Another technical problem sometimes encountered during video conferencing is lighting: either too much or too little or too uneven. The ideal arrangement is for a moderate amount of indirect lighting to be directed both on your face and on the keyboard. If at all possible, avoid having a window or other bright light source directly behind you.
ZOOM video conferencing platform:
There are a number of different video conferencing platforms that exist, and there are pros and cons for each of them. We are using ZOOM mainly because it has become very widely used; we have found that most of our students have used ZOOM in other contexts and are already somewhat familiar with it. We know that some of our students have also used Facetime; unfortunately, those without Apple devices do not have access to this. Dr. Stackhouse prefers to just work with one platform for everyone. A version of ZOOM is now available for any device that you are likely to use. Your version can be downloaded from their website at ZOOM.us. You can also find resources to help you learn how to use ZOOM if you are not familiar with it.
UPDATE; ZOOM High-Fidelity Music Mode:
Zoom has just come out (as of 23 September 2020) with a new High-Fidelity Music Mode. This should greatly help those who have been having problems with poor audio upload quality. It will probably not work miracles (especially for those with only a Satellite ISP, unfortunately), but it might make at least a marginal difference for most people. As of this writing this feature is only available for Windows and Macintosh systems. It is not yet available for iOS (iPads and iPhones), Android, or Linux (Chromebook) systems, unfortunately – although this may change in the future. For more information: https://blog.zoom.us/high-fidelity-music-mode-professional-audio-on-zoom/