ElectronicHealthcare August 2017

The World's First Virtual Cello Lesson - Perhaps with a Few Lessons for Healthcare

Will Falk


[This article was originally published in Essays September 2011]

In June, my 12-year old (Chas.) had pink eye — a not very serious but highly contagious virus.  He came to the farm to not infect the broader family (my mother-in-law was in an ICU). His regular Monday cello lesson and teacher were in Toronto 100km away.

The teacher’s husband is a geek (and so am I), so we put my tablet (BB playbook) on Chas’ music stand and their tablet (ipad) on Mary’s music stand and we set up a skype video connection.  The picture was grainy, the sound quality poor to fair, and it was hard to organize who should speak when.  We lost connectivity three times in 45 minutes but we did have a lesson.  Chas played several pieces, received basic feedback and coaching, he was given his assignment for the coming week.  In short, we did not miss a lesson.

It turns out that infection control is a big issue for music teachers.  Prepaid lessons are often attended even if a student misses school; or the sick sibling attends the lesson. So music teachers are constantly fighting colds.  The husband told me last week, that he has done three more virtual lessons over the summer period.  He expects to begin using virtual visits regularly in the new fall term. It’s not that it will be more than 2-5% of visits but for those visits it will make a big difference for teacher, students, and parents.

Some lessons that are immediately apparent:

  • 12-year old not impressed; assumed that this happens already!  Why wouldn’t you use technology in your cello practice.
  • Good enough is good enough. The connectivity does not have to be perfect to be useful.  Really useful.  Sometimes high-fidelity (and rich context) are needed but sometimes you can make do with cheap, quick, and cheerful.
  • It will improve and quickly!  Already the Geek husband is talking about setting up one of the studios with an Xbox Kinect.  Imagine Cello Avatars!  Imagine full range of motion studies on your students before you meet with a review of all vital statistics provided. 
  • Small meaningful revenue gains, schedule reliability, infection control, and flexibility are the early benefits. 
  • Devices used are commercially available and ubiquitous.  No special cello devices

In the medium term, there are a bunch of easy and practical applications that we have brainstormed:

  • Master classes with guest cellists. Bring in the great specialist who otherwise is not available locally. 
  • Peer to peer review and coaching.  Post a recording and have it critiqued. This is an expanded self-help opportunity.  A huge aid to cello teaching and research.
  • Availability of cello teachers in small towns across the country (where previously only violin, piano, and guitar where available).
  • Using 9-3:00 time for lessons in other time zones. This is a revenue opportunity for professional cellists and could introduce price competition in smaller towns.
  • Formalizing the option of virtualizing any lesson with only a few hours of notice.
  • The ability to create infection-controlled virtual visits to limit the spread of disease and the mixing of sick children in the studio visit
  • Opportunity to do short fifteen minute check in coaching sessions during key periods (like music festivals) to provide maintenance, monitoring and midcourse (treatment) guidance

How much of 'cello teaching' will be virtualized. Probably 20% is an upper limit in this decade without high fidelity sound and picture.  With true virtualization in the next decade, the virtual lesson, the virtual quartet, and virtual orchestra all become interesting possibilities.  Professional cellists will manage their schedule across virtual and physical sites of practice.

Professionals in practice using real technology often think of uses which are not seen by central authorities and professional bodies.  Getting the standards out of the way and allowing professionals to judge how and when they want to apply modern information and communications technologies is critical to fast adoption.  We need to let the music and the technology work together to provide a richer experience for cello students and a more rewarding professional practice for cello teachers everywhere.

What a missed opportunity though.  If only Cello teachers had had the benefit of a centralized agency of government, they would no doubt be far advanced and have created a strong cello infrastructure which connected all cellists and the teachers and allowed the promising student in Vancouver to have coaching available when travelling in Nova Scotia.  Undoubtedly the systems would allow cello playing in context with real-time alerts and helpful reminders to the students and parallel alerts to all involved cello teachers. Modern studios would certainly now exist and they would have been fairly procured with many knowledge economy jobs created (by the several hundred million spent).

Alas, cellists will just need to muddle through with their ubiquitous cheap, cheerful technology, and publicly available sub-$1000 technology.  Sometimes good enough really is good enough.

About the Author(s)

Will Falk (@willfalk) is an Executive Fellow in Residence, Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, School of Public Policy & Governance and Adjunct Professor, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

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