Maximizing your online voice lessons
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Here in New York City where performers have probably easier access to voice teachers than elsewhere, we are in the months ahead facing the reality of social distancing. For some of us, this may mean moving to a remote format for voice lessons for the first time.
Since I routinely teach lessons online with singers as far away as Jakarta, here are some lessons I've learned over time to jump start your setup, so you can more quickly make the most of your online lessons. These represent an optimal situation though, and since many of us do not have the resources to check all of these boxes, I've underlined the most critical items.
To-date, these platforms provide the best connectivity, in this order: Zoom, Jitsi, FaceTime, then Skype.
Your teacher will ring chords for your vocalises, instead of playing the entire scale along with you.
Ahead of your lesson, tee up an accompaniment track for the songs / cuts that you want to cover. Use a separate device from which to play this back so that you have control over where you place said device relative to your microphone. Your teacher can help you determine where to position the track-playing device so that your voice is still the dominant thing they hear.
Maximizing your connection quality:
Use high-speed broadband on both ends, instead of relying on cellular
Force-quit apps running in the background that might be hogging bandwidth -- for instance, do you have a browser or news app in the background that is inadvertently loading video content during your lesson?
If possible, connect your device to your modem/router with an ethernet (10-base-T) cable, instead of relying on a slower wireless Wi-Fi connection. If you are a voice professional, I highly recommend making this a possibility for yourself, as it can single-handedly dramatically improve the quality of your online session.
If you have to be on Wi-Fi, figure out what else might be sharing your Wi-Fi bandwidth at the time. For instance, do you have family members who will be streaming HD movies at the same time as your voice lesson?
If you have to be on Wi-Fi, know which areas of your building have stronger Wi-Fi signals than others. For instance, basements can often be challenging, unless the router is positioned in that basement room you're using. The further you go from your router, the weaker the signal.
If you will be playing an accompaniment track for the repertoire section of the lesson, try to download this track ahead of time, so that it is not downloading and sharing bandwidth while your video call is ongoing.
There are free performance tests online that can help you find out if your internet connection is running at the supposed speeds (both down and up link) you are paying for.
Understand that there are episodic bottlenecks in internet bandwidth: there are peak periods of use where many people are online, and your building's bandwidth by a provider might be challenged, especially if you are calling from an older residential building. For example, 8p on a week night at home might have you competing with everyone else who is home and streaming online content. Though during a quarantine period, usage patterns will shift.
Maximizing audio quality:
Have both parties use headphones to avoid a feedback loop; high fidelity head phones on the side of the teacher is more important. In a pinch, headphones on just the teacher's end can help check feedback as well.
Use wired microphones and headphones rather than Bluetooth, as those will create further delays
A quality microphone is more important on the students' end than on the teacher's end. If you'll be taking voice lessons online for an extended period of time, consider making this investment, so that your teacher can receive higher fidelity samples of your voice. Feel free to chat with Bern about what equipment might be the best bang for your buck.
Wearing headphones can change your hearing experience while you sing. Many recording artists will use open-back (rather than closed-back) headphones so that their headset will pick up ambient sounds in their room, including their own voices. Some have their headset cover only one ear, to help them stay somewhat grounded in their normal singing experience without headphones.
Default audio settings within Zoom and Skype favor speech, not sung sounds and music.
In Skype: Turn off 'automatically adjust volume' on the students' end, so that the system is not automatically reducing your louds, and turning up your softs, without you knowing it.
In Zoom, turn on 'Original Sound.' This disables audio codecs that enhance speech (while suppressing environmental sounds), that automatically adjusts the singers' volume, and that perform active echo cancellation. In many cases, 'original sound,' will allow the teacher to hear the students' singing voice more accurately (and without the sound cutting out), since the default codecs were programmed with the speaking voice in mind. If you're not sure how to turn this off, this video might help -- around 2 minutes in. It's more important to turn on 'original sound' on the singer's end, than on the teacher's end. As of the week of 4/7/2020, Zoom has updated even their mobile apps to support this feature - it had previously been enabled only for desktops and laptops. ('Original sound' is still not enabled on Facebook Portal.) Turning on 'original sound' will automatically disable other audio processing on Zoom -- including 'automatically adjust volume' and the suppression of background noise. Given it's tremendous growth during the pandemic, Zoom has been pouring even more resources into improving it's sound quality for music-making. Recent versions allow 'original sound' to enable a 'high fidelity music mode'; you want this setting to be on in the advanced section of the audio settings. Bern is happy to walk you through this in your lesson. Just make sure that you are running the latest available version of Zoom ahead of the lesson.
Cleanfeed: in some cases, Bern may conduct a lesson with you where the audio and video feeds are split between applications. For example, video may be done through Zoom, Jitsi or Skype, but audio piped through Cleanfeed. This is to allow your teacher to hear your voice at even higher fidelity. As the pandemic turns into a bit of a prolonged marathon for some of us, this can provide very useful information so that your voice teacher can (at least occasionally) hear a fuller rendition of your overtones and dynamic range.
Try to assume whatever position you have become used to with your teacher. For instance, if you normally stand during the lesson, do the same, with the camera far enough from you so that it shows your upper torso, but near enough so that the teacher can still see your face well.
Try to have a mirror close at hand when you are doing embouchure / face / posture-related work
Try to have a light source in front of your face, not just directly behind you. If you have the good fortune of having a window or natural light source near you, face that way.
This may seem obvious, but I've seen a few first-time online students attempt to hold their device for the whole lesson like they were taking a protracted selfie. Place your device on a solid surface. If you're using a handheld device and don't own a tripod, a music stand or propping your device up on an open laptop would work.
This is rather important: have your camera or device be at or above eye-level. If your device is very low (e.g. on a desk while you're standing), your tendency would be to crane your neck downwards while you sing. This will impact the way you sing.
To really maximize your lesson, test run your set-up ahead of the call. Many platforms allow you to do a diagnostic call so you can see how you look on camera and also test your sound. Or call your mom, they'll still be happy to hear you, even as your guinea pig.
Hope these help! Be well and stay safe.