The Future of Classical Music Education? Part 2

As we begin the first day of the last month in 2012, we continue with the second part in a series looking at trends in classical music education, particularly new approaches that capitalize on emerging and developed technology. You can read part 1 here.

In the first article of this series I introduced ArtistWorks to you. At the end I posited the question of how can we take the next step towards a democratization of classical music, equalizing opportunity and access to students.

That was precisely my question going into the ArtistWorks roundtable. For CEO David Butler, it is one of his most commonly-heard questions. And for him, ArtistWorks is the answer.

ArtistWorks – Why is it Different?

From Mr. Butler:

The concept of ArtistWorks is taking a very accomplished musician in their field – someone who’s achieved something of a high order – and providing access to that person on a more widespread scale, rather than to just a select few. With the ArtistWorks method, we shoot an entire curriculum that represents that musician’s “musical legacy,” everything they’ve learned to that point, centered around around core fundamentals… in order to teach and and improve ability to perform better in auditions and other practical situations.

The students can move through these lessons in a linear format, and they can also show their improvement via video exchange to an instructor. The instructor can then make comments and respond with his or her own video. The video exchange is posted online for everybody to see.

First of all, we want to remind you that ArtistWorks is a paid service. Like paying for a lesson, this is something that musicians can choose to utilize for the benefit and advancement of their musical pursuits and career.

Second, ArtistWorks should not be viewed as something seeking to replace traditional lesson formats in any way. As Mr. Butler himself said:

The ideal situation is that you can meet the teacher in person, they are available at the same time you are, they accept you to take a lesson with them, and you both get a face-to-face in person lesson where they can work with you.

But, of course, that isn’t the reality for everyone. ArtistWorks seeks to use technology to provide options and access for the many times when we have that “less-than-ideal” reality.

ArtistWorks – What are the Benefits?

From my point of view, ArtistWorks offers several benefits:

  • Flexibility: applies for both teachers and students; lessons can fit in into different and conflicting schedules
  • Access: video lessons are posted on the website for subscribers to see and the content stays up there so students and teachers can go back to review it at a later point
  • Efficiency: since video content is public, teachers can reach many more people than typically possible in a one-on-one lesson format
  • Detailed: instructors claim they are able to drill down much more than is typically possible in the one-hour in-person lesson format (more on this below)
  • Cost-Effective: from the student’s point of view, a subscription rate of $20-30 per month is decent given the range of access to material online and when comparing to a typical hourly lesson rate

ArtistWorks – Are the Benefits Real?

Obviously they think so, but I was serious when I pressed for a more thorough explanation, as online education movements remain somewhat controversial in the minds of the masses as an alternative or even supplement to “real-life” education.

Flexibility and access are fairly obvious to understand. Having the resource available online 24/7 allows teachers and students to come together in a share educational forum irrespective of geographical or temporal constraints… as well as opening up the knowledge and expertise of some of the top musicians to those who may not also be the top students, and thus who may not have otherwise had an opportunity to study with an instructor of that caliber. Also, as noted, the monthly rate is cost-effective and a good value considering the price-to-resource.

The other two benefits are a little more elusive, and for some perhaps contestable. The argument for efficiency is the ability for one instructor to reach more people while keeping to a “one-on-one” type of format, since the video content is tailored not just in answer to a specific person but also to a specific challenge or type of challenge in a piece. One member of the roundtable had this to say:

They [teachers] don’t have to say the same thing over and over, but rather record that response once. That response is then made available to many people online reaching an entire community of musicians: those who are experiencing similar difficulties and encountering similar questions in their playing. The result is a leveraging of technology to make it possible for an individual teacher to reach hundreds of people at the same time.

Detail was another area that I was very suspicious of at first. The teachers on the live broadcast claimed that they were actually able to go into greater specific detail through these video exchanges than they were in normal lessons. The idea is that there is a huge value to students when you are only discussing a small part of the music; not a whole movement or even a section but a single phrase. Teachers felt that they could get much more detailed and delve into more complex aspects of the music. Ironically, in-person lessons tend to be a little more rushed since there is usually a need to get through the whole movement of a piece in an hour.

Of course, many counterarguments can immediately come to mind. After all, if you are only discussing a very small fragment of a piece, the student never gets direction on the overall work. There is much more that is left unsaid. And since different musicians can often struggle differently with the same challenges, video responses that are tailored to one person or group of people may not be as effective for others.

But, these counterarguments are lessened when you consider that the primary purpose of ArtistWorks is not replace the in-person lesson format but to complement it, as well as to offer access to educational resources that these students would not otherwise have. Imagine a student of the french horn in Oregon who would love to study with someone from Carnegie Melon. Reality would in most cases prevent that student from doing so (financial obstacles, distance gap, scheduling conflicts, skill level). However, through the ArtistWorks model, that person would have access to William Caballero.

We could hypothesize all day about these benefits, but it is most convincing to hear the words of a student who has experienced this firsthand. During the live broadcast we heard from a student at the Curtis Institute who was also a graduate of the ArtistWorks program and one of its beta testers.

Video exchange is something new in classical music. It takes the essence of a lesson – you play and you get a response – and puts in a format that is more flexible. It’s technology-driven, but what’s important is how students and teacher navigate education through technology.

For myself I’ve really enjoyed the dialogue that occurs when it comes to developing technique. The section focused on excerpts is also an amazing resource for students.

[In terms of what you need for video exchanges] you need a good microphone and a decent webcam setup. Most of these exchanges are on the shorter end. Videos from students tend to be 2-2.5 minutes, and you get about 5 minutes back from the instructor. It’s basically the same as a lesson, but broken up into segments.

Another advantage for students is that they are comfortable in their surroundings. They can record it a few times if they want to so they can get a good representation of what to send out. Feedback is then more precise. It also encourages more self-evaluation, more listening to yourself. Students will record themselves and listen back and hear the things that a coach points out on their own.

Finally, everything can go at your own pace.

Studying at your own pace can be a weakness as well, because some students may require more external pushing than others. But at the same time, encouraging that independence and self-reliance is critical for a musician at a high level.

While it’s easy to point out faults in the ArtistWorks method, on the whole the process seems well thought out and put together. Definitely, it holds great value as a supplemental teaching and learning resource. It falters somewhat as a sole primary means of music education, but we have to remember that its purpose is not to displace traditional in-person lessons.

And yet, what does the emergence of this model say about the future of classical music education? Isn’t it logical to assume that as technology improves, models like this will become more widespread and perhaps more viable as the primary means to teach and learn music? Is that kind of future desirable?

I’ll leave you with those thoughts. In the next part of this series we will explore this and other related questions more, with some guest contributions!

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