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Very private lessons

A boom in online music classes draws eager students, celebrity instructors

(Essdras M. Suarez / Globe Staff)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / November 8, 2009

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Tony Trischka, a seasoned banjo virtuoso often ranked alongside masters such as Earl Scruggs and Béla Fleck, was checking in on his latest crop of students the other day. Well, it was actually around midnight, and he was nowhere near a classroom with the usual chalkboard and cluster of desks.

From the privacy of his New Jersey home, maybe even in his pajamas, Trischka was online at his new School of Banjo. He was watching videos students had submitted to the site, mostly one-minute clips of them playing basic banjo tunes and inquiring why they were getting a buzzing sound on certain frets. Sometimes Trischka was just a click away; from the chat menu, students could immediately connect with Trischka, moonlighting as “tonyt.’’

For banjo enthusiasts, instantly chatting with Tony Trischka is the equivalent of logging on to Facebook some random night, seeing Eric Clapton is online, and hitting him up about how he plays “Layla.’’

Trischka, who launched his online school in August, is the latest example of just how far online learning has progressed, particularly with celebrity instructors, who break down the wall between artist and fan. Last year Nils Lofgren, who shreds guitar for Bruce Springsteen as a member of the E Street Band, started offering online lessons, shorter versions of which will soon be available through Com cast On Demand, too.

“A lot of people e-mailed me saying, ‘I have all these books, and I’ve been overwhelmed for months. I really don’t feel like I’ve learned anything, and right out of the gate I’ve learned more from your lessons in a few weeks,’ ’’ Lofgren says. “Maybe that’s just a misuse of the books, but to navigate that yourself if you’re a beginner is kind of tricky.’’

Our digital culture and demand for instant gratification have made it easier than ever to at least try to learn music. The extent of online instruction varies, from household names like Norah Jones teaching you their songs through Apple’s GarageBand software to ongoing one-on-one classes from Trischka and Lofgren.

For a $2.99 download, you can buy tutorials from iVideosongs.com, featuring instructors explaining how to play songs by everyone from the Beatles to KT Tunstall. And don’t discount the power of YouTube, where anyone can perform their own renditions of songs (right or wrong) and share tips on technique.

Skeptics question the absence of a traditional classroom environment’s communal merits and the intimacy of private lessons.

“One of the biggest issues I see students struggle with these days is information overload,’’ says Lloyd Thayer, who teaches at the Passim School of Music in Cambridge. “Because there is so much on the Web, I think it’s easy to learn 15 seconds of one song, then move to another and another. It’s easy to get distracted. Having a teacher one on one, or in a group, you have to show up each week, and it pushes you and helps to keep you on target.’’

The shift to online instruction dovetails with how music is increasingly taught in higher education. Debbie Cavalier, dean of continuing education at Berklee College of Music, says Berkleemusic.com has seen enrollment swell by 30 percent nearly every year since the online school officially launched in 2004.

“I think online learning in general is everywhere, but not as much in a formalized way for music,’’ Cavalier says. This year the school will serve 12,000 online students representing 85 countries, from soldiers in Iraq to Colombian pop star Fanny Lu.

The demand for online music instruction has rippled well beyond the usual pop and rock parameters, too. Trischka says he was surprised when the California company ArtistWorks approached him to do the banjo lessons, adding to its stable of a jazz guitarist, pianist, harmonica player, and others. In three months, Trischka’s online banjo school has amassed almost 200 students from around the world.

Trischka, who has taught private lessons and workshops since 1970, says the transition to online learning was inevitable but also not entirely different from traditional methods. (It is considerably cheaper, though: Trischka typically charges $80 for an hour of private instruction but offers the online classes at $60 for a three-month period.)

“I’ve been having this happen for years,’’ Trischka says. “I put out my first book in 1975, and ever since that came out I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’ve learned to play from your books, and you don’t even know me.’ And now, for someone in Thailand or wherever, it might be hard to find a banjo teacher, but having an online banjo teacher is the next best thing.’’

Sarah Rodman contributed to this report. James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

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