Free music lessons abound on the Web

Free music lessons abound on the Web
April 20, 2009
By Louis R. Carlozo
Chicago Tribune

On the ladder of starving artists, where musicians already perch on a splintered rung, this nasty blues we call the recession only adds insult to melody. How's a guy or gal supposed to take lessons to hone their craft when, to borrow from a certain soul smash, money's too tight to mention?

The musical answer could well be this: The best things in life are free. Thanks to the Internet, abbreviated music lessons have become easier to spot than dolts yelling "Free Bird!" at a rock concert.

Trawl YouTube and you'll soon hit on video after video of music tutorials. Name an instrument and someone has posted a lesson for it, be it the banjo, bassoon, harp or tuba (the YouTuba, if you will). Want more cowbell? You can even find a cowbell primer.

And although music pros agree that instruction on the Internet can't replace what you absorb with a live teacher, it's not a bad stopgap. What's more, some instructors use YouTube to supplement their lessons, often in creative ways.

Related links

Trying a finger-picking guitar lesson on YouTube
Online sites that offer free music lessons

"I was in Moscow teaching country blues guitar with a bunch of slide players, and I was working on 'Death Letter Blues,' a piece by Son House," recalls Chris Walz, a guitar instructor and program manager at the Old Town School of Folk Music. "I was going through an interpreter, and only part of [the lesson] was getting through. So I told the students, 'You all have computers. When you go home tonight, go to YouTube, type in 'Son House/Death Letter Blues' and watch. You'll see what I mean.' "

Walz describes what happened the following day: "They came to the next lesson with their eyes like saucers. They'd never seen anything like that, ever." (You can watch the video for yourself, complete with close-up hand shots, at

In other instances, music legends aren't merely teaching via live performance—they're simply teaching. Look long enough and you can find stars giving personal instruction, often in clips copied from instructional videos. So although Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits probably won't invite you to his London digs for a guitar seminar any time soon, you can get some pointers from the fingerpicking wizard via a 3-minute video that documents his private lesson to an admirer.

But the blessing of free music lessons on YouTube, like a scratchy 45 single, has at least one not-so-fab flip side: information overload.

Walz notes: "You get into the most trouble when you're beyond the stage of beginner and you look at YouTube for other ideas to inspire you. That's good, but there's so much out there that it's hard to find the right video lessons that will really help you."

Like a stroll through the world's largest cyber-music university, a YouTube cruise can prove as intimidating as diving into iTunes cold. The snippets run the gamut from an earnest (and worthwhile) 8-minute intro to Hawaiian ukulele to a Police bass lesson straight from "Wayne's World" public access cable.

At the Old Town School, eight weeks of private lessons run from $205 (for 30-minute lessons) to $375 (1-hour lessons). Beginners can snag group lessons for less. Eight once-a-week gatherings running 80 minutes cost $145 to $160. Another option: Check out local coffeehouses, where you'll often spot fliers advertising a wide range of music lessons for anywhere from $25 to $60 for a 45-minute session.

If you go the DIY route and opt for YouTube lessons instead of paid instruction, you can pick up excellent tips from great players, though you'll notice pronounced limitations too. Clips run in the 2- to 10-minute range. And although you can study video for fingering positions and phrasing, you may not get a sense of some important nuances from watching a screen: posture, for starters.

"A non-fretted instrument like the fiddle is complicated," Walz says. "You have to hold it a certain way in relationship to your body, and hold the bow in a certain way—not only to produce the right sound, but to play without pain."

One good strategy for YouTube tutorials involves finding a video mentor you like and sticking with her. If a pianist posts a clip you find valuable, she likely has others at the site. Many YouTube musicians use the Web portal to promote their instructional videos, and often give out their e-mail addresses.

Walz sums it up best: "Even as sophisticated as computers become, you're never going to replace the interaction and moment-to-moment exchange that happens with two musicians sitting in the same room. Coming in contact with a real, live human being, you can observe, and steal from them in the best sense."

That may explain why even in a recession, enrollment at Old Town continues to run strong, says Todd Lido, the school's director of marketing (and an aspiring fiddle player to boot). "There's the real need for community in times like these."

"Plus," Lido adds, "it's tough to ask a question to a video."

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