Lessons Learned Teaching Online And Applying Them for Lessons In-Person

“I refuse to be THAT old lady piano teacher.”

You know who I’m talking about. Maybe you were her student a long time ago. 

As for me, I have been teaching piano since my sons were in diapers; I have uttered this statement from the very beginning.  

Sorry, Mrs. Sack. You were a fine teacher, but I do not want to be you.

Fast Forward 23 years

During March 2020, I pretty-much wiped the possibility of becoming THAT piano teacher clean off the slate. Overnight, I entered the world of Facetime conversations and YouTube tutorials. I read up on screen sharing, noise-canceling headphones, and overhead piano camera set-up. Synchronous and Asynchronous became new vocabulary words.  

"In a few weeks, I became relevant in the digital world. I learned, however, that even when you are relevant, you can feel incompetent."

Both teachers and students, even parents, were pushed further than we ever expected to go. Together, we gave a wide berth to perfection. We learned new things. We overcame the fear and discomfort of seeing our faces and hearing our voices on camera. We moved into a new normal.  

And today, though I have returned to teaching in-person, masked, and socially-distanced, there are things I learned while teaching online that have served me well. I learned:

1.  Talk less, observe more   

If nothing else, in 2020, we learned that Zooming is exhausting. As teachers, we must vigilantly look for our students’ visual cues. Being on high-alert for hours on end is draining. 

But, the takeaway is this: talk less, observe more. If we lecture too much, our students check out. No more blah, blah, blah. Students give off a plethora of information in their facial and body language if we pay attention. I learned to ask more questions, then watch and listen. Really listen (with your eyes and ears).

2.  Change it up

During quarantine, live online lessons/classes helped give my students a bit of normality to long, unstructured days. Though it is good to have a routine, be sure to factor in a surprise element to lessons - different types of off-the-bench activities keep your students engaged.

During online lessons, my younger students ran to the kitchen and brought back popcorn and yogurt. When they returned, I compared popcorn popping to staccato touch and smooth yogurt to legato touch. In-person, this activity may translate into jumping like a frog or slithering like a snake. Get them off the bench online and in-person! 

In the new year, perhaps, organize a studio-wide composition project using Comic Strip Music Composition. Here, they will combine elements of storytelling, scriptwriting, storyboard, drawing, and musical composition. Students can work off the bench before adding musical components.  

3.  Record snippets for later consumption

Last year, collectively, we learned that the digital divide is real. Whether it’s the lack of broadband access or slow Internet in inclement weather, I learned the value of recording video Zoom lessons or making an audio/video clip for asynchronous learning. My favorite feature of Tonara is the ease of sharing audio/video recordings (either of me playing or a YouTube video clip).

4.  Manage your time

At first, the admin associated with online teaching took over my life. I couldn’t understand why I seemed to be spending so much time before and after lessons getting organized. So, I started keeping track of what I was doing and saw very quickly how my time started to add up.

  • I wrote out a follow-up lesson plan for each student, just 30 words per student (30 students) = 900 words of written instruction: about 25 minutes.
  • I spend about 5 minutes per student dealing with queries/questions outside of lessons. With 30 students, there are 2.5 hours a week gone.
  • Alongside this, I spend an average of an additional five hours, at the start of each week, gathering materials for activities and organizing music for the next seven days.


It doesn’t sound like much, but this represents one full day of “unpaid” teaching time. Of course, I am incredibly grateful to have a job and one that I can do in-person or remotely. To be clear, I am not complaining. 

But the irony is that Bloomberg reports since going online, we spend three more hours per day working than before. Through the pandemic, I learned to work smarter.  However, there were many days that I worked much harder to get to this point.

Finding a new way with Tonara

Tonara has helped to reduce the time spent on lesson planning without compromising on value to students. My initial online teaching efforts were taking a lot of time, and online or offline, I needed to have a method to track and review lesson plans (whether or not students use these plans at home).  

Since I tend to similar curricula with most students, I can create one Tonara assignment and add it to my repertoire for future use.  How many times did I assign “Jingle Bells” during the holidays? Furthermore, I can play/demonstrate a song once during lessons, store it in Tonara’s media section, and grab it for the next time. Much easier!

During the pandemic, I learned many lessons from teaching online that has allowed me to reinvent myself as a creative, relevant, and organized music teacher.  

Someday, I will have celebrated enough birthdays to be THAT teacher. But, until I decide to jump ship, “I refuse to be THAT old lady piano teacher.”

Marilyn is a freelance blogger/writer who has raised two neuro-diverse children. Her oldest son was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 11, and her daughter with an Auditory Processing Disorder at age 6. 

In addition, Marilyn has taught piano to hundreds of students for over 23 years.  She has owned her own successful music studio and currently teaches piano at School for the Arts, Brighton, Michigan. She is skilled at pinpointing her students’ interests and at helping them achieve their next steps in music. She studied music at Julliard and the Richards Institute (Education Through Music - ETM). ETM  promotes physical, mental, and social growth through language, song, movement, and interactive play. In recent years, she holds a B.S. in Journalism with a minor in voice at the University of Kansas.

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