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How to Teach Online Group Piano

Piano Express

If you currently teach piano online and haven’t considered teaching online group piano, then you need to read this post all the way to the end.

We recently interviewed a young, energetic teacher who is teaching online group piano using the Piano Express method.

In this interview, Carly shares her journey to becoming an online teacher and gives practical instructions for how to have success with multiple students in the online environment.

She talks about her setup and shares some of the challenges that she’s overcome (and how she did it!)

Here’s what we cover in the interview:

  • 0:00 – How to teach online group piano with Carly Rawlings
  • 2:41 – Tips for transitioning from in-person to online teaching
  • 6:08 – Addressing concerns about teaching group piano online
  • 8:23 – A typical day of lessons when teaching online group piano
  • 11:49 – Using break-out rooms to teach multiple levels at once
  • 13:34 – Problems (and solutions) when teaching online group piano
  • 19:00 – Carly’s best practices for teaching online group piano
  • 25:38 – Conclusion: How to help kids be successful with online group piano!

Click here to watch the full interview!

One of the highlights of this interview was Carly’s summary of the skills necessary for being a great online group teacher.

1>> Equipment Setup. Ensure you have an unobstructed view of your students’ hands and practice active listening skills for online teaching. Familiarize yourself with connection cables and common troubleshooting techniques for technical issues.

2>> Take Control of Your Class. Use the same strategies for maintaining control in an online classroom that you would in a physical classroom. Take advantage of features like breakout rooms and mute buttons.

3>> Demonstrate. Just because you aren’t present physically doesn’t mean you can’t effectively demonstrate and guide your students!

4>> Manage Time Effectively. Continuously improve your online teaching system as you gain experience, and take note of what works well. If you’re seeing positive results, keep doing what you’re doing!

5>> Relax and Have Fun! Work is work, but you can still find time to get lost in the moment with your students and find your joy in teaching.

If you’d like a consultation or free virtual demo of Piano Expressjust click here to sign up for a free demo.

Episode Full Transcript

0:00 – How to teach online group piano with Carly Rawlings

Daniel
Hey, welcome back everyone. I’m Daniel from GrowYourMusicStudio.com. This is Greg from GroupLessons.com. And in this video, we’re going to be talking about online group lessons. And to help us dive into that topic, we have brought Carly Rawlings-Rivera on the podcast with us. Carly, we have kind of a special connection because you are actually teaching my son and have been for a while. So, you know, between the podcasts and videos I do for GROW and GroupLessons.com, we have a lot of guests on, but I feel kind of a special connection because you’ve been instructing my son for the past couple years, which I want to say thank you for.

Carly
Well, thank you for the opportunity. It’s been a joy.

Daniel
Yeah, yeah, for sure! And one of the reasons why I wanted to bring you on is that you’re in a very, very unique position from my perspective. And that is that you have been teaching group lessons for a long time, and you taught group lessons in the context of using the Piano Express in a live classroom, but then you moved to online lessons. And so I think you’re in a very unique perspective, you have a very unique perspective on the differences there. So maybe just to begin with, give us like, you know, the one to two minute bio just so people can kind of begin to know who you are.

Carly
Sounds good. Well, I will start with five years ago, I graduated college and I was looking for my first teaching job out of school. And I really was interested in Northern Virginia, Washington DC metro area. And I came to this area, I found Greg, Greg hired me. And I started to teach group classes. And then I taught private students of the graduates of the group classes. And just a quick fun fact, I met my husband first day on the job. Greg happened to schedule us on a Tuesday. We just celebrated our three-year wedding anniversary yesterday, so… Thank you! Yeah! So, I look at… I look at my life. In the past five years, my life would look totally different, both professionally and personally, without Piano Express.

Greg
Congrats. Yes. Yeah. Corey and Carly. Yeah, they met here. It was matchmaking.

Daniel
Whoa, I didn’t even know that. Wow. Interesting, yeah, no doubt. I did not know that Corey worked for Greg. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long and didn’t realize that fact. So Greg’s been playing Matchmaker more than one time in terms of just a…

Carly
Well, Corey was there from the very beginning, or at the very beginning stages too. So he’s been along the journey.

2:41 – Tips for transitioning from in-person to online teaching

Daniel
Cool. Okay, that’s awesome. Now, for the sake of, I guess brevity, obviously we’re not doing like a demo of the Piano Express in this interview. And I’m gonna assume that if someone’s watching this, they’re somewhat familiar with the Piano Express system, some of the things that make it really, really unique as a group lesson curriculum. Obviously, there’s a lot of advantages to it and things that really have never been done before in group instruction. Carly, what I think would be really interesting would be to talk about the transition between teaching Piano Express in a classroom and then teaching it online and kind of how you made that transition or what even prompted that transition.

Carly
You’ll never guess, it was the pandemic. So Greg and I were working together in person and then the pandemic happened. And I remember Greg calling me up and he told me, you need to go buy this hybrid grand piano that I have, because the pandemic was happening and we didn’t know what the future looked like. And I remember Greg and I working a lot of extra hours outside of classes, trying to figure out what do online group classes look like. And it was a lot of trial and error.

And if I’m being completely honest with you, I hated it for the first month or so. But once we settled into a groove and I started to realize, you know, the sky is the limit on what we could do here and just started to learn the tools better, I fell in love with it. So it was the pandemic that brought about that change.

Daniel
Interesting. Greg, do you have anything to add to that? Like that process or that time?

Greg
It started with, of course, some concerns. People were concerned about, we started getting a few phone calls, like, hey, our kids are gonna drop out of classes. There was like, everyone was hand washing, it was on the news. And then all of a sudden, when public schools closed, our studio was expected then to close and it was a scramble. I talked to our developer, the guy that was writing the software for the Piano Express in person classes, because we already had a lot of good technology. I talked to him about like, we need to be able to put our piano on a screen. We need to be able to push keys and have them light up. And you know, just little tools so that we have these online classes, we can have more control over what we see and what we hear because every teacher that went from in-person to online remembers, you know, those early days of Zoom, there was a lot of latency, a lot of things that we used to be able to do, you know, playing along with the students in real time, there was like these delays and it’s just like, ah, this doesn’t work, oh no. And so we needed to depend more on visual, you know, for real time than auditory.

I was communicating with Andy. He was building these tools. I was training Carly and for a while we were all teaching online lessons. And I guess I can’t say that I ever hated online lessons, not even at the beginning, but I always preferred in person. I was always like, okay, we gotta get through this and I’ve gotta get back to in person. But I know Carly and so many other teachers in this country and in this world were like, wait a minute, online lessons are a better fit. You know, this is what we’re gonna stay with. And so we’re really happy that there was like happenstance that really drove us to make these tools so that online lessons work, because online lessons now they’re not going away. They’re gonna be around for the long haul.

6:08 – Addressing concerns about teaching group piano online

Daniel
Yeah. Carly, so you’re a convert. You went from hating it to, I know you’re still working for Greg now, but you also have your own studio that you’re using the Piano Express tools with. Tell me what prompted that change for you. How did you go from hating it to choosing to take that path permanently?

Carly
Yeah, it’s a great question. Maybe hate is a strong word. I will say I tend to be resistant to change. And for me, developing a process and then doing it over and over again where I can fine tune it and make it better each time, I think I see a lot of value in that. And when something changes so suddenly and I just feel like I don’t even know what to do, that was the challenge in that for me.

I would say because the pandemic lasted longer than a 12 week cycle of the curriculum, I got more repetitions and I started to be able to fine tune the process and then just doing it day in day out and really dedicating a lot of time and energy and focus to get a setup that worked well for teacher and student.

Greg
I will say her setup – because I’ve visited her apartment. I haven’t been to your new house, and congrats on that new house by the way, but I’ve been to her apartment – her setup is – I have, I have setup envy. She’s got like the overhead camera and the side camera and and like this little button you push off to the side that like changes camera angles at the touch of a button. It’s, yes like a little controller there, that little thing, that is wizardry. So anyways yeah she’s got some gear, you know, her husband, Corey, he’s a bit of a tech genius. So he like sees like, okay, these pieces can get put together. And so she’s got a pretty smooth, smooth setup there.

Daniel
Carly and I have been talking about perhaps doing a second video like MTV Cribs style, like looking at the setup only. But that’s probably going to be in the future. Carly, what I would love to hear from you right now is what does a typical day of lessons look like for you, a day of group lessons with Piano Express? Could you maybe just walk us through what that experience is, just as a teacher and how you feel about that? I’m curious what comes to mind.

8:23 – A typical day of lessons when teaching online group piano

Carly
Sure. So the way my schedule is right now, I’m still working with private lesson graduates of the group class program. And so my schedule is, I have some private lessons, I have some group classes, and they are all scheduled together there. So normally a day starts off, you know, mid afternoon or so when students are available, and I will start that chunk of classes. I schedule them back to back in hour long slots, similar to how Greg does, and we just hop back and forth between an advanced private lesson to a gold level group class to you know level 7 RCM private lesson to a purple class based on the enrollment I have, based on the number of students I have in each class, and their availabilities.

Daniel
Hmm, okay. When you’re in one of the group classes, how does that hour feel? Like what are you doing during that time to support? Do you see up to six kids at a time?

Carly
I have. I would say my sweet spot of where I feel I can provide the best service is three to four, but I would not cap it at four. If I have somebody interested in that class, I would allow up to six, but generally that three to four has been a sweet spot for me.

Daniel
Nice. And then just how does that hour feel? What are you doing during that time? Could you just describe that? Because I think a lot of people struggle to think about how an online group class would work and obviously there’s different ways of doing group but since we’re talking about Piano Express, let’s talk about how you’re doing it with that tool.

Carly
Yeah, well, I was trained by Greg in the classical or the classic Piano Express style. So I have found that to work just as well in the group setting. And I will say I have taught multi levels at once and I have taught single levels at once. And that was due to scheduling and enrollment. And for both of those, I still kept the same format as the student enters the class, and the first 30 minutes is assessment, working with the app, working to pass their songs. I float in and out. So something I forgot to mention is I actually use the breakout room function on Zoom and I call it a practice room. That just sounds nicer to me than a breakout room. And I found without that feature, students were getting easily distracted by hearing their peers work, hearing me talk to other students. But if I have students in a breakout room, they can practice with the app and I come in and out of their room and there’s a button they can ask hosts for help. I call it the help button. I think of it as a red flag at Piano Express in that big room where somebody is raising their flag for a question. You know, they hit that button, I’m right there. So the first 30 minutes is the assessment portion and the second half is the discovery where we are working with a worksheet and I have found no matter what happens, always start with finger drills, always end with the “Hear It” section, the game, and you know, the book ends of that structure is amazing. And of course we fill the lesson with the rest of the lesson plan.

11:49 – Using break-out rooms to teach multiple levels at once

Greg
Do you use breakout rooms when you’re doing the discovery or do you bring everybody back to the front?

Carly
Thank you. I bring everybody back together for the group class or for the the worksheet portion – including if it is a multi-level group. I try to keep everybody at the same portion of the worksheet at once, and I will work with like certain colors so say that you know I have like two gold students and two silver… I would talk to the gold class, help them with their finger drills, get them going on their finger drills, while I then go get silver going on finger drills and then we would go through the different courses of the lesson plan… staying in sync.

One thing I do think can be nice about working with groups like multiple levels at once is it previews to younger students what is to come and it also can serve as a review for students that have already graduated out of a level. So we’ve made it work and it’s been a lot of fun.

Greg
Oh yeah. Yeah, I never thought about that, but yeah, that’s how one-room school houses always worked, you know? You never forget what you learned in third grade because you hear it every year.

Carly
I will say right now, my classes have leveled out to everybody being at the same time in the same color, and that is what I am most accustomed to, so that feels seamless. It’s less hopping around as a teacher. You know, if you’re working with multiple levels at once, you’re thinking about, okay, this lesson plan said this, this lesson plan said that. But as you use the curriculum, I feel like it becomes more a part of you. You can speak the language, and we have all these repetitions throughout the cycle, and over again throughout the quarters, it becomes easier to move around if needed between levels.

13:34 – Problems (and solutions) when teaching online group piano

Daniel
Hmm. Carly, how has it felt? How would you describe the difficulty level of working with kids online and helping them get results? Does that feel easy to you? Does it feel hard? I’m curious what you’d answer that, how you’d answer that question.

Carly
Daniel, it’s a good question. I feel like I’m blessed with really good students. One of them being your child. And so I will say there have been students that I did not feel they were making the same type of progress online that they could in person. Therefore, they’ve gone back to Greg. I’ve had other students that have continued online and have been able to have just as successful results based on the teaching and the tools that we’re providing.

Daniel
What do you think the difference was between those two kinds of students?

Carly
I think maturity of students has something to do with it. So majority of my group classes have been older students. I’ve had some young ones.

Daniel
Interesting. Define older.

Carly
I would say like level three, four, five, six.

Daniel
So it’s not so much an age, it’s a level that you think of it.

Carly
Yeah. I think students, as they gain fluency with music and piano and note reading and rhythm, and then they also start to become more familiar with the tools of the app and the software, and even being able to work through the mechanics of starting their Zoom call or leaving their breakout room, going to the main session, all of those things, students get better with that time, and it becomes more natural to navigate those.

Greg
I think that one of the differentiated, because I did, I’ve taught both as well. I’ve done plenty of online group classes and in person. And I think that there are certain students where there’s, it feels like there’s more accountability for that student to focus and be engaged in the class when you are in the physical room with them. Sometimes when there’s a screen between some students, not all students, but some students, whether it’s easily distracted or maybe they’re just not completely convinced that they’re bought into piano. Some they’re taking piano, but their level of interest is on a spectrum between I love this and I’m not interested. You know, those students, they’re a little bit harder to engage and you can’t, of course, reach through the screen. I think when I was teaching online, that was one of the biggest challenges. is a student who you can tell is, is, um, struggling to engage with wanting to, to learn piano, you know? And I think even with the best students, you know, there’s moments where students are like, “Oh, this is just, this just feels like hard work. I don’t know if I’m into it today.” For me, that was the most difficult thing is, is trying to figure out how to get those students engaged. Carly, I wanted to know… have you sensed that, and what have you been able to do? Have there been any times where you’ve seen like that turn around? Have you been able to help students like find the love for piano in your classes?

Carly
Yeah, I honestly want to put it on the parents a little bit because I think the learning environment of where the piano is located and how much the surrounding environment respects that hour-long class, that does contribute a lot to the success. And I’ve had students that there’s a lot of chaos going on. That’s their life. That’s what they’re dealing with. And it may not be a good option for them. But I’ve had other students – say, even homeschoolers who are accustomed to online classes and just parents that are really involved, engaged in the students’ progress and parents that are making sure that the computer is working right and the piano turns on, you know, all of that stuff.

The question about the turnaround, I try… so students can get bored with redundancy, and the thing is you need review. And the more repetitions you have on something, it can help the student learn it. But I think there’s also a balance of every time I teach a lesson I’m thinking about, is there anything I can do different this time that would bring a little spark of excitement? Whether it’s an illustration or students doing something like I’ve had students get up and we’re gonna like march to this beat or things like that to have them feel it themselves outside of just a screen. I also, I try to be available outside of class. Students have my contact info if they have questions. I will as soon as possible send them an answer to their questions. I also, since I have the overhead camera plugged in ready to go, I can easily make demo videos and there’s times I’ve even done demo videos with a metronome or done… and all of this is in conjunction with the tools that are already in the app.

19:00 – Carly’s best practices for teaching online group piano

Daniel
Carly, I’m curious, there are folks who are watching this that do online lessons, perhaps one-to-one. There could be interest in doing group. They’re already familiar with online. And I’m sure, no doubt, there are folks that would be watching this that have not done online lessons at all. My question for you would be, what best practices, what would you recommend, what have you learned doing this? What are some things that you think could be helpful to one or both of those groups? Any thoughts on that? I know I’m putting you on the spot there, but I’m curious if you have any thoughts.

Carly
Yeah, well, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned and I’m also still learning. And so that’s something that I’m trying to keep learning, how can I improve online lessons because it’s constantly evolving. So I have found, I’ve always had, I would say humbly, a decent ear for hearing things, but with online lessons, if my view is obstructed of like the student’s angle or if they’re having a camera issue, I have to depend much more on my ear of like are they playing the right note and I can tell that my listening skills have really improved with online lessons. Again, I said the practice rooms, the breakout rooms feature, that’s really helpful for the group class setting. As Greg has told me many times, you have to be prepared for a class and being prepared for a class is how you can have the best control of the class. So Greg has super great ideas and methods of class control for in person, but I’ve had to think, how can I apply those same elements of class control on online setting? And so for me, that structure of the breakout rooms and even mute buttons, I keep everybody muted and I ask them for a volunteer to demonstrate, they’ll raise their hand, and I ask them to unmute. So that way, that’s how I keep the order of not having six pianos all playing at once and the sound going in and out.

Greg
I needed a mute button for one of my classes last night. One of my in-person, I was like, I wanted to mute one of my, he just interrupted. That’s, I’m jealous.

Carly
Greg, it happens to us all. Yeah, like I don’t have red cards and yellow cards, Greg. But that works amazing in your setting. I will ask, the mute button can sometimes be cumbersome in terms of it taking time of say, like say that we’re playing at the very end of class, the “hear it” game. And if I were to ask everybody, what number do you hear? And then somebody raises their hand and then I’m like, okay, let’s unmute. And then they tell me and then I mute them and I’m like, no, that’s the wrong answer… That adds a lot of time.

One thing I’ve found, I just tell the student, show me your finger numbers. What number did you hear? One, two, three, four, five, or six. And in the camera, you know, I’m seeing like the finger numbers and that’s a way to get through that more seamlessly. I have students raise their hand, you know, if they have a question. So at this point, I’m not talking as much about the assessment, but more of the discovery when we’re all in the class together. I ask them to raise their hand. Occasionally I’ll have students send me a message. So say that a student is feeling maybe nervous or self-conscious or confused on a concept, but they might feel nervous to be like, Miss Carly, I don’t get it. Sometimes I’ll have a student send me a message. They’ll be like, I don’t understand that, or I just had a glitch. Can you say it again? So I will keep an eye on that. Like, nobody’s sending me these huge long messages, but just a little… or I gotta go to the bathroom. I’ve had that message come up several times too. I spotlight my video. So, you know, with my overhead camera, I use the spotlight feature on Zoom and I am super accustomed to hopping back and forth between like the main face camera angle and the overhead camera angle. So I use that spotlight feature a lot. I make demo videos and I try to follow up outside of class as needed just to continue the engagement. Like if I feel like a student is struggling or having a hard time, I will try to follow up and I will say just as an online teacher, you have to be prepared to help with tech issues inside and outside of class. Sometimes it’s a quick, let’s adjust your audio settings. Other times it might be a bigger issue. So if it’s a larger issue, I might ask to meet with the student 10 minutes after class, or whenever works for them. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned as an online teacher, because I am running, I didn’t tell you about my setup, but I am running multiple camera angles and OBS software, I have an audio interface. There’s a lot of different connection points of all the different cables and all. If I don’t restart my system before a block of classes, I’m more likely to have glitches. So I just do a quick restart and generally things run really well.

25:38 – Conclusion: How to help kids be successful with online group piano!

Daniel
That’s awesome. Greg, I’m curious. You’ve been teaching online lessons as well. I’d love for you to jump in, because I know Carly gave a lot of wisdom right there. I’m curious if there’s anything else that you would add to that. Best practices, hacks, those sorts of things.

Greg
Well, I think of the three of us, I would definitely default to Carly for like the highest level of expertise, but I would just say with all group lessons, one of the most important things is that you manage time well. And I remember going into in-person group lessons way back in between 2008, 2012, when I was really trying to put the Piano Express together for the first time. Managing time was a huge concern of mine. And it was that one of the reasons why we developed the software the way we did was to help gamify for students, manage time for teachers. And when I went into online lessons, that was a whole new concern again, and I was just like, how are we going to manage time? And I found in a lot of ways I got into the rhythm of teaching online group lessons, in some ways time management was easier. Going from person to person was a click of a mouse instead of walking from one side of the room to the next. I mean, four steps takes a few seconds, but that times 10, times every hour, times every day, times every, you know, all these, it adds up, you know, and being able to do simple things like put students in breakout rooms, mute, unmute…

I would really say, you know, to any teacher watching this who hasn’t tried group lessons or online lessons before, and you’re thinking, I don’t know if it would work, you know, I think the, I had those same thoughts and feelings, but you get into a good system, you start using it and it does work and there’s really nothing to be afraid of. And I always measure everything by results, right? If you’re not getting good results, then it’s not working. If you are getting good results, then it is working.

Carly said it best, you know, she’s, she says she’s been blessed with good students. Her students are, are good students and Carly, I think it’s okay to look in the mirror and say, you know, part of that is because you’re a good teacher. But if you look at all those results and say, you know, it’s all working, then the system works, you know, the teachers, the students, the Piano Express method, the online format, group lesson format works.

Daniel
Yeah, I don’t know if this is just adding on, but something or just adding on to what you said there Greg, but something I’ve said is over the years I’ve had a lot of people that I’ve worked with and helping them convert to group lessons and I’ve asked them like what frustrations they’ve had around teaching and a lot of people said or frustrations around marketing and they said, well I want to market in such a way that I only get really good students. And I’ve always said, we make good students.

You don’t put an ad out and get good students. We have to create them. I think earlier in my career, I wouldn’t have understood that. But after I got much more comfortable in the group environment and just becoming a better teacher overall, being more economical with my words, believing in the students, having a vision for what was possible… Teaching got really fun. Anything to wrap us up, Carly? I know you told me before we started that you had a lot to say and I’ve asked you certain questions but there might be something that you were like hoping to talk about or share. Maybe we could end on that note. Is there anything that you feel like you’d like to add in here?

Carly
Okay, yeah, I would say had asked what are best practices for teaching Piano Express in general. And I would say given that I’ve taught both in person for Greg and then independently online for my own studio… I would say you need to be prepared, study the material, class control, and then here’s the biggest one: you just gotta relax and have fun. And one thing I found, work is work and work has challenges, but when I’m teaching my classes, they bring me so much joy. The students bring me joy. It’s like I get lost in that moment of what I’m doing. And my hope is that using a curriculum that, has these results that we’re talking about, it’s tried and true with the way students are able to keep time and read music and quickly adapt… My hope is that they would be able to sense the passion and excitement that I feel because of this curriculum I’m using and then they could experience that same joy and love in their own musical journey.