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LearningMusician Features >> How To

Sax Lines and Videotape

Michael Connolly
Staff Writer


If you've been teaching privately for a while, chances are that you've experimented with making audio recordings of your students' lessons. An audible record of a lesson can be an eye-opening experience for student and teacher alike, and it's one of the best ways to help students understand the gap between their current abilities and the goals you are setting together.

Fewer teachers, however, experiment with video recording (with the exception of recording recitals.) "Why bother?" one might ask, and it's a reasonable question. "After all, shouldn't we be judging students performance on their sound?"

While improving a student's tone, rhythm and expression may be our predominant goal in private instruction, other aspects of performance are important as well. Attitude and presentation during a performance make up an large part of an audience's impression of a performer, and videotaping students on a regular basis is one means to track improvement in that area. Perhaps more importantly, videotaping a student's performance during a lesson can help reveal the physical causes behind a student's difficulty with a certain passage, tone, or technique.

In short, although teachers listen to judge a student's progress, they often look to diagnose shortcomings in posture and technique.

Creating video recordings of students on a regular basis helps both students and teachers detect and correct these physical performance issues. In this article, I'll highlight some of the benefits of video recording in the private teaching studio, and give some tips about how to choose video equipment to do the job without breaking your budget!

The Benefits

Analyzing technique

As a teacher of both fiddle and mandolin, I often ask students to be aware of the motions and tensions in various muscle groups throughout their hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders. This awareness is critical in developing a fluid and pain-free left-hand technique, a smooth bow hand on the fiddle, and fast, clean picking on the mandolin.

A major challenge for my students, especially the beginners, is that their attention is already so taxed in trying to remember the tune, play in time, and maintain correct posture that there is little mental budget left for body positioning awareness. This is where a quick video recording comes in handy.

A 30-second video clip, viewed by student and teacher together, is invaluable in working on posture and technique problems: while a student may not feel her shoulder rising or her bow grip stiffening during a difficult passage, we can rewind the tape and look again. At the next lesson, with a week of practice under the student's belt, another 30-second recording gives us both feedback about how much improvement has taken place.

This simple and effective concept has been embraced widely not only by music teachers, but athletes, dancers, and actors, all of whom seek to improve their motor control, posture, and the attitude they project when 'performing.'

Creating an Objective Record

One of my personal goals in teaching is to empower my students to teach themselves - that is, to give them the skills they need to make a thorough evaluation of their own playing and the knowledge of how to correct the problems that they increasingly hear.

The idea that "tape doesn't lie" relieves me of some of the burden of being the "bad guy," and fosters a collaborative atmosphere in which my students and I objectively analyze the problem and talk about answers. Sometimes a student stares in disbelief at the monitor, realizing that the bad habit I've been nagging them about not only is real, but obvious when the tape is played back!

Recording (and retaining) these short video clips provides a lasting record of the student's progress from a rank beginner to an advanced player. Reviewing old tapes with a student is a great way to encourage introspection - I simply ask them comment on their own playing. Typically, students are shocked by their own recordings, even from a few months earlier. Their reaction stems a strengthened ability to evaluate their own playing.

I find it helpful to ask my students what they would tell their 'old selves' in order to improve. By answering that question, they reveal how far they've progressed in their ability both to diagnose and correct their own mistakes.

Gearing Up To Shoot Videotape

So I've given some idea of the role of video recording in my studio. Now, let's get down to the details: what kind of equipment will it take to record your students, and - just as important - how much will it cost?

The good news is: Because of rapid advances and sharply falling prices in consumer electronics, it's simple to get a workable video recording setup for well under $500! While not exactly cheap by teacher standards, it's an approachable amount of money, and the savvy musician can get set up for even less.

Here's what you'll need:

Choosing a Camcorder: What To Look For

Several types of camcorders are on the market right now, including VHS-C, Hi8, and MiniDV formats. Each type of camcorder uses a different cassette, and all are mutally incompatible. For a number of reasons including popularity, image quality, and camera size, I highly recommend choosing a camcorder which uses MiniDV cassettes. These cameras are inexpensive, and extremely compact, making them unobtrusive when recording recitals and less intimidating to the shy student.

Another important consideration, and a point in MiniDV's favor, is that the VHS-C and Hi8 format show signs of being in their last days. Few new camcorders in these formats are being designed, since most attention is shifting to MiniDV. Since your library of tapes will last for years, it makes sense to 'commit' to a tape format which should be available in the coming years.

Panasonic PV-GS29
Finally, MiniDV cameras all sport a computer interface which allows easy transfers of video footage to a desktop computer for editing and making DVDs. We'll get back to this later in the article!

There are many MiniDV cameras on the market, and it can be somewhat daunting for the non-geeks among us to sift through the technical specs for each one. For our purposes, almost any inexpensive MiniDV camcorder should do. With a street price around $250, the Panasonic PV-GS29 is a reasonable candidate, as are the JVC GR-D350 and Sony's DCR-HC36 at around $250 and $330 street respectively.

If you'd like to spend a little more, be sure that the features you're paying for are worthwhile: A 3-CCD camera such as as the Panasonic PV-GS180 should provide better footage in low light (often an issue in recording recitals) and is worth the extra cost.

Sony DCR-HC36
An input for an external microphone could also be a worthwhile feature, as the internal microphones of inexpensive cameras are sometimes plagued by motor noise from the tape transport. On the other hand, features such as still camera functionality (which rarely rivals even an inexpensive digital camera) and digital zoom (as opposed to optical) are probably not worth the expense.

If you care to spend the time, video enthusiasts' websites such as Videomaker and Camcorder Info provide reviews and information about a potential purchase. Still, considering what you'll be using the camera for, it's probably best to keep it simple. Visit a local store and try out the camera you have in mind - button layouts and ergonomics vary between manufacturers and even different models, and it's worth making sure you get a camera which you feel comfortable operating - otherwise it's unlikely to ever leave its case.

Tripods: Three Legs Good

In all but the most cramped of teaching environments, a tripod keeps the camera stably pointed at the subject of interest without your intervention. Although most people's first mental image is of a traditional tripod standing on the floor and taking up a fair amount of real estate, many teachers' needs are met with a simple tabletop tripod. Compact and inexpensive, these small tripods are a good match for the tiny MiniDV camcorders and work well on a desk, piano, or shelf.

Sunpak Mini-PRO Plus Table Tripod

If you're thinking about recording your studio's recitals, you might consider a full-length tripod with a panning head, which allows you smoothly swing the camera's aim from side to side during a performance. Be sure to get a tripod specifically intended for videography, as opposed to still camera use. Why? Since still camera tripods are not designed to pan smoothly, it is can be difficult if not impossible to do so while using one.

Choosing A Monitor

To complete your video recording system, you'll need a small television to play back your recorded video. How much you spend here is entirely up to you. A 13" television such as the Sylvania 6413TE or the Magnavox 13MT143S is perfectly suitable for a one-on-one teaching situation.

Magnavox 13MT143S
One more space-saving solution to consider is an LCD flat-panel television, the prices of which have dropped sharply in the past few years. Often less than an inch deep, flat-panel screens use less energy, produce little heat, and take up far less room in the studio - many can even be hung on a wall!

Whatever television you choose, be sure that it has A/V inputs - these jacks accept the audio and video signals from your camcorder so that you can review your student's recorded footage onscreen. While audio inputs are almost always seen as a one or two RCA jacks (for mono and stereo audio, respectively), video inputs may be any of several formats: composite video, component video, and S-video, to name a few. Composite video is the cheapest, oldest, and most dominant video type, and you'll want to make sure any television you purchase has a composite video input for greatest compatibility. Many camcorders also now provide S-video output, but using S-video generally means the purchase of an special cable, and you will spend slightly more money on a television with an S-video input. In any case, the improvement in video quality seen with S-video is probably not noticeable in this application.

Don't forget that many of your friends or family members may have a small television going unused that you can borrow (or commandeer). Make sure, however, that the donor TV has the A/V inputs you need to connect your camera - an input marked 'Antenna' is not acceptable. If the donor television doesn't already have the inputs you need, your best bet is actually to buy a new TV, as the the adaptor needed in this case (called an RF modulator) is expensive and getting harder to find.


In part 1 of this two-part series, we've talked about the basic motivations for videotaping your students during lessons, and touched on the equipment you need to get started. In Part 2, we'll show you more ways the video camera can be a valued member of a private teaching practice, and discuss how a personal computer combined with your new camera can open up exciting possibilities for both you and your students. LM

Michael Connolly teaches and performs traditional American and Irish music on fiddle and mandolin. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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