Last updated: August 8, 2023.
This post has been translated into German at Saxofonist.org.
As a musician, you may have begun using zoom to take lessons or attend classes. There are a few things to know about using it for music that will go a very long way. I’ll address this post to students and group class participants, though it may be of use to instructors too. (In fact, I’ll put some tips specific to instructors at the end.)
You can run zoom within your web browser but you’ll do much better running it as an app on your phone or tablet or computer.
Download the App
The zoom app is available for free. To download & install it, go to zoom.us/download. If you are on a mobile device, you’ll be taken directly to zoom on the App Store or Google Play. If you’re on a computer, tap the download button under “Zoom Client for Meetings”.
Get a Good Connection
This will all be an exercise in frustration without a decent internet connection. If you’re using a computer, a wired ethernet is terrific; otherwise, for WiFi, place your device as close as you can to the hotspot, with as little in the imaginary line between the two as possible (big pieces of equipment are much worse than walls). I’ll have some more to say about your connection below. Lastly, try not to share a connection with anyone who’s streaming video!
Test it Out
Before you use the app for real, it’s a good idea to join a test meeting at zoom.us/test to familiarize yourself with the app and make sure your audio and video are working. (If you have trouble, here’s some help.)
Joining the Meeting
A session on zoom is called a meeting. Your teacher will give you a link to click to access your particular meeting. When it’s time, or shortly before, click the link. This will load a page in your web browser that automatically opens the zoom app with your meeting pulled up and ready to join.
If you’re just going to be listening most of the time (for instance, as a clinic participant), then just stay muted by tapping the microphone icon so there’s a slash through it. Otherwise, wear headphones or earbuds if you possibly can. That way zoom won’t be constantly struggling to distinguish what you say or play from what it is putting through your speakers into the room. (After all, zoom hears both through your microphone.) Without headphones you won’t be able to talk at the same time as your teacher/student, and interaction becomes more difficult. Also, if you’re using a phone or tablet the built-in speakers won’t be loud enough anyway if you want to play along with accompaniment.
Use “Original Sound”
Zoom is meant mainly for people talking to each other in meetings. So its audio is optimized for speech. That includes noise reduction. That hum in the background? Zoom thinks it’s a loud air conditioner and will try to remove it. That note you’re playing on your instrument? Same thing! 😳 To avoid that, use zoom’s original sound setting, which disables all the audio processing.
If you’re on a phone or tablet:
- From within a meeting, tap the “ • • • ” button, the rightmost button on the bottom of the screen.
(If you don’t see it, you may have to scroll the row of buttons horizontally.)
- Scroll down and tap Enable Original Sound. (If you see “Disable Original Sound” then you’re already good to go.)
If you’re on a computer:
In the zoom desktop app, there are two steps to enabling original sound:
➊ First you have to show the option.
- In the zoom app, choose Preferences… from the zoom.us menu.
- On the menu at the left, select Audio.
- Under Audio Profile, choose Original Sound for musicians.
- If you’re not using headphones, select Echo cancellation.
➋ Second, you have to enable the feature.
This can only be done when you are in a zoom meeting.
At the upper left of the meeting window, it should say Original Sound for Musicians: On. If it says Off, tap the words to make it change to On.
Additional Options with “Original Sound”
Three additional features become available when you select original sound. You can activate them in Preferences > Audio:
- High fidelity music mode. This requires more CPU and bandwidth, but if you’re on a decent device with solid, fast internet connection then check this box!
- Echo cancellation. This is important if you’re using speakers. But if you’re using a headset or directional mic, then echo isn’t a problem for you. So disabling echo cancellation will result in fewer artifacts in your audio.
- Stereo audio. Like high fidelity music mode, this requires more bandwidth, so you probably don’t want it unless you have a solid, fast internet connection.
Your Microphone Level
By default, zoom adjusts the level of your microphone automatically. Which for purposes of talking usually works great. But for music this can cause problems. Disabling this option means that you have to set the level yourself, but I find the effort usually pays off.
Microphone level is always “auto” on a mobile device, but on a computer you can set change it as follows:
- Go into Settings. Launch the zoom app and instead of hitting Join, tap the little ⚙ gear symbol.
- On the menu at the left, select Audio.
- Uncheck the box under Microphone that says “Automatically adjust microphone level”
- Speak/play and set the level using the slider so that most but not all of the lights light up when you’re loud.
Remember, the level has to work for both speech and music, so you may want to stand back and/or point away when you play if your instrument is louder than your voice. 🙂
Playing along with a Track
When I’m teaching in person I like to accompany students. But for remote teaching the delay over the internet generally makes that impossible. So if a student needs accompaniment it’s important for the student to be able to supply it on their end—in the form of a play-along recording or an app such as iReal Pro or Band-in-a-Box.
The good old boom box
The simplest way to make that happen is to use a different device than the one you’re using for zoom to play the accompaniment in the room. Of course it has to have loud enough speakers to be heard along with your instrument—a cell phone won’t cut it without speakers to plug it into..
At this point, sadly, this simple way is the most effective way too. Because of how Zoom transmits audio, playing the accompaniment on the same computer that’s running Zoom often results in the accompaniment becoming out of sync with the mic signal it is picking up of the student. The student will hear the two fine, but the teacher (and anyone else listening remotely) will hear them out of sync. And even if the two signals start in sync, they may lose their alignment over time. ☹️
A silly but useful alternative
Another option in a similar vein sounds ridiculous but is surprisingly effective: play audio through your zoom device’s speakers and let your microphone pick it up. In other words, unplug your headphones, play a play-along on your device (say in an audio player, or an app), perform along with it, and let your microphone hear & transmit both. A couple of tips if you choose this way:
- You must use the “Original Sound” setting. Otherwise zoom will try to remove the accompaniment and, likely, your playing along with it.
- You are increasing the odds of creating feedback. To counter that, the listening party/parties may want to mute their microphones.
Sharing Your Device’s Audio
If sync doesn’t concern you (e.g. you’re not playing along) or you’re feeling lucky, you can play the accompaniment on your device and have zoom share it so all participants can hear both you and the accompaniment.
To share your phone or tablet’s audio:
- tap the Share Content icon.
- tap Screen. A Screen Broadcast screen will appear.
- select Zoom.
- tap the Microphone icon so it shows Microphone On.
- tap Start Broadcast.
Now you can navigate to whatever app you use for playalong (music player, iReal Pro, etc.). Zoom will share your device’s screen contents and the audio it’s playing, as well as the audio it’s hearing through its mic (that’s you!).
To share your computer’s audio:
- tap the Share Screen icon.
- move the top slider to the Advanced (middle) position.
- Double-click Music or Computer Sound Only.
Now zoom will continue to show your video camera feed, but you can launch any app and zoom will share its audio output along with the computer’s microphone input.
Your Internet Connection
Earlier, I gave some pointers about internet connections. There’s one issue worth going into a bit more: how to compare your connection options—namely, what kind to use (hardwired ethernet versus WiFi) and, for WiFi, where to situate yourself and your router.
Why Testing Your Connection is Tricky
This can be particularly frustrating because one location can be much more reliable than another… and yet it may take you several lessons to figure that out, since the problems only manifest themselves sporadically. Testing during lessons can be a big nuisance because it’s slow and your lessons will suffer until you get it right… and also because changing your lesson location can require moving a lot of equipment and furniture. Much better is to have a quicker way to assess your connection.
For that, many people test their connections using a service such as Speedtest, which tells you your speed and latency. Some services measure packet loss and jitter too. These stats are crucial, but you don’t even need to know what they mean. Here’s the essential thing to know: They must be tested under usage conditions similar to zoom, or they will not reflect your actual zoom experience.
Zoom internet usage is different from other kinds of usage in ways we don’t need to go into; the takeaway is that most speed tests do not reflect zoom usage, so they’ll show that you have an excellent connection when you know that you do not. Maybe you’ve experienced this frustration already!
The Right Way to Test Your Connection
Luckily, there are ways around this. Personally, I use PacketLossTest.com. Go there and under Test Settings, where it says “Or Select a Preset Approximation” (just under the 4th slider), select Zoom. Then hit Start Test.
Look at Late Packets, Latency and Jitter. Lower numbers are better for all three. If you repeat the test a couple times in a location where you know you have zoom issues, you’ll find that it is worse than when you run it from locations in the house where you have better luck with zoom.
If you’re able, run the test with your zoom device plugged into your router with an ethernet cable. That will give you a good baseline measurement. If you’re experiencing numerous periods of packet delays/loss (colored yellow on the otherwise-orange latency graph) then you may need to consider a different internet provider… or see if your current one can improve its service. Otherwise, your aim is to get your graph looking this good in the spot where you have your lessons. You can try out different lesson locations and different router locations to find a good WiFi setup. If that doesn’t work, you might look into a better WiFi router or a solution such as internet over powerline, where you can extend your existing network using your house’s existing electrical circuits.
For Clinics & Workshops
Nonverbal Feedback ✋
When a meeting has more than a few participants, interaction can’t be the same as it’d be in person. But zoom has some essential features and a minute of familiarization on your part (and a bit more on the part of the instructor) is all that’s needed.
The key is to know the Participants tab at the bottom of the zoom meeting window. Tapping that will display (at the bottom) three very useful icons:
- raise hand
- yes (green circle with ✓)
- no (red circle with ✘)
When you tap one of these, the instructor can see. That lets you raise your hand to ask a question… or answer a yes or no question posed to the group… or volunteer a longer answer to a question.
Zoom also has a way to send a message to an individual or to the group. This can be a great way to send the instructor a brief question, or to let them know if there is a technical problem. It’s also a great way for the instructor to send a link to the whole group, or to spell a name or an important term.
Chatting is easy. On a mobile device, tap “• • •” and then “Chat”. On a computer, simply use the Chat icon.
For Teachers & Clinicians
This post is mainly for students, but in case you’re a teacher or clinician here are a few tips:
- The host
If you’re using your own zoom account, then whenever you teach or present you will be the meeting’s host. These tips apply to the meeting’s host.
- Enabling original sound
For you and your students to have the ability to “turn on original sound” (see above) you must first activate that feature:
1. Log into your account at zoom.us.
2. Select Settings.
3. Scroll down to “Allow users to select original sound in their client settings” and flip the switch to on.
- Personal meeting room & link
Zoom gives you a general purpose link which you can give to students to use whenever they want for a meeting with you. You can find it on zoom.us under Profile > Personal Meeting ID. I use this for all my individual lessons.
- A nicer link
If you want to make your personal link nicer looking, use a link shortener such as bit.ly and give it a custom name.
- Scheduling meetings with zoom
You have the option of using zoom to schedule individual meetings. When you schedule a meeting, the meeting has its own specific URL for you to give out as a link. I do this for all my workshops, but not my 1-to-1 lessons.
- The waiting room
I recommend using zoom’s waiting room feautre that your students do not overlap, and so that you can prevent unwanted people from joining your classes/workshops. You can enable this for all your meetings:
1. Log into your account at zoom.us.
2. Select Settings.
3. Scroll down to the waiting room setting in the In Meeting (Advanced) section and set it to on.
- Dealing with the delay
Because of the time it takes for sound to travel over the internet, you will not be able to play along with your students; you will hear each other delayed. This applies not only to you accompanying your student live, but also anything you might play from your computer such as a playalong recording (e.g. Jamey Aebersold) or app (e.g. iReal Pro or Band-In-A-Box). Instead of doing that on your end, teach the student how to do it on their end, sharing their audio with you — see above.
When you’re giving a clinic or group lesson
Zoom’s interactive features are terrific in group settings, when there are too many people for them to speak without permission… or, often, for you to even notice if one of them were raising their hand. Get to know them yourself, and explain them to your students at the beginning of the session.
- Student input
You’ll want, whenever possible, to have both your Chat panel and your Participants panel open to see student comments and responses to your questions. You open them by hitting the respective icons at the bottom of the window during the meeting.
- Monitor the students
Train yourself to monitor the two panels for questions and comments—and also in case there are any late arrivals to the meeting. Letcomers will be listed in the waiting room section of the Participants panel and will be waiting outside until you let them in!
- Start fresh
After you’ve asked a question and seen the responses, clear the results by hitting the clear all button at the bottom of the Participants panel. That way you’ll see when a hand goes up for a question.