Upgrade to Chrome Upgrade to Firefox Upgrade to Internet Explorer Upgrade to Safari
14th September 2020

Teaching a chair to play the violin: the shifting terrain of music lessons and its challenges

The esteemed violin teacher and pedagogue of the 20th century, Ivan Alexander Galamian, was rumoured to be so brilliant that he could make a violinist out of a chair. Boasting a star-studded roster of former pupils including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Kyung-Wha Chung, Galamian’s teaching wizardry was undeniable. Fundamental to his success and influence as a teacher was his acute sensitivity to his students’ playing, musicianship and personality which he honed through close and personal interaction. The symbiosis between teacher and student, and the intricacies and subtleties involved in music making have long upheld the idea that face-to-face lessons are the best and the only way to conduct classes. COVID-19 has turned this theory upside down as music teachers including myself, have had to flock to online video apps such as Zoom and Skype in order to teach.

Remote teaching has been helpful and convenient in many ways, but it has also brought about a multitude of new and unexpected challenges both musical and technical in nature. Snapping strings, slippery tuning pegs, unsynchronised audio-visuals, flailing Wi-Fi, the list goes on, but one of the key and often overlooked challenges of remote teaching, is copyright.

In order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction, teachers are increasingly devising new strategies to demonstrate ideas and assist students overcome technical difficulties. These include sharing annotated scores, playing sound recordings, and filming online lessons. Although advantageous to the student, the preoccupation with experimenting with new learning aids can put one at risk of infringing copyright.

Music copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects the copyright owner from those seeking to copy or reproduce their work without consent. This in theory means that teachers cannot display, perform or record substantial parts of any works unless the copyright period has expired, or unless they have the appropriate authorisation. ‘Substantial part’ has no legal definition, but as it is assessed qualitatively, even a small portion of a whole work could constitute a breach of copyright.

Fortunately however, the ‘fair dealing’ exemption of the Copyrights Act permits the use of works for the purpose of teaching or for the ‘sole purpose of illustration for instruction’ provided that the usage is fair. Again, there is no hard and fast criteria to determine what is and is not fair, but the important question to ask is whether using the work would affect the market for the original work, and whether the owner would lose potential revenue as a result. It is also important to consider whether the amount of work taken is reasonable and necessary. This usually means that only a small portion of a whole work can be used under this exception, and that the sharing of recordings, videos and scores should be kept to a minimum.

The ‘fair dealing’ exemption strikes a good balance between the rights of the copyright owner and users of copyright works, and crucially provides the necessary flexibility for teachers to continue supporting their students during uncertain times. Whilst we cannot expect to spawn any musical chairs anytime soon, the once deplorable notion of holding music lessons remotely has proved to be sufficiently and surprisingly effective.


Article written by Makoto Nakata

Makoto Nakata is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, and currently a trainee solicitor at Phillips Lewis Smith. She is available to advise and assist on all legal matters relating to the world of classical music. Please direct any enquiries to makoto.nakata@plslex.com