Matt Brechbiel, guitarist and teacher, partner at Falls River Music in Raleigh NC offers some insights on his personal journey, his perspective on music students and teaching today, and the future of live online lessons.
1) Please tell us a little about your musical and teaching background.
My background is a little different from a traditional music teacher’s
background, in the respect that I was completely self-taught. I figured it all
out by painstakingly listening to albums, over and over. It all changed one day when I saw this kid who was trying to play a song but was going about it all wrong. I could see his frustration because it just didn’t sound right to him. I asked him if I could show him how to play it. He was ecstatic with the results, so I showed him a few more songs that could be played using the same chords as the first. He looked at me and told me that he had learned more from me in 10 minutes than what he had learned from his guitar teacher in 6 months of lessons. Ding Ding Ding! My inner entrepreneur bell went off.
I started teaching lessons out of my parent's house along with a friend of
mine and we offered hour lessons (½ hour lessons with each of us). Within one year we had 35 students a week with more calling daily. We quickly outgrew my parents’ house, so I went to a local music store and made an arrangement teaching for them. By the next year I was teaching 53 people a week. Remember, this was all before every home owned a computer (wow, I’m dating myself).
What made my teaching approach different than the traditional teacher’s was that I didn’t base my curriculum on typical music books. I customized every lesson to the individual student. I used the songs they liked and wanted to learn as the basis for the music theory. I got them playing first, and they were learning the theory along the way. This approach is more prevalent now, with the popularity of video-sharing and guitar tab sites, but back then, it was totally different. People seemed to like my non-traditional approach and luckily, via word-of-mouth, my student base kept growing.
In 1999, I was offered the opportunity to work on Wall Street, utilizing the
other passion in my life which is technology. I am a total computer geek! While I wasn’t teaching private lessons every week, I took the time that I spent commuting on the train to write my lesson plans and overall approach for teaching guitar. That became a successful e-book called Vital Guitar Theory Vol. 1 (available on Amazon). Wall Street was a great opportunity and my experience in the tech world was irreplaceable. However, after 9/11 and the subsequent market crash, the company I was working for went under and I found myself trying to re-invent myself, utilizing all my knowledge, work experience and, most importantly, my God-given talent as a musician.
Today, I teach out of Falls River Music in Raleigh, NC. I now teach acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, music production, recording, live music, and songwriting. In fact, one of my students (who happens to be 13 years old) just won the 2012 Carolina Music Awards in the Youth Category. She was nominated for the songs we wrote and recorded during her weekly ½ hour lessons.
So, it all comes down to music and technology, two of my favorite things. And with an added dose of entrepreneurship I've managed to teach people how they can coexist together!
2) What is your experience with teaching live online lessons? What do you think are the benefits for teachers? For students? What are the potential and future of online lessons? The challenges?
Sometime in 2005 or 2006, my wife had to participate in a webinar for work. As I watched it with her, that inner bell of mine went off. I thought that with a little bit of tweaking I could use this tool to be able to teach guitar and increase my student base. It was a pretty involved setup using a video camera, a separate mixer and computer for all the audio, some PowerPoint slides, etc., but in no time I was up and teaching guitar via web conferencing software. I took advantage of the time difference and in the morning taught lessons to people who were in Europe, then in the evening to students living in the USA.
The only trouble I encountered was that I was great with technology and
teaching, but I was an absolute beginner in the world of online advertising. For this reason, I know that teaching networks and solutions like the ZOEN will be amazing for teachers. Like every other musician in the world, I don’t have a huge marketing budget to work with. If the marketing and billing aspect is taken care of by The ZOEN, much like how it is done in traditional music schools and teaching studios, the teachers can concentrate on the students and teaching.
For students (and parents), the convenience of live online music lessons is
probably the best feature. In a world of trying to juggle multiple schedules,
being able to have lessons in your own home means a lot to the busy household. The time factor is also great because sites like The ZOEN have teachers everywhere. The teaching schedule can be a lot more flexible. For example, if you’re an adult student who can only squeeze in a lesson later in the evening after you’ve put the kids to bed, you’re sure to find a teacher to accommodate you.
The possibilities are endless, especially with all the technology that is
coming down the pike. The only challenge for teachers that I foresee is getting over the difference of not having the student physically in the room with you. I think it would only take a few lessons to overcome any difficulty in teaching remotely. I would suggest that for the first couple of lessons to teach a current student—someone you are already familiar with. This will allow you to get used to the new platform.
3) Do you think that the massive glut of video learning content is a
challenge to live lessons or complimentary to them?
I love all the videos and guitar tabs that are available, I really do. I wish
they were around when I was learning. With that being said, you get what you pay for. There is no lesson that can give you instant feedback or advice like a live lesson. I can’t count the amount of students who have come to me after having tried, unsuccessfully, to learn solely via pre-recorded video lessons. They may know how to play a song or two, but their technique is non-existent.
"Again, I always get the comment, "I wish I had taken lessons first because I’ve learned more in this half hour than in all the hours spent online.”
Again, I always get the comment, "I wish I had taken lessons first because
I’ve learned more in this half hour than in all the hours spent online.” I
had one adult student who had been teaching himself using only online videos. When I asked him about barre chords he said he had tried for months but just couldn't play them. I asked him to show me. He tried to play a chord, but it came out all muted. I said to him, "Move your left elbow about two inches out." Boom! Out came the chords. He looked at me and said, “Are you kidding me? That’s all it took?" It was something you would never get from just watching a video.
4) When a prospective online student comes to you, what is your approach?
Exactly the same approach I would use if I were teaching them in my studio. I ask them what they want to learn. This allows me to get to know them then dive right into the learning process. I get them to play ASAP—the rest will fall right into place. If they’re an adult and just want to learn songs to relieve stress, then let’s do it. If they’re a younger student, we can use more traditional methods and books to get them ready to further their music education.
5) What are some trends you are noticing among students today?
Younger students are very internet-minded and tech-savvy. They know that
anything they want to know or learn about is available for them on the internet, including how to play guitar, piano, etc. They will constantly test you and question things just because they saw a video of someone else doing it a different way. They are bombarded with information and really are in need of someone to help them sort through all of it and figure it all out.
"...get on the train now because if not, you’re going to be
sitting by yourself at the station."
6) What advice do you have for teachers entering the world of online teaching?
My advice is simple: get on the train now because if not, you’re going to be
sitting by yourself at the station. As people get more and more comfortable with using the internet for communications and videoconferencing (thank you, Skype), their hunger for learning will only become greater. They will look outside of their hometown teachers. Now people who live in remote parts of the world can learn and teach music. All that is needed is an internet connection. Set your own hours and, with a facilitator of live online music lessons like the ZOEN, taking care of marketing and billing is an absolute no-brainer. The possibilities for music instruction are endless.
It’s a bold claim, and intentionally provocative to be sure. But let’s explore the claim in the context of the potential of live online music lessons. In much current thinking, the online lesson is a compromise—a simulation of the face to face lesson that lacks personal contact and effective interpersonal communication. However, research of live online lesson delivery as well as anecdotal evidence from active online teachers’ experiences, shows that the live online paradigm presents opportunities for a better learning experience, and indeed may soon be the “110% solution.”
Because we’re talking about a new paradigm and medium of delivery, the notion of “better” encompasses a number of aspects, both practical and experiential. The practical points include:
+Scheduling flexibility free from travel
+Saving time and money
+Learning/teaching at home
+Learning or teaching while away from home, on vacation or traveling
+Time-zone shifting—filling teaching schedules in hours that are “down” locally
+Retaining favorite students/teachers who move away
+Ability to have quick coachings, audition run-throughs, competition evaluations
+No germs from sick teacher or student who otherwise feel well enough to have a productive lesson
The experiential opportunities are where even more promise lies. Consider the following:
+A study* published in The American Journal of Distance Education in 2010 compared live online lessons with traditional in-person lessons. The following findings are noteworthy: “When on-line lessons were compared to face to face lessons, there was a 28% increase in student playing, a 36% decrease in off-task comments by the instructor, a 28% decrease in teacher playing (modeling), and an increase in student eye contact. In the online lessons, less than 3% of the time was spent on technology issues, although audio and video quality concerns were mentioned.”
+In online lessons we can look at and listen to our students from a variety of angles with distributed webcams, recorded video, MIDI transmitted over the Internet, and video analysis tools. As new technology continues to be
developed, we have tools for objective analysis of accuracy of notes and rhythm, allowing us to focus on technical issues and bringing forth richly communicative musical performances.
Think of major-league sports. If we were learning the techniques and details of football, for example, viewing the modern enhanced television broadcast with digital replay, multiple camera angles, analysis and commentary would certainly instruct us far more quickly than sitting in the stands at a game. (Obviously, if the goal were to play football, we’d have to get out there and do it! Online lessons offer both—the enhanced learning experience as well as the doing.) And with regard to the practical side of “better”—we can experience far more football on the television than we can in the stands, if we consider cost, travel, weather… Sure, there’s no replacing the excitement of being in the stands with the screaming crowd just as there’s no replacing the wonderful experience of music live in a room, but the path to learning is greatly enhanced by a media-rich experience when used well.
+Online lessons allow us to explore a variety of length and frequency of lessons unencumbered by a traditional once-per-week scenario, that in part is an adaptation to the reality of traveling to the teacher’s (or student’s) home or studio. If the feedback loop between teacher and student is more frequent, perhaps shorter periods of time, might a student learn better? How many times have we lamented the bad habits developed in a week of practice, or sought to fill the 30 or 60 minute time slot for an unprepared student? Why not teach by the minute and meet the student multiple shorter times per week?
In my college studio, I had an open door policy most days when I wasn’t scheduled in lessons or coachings or otherwise requiring uninterrupted time. Students would drop in regularly, asking questions or playing through pieces or passages for mid-week feedback and guidance. This regular feedback and interaction I found to be very effective for keeping the students on track and actively engaged in their work, almost as if they were involved in the daily intensity of a summer camp or festival—experiences that we know are invigorating and launch great progress in short periods of time.
+Anecdotally, I’ve talked with a number of teachers who find that young students, and especially those with attention challenges, are taught more effectively online than in person. Children have the ability to focus intently on the computer screen (sometimes much to the parents' chagrin!), and with only the teacher’s hands or face and instrument, the distractions tend to vanish.
While many challenges remain for the dream of the “110% solution,” the path to this ideal is mostly one of technical solutions. Technical solutions can and will be found. Reliable audio and video, rich musical performance analysis tools, kinesthetic analysis, enhanced recall tools, new ways of sharing and interacting with published content (scores and recordings,)—all these solutions have many busy technologists working vigorously to make them reality.
What are your experiences with and thoughts about online lessons?
*Orman, E. K. and Whitaker, J. A. (2010). Time usage during face-to-face and synchronous distance music lessons. American Journal of Distance Education, 24(2), 92-103.
About the Author: Pianist, recording artist, educator and entrepreneur—Philip Amalong is VP of Community and Content and co-founder of the ZOEN (Zenph Online Education Network).
Observer of the world of music, performance, learning and technology. Performer, Producer, Recording Artist, VP Community and Content-Zenph Inc.