Getting the Most Out of Online Lessons

The Covid-19 Pandemic has banished face-to-face music lessons to Skype, Zoom and other online video chat options. We private music teachers are fortunate to be able to continue teaching during this global upheaval, but teaching and learning online is certainly not without several frustrating hurdles. Grainy, pixelated images, unintelligible audio, screen freeze and numerous other glitches can make lessons feel like a lost cause, especially for teachers and/or students who are new to online learning.

What follows is a breakdown of the most common technical headaches and how to fix them.

1. Is your Internet Up to Scratch?

Fast broadband is far more widely available these days, but for some rural areas, the rollout of fiber optic broadband is still a painfully slow work in progress, as are the existing internet speeds. The good news regarding video conferencing is that you can get away with a very modest download speed of 1 – 4mbps, so long as your upload speed is at least 1 mbps. If your average speed is less than that, unfortunately you’ll find that most video calls will consist of badly pixelated video and barely intelligible audio that sounds more Dalek than human; and the call is likely to be split up into several short-lived sessions that time out due to insufficient or non-existent connection speed. Needless to say, music lessons are impossible under these circumstances.

You may already have a connection speed of 4mbps or more, and still experiencing the aforementioned frustrations with your video calls. Alas, there are more factors than just your internet speed that can cause problems. Fortunately most can be fixed.

  • WiFi vs. ethernet: You may have a perfectly respectable speed, but a weak wifi signal can make your browsing and video call experience as much of a lost cause as the sub 1mbps speed dilemma. If possible, be in the same room as your router, and use a device that can be connected to the router with an ethernet cable. That way, your internet speed and stability will always be what your provider is giving you, rather than what your wifi signal can offer. If you can’t be in the same room as your router, consider upgrading it or investing in range extenders. These clever devices plug into a normal wall socket and boost your signal, as well as some models allowing you to plug in an ethernet cable
  • Bandwidth: The more people in your household are making simultaneous demands on the internet connection, the slower your download speed will be. While general browsing, social networking and email shouldn’t make much or any difference to your connection speed or stability, you should aim for your lesson slot to be at a time when others in your home are not downloading, file sharing, streaming or video calling.
  • Traffic management: You may find that your speed drops at certain times of the day due to general traffic, especially while so many more people are working from home. In addition, many internet providers use traffic management techniques to deal with increased demand, which often includes slowing speeds at certain times of day. It’s worth checking your provider’s small print to see what (if any) traffic management policies they apply to your subscription, especially when it’s time to renew.

2. Your device

If the computer, phone or tablet you’re using is a bit of a relic, you may experience the same sorts of issues you’d encounter with insufficient connection speeds, such as poor video and sound quality, image freezing. In addition, you may encounter software or even system crashes. Without getting too technical, if your computer is generally limping through its daily tasks and prone to crashes and system errors, it’s time for an upgrade. If you’re not sure what specs you should go for, fear not – all new laptops and desktop computers are more than adequately equipped to deal with video conferencing.

3. Camera and Microphone

At a pinch you can use your onboard camera and microphone, but really, if you want to get the most out of your online lessons, you’ll need to invest in a reasonable quality webcam, tripod, USB microphone and mic stand. Quality issues aside, the main problem with relying on your onboard camera and mic is the very limited camera angle and mic level you get. In order for me to be able to assess your playing, I need to be able to see a full length image of you, and I need the best possible representation of your sound. If you’re using your laptop, tablet or phone you have your camera and mic in the same place which is problematic. Being close to the camera means I’ll be able to see your head and torso at the very most. Move away from the camera and you end up too far away from the mic, so I can see you but I can barely hear you. It also makes it challenging for you to see and hear me properly if your device is too far away from you. Solution:

  • Don’t use your phone – the screen is too small.
  • Tablets are okay, but only if you can plug in an external camera and mic.
  • The ideal device is a laptop or desktop with external camera and mic plugged in and placed in such a way that you get your ideal camera angle and mic placement, and you can be as close to your computer screen as you like because it makes no difference to the sound or picture.

You can spend as little as £30 or splash out as much as £300, depending on just how impressive you want your webcam to be. £30 – £50 will buy you a basic but respectable camera that will comfortably outperform the onboard camera on your laptop or most tablets. The opposite end of the scale will buy you something capable of streaming in ultra HD (4k) quality. Don’t worry if you’re not sure what that means – you don’t need it for basic 1 to 1 video calling. If you’re thinking of taking up vlogging in your spare time, or just fancy getting something top of the range, this is the sort of camera you’ll be considering.

The same is true of USB microphones, although the high end options can run to thousands of pounds. You’re not trying to compete with Abbey Road Studios or BBC Radio 4, so don’t fret about the pricey end of the scale. Like webcams, £30 will buy you something perfectly adequate and significantly better than your nasty, tinny onboard mic. You’ll also find that many, if not all budget USB mics come with a very handy desktop mic stand.

As for Webcam tripods, a simple desktop stand or tripod can be found on Amazon for as little as £2, but I wouldn’t vouch for quality at that price. If you want more flexibility in terms of where you can place your camera, traditional floor standing tripods start at around £20 and can be used for a range of devices.

Cello Fingerboard Map: First to Seventh Position (Updated 2020 Version)

Whether you’re finding your way around first position or you’re venturing into the tenor and treble clef registers, an understanding of the note layout is essential. The more demanding your repertoire, the more you need a detailed internal ‘sat-nav’ to find your way effortlessly through challenging passages. The less you have to calculate your route map, the more you can focus on musical shaping, phasing and interpretation.

The map below is a visual aid to indicate the location and content of each position from first (including half) to seventh. You’ll notice that some positions go by 2 names (e.g. upper first/ lower second), and some of the notes on the fingerboard include enharmonic equivalents (different letter name for the same pitch). Positions are named according to the note names they accommodate. For example, the notes in upper first position on the A string are B#, C#, D and D# – predominantly the same letter names as those in first position, while lower second position – C, Db, D, Eb share the letter names of upper second position. As a rule, positions with the upper label tend to favour sharps, while those with the lower label favour flats.

Cello Fingerboard Map 2020


Further posts on cello positions:
An Overview of the Neck Positions
An Introduction to Stretch Position
An Introduction to the Three Finger Positions

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© D C Cello Studio

An Introduction to Chords in Music

This post is a diversion from Bowing Technique 101, which will continue soon. I recently gave an introductory harmony lesson and thought I’d share it here. Although this does not relate specifically to cello playing, I have always found that an understanding of harmony and chords greatly enhances the study of any repertoire, especially when it comes to the interpretive stage of learning the music.

This lesson deals with the triads and seventh chords found in the key of C major. The chord labels (based on the baroque system of figured bass or Basso continuo) are relevant to the triads and seventh chords of all major keys, making it a wonderfully diverse system. As the building blocks of music harmony, chords are best studied in their simplest form in order to understand their use in music. So without further ado, I present to you An Introduction to Chords in Music!

Cover Sheet

C major triads and inversions 1C major triads and inversions 2The Dominant 7th in C Major

Seventh Chords and Inversions in C Major 1 Seventh Chords and Inversions in C Major 2

Minor keys and their scales Part 3

Melodic Minor Scales

I like to think of the melodic minor scale as the chameleon scale as it changes its colours. The ascending scale creates more tension by sharpening the sixth and seventh steps, and the descending scale relaxes that tension by flattening the seventh and sixth steps. The sequence of intervals for the ascending scale of A melodic minor is as follows:

Step 1 – 2 (a – b): whole tone

Step 2 – 3 (b – c): semitone

Step 3 – 4 (c – d): whole tone

Step 4 – 5 (d – e): whole tone

Step 5 – 6 (e – f#) whole tone

Step 6 – 7 (f#g#) whole tone

Step 7 – 8 (g# – a) semitone

The descending half of the melodic minor scale is identical to that of the natural minor scale:

Step 8 – 7 (a – g) whole tone

Step 7 – 6 (g – f) whole tone

Step 6 – 5 (f – e) semitone

Step 5 – 4 (e – d) whole tone

Step 4 – 3 (d – c) whole tone

Step 3 – 2 (c – b) semitone

Step 2 – 1 (b – a) whole tone

So the ascending scale shares its first five steps with the natural and harmonic minor scales, and its sixth to eighth steps with its major counterpart (note: the major key with the same keynote and NOT the relative major). As already mentioned, the descending melodic minor scale is identical to the descending natural minor scale. We now know that harmonic minor scales form the harmonic basis of minor keys, so it stands to reason (and the name suggests) that melodic minor scales form the melodic basis. The raised sixth step prevents the dissonant augmented second interval found in harmonic minor scales and the raised seventh provides a strong resolution from a leading tone to the tonic. Since descending passages don’t require the tension and definition provided by a leading tone, the descending melodic minor offers a sound truer to the overall minor structure.

The diagram below shows the structure of A melodic minor ascending on the keyboard:

Here’s a video diagram showing the lowest octave of A melodic minor ascending and descending on the cello.

A Bit of History

The development of melodic and harmonic minor scales as we know and use them in Western music happened over a long period. Their predecessors are modes, which date back to ancient civilisations - notably the Ancient Greeks. Mediaeval modes and scales share certain similarities, but follow different rules and form the basis of two different musical languages with distinctly different sounds.  It was during the Renaissance period, when polyphonic¹ music really came into its own that the modal system, which had served the simpler homophonic² and monophonic³ musical styles of the Mediaeval period perfectly well, began to prove inadequate, as did the notation system. The rise of polyphony meant that music was becoming considerably more harmonically complex. The need for stronger definition in harmonic resolution drove the development of major and minor keys, and in particular the need for different types of minor scales to cater for a strong leading tone (the raised seventh) and the avoidance of awkward dissonance in melodic vocal lines (the augmented second interval in the harmonic minor scale). Dissonance was a major consideration and was avoided wherever possible in the harmonic structure of renaissance music. For this reason we see elements of all three minor scales in minor keys.

By the early baroque era (from 1600 onwards), a harmonic language based on tonality (harmony based on a key center) rather than modality had emerged. Melodic and harmonic minor scales and major scales were in common use. The range of key signatures increased considerably, and the use of key signatures with sharps was introduced. Equal temperament tuning, a system whereby the octave is divided into twelve equal semitones gained wider acceptance by keyboard makers by the 1630s. Although it did not become the principal tuning system for another two centuries, it enabled the 24 keys found in the circle of fifths - the cornerstone of Western art music from 1600 - 1900.

¹Polyphonic: Musical texture in two or more (usually at least three) relatively independent parts [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]
²Homophonic: Music in which one voice or part is clearly melodic, the others accompanimental and chiefly chordal. The term 'homophony' has also been used to describe part-writing where all parts move in the same rhythm; a more precise term for this is homorhythm. [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]
³Monophonic: A term used to denote music consisting of only one melodic line, with no accompaniment or other voice parts (e.g. plainchant, unaccompanied solo song). [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]

The following table shows major keys, their relative minor keys and the associated key signatures.

Minor keys and their Scales Part 2

Harmonic minor scales

Now that we have studied the natural minor scale, we will look at and listen to the harmonic minor scale. The sequence of intervals in A harmonic minor is as follows:

Step 1 – 2 (a – b): whole tone

Step 2 – 3 (b – c): semitone

Step 3 – 4 (c – d): whole tone

Step 4 – 5 (d – e): whole tone

Step 5 – 6 (e – f) semitone

Step 6 – 7 (f – g#) augmented second¹

Step 7 – 8 (g# – a) semitone

The only difference between the structure of the harmonic minor scale and the natural minor scale is the seventh step, which is raised in the harmonic minor to create a leading tone². This means that there is an unusually large and dissonant interval between the sixth and seventh steps – an augmented second. For this reason the harmonic minor scale, true to its name is typically used as the harmonic foundation of minor keys. This means that it forms the foundation of the chords used to enrich melodic lines. The keyboard below shows the structure of a harmonic minor. The seventh step has been raised from the g natural found in the natural minor scale to g#. In spite of this the scale still shares its key signature with C major. The g# is shown as an accidental within the music. The same rule applies to all harmonic minor scales: the seventh step is raised and shown as an accidental within the music score, but never in the key signature.

¹Augmented second: an interval consisting of three semitones. An augmented second is the same size interval as a minor third but is spelt differently. If we were to spell the augmented second in a harmonic minor as a minor third we would spell it either as E# – G# or F – Ab.

²Leading note: the seventh step of a scale always a major seventh above or a semitone below the tonic. When the seventh step of a scale is a minor seventh from the tonic it is called a subtonic rather than a leading tone.

Here’s a video diagram showing the first ascending octave of A harmonic minor on the cello. The augmented second requires an unusual extension from the second to the fourth fingers.