PRINT EXCERPT: How Music Students and Teachers Connect Via Online Lessons
EDITOR’S NOTE: The story below is excerpted from our Fall-Winter 2018 print issue, “Innovate.” You can read the whole story — and much more — in that issue, here. And please consider supporting No Depression with a subscription for more roots music journalism, in print and online, all year long.
After a little chitchat about school and a recent music festival, 14-year-old Gracie Mae Grossman and International Bluegrass Music Association fiddle award winner Becky Buller get down to business at a recent lesson — the business of “Uncle Pen.”
Buller plays through the song as Gracie listens intently, watching Buller’s bow and fingerings. Then Buller talks through the kickoff, explaining different ways people might do it at jams. She plays a phrase or two, slowed down. Gracie plays back each phrase on her fiddle, and from 450 miles away, she starts to get the hang of it.
The lesson isn’t knee-to-knee, as countless fiddle players in previous generations learned the song, but rather screen-to-screen, allowing Buller in Manchester, Tennessee, and Gracie in Huntington, Indiana, to connect and make music together.
This kind of connection — students to their musical heroes, musicians to another source of income in a tough business — happens across state lines, national borders, time zones, and hemispheres. The internet, along with high-speed connections and apps that enable reliable video and audio exchange, has broken down barriers like time and distance between students and teachers, allowing songs to be swapped and relationships to form between people who a couple decades ago would have been unlikely to even meet.
Learning’s New Frontier
There’s not much difference, Buller says, between the lessons she teaches in her home and the lessons she conducts online. Students, for the most part, choose the songs they want to work on, and Buller breaks each song down and works on the skills needed to play it, emphasizing learning by ear.
“Let’s just take it note by note,” she says of her online approach, “like we’re sitting under a shade tree and I’m teaching you this tune – of course, it’s under a virtual tree – and we’ll go through it bit by bit and I’ll try to go as slow as I can. I always try to figure out better ways to show people stuff or explain stuff if they start looking cross-eyed. That’s the same as a lesson here at the house.”
But some things, of course, are different. Because audio over internet connections tends to be a one-way street, playing together is hard to do, and student and teacher have to be careful not to talk over each other, Buller says. They both also have to make sure their hands stay within camera range — it’s easy to drift off the screen, meaning one may miss what the other’s fingers or bow is doing. Eye contact can get a little weird, as anyone who’s been in a video conference can attest, because it feels more natural to look at images on a screen than directly into your computer or phone’s camera. And there are some hands-on aspects of teaching that get lost in online translation.
“Every so often it’s a little frustrating to not be in the room with the student so I can just, like, move their hand, if they’re having a positioning issue or something,” Buller says. “Or if there’s something just technical on their fiddle that I can quickly fix for them, that’s a little hard, to have to send them off to a luthier, especially if I’m not familiar with the area and I don’t know who to send them to.”
But talking them through such issues can help a student think about them on their own, Buller suggests. “I want to teach them to fish, I want them not to be completely dependent on me,” she says. “It forces me to get more creative with how to get them to fish when it’s long distance. It’s good for me as a teacher. It stretches me.”
Online lessons are just one option the internet has opened up for students with an instrument in their hand and the desire to figure out what to do with it. YouTube offers instructional videos on any instrument you can imagine, as well as easy access to live performances from which a student might be able to glean technique, style, or fingerings.
Websites like Banjo Hangout (and counterparts for fiddle, Dobro, guitar, and mandolin) host forums where players of all skill levels can talk shop and exchange videos, and visitors can also find links to lessons on DVD and books from established publishers like Homespun and Mel Bay.
More recently, new websites have sprung up with the express purpose of connecting high-profile performers with students — for a fee.
ArtistWorks, founded by a jazz guitar-playing former AOL executive who couldn’t find a teacher to work with where he lived, offers subscribers video lesson libraries from big-name teachers in a range of genres, including Bryan Sutton on guitar, the Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Hall on Dobro, Missy Raines on bass, Tony Trischka on banjo, and Mike Marshall on mandolin. Students can submit videos of their practice to their teacher for personalized feedback, and all videos and feedback are accessible to other subscribers in case they might be struggling with the same issue.
Peghead Nation similarly offers subscription-based video lessons, with an emphasis on roots music. Its String School instructors include Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Mike Compton, Bill Evans, and Joe K. Walsh.
For mandolinist Walsh, who is also an assistant professor in the string department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Peghead Nation is just one of many teaching venues.
With online learning, Walsh says, “a student has access to people with knowledge that they may not find in their community. You have access to people who have spent such a huge amount of time focusing on their instrument. And that was impossible before on any realistic level before for most students. That’s a huge transforming element of this.”
In the roots music world, online learning offers advantages to musicians as well in the form of an added revenue stream. That’s no small thing, says Buller. “The internet has … made it easy to get lessons from professionals in the industry, and it helps the professionals, because bluegrass is still a relatively small genre, so this helps us to keep the lights on. It’s really helping both the professionals and the students in a way that just a few years ago would be completely unthinkable.”
For students at every level, the internet has opened up a treasure chest of tools to help them learn the basics, play like their heroes, or simply conquer “Uncle Pen” or any other favorite song. “Everything’s accessible, there are more resources now for a learner than ever before,” says Walsh. “If a student wants to learn, say, a Chris Thile tune, it’s much easier than it would have been 30 years ago.”