Good News! Teaching Singing Online Can Work

By Kevin Michael Cripps, Head of Singing at GSA
Photo of Sophie Ash, MA Musical Theatre Graduate 2020

Had I been told a year ago, that the 2019/20 academic year would end with a term fully taught online, I would have been in complete disbelief and assumed that it was a joke. Likely my thoughts would have festered into a thunder storm of negativity regarding quality of education, the student experience, and the disruption of long-held methods of conservatoire drama teaching.

When it was announced that we would actually be moving to online teaching, my mind began to thunder. I know I wasn’t alone, as we all were being asked to renovate our lesson plans and teaching practices. It wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just GSA.

And now on the other side of it, I am pleased to report that although online teaching isn’t perfect, it did yield some positive and even wonderful results.

As Head of Singing, I must acknowledge that the singing world has used online teaching since the advent of Skype and other live video feed programs. We discovered that it was possible to live in London and take periodic lessons with your favorite teacher in New York City without the expense of travel. As a singing department, we knew that we could effectively teach in a virtual world.

That said, there was a lot of learning to do. Many of us had not done a large amount of online teaching in the past, and the majority of our students had never studied online either.

As teachers, we were forced to listen in different ways. Shaky internet connections and poor-quality sound meant that we had to tune into our students differently. Communication of information and the student/teacher connection had changed. In doing so, many of us discovered new tools that will ultimately inform the future of our teaching.

Due to the lag in virtual time, teachers couldn’t accompany their students live. The students were required to work with pre-recorded tracks. This allowed the teachers to focus on the students without the distraction of reading music and playing the piano. Many observations of our students were made that we may have previously missed.

Working with the camera lens on a computer screen allowed for some wonderful discoveries as singing actors. The camera provided an ‘intimacy’ that might not be as possible in a larger studio. This ‘intimacy’ lead to beautiful discoveries of lighter vocal qualities, and a greater connection to text. From a pedagogical standpoint, it allowed many of our students to release musculature that had previously caused them vocal challenges.

My personal favorite observation of online teaching came from the feedback of several students. I had commented to many of them that I felt their growth over the online term was exceptional. I was so proud of their progress, dedication, and tenacity. Many of the students felt that working online from home, provided a familiar space away from all the noise of school, in which to do their work. They felt less pressured and self-conscious, and were able to give themselves permission to falter as vocalists and then grow from that experience. That made my heart sing…pardon the pun.

Again, online teaching isn’t perfect and by no means will it ever take the place of face to face, live teaching. But, how fortunate are we to be living in a time that has the technology to allow the learning process to continue? There were struggles, there were those that didn’t love the online teaching and learning experience, there were some that felt isolated and alone, but we must be grateful for the opportunity to continue on. When everything else came to a standstill, we could remain active.

As we likely face another term of teaching singing online, we have the benefit of looking back on the previous term as a learning experience for us all. As a result, we have a much more confident handle on what online teaching can be. Learning happened…. and it was good.