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Tips and Practices for Conducting an Online Workshop

vA Stil Life Ceramics instructor teaches an online workshop. | Courtesy of Stil Life Ceramics
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For many artists, online workshops can be a way to connect with audiences and paying customers while COVID-19 continues to prevent real-life interaction. Meanwhile, students get to learn a new skill, meet new people and feel a little less alone. If you’re not sure how to get started, we asked experts and artists who’ve recently made the transition to online workshops for their best tips, caveats and practices.

We spoke with Lucy Zepeda, program manager of the Music Center, which offered dance classes online via Digital Dance DTLA. We also spoke with Mel Keedle of Still Life Ceramics, whose instructors are using Zoom and Instagram to teach pottery workshops, and Kathryn Yu, executive editor of immersive entertainment site No Proscenium.

Figure Out Which Platform(s) Work for You

Different platforms offer different functions. Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch are some of the most popular. Some, like Instagram, are great for simple streams, while platforms like Zoom allow you to communicate with your audience face-to-face, feature multiple angles and separate guests into breakout rooms. 

Another thing to think about is if you plan to offer live workshops, pre-recorded workshops or live workshops that are available online afterward. You can livestream on platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, but your content can also live there after the fact. 

More resources for artists

Check Your Internet Connection

Everyone we talked to said that making sure you have a strong, reliable internet connection is the number one hurdle. Google and Measurement Lab offer a tool to check your internet speed. It’s possible you’ll get better results in different areas of your home/classroom. If your internet seems particularly slow, contact your provider. 

Familiarize Yourself with the Tech

Once you’ve selected your platform, make sure you know how to use it. Test it out on friends, family or coworkers in advance.

Mel Keedle says she’s had instructors practice their classes with her over FaceTime or Zoom to make sure students can see and hear them clearly.  

Testing can also help you identify issues you might not expect. For Keedle, this included simple things, like fixing a wobbly table that caused an instructor’s phone to shake as they worked with the clay. 

Lucy Zepeda says the Music Center sent their dance instructors a package of disinfected recording gear, plus detailed email instructions on how to set up and use the camera. 

“We do our very best to prepare the gear and put the artist in the best possible scenario to succeed. If something does not go to plan, we’re using FaceTime and Zoom to help fix the problems we can from a distance,” Zepeda says. 

Think About Other Tools You Can Use

If you need to sell bulk tickets, you could use a tool like Eventbrite. If you’re selling fewer tickets or accepting tips, apps like Venmo, Ko-Fi or PayPal allow for quick, cashless payments. 

Do people need to receive physical items in advance? Consider how you’ll ship or deliver them. Still Life Ceramics partnered with the restaurant Rappahannock to offer a Rosé and Clay package. Guests could use the restaurant’s Caviar page to order a bottle of wine and a pound of clay before the class. Now, their online classes are hosted on Zoom, and participants can pick up materials from Still Life’s downtown L.A. or Santa Monica locations.

If people don’t need physical items but do need digital media, you can usually just email them. If the files are large, you may need to use Dropbox or Google Drive. WeTransfer is another option, but if guests don’t download their materials within a certain timeframe, the link will expire and you’ll have to send a new one. 

Instructor Leslie Ferreira leads a Dance DTLA workshop before the pandemic. | The Music Center.
Instructor Leslie Ferreira leads a Dance DTLA workshop before the pandemic. | The Music Center.

Be Clear About Your Offerings

Sometimes, we tend to shroud ourselves in fun or theatrical language, but in a sea of online shows and workshops, now’s not the time to ask your guests to decipher your offering. Let people know exactly what you’re doing, when, on which platform and how much it costs. Include a direct link to tickets. If you’re trying to get media attention, the same applies to your press release. It’s also always nice if you can include a horizontal, color photo with no text on it for outlets to use. 

Send Key Info in Advance

Send an email that reminds your guests of their workshop’s time, date and other pertinent info. Detail what they will need, both in terms of supplies and software. If they already have the software, remind them to check for updates. 

Make sure they know what they’ll be doing, for how long and how to behave in the workshop. For example, should they be prepared to have their video on or off? Should they mute themselves? Do they need a paper and pen? You can also use this email to offer simple tips, like how to pin the instructor’s video screen on Zoom so they’re always front and center while demoing. Keedle suggests encouraging students to reach out in advance if they have technical issues or questions so that getting people set up doesn’t eat up class time. 

Clear Your Desktop

If you plan to share your screen, make sure you’ve tidied up your desktop and have only windows you’ll need open. Not only does this ensure your screen is uncluttered of unnecessary distractions, but it also makes sure you won’t have sensitive or embarrassing tabs open, like your banking info or your guilty pleasures Spotify playlist. Also, close any apps that make notification sounds, such as Facebook or Slack, that you aren’t using to avoid intrusive dings. 

A Stil Life Ceramics instructor teaches an online workshop. | Courtesy of Stil Life Ceramics
A Stil Life Ceramics instructor teaches an online workshop. | Courtesy of Stil Life Ceramics

Clean Your Room

As with your virtual desktop, tidy up the area that will be in-frame to avoid unnecessary distractions for you and your guests. This also includes limiting background noises. 

Be Mindful of Time Zones

You can now reach anyone with an internet connection and an interest. That said, it’s important to list what time zone you’re in so that people in, say, New York don’t log into your 7:30 p.m. Los Angeles show three hours after it’s over. To make it even easier, you might even include the conversions in your advertisements. For example, 6 p.m. PST/9 p.m. EST, etc. 

Does your offering have international appeal? If so, Kathryn Yu, executive editor of immersive entertainment site No Proscenium, suggests rotating your showtimes so that they’re friendly to multiple regions. She points to Tender Claws’ live virtual reality staging of “The Tempest,” which runs through September. It offers European-friendly times on weekends and North American-friendly times on weekdays. 

Use Multiple Devices for Multiple Angles 

For Still Life Ceramics’ Instagram live classes, which tend to be simpler projects, a single, straight-on angle suffices. But for more complicated projects, Keedle suggests using your laptop and phone to offer two views, such as one straight-on view and another overhead or side view that shows your hands. 

Mark Your ‘Stage’

If you know you’ll be moving around a lot, you want to avoid moving out of frame where your guests can’t see you. 

“For ‘Digital Dance DTLA,’ we are using a direct center shot to capture the entirety of the instructor’s body,” Zepeda said. “We have set spike marks for the instructor to show the furthest ‘downstage’ they can travel without jeopardizing the loss of view of their feet since each video is also close-captioned for the viewer.”

A spike mark is simple. Just slap down a piece of tape to highlight your boundaries.

Invest in Gear 

Depending on your situation, you may need to invest in a microphone for sound, a ring light for lighting and/or a tripod or stand to keep your phone or camera stable. Your setup and at-home studio will define those needs. 

Think About the Music You Use

If your class features music, you may have to switch up your playlist when streaming online due to copyright issues. 

“As an arts organization, [The Music Center has] a general music license that allows us to play various kinds of music during our outdoor events and performances,” Zepeda said. “[S]treaming events online requires special licensing that can be expensive and involves a process to get approved, so plan ahead if your project involves commercial music.” 

You can also think locally. The Music Center’s instructors are encouraged to reach out to local musicians, which is a great way to support artists in your community and expose your students to new music.

Engage With Your Guests

Unless the camera is on your hands, frame yourself so that your guests can see your whole face and remember to look at your camera/phone as you talk.

If you’re taking questions via comments, read the entire question out loud first so that everyone else can benefit from the answer. 

And say “Hi!” Even on a platform like YouTube or Instagram, you can see people’s usernames and personally greet a few of them. 

Be Concise 

People are logging on from their homes, surrounded by distractions. Other browser tabs, their phones, their family and housemates, their pets, the fridge or even a short nap. If you stray off-topic and lose their interest, it’s going to be that much harder to get them back. 

View this post on Instagram Make a cute bud vase out of two pinch pots! A post shared by Still Life Ceramics (@still_life_ceramics) on Jul 10, 2020 at 5:22pm PDT

One of Still Life Ceramics' IGTV workshops.

Don’t Go It Alone

If your workshop is complicated, ask someone to help you manage it. 

“The most effective [streams] have another person monitoring the chat. Or someone putting people into breakout rooms in addition to their primary facilitator. Virtual events need a front of house and back of house and in some cases, the back of house is more important,” Yu says.

Some platforms, like Zoom, let you mute participants. Your facilitator could be on hand to mute anyone whose noisy neighbor, barking dog or keyboard notetaking becomes a distraction. Your facilitator can look for people asking questions or having technical issues in the chat function. They could be in charge of sharing slides or other media. They could also take notes and offer feedback to help improve things for next time.

Maybe This Online Thing Isn’t So Bad

Many artists have discovered surprise benefits of digital workshops and plan to keep doing them even after real-life activities resume. For The Music Center’s students, the pause button is an unexpected benefit.  

“Some dance moves and footwork can be tricky, especially for the casual dancer. Having the ability to pause and rewind is really helpful and adds to the overall experience,” Zepeda says. 

Additionally, your online workshops and performances can form a digital archive of your work. You can use this both to promote yourself and your skills and to provide your audience with something they can enjoy multiple times.

Keedle says Still Life Ceramics has put enough effort into making their online classes good that it’d be a waste to stop offering them.

“Even once we can be back in person again, I think there's still a market for people who want to do it online or who live out of the city, but they really like one of our teachers,” she said. 

And Finally, Don’t Get Too Stressed

Despite all of these tips and more, you can’t control everything, and no one expects you to. Sometimes your cat’s going to want to be involved or a firetruck will go blaring by. That’s okay. We’re inviting each other into our homes and that requires a little flexibility and empathy from all of us.

Zepeda encourages interested artists to start small and experiment. 

“Even just filming yourself and your art with any smartphone is a great place to start,” she said. “Artists should focus on what the core of their program delivers and use that as a guide to create their online format. Everything else is a work in progress. Accept that because your guide will get you there.”

Top Image: A Stil Life Ceramics instructor teaches an online workshop. | Courtesy of Stil Life Ceramics

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