From video curricula to videoconferencing, technology expands the options for private instruction
Having a hard time finding good private lesson teachers in your area? While that used to be a major obstacle for school band and orchestra directors, particularly those in more remote locations, innovation in what is now commonplace technology has dramatically shifted the private lesson landscape. Remote lessons and interactive learning through videoconferencing, video instruction, and related online offerings have created an incredible opportunity for sharing information, no matter where students and teachers may be located.
YouTube is full of video lessons, Takelessons.com boasts of already having provided over 785,000 online lessons in everything from academic tutoring to visual arts – and in music, from the accordion to the xylophone – and a number of other companies are stepping in to help connect private teachers with students, create online curriculums, and more. Even though many of the offerings in this burgeoning field are still in their infancy, there is already a wide array of options that school music educators and their students might find intriguing as an alternative or a supplement to traditional private lesson programs.
Video lessons can range from a short snippet on a particular technique to complete curricula covering vast swaths of performance skills for a particular instrument. For professional players who keep a busy schedule touring and performing, video lessons might present their best opportunity to share their performance techniques with students. And likewise for students, video lessons can provide the opportunity to learn directly from a master musician who may not have the time to keep a regular class schedule at the local music store or do regular in-school visits.
Take, for example, legendary Irish flutist Sir James Galway, who played with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, and London Symphony Orchestra before embarking on a solo career nearly 40 years ago. “We were looking at all of these people who were teaching online and we didn’t think they were very good because they were teaching the same bad habits,” says Sir Galway, who recently launched a new set of interactive lessons called First Flute. “I’m not one of these musicians who says, ‘Oh, I don’t know how I do it.’ I know exactly how I do it, and that’s what I show in this series of 15 online interactive videos.”
Debuting in December of 2013, Galway’s video-based curriculum covers the entire range of basic flute techniques, from making a sound and correct embouchure to more advanced concepts. A yearly subscription provides access to a series of online videos of Sir Galway demonstrating these techniques and associated repertoire, as well as a host of downloadable exercises. Each chapter in the curriculum also includes play-along videos where the student can accompany the master flutist through each lesson.
There are some unique benefits of this type of lesson:
- Students can learn directly from a master musician, who almost certainly wouldn’t have time to deliver one-on-one lessons.
- Lessons are presented in a complete, well-organized curriculum designed to address all of the major facets of the instrument.
- Students can learn at their own pace, replaying videos as they see fit or skipping around to various lessons if they are looking to work on a particular technique.
- There’s no concern about scheduling, as the lessons are available at the students’ convenience.
- The only hardware equipment required is a computer with an Internet connection and speakers or headphones.
In addition, and unlike video lessons that one might find on YouTube, First Flute offers downloadable printable exercises, a musical glossary, and other related materials.
One downside of this type of lesson program is that students don’t receive the individualized instruction or coaching that might be standard in either a private lesson or through several other more interactive online formats.
Other options that take advantage of online learning potential are videoconferencing sites, where a teacher and student interact remotely for the duration of each lesson, following more of the standard individual/private lesson protocol. Live remote music lessons via videoconferencing have been gaining steam for some time, via Skype and other similar software. In addition to a reliable Internet connection, all that’s needed in terms of hardware is a webcam and microphone, both of which are widely available, increasingly inexpensive, and also increasingly easy to use.
“People really value learning from live teachers, no matter what the subject matter is,” says Claire Cunningham, cofounder of Lessonface, a website that pairs music students and music teachers. “There’s great content out there on YouTube and other sites, but if a student is really serious about wanting to learn, he or she will end up looking for a great live teacher.”
Debuting in early 2013, Lessonface has built a roster of private teachers who are available for videoconferencing lessons on a wide range of instruments. Students can simply head over to the website (www.lessonface.com), create a username, search for a suitable teacher, look at that teacher’s schedule, and sign up for a lesson. Students can search by instrument, skill level, price range (from less than $25 to more than $75 for a half-hour lesson), day of the week, time of day, start date, and more.
Lessonface was founded by Cunningham, who has been involved in education technology for several years, and her husband Ashford Tucker, an attorney who was also a touring musician before committing to this venture full-time two years ago. The idea for this website first started when Tucker and his band mates would increasingly get requests to give Skype lessons to their private students while they were on the road. From there, the concept evolved into building a network of great teachers who might be able to give web lessons to students anywhere around the world. Lessonface currently has about 150 teachers, and the number of lessons they’re providing is growing by about 40 percent, month over month.
Lessonface has a diverse roster of educators, from renowned touring artists to career music teachers. To ensure the quality of instruction on the site, a prospective teacher must have had his or her primary source of income come from teaching music for several years, or from performing music for five years or more. Prospective students can also read other students’ reviews and ratings of the teachers, a transparent assessment system which should help keep the quality level fairly high. Having a wide array of teachers available is a major plus, as prospective students (and their parents) can browse through particular teaching styles and areas of musical expertise in order to find a good fit. And it’s no secret that while all teachers must be proficient in the subject matter, there’s no doubt that the best players aren’t always the best teachers.
“We want to have both teaching artists and experienced educators who might be more comfortable working with beginners on everything from holding the instrument and laying technical groundwork to providing encouragement and getting students excited about practicing,” says Cunningham.
This videoconferencing technology allows people to find their own ideal teacher-mentor, wherever in the world that person may be. “One of our students’ favorite guitar teachers lives in Fargo, North Dakota,” she affirms. “He’s a phenomenal teacher who is super engaging and extremely experienced, but he lives in Fargo. Even though he has an active teaching practice in his area, it’s not very densely populated. It’s great that he’s able to reach all of these students wherever they are in the U.S.”
Considering that music teachers have long been taking to Skype to present videoconferencing lessons on their own, an aggregator like Lessonface, which serves to provide logistical infrastructure for the teachers and a consolidated, easily searchable, vetted database of options for students, provides a useful service for both teachers and students in this nascent digital world.
Online Curricula and ‘Video Exchanges’
There is also a middle ground between the standardized curriculum of the Flute First model and the completely personalized, customized approach of a site like Lessonface. One good example of this is ArtistWorks, an online lesson site that offers instruction in guitar, bass, bluegrass, DJ, voice, classical instruments, percussion, and even fine arts.
Like First Flute, ArtistWorks utilizes a series of in-depth videos and supplemental materials created by renowned musicians in each field. If, for example, a student wants to study clarinet, he or she would subscribe to the “Online Classical Clarinet School with Ricardo Morales,” featuring the principal clarinetist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. From there, the student would have access to video clarinet lessons, etudes, excerpts, and solo pieces. And while the site doesn’t offer live videoconferencing like Lessonface, it instead opts for what it calls a “Video Exchange,” where a student can create a video of him or herself playing a piece or practicing a particular technique, upload it to the site, and then get a personalized video response from the teacher – in this case it would be Ricardo Morales himself. Both the student-made video and the teacher’s video response are then paired together and posted on the site.
By subscribing to one of the many different instrument lesson sites – each one termed a “campus” – students also have the opportunity to browse other student videos and teacher responses, which essentially form an ever-growing library of searchable customized video lessons that can be viewed, replayed, and even looped as often as the student would like, in addition to the standardized curriculum materials.
“We have 25 online learning sites that range from hip-hop DJ scratching to classical piano to rock guitar,” says Patricia Butler, president of ArtistWorks and, along with her husband, also its cofounder. “Each site serves as a definitive work that you can either follow or use as reference material. All of our campuses have exhaustive lesson libraries that are broken up into small, bite-size pieces. For the classical students who may be more advanced, we even have a fundamentals section in case they just want to do some brushing up.”
The value of human interaction and individualized mentorship isn’t lost on a site like ArtistWorks. “Most players get stuck at the point where they need help the most, that’s when they don’t know what they’re doing wrong,” says Butler. “They need someone to show them what they’re doing wrong and what they’re doing right.” With the Video Exchange, not only do students receive individualized instruction, but the teacher can also formulate a response that might also be of interest to other students who may be facing the same issue or be in need of similar feedback.
In addition, ArtistWorks strives to emphasize the communal aspect that can be found by studying a particular instrument group (or “campus”), including forums and message boards, the opportunity to view other user-submitted videos, and collaborative performing opportunities, for those who might be interested in that sort of thing.
From the Virtual to Reality
For decades, parents and teachers bemoaned the amount of wasted time children would spend staring at the television. Now, however, technology that has been developed over the past decade or two means that people are no longer just passive viewers of the wide world that exists beyond their community. Through videoconferencing capabilities and interactive online lesson programs and curricula, students can now benefit from advanced instruction and technical expertise that hails from anywhere on the planet, utilizing this knowledge to advance their own real-world musical skills.
“Students don’t even need to be in an isolated community to benefit” from this sort of interactive technology, says Butler. “Being able to learn from these world-renowned virtuosos is access that’s never been available before in the world.”
One other note: even though the target demographic for many online music lesson sites is skewed towards adult learners, every person who spoke with SBO for this article was thrilled by the idea of working with schools, educators, and administrators to find creative ways to utilize these ever-improving tools to supplement classroom instruction and private lesson offerings.
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