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Can YouTube really replace a teacher?

I heard from the music school that a new student had signed up, so as usual, I called him to find out what level he was at, what he wanted, what his email was so I could send him a link to register with Music Teachers Helper. youtubemusic

It became clear soon into my phone call that this new student was hesitating  at the music school’s requirement that he sign up for 4 lessons to get started.

“I think I only want one or two to get started,” he said.

I told him that it was a good idea to give it a few lessons to get started and see how it worked, though of course if it didn’t seem a good fit, it was fine to drop out.

“I think really I only want one lesson,” he said.

I said, well, we can get started with some basics in the first lesson, but the second lesson is where I see what he took in, how he did, and where to take it from there.

Then he dropped the bomb.

“Actually I just want one half-hour lesson to get all the basics.  I can get all the rest from YouTube.”

I wished him good luck.  This is not the attitude of a student I wish to work with.  I did think of protesting that it would actually take 35 minutes, not 30, to give him ALL the basics.  My Facebook friends came up with a number of other responses, of course, such as agreeing to give him all the basics in a half hour, if he could in turn teach me all the basics about how to be a jerk.  Et cetera.

The question remains:  how much can you really get from YouTube?  I have experimented and struggled for six months with offering students an online experience.  Where is this kind of teaching going?

As you probably have seen, there are many videos by beginner or intermediate players basically putting themselves on TV, or sharing their experiences as learners.  I saw one video purporting to be a middle-age man learning violin for the first time but in fact he already played quite well and was just giving advice and encouragement, while providing a link to a musical instruments store, and being couched in online advertisements.  Another video promised to teach people how to play violin in less than an hour, but also had advertisements and was intended to channel people into other activities.

In general, any learning videos of quality on YouTube are enticements to get people to sign up for one of many websites offering videos and other products such as DVDs or CDs.

Still, there is some basic instruction to be found out there for free, and someone with some music experience (or an outsized ego) could find enough to keep them engaged.

My motto for students is:  “The more you play, the better you get; and the more you play well (or efficiently or correctly — you can fill in the word!), the faster you get better”.  In terms of online learning, this means that someone who finds the right material to feel engaged in learning online will get better with time, but if they were to find good instruction to direct their attention to the right priorities, they would get better much faster, and go much farther with their music.

The benefits of these online services is that someone can stay home and use them at their own pace.  It also offers instruction to someone who The drawback is that studies have shown that the person least qualified to judge one’s progress or the best learning strategy is the learner him/herself.  That’s where the teacher comes in.

I could leave it there, because the bottom line is that a live, in-person, lesson is the best way for a student to get attention to his or her own needs.  That fellow hoping to get “all the basics” in a half hour was the victim of internet fantasies, in my opinion.

Still, there are options for providing online instructions.  One of the most popular involves Skype or another video service for private lessons.  In my own experiments, I have found a way to offer live online classes, in addition to private lessons.  This works quite well, but the difficulties enter when doing scheduling.  Either you have a minimum number of students, or you are willing to teach one or two with hopes of getting the ball rolling.  I’ve tried some experiments with using the Music Teachers Helper calendar and some with my own website, but the jury is still out on what will work best to bring together the minimum number of students at the right time.

Which brings up the other major aspect of providing online services:  marketing.  This is necessary for performers and teachers, as we all know, but it is usually totally unconnected with the reason we perform and teach!

That’s why a key element to making online teaching work is to find an approach, a way to view what you do, that you are comfortable with, that you can get behind and enjoy.  Definitely not an approach you would be embarrassed to admit to your closest friends!  And that’s possible, if all you do is look up the most successful strategies.  If they don’t fit your personality, they will just burn you out.  But if you’re happy with what you’re offering, you will be energized by seeking out those who want what you have to offer.

This is a big part of all our lives, so we all welcome your comments and feedback on this topic!

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

9 Comments

  1. Emma Frazier

    Than you for this post. I agree that it takes several lessons to establish a good teacher student dynamic. In fact, I usually tell people that it will take me several months before we really get the ball rolling. I also agree that YouTube cannot replace the private teacher.

    However, I disagree with not teaching the student on several levels. First of all, it is poor business. If someone wants to pay me to help them then I am going to do it, even if it’s not my idea of ideal. After a conversation like that, it is obvious that you aren’t going to convince them that they need one on one instruction. That is something that they are going to have to learn by their own experience. Because the student is calling you, it is possible that they already tried getting the basics from YouTube and were unsuccessful. I would take the time to teach them what they want to know and then wish them luck. If they have questions in the future then they know that I am able and willing to teach them.

    Second of all, it’s a competetive world out there, even for competent teachers. I have learned that word of mouth is one of my very best advertisements. If I act all hoity toity then the chances of getting references from that person are pretty much non-existent.

    Thanks for your post. I enjoyed reading something that made me think about this topic.

  2. Ed Pearlman

    Emma, I agree with your point, and part of me felt that if I spent even a half hour with him, it would help him understand what is involved in learning the instrument, and he might want to get more out of it. And yet, he was so snarky that I felt it would be less stressful for me to wish him luck and move on. I don’t feel I need to take as many students as possible at any cost to me. There have been times when I would have, but I’m not in a situation where I want to take on a potentially abusive student. Depends on the teacher, their situation, etc.

  3. Emma Frazier

    You’re absolutely right. I don’t teach abusive students, either, even if money is tight. The negative impact on emotional well-being far outweighs the monetary gains.

  4. Kathryn Whitney

    Thanks so much for this post, which addresses a very important new development for teachers and gives us food for thought about how to think about the challenge of Youtube and what to do about it. I’m a music teacher (classical singing and choral skills, and I teach both in universities and community music colleges) and of course I think that a real person is the best music teacher, ideally in the same room as you! Having said that, I have to admit that, in my private world, I have really enjoyed learning how to play the ukulele from Youtube videos, so I know it’s wrong to deny that you can’t learn anything online, especially from great online teachers who really know how to use the Youtube medium. However I do know that no matter how many videos I watch, the instructor on the video is never going to hear me play… so of course the most important part of a music lesson can never be replicated by a video: the teacher’s careful guidance and feedback on what your playing actually sounds like. This is without a doubt the most important part of music instruction and does need to be done in person (even in live-stream lessons, such as on skype, the sound quality is not high enough to give feedback on things like line and tone quality). But it seems to me your post is only partly about the value (or lack of value) in Youtube instruction – it’s also about the attitude of this student that there are ‘the basics’ and then there is all the rest. All my highest level instruction at university was about revisiting the so-called ‘basics’ and reviewing them again and again in light of new waves of technical achievement, repertoire challenges, and performance experience. I pity the audiences of any musician who does not have careful, sympathetic but challenging, in-person guidance while navigating these treacherous waters!

  5. Brian Jenkins

    Great article! I agree a real music education is definitely not coming from YouTube. People can definitely learn a couple of pieces from it, but the majority of these videos teach how to play an Elton John song or some other similar pop song. It’s learning by rote, sometimes with some chords thrown in. Unfortunately YouTube has propagated the idea that, that’s how you learn piano. Seems like the student that you talked to was just confused that there’s more to learning to play than a couple YouTube videos. But hey maybe that’s all he wanted? Some people just want to play the newest pop song.

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