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Online Instruction Is Booming in the Era of Staying Home

July 31, 2020

It’s undeniable that the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. From sports and cultural events to traveling, entertainment and education, every segment of our lives has been affected in adverse ways. And while debates are raging whether or not to open schools once again to in-person education, online teaching has been a boon for music. What was once thought of as a niche market has become not only a powerful learning tool but is also proving to be financially lucrative.

Scott Nygaard is a Grammy Award-winning guitarist who has performed and/or recorded with musicians including Joan Baez and Chris Thile. His website Peghead Nation, launched in 2014 with Dan Gabel and Teja Gerken, is the home of roots-music instruction. Courses include those for guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle, bass, and ukulele. (Disclaimer: Nygaard is the husband of SF Classical Voice’s Executive Director, Claudia Campazzo.) The site also features breaking news from the roots-music world, video demos of new instruments and gear, reviews of current albums and videos, as well as backstage conversations with touring musicians and more.

This makes Peghead the go-to place for everything roots. With 27 instructors and some 30 subscription courses, the program currently has some 4,000 monthly subscriptions. According to Nygaard, “You sign up and get access to all the materials. You can pay by the month or the year and you have access to everything that’s currently online. It’s all streaming video.”

Fees range from $20/month or $200/year for one course, while two courses are $30/month or $300/year and access to all courses is $100/month. “The advantages,” said Nygaard, “is that you can do it whenever you want to. You don’t have to schedule a lesson time with an instructor and you don’t have to be [physically] near someone teaching a style.”

Nygaard said that many of Peghead’s students live in smaller towns where there may not be, say, a mandolin instructor. “These are people that aren’t destined to become professional musicians but they want to learn and be involved. They don’t need a critique every week and don’t want to be judged on their learning. Some are going to be more concerned and others just want to learn a new song every few weeks. That’s the audience we’ve gone after.”

Nygaard pointed out that the students are mostly adults, but during COVID-19, there’s been a decided uptick with beginning students. Peghead has also added 20 new lessons a month, with 6,000 videos having been posted since the site’s launch. “We started with 15 courses and now we have almost 40. We also have people that stay for years and they can change courses whenever they want. Some only take banjo and fiddle and some jump around and take different styles. That’s the way I designed it.”

Nygaard said that one model he’d thought of was music camps. “They are usually a week long and are great social experiences. I’d do two or three a year, and we had that in mind when we started Peghead.”

With lessons taped and edited, sheet music is available for nearly every course offered. “I transcribe whatever the teacher teaches and that keeps me busy. Students get a PDF and can take that as a reminder of what they’re learned.”

Peghead has also grown with the times, making workshops available on Zoom and Facebook Live. Video practice tracks with guitar backing are offered, as well. “The technology hasn’t evolved much, but we’ve learned a lot, taking suggestions from students. One suggestion,” noted Nygaard, “was to have these practice tracks and we have about 150 of those and give students an MP3 of the tracks.”

Another leader in the field of online music instruction is ArtistWorks, which was launched in 2009 by the husband and wife team, David and Patricia Butler. A programmer who helped build AOL’s internet platform in 1988, David had begun studying jazz guitar as an adult and was exasperated at not being able to progress. Finally finding the right teacher — Jimmy Bruno — who was, unfortunately, thousands of miles away — David then spent two years building technology that would allow Bruno to teach online, giving him the ability to interact with his students.

“This,” explained Patricia, who lives in Napa, California, with her husband, “led to him inventing our video-exchange methodology and technology which provides direct feedback from teachers. We’ve got three patents on that.”

Butler, CEO of the company, said that their customers are largely adults and that business is up 39 percent in the three months since COVID mandated sheltering-in-place in California. Nothing if not a stickler for details, Butler pointed out that ArtistWorks currently has 37 teachers, including jazz/fusion drummer Billy Cobham and banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka. Some 80,000 video lessons are available, with a subscription service offering a three-month plan for $35/month, six months for $30/month and a 12-month plan is $23.25/month.

“Bluegrass is our most popular genre,” said Butler, “and our biggest course is flatpicking bluegrass guitar taught by multi-Grammy winner Brian Sutton. Our most recent expansion includes classical mandolin, and we also teach violin, piano, French horn, flute, trumpet, and clarinet, but [classical] is our smallest school.”

Butler believes there are two big advantages to learning music online. “When a student is learning [in person] from their teacher, they have to learn specific skills and pieces of music that need explaining multiple times. When you have a recorded lesson library, they can watch it whenever they want [as] many times they want, rather than wait a week or two for another lesson. When you have a video library, they’re able to go at their own pace.”

ArtistWorks also allows students to record videos of themselves playing their instruments, with teachers then giving personalized video feedback. “Instructors watch each video and they turn on the camera and record themselves responding to students. We take student submissions and teachers’ responses — they’re permanently married — and they’re shown to everyone in that course online. Not only do you have all the questions asked, but you have all the answers given. You are evaluated, you can get personal guidance.”

Butler said the instructor selection process is vigorous. “We have a robust decision matrix that we use. There’s also an amount of intuition that goes into it, but our goal is to get the most talented player, the most virtuosic player that can teach as masterfully as he or she plays. That’s the goal. You can get [guitarist] Eric Clapton on there, but he has never taught.”

The digital culture and demand for instant gratification has amplified during the COVID crisis, though Butler doesn’t think the technology has changed “all that much. We started with a really good idea and we continue to use it. There are a few new features, like students being able to tag videos and categorize bookmarks. You can go to any content on our site, any lesson, and tag that, then take that tag and put it into categories for practicing later.”

One ArtistWorks teaching alumnus is Nathan Cole. First associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2012, the violinist launched his own YouTube channel more than a decade ago and has recently rolled out the Violympics. A series of six, two-week training events that is part instruction and part contest that began in June and runs through August, this sophisticated virtual training program was designed to give advanced violinists a means to improve their craft.

Currently on faculty at the Colburn School, Cole has been thrilled with the response to his musical competition series, with a free, one-week introductory program having drawn 3,000 people. And while registration for the “games” has since closed, Cole said that about 400 string players are participating, with each having paid a flat fee of $797, “because it needs to be about $800, and that [number] looks good.

“I’m having a great time,” Cole added, “and [the players] are, as well. People are posting on Facebook and commenting on each other’s works, and I’ve learned the challenge pieces along with them. Violinists are a competitive lot and spend hours and hours every day isolated and locked in practice rooms and you don’t want to share secrets.

“But this group is such a supportive community, it’s been the opposite. It’s about sharing and helping each other through these challenges. None of us can wait to get back to playing ensemble music, but in the meantime, we can learn to play our instruments better and more comfortably. It’s a lot of work,” added Cole, “and regardless of what happens next summer [with COVID-19], I think I’d do this again.”

Another LA Phil musician, second trumpet Christopher Still, is also offering online courses on his website Honesty Pill, which he founded in 2017. His concept was to create focused, actionable plans that help musicians and other creatives address the issues standing between them and their goals. As touted on the site: “If you have what it takes to put in 10,000 hours in the practice room, you have what it takes to be successful online.”

Still’s coaching falls into what he calls four accelerator categories: business, audition, practice, and performance strategies. “Like other teachers and musicians around the world, people make the same mistakes,” he said. “At this level, it gets expensive for them when they’re not ready, so I created an online resource where we can get the nuts and bolts worked out. It increased my productivity as a coach and made the experience more impactful and gratifying.”

Still, who joined the LA Phil in 2007, pointed out that if you choose to work with him, he is committed to “help you have a journey to a result we’ve identified. I’m not implying that teachers don’t do that — most good teachers show up more often for the value they’re getting — but when my clients show up, that has helped filter my audience into people who are committed into having some change in their results.”

While winning a big orchestra job can take years, not to mention the costs of airfare, hotel rooms, rental cars, and private lessons, Still’s Audition Accelerator course helps motivated students in four months. The course is a group coaching program limited to 20 people and its cost is $5,000.

“One of my first clients made it to the semis in major auditions two months after working with me,” Still said, adding, “winning an audition is the result of strategic planning and becoming vulnerable. Being willing to swallow the honesty pill — those who are desperate to succeed but are usually unwilling to face the one or two things they need to improve. Knowing that this is what I’m not good at instead of what comes easy to me. Vulnerability is the cradle of creativity,” added Still, paraphrasing a quote from best-selling author and speaker Brené Brown.

The trumpet player has his clients face their biggest weaknesses because, he explained, “musicians have carried the same bad habits around for years and that is a common trend among students. I wasted 10 years spinning my wheels, so my goal with the Practice Accelerator is to give information in a much shorter period of time — to take their skills and make them realize that they can apply that to other things [such as] pain/avoidance injury. Musicians are uniquely qualified to do more than just play.”

When prompted, though, Still admits he’s a professional musician first, a coach second. “My trumpet’s sitting right here, and while the pandemic has been destructive in so many ways and it’s an epic tragedy, it’s also created a lot of possibility. It’s broken a lot of barriers. The notion of online learning used to be a specialized thing that some would do, and now it’s the only thing you can do.

“Before Covid, some coaching colleagues and I were discussing this, and in March a sea change happened,” Still recalled. “Those of us ahead of the curve were in a unique position to serve in a big way. I’ve been busy during the pandemic probably more than I have been in the past three years. I long for my LA Phil job to come back, but I don’t have to worry about my finances, rely on a vaccine or social distancing. And I can create my own reality with my coaching.”

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.