Produced by

Smackdown: Online Music Lessons

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

There are thousands of free music instructional videos on YouTube produced by performers and teachers. Some even feature well-known performers such as Paul McCartney, Andy Summers of The Police and Brian May of Queen.

Some believe online music lessons are a godsend, since formal classes take time and money. Others argue there’s a big problem: many students get it wrong. Today, we’ll debate e-teaching in our weekly Soundcheck Smackdown, with guests Edward Smaldone, director of the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Jeff McErlain, a guitar teacher who creates lessons using YouTube and Skype.


Jeff McErlain and Edward Smaldone

Comments [26]

Jeff McErlain from NY NY

Hello, I enjoyed the conversation the other day at Soundcheck. I think the difference between live lessons via Skype and pre-recorded lessons like my 50 Blues Lick course was not made clear enough at times. Skype is in real time. If I am working with some one with experience I find the medium to be excellent. As was stated it may work for some people, not for others. What it does do is expand who people can study with. People who have purchased my TrueFire courses often study with me via Skype because they like the way I play or teach. That's an amazing thing, if they are inspired by a player, they may be able to work with that player.
Do I think online lessons could have replacedmy college experience? No way. It was about being surrounded by musicians. You can't do that online. But for a just about everyone else I think it's a great option.

May. 20 2010 02:47 PM

Sounds like I've just missed the live streaming and will have to catch the podcast -- anyway (for the producer who asked the question), the first thing that sparked my interest in this topic was my research on Guitar Hero. For two key reasons: A. people also post Guitar Hero fingering lessons on YouTube and B. similar debates have unfolded around music-oriented videogames and online music lessons. There are lots of other connections, which I hope to explore on my research blog and eventually in a book on virtual performance.

May. 18 2010 03:04 PM
Anina Karmen from gr. village (nyu)

For anyone who uses Sype, can the visual show the level of detail needed to see, e.g., that your thumb looks wrong for playing that 'F' chord?

And is Skype giving you the video & audio in realtime, or is there a delay?

And how did you find your Skype teacher? I'm interested in bass runs (for bluegrass, esp.), nifty licks for bluegrass & blues, & acoustic country blues (a la Mississippi John Hurt & Rev Gary Davis); oh yea, Travis picking, too. I know there are vids out there, but I need the interaction & critique.

Advice ?


May. 18 2010 02:43 PM
Cal from Brooklyn

I've tried online "lessons" (for a variety of instruments) with little success; they lacked the one on one "feel" because the technology was so clumsy.
I've just started with Tony Trischka's School of Banjo ( and their technology really works. It's not like using skype or watching a youtube. It's really like a private lesson with the added benefit of participating with other players and learning from them as well. And it's very inexpensive.

May. 18 2010 02:39 PM
Will from New York City

So far you have not had one student call in...just teachers.

I started learning guitar 30 years ago when I was 14. I would use cassette tapes of my favorite bands to learn guitar (stop, rewind, play, repeat). Man, I would've loved the resources available for free now. I didn't have a lot of money to take lessons, so I only stuck with lessons for a year. I think, given the time and the motivation, online learning is fantastic! I can repeat a lesson over and over for free, watch it when I want to, see tabs online (I used to pay good money to my teacher to write tab by hand for me).

Online learning doesn't take the place of teachers, but in some ways it's simply better: easier to access, repeatable, many, many view of different players, written out notation of most songs, etc.

Rock on.

May. 18 2010 02:37 PM
Wayne Cohen from NYC

When I was coming up becoming a hit songwriter I had to network like crazy in NYC..Since then, my 20+ years experience as a songwriter has allowed me to turn my songwriting toolkit into a song tutoring course that works. I tutor songwriters around the world, via Skype..

here's a video about my tutoring:

May. 18 2010 02:35 PM
Richard from Columbus, GA

I was not aware of how bad my right hand technique in classical guitar playing was until I engaged in one-on-one instruction. Online lessons may need to inform the viewer of prerequisite levels similar to a collegiate system structure.

May. 18 2010 02:35 PM
Jake from Nassau County

@Adrienne from NYC - Yes, that was it, the videos by the elder Costello that I learned from !

May. 18 2010 02:35 PM

Also, for someone who really becomes interested, that person will seek out people learn from wherever they start. I know guys who have been playing for 30 years who still take lessons if they want to learn from another player something they don't know.

May. 18 2010 02:34 PM
Menon Dwarka from Greenwich House Music School

McLuhan noted 50 years ago how various technologies were offering new ways of connecting, but we don't really talk about giving up seeing someone in the flesh because of the telephone. The point is that we have all of these choices at our fingertips, so why not use them all. Most of your listeners will probably view "in person" lessons as the ideal interaction between teacher and student, but it will be interesting to see if younger generations, whose first interaction with music may be YouTube rather than live concerts, share the same view.

May. 18 2010 02:32 PM
Cynthia from long island

I think maybe it's good option particularly for an older student who just wants to try to play particular songs for fun.

May. 18 2010 02:30 PM

There is a great deal of time investment in the process of locating, contacting, and auditioning teachers in order to find a match - someone with whom you have rapport. In contrast, in 15 minutes I can audition a dozen YouTube videos and other internet resources to find material that suits me, all without leaving my chair.

These online resources work for me as an adult musician with 30+ years of playing under my belt. It might also work for a beginner with natural talent. Where I think it falls short is with 1) A beginner with questionable talent; or 2) A person who is not adept at self-learning or at culling the good sources out of the sea of mediocre ones. These folks might do better with controlled, one-on-one lessons.

May. 18 2010 02:27 PM
Mark from NJ

As ever, the positions presented on Soundcheck 'Smackdown' create a false dichotomy. The effectiveness of any musical teaching method -- in person, from a method book, CD, DVD, or online -- can only be measured by the changes in the skill of the student. No one method is right for everyone. A talented, perceptive, and self-motivated student requires little or no guidance, save from his or her own ears. At the other end of the scale (no pun intended), a student may require minute breakdowns of technique and step-by-step hand-holding to make the least bit of progress. No method guarantees results in any case, nor does a student's starting point predict his/her final level of accomplishment.

May. 18 2010 02:25 PM
Emily from Manhattan

I can't imagine my 9-year-old son sticking with lessons for more than a year now without the personal interaction of his teacher.

Also, this reminds me of "crowdsourcing" which seems to have done nothing but set the bar lower in terms of visual design standards.

May. 18 2010 02:25 PM
Adrienne from NYC

You don't have to go to the biggest names to find a wonderful, accomplished teacher. I highly recommend the and the father and son teaching team--Pat and Patrick Costello--if you're interested in learning how to play frailing banjo, folk/blues guitar, ukulele and all sorts of other instruments. They inspire their students with a philosophy of music that undergirds learning the basics. When I wanted to build on my very brief in-person introduction to the frailing banjo, I stumbled on the Costellos and their totally open source approach to learning and SHARING ones knowledge and love of music. They are an extraordinary teaching duo for those interested in learning how to be musicians, not just rote copiers of other players. It's for rank beginners like me and people who've been at it much longer.They've created an international community of players who encourage a philosophy of teaching what you know to someone else and learning from each other. It's ALL free, including Patrick Costello's books, inclduing the "How and Tao of Old Time Banjo," which covers theory and practice. The blog has videos sent in by students who perform their stuff and teach technique, too. It's the real deal! Best of all, folks from the online community have sought each other out in person to jam. Frail on!

May. 18 2010 02:24 PM

Yes, Ed! I agree with the supplement statement!

May. 18 2010 02:22 PM
Jake from Nassau County

I'd been playing Scruggs style banjo for years (mostly self-taught, but a few in-person lessons), but always envied the timbre of old-time frailing. I stumbled on some lessons on youtube, and now - after months of practicing the licks shown - voila ! I am making those same lovely tones.

May. 18 2010 02:18 PM
Kevin S from Queens

I've used YouTube lessons successfully to learn clawhammer banjo. I already had a guitar and music background though, and I don't know how well it would work for a rank beginner. For the intermediate, I find online lessons very useful.

May. 18 2010 02:16 PM
Caryn from New York, NY

When I am stuck and know that I want to know how someone does that -say...a figure-8 brush pattern on my snare drum with swing - I need to have someone (I have chosen and trust) to help me figure it out. Or a patient friend who is there with me in the room -to tell me that I should sit lower on the drum throne to accomplish speed-metal double kick patterns. And as a teacher, I want someone to break stuff down for me in much more detail than some of these online classes ( have done. However, if someone wants to learn to play the lick from Modest Mouse's "Truckers Atlas," (for example) there are tabs and video to help someone figure it out. But it will probably not sound as good as it could with in-person guidance.

May. 18 2010 02:16 PM

I teach college (not music) and I have been told for years that I am going to be replaced by 'distance learning' over the far it hasn't happened. While some people can sit in front of a computer and learn in a self-directed fashion, most of us are social creatures and prefer to interact with another human.

May. 18 2010 02:13 PM
Phillip from bklyn

Online the best tutorials have a camera well positioned to see the instrument exactly as you the player can. That is a nice answer to an old problem for in person lesson format!

and a million thanks to pianojohn113!

May. 18 2010 02:13 PM
Noelle Zeth from montclair NJ

Hi Jeff...Noelle here....just wanted to say hello!!!!! Ro & A were just talking about Purple Pam the other day !!! Hope all is well!!!!

May. 18 2010 02:11 PM
Ken from Little Neck

I think that just like in person music lessons, what you find online is a mixed bag. You can get great instruction if you know where to look, but there's also a lot of bad stuff out there.

I know people who have taken lessons via skype with mandolinist Mike Marshall (who else could teach mandocello?) and they've universally reported it to be a great experience. I'm sure there are others who would say otherwise regarding other teachers.

May. 18 2010 02:10 PM
Gilbert Davis from Colorado

Hi there, I'm an older 'beginner' with Music - I've taken Guitar Lessons for about six months and since then I've learned via the Internet. From Jeff McErlain via his TrueFire course, via Lessons from YouTube like the Justin Sandercoe videos and within a online Guitar community at the TrueFire forum - where I heard of this online discussion. You see a real life instructor once a week and it costs you 30 dollars on up for a half hour, you have to run your schedule around it and it can sometimes be difficult to get to when things get going in your life. With Jeff McErlain - I can take that computer disk and put it in and take a lesson when I can, when I want. Awesome. Otherwise I'd be without music lessons.

May. 18 2010 02:07 PM
Soundcheck producer

Kiri -- Can you share any initial findings? What sparked the project?

May. 18 2010 02:04 PM

I'm really excited to hear this discussion, since I'm working on a research project on this topic. (I'm a music professor.) If anyone wants to share their online music lesson experiences, I'd love to hear from you over on my research blog.

May. 18 2010 09:50 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.