Watch and Learn: Stay-At-Home Mandates Are Fueling a Virtual Music Education Explosion

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It's never been easier (or cheaper) to learn music-making online.

On March 27, San Francisco music education nonprofit Women's Audio Mission (WAM) kicked off its first week of online-only programming with a "Virtual Hang" video call, where its community of women and gender non-conforming producers and audio engineers shared tips for staying productive in isolation.

Over the next week, more than 300 people from across the country tuned in to four total online sessions held by WAM, including a vinyl DJing workshop and "Home Studio 101" class -- and now, founder and executive director Terri Winston is planning many more, in addition to a suite of interactive textbooks and other materials.

"That was just dipping our toe in to get people engaged," Winston says. "But once we announced it, they just went nuts."

WAM's online programming is part of a recent explosion of virtual music education resources from both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, in response to nationwide school closings and stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic. Virus-related restrictions may have dealt a heavy blow to the music industry, but paradoxically, it's never been easier (or cheaper) to learn music-making online.

On April 2, the GRAMMY Music Education Coalition and its affiliate, David Ellefson Youth Foundation, launched a "SCHOOL'S OUT" initiative, through which band members from Megadeth, Five Finger Death Punch and more are offering free video music lessons and one-on-one mentoring sessions to quarantined students. Lincoln Center has a new "pop-up classroom" with daily livestream lessons including a songwriting workshop; Carnegie Hall is offering free lesson plans and teaching videos related to orchestral music; and Illinois-based music education site The Shed is giving away free passes to its music production curriculum for any school affected by coronavirus-related closures.

Educators like Winston are taking advantage of the virtual shift to serve more students than they could ever accommodate in the traditional classroom setting. After New York University pivoted to virtual instruction on March 11, its Steinhardt Percussion Studies director Jonathan Haas and faculty member/administrator Sean Statser opened the program to the percussion world at large for free, with 100 first-come, first-serve spots for each Zoom edition of the newly-christened NYU Percussion Virtual Masterclass Series.

Since the first series event on March 24, Statser says the program has received more than 1,500 sign-ups:"The response was instantaneous," he says. "Everybody's sitting at home, looking for something to do."

Haas and Statser are also offering paid teaching slots to renowned musicians who are out of work due to the crisis. "In response to the challenge of zero income for our friends and colleagues, I suggested the idea, 'Let's keep these people hired,'" Haas says. Within 48 hours of announcing the program, he and Statser booked 14 different instructors, from Brooklyn xylophonist Jonathan Singer to Grammy-winning ensemble Third Coast Percussion.

Many for-profit companies are also offering free or discounted music education tools for a limited time -- a move that is as charitable as it is strategic, turning the billions of people stuck at home around the world into potential customers.

Last week, Gibson and Fender both began offering free three-month trial subscriptions to virtual guitar learning apps Amped Guitar (normally $14.99 per month) and Fender Play (normally $9.99 per month), respectively. Gibson president and CEO James "JC" Curleigh says the investment, while philanthropic above all, will also lead to more long-term customers.

"It's not about competing with others. It’s about collaborating to get more people playing music," he says. "It'll have a long-term benefit on our businesses and brands: The more people play guitar, the more guitars you’re going to sell in the future." The company is also giving away an Epiphone guitar every day through its YouTube channel, part of its #HomeMadeMusic video series amid the pandemic.

For Fender, free subscriptions to Fender Play proved so popular that the company expanded its initial first-come, first-serve offer from 100,000 people to a maximum of 1 million. The app was launched three years ago in response to research finding 95% of people who start guitar drop out after the first year, says Fender chief marketing officer Evan Jones. "It was designed to help new players get started and stick with it," he says. During the quarantine, "there are people who are coming into guitar for the first time, but there are also a lot of people who are pulling guitars back out from underneath their beds and off the walls again."

German audio company Sennheiser is strengthening its relationship with customers through a free global webinar series, which includes a sound engineer roundtable and lesson on microphone basics. "A lot of our customers, specifically in the pro audio business, are without a job" due to the pandemic, says Volker Schmitt, director of customer development and application engineering at Sennheiser SoundAcademy. "It's time to pay them back."

Sessions are held around the clock, allowing people from all time zones to join. In its first two weeks, Volker says the virtual program served more than 5,000 people. "We hope that as soon as we get up and running again, that people remember what we did for them, and they come back to us," he adds.

The e-learning industry can be lucrative: Consider celebrity-taught education platform MasterClass, which pays celebrities like Timbaland and Usher up to $100,000 up front plus commission, according to The Hollywood Reporter, to teach courses which run $90 a pop. Founded in 2015 with three classes, the platform now offers more than 75, and in 2018 raised $80 million in Series D funding. Amid the pandemic, the company is running its own promotion: Buy one yearly all-access pass for $180, get one free.

Sennheiser’s programming also reflects another development in coronavirus-time virtual music education: A vast trove of online seminars for industry professionals. Every weekday, new music and technology company Q&A’s co-founder Troy Carter is curating "The Panel," a series of virtual conversations with music executives to talk strategy in uncertain times. Similarly, 8 Til Faint management company founder Mauricio Ruiz, who manages Jessie Reyez, is curating a series of free virtual seminars for entertainment industry executives to discuss strategy in the current landscape; the first session on Monday featured managers for Daniel Caesar, Alessia Cara, PARTYNEXTDOOR and more as speakers.

As well, NAMM has a lineup of virtual music business seminars, including a panel where members shared their experiences filing for federal aid; SoundCloud is inviting artists to submit questions for its new “Creator Office Hours” virtual series; and canceled music business conferences like Midem and A2IM’s Indie Week are carrying on virtually.

Music educators agree they have been moving toward virtual instruction for years -- the pandemic merely served as the catalyst that forced institutions into action. "Before, people were investing in distance learning, but we were never forced to say, 'This is the only thing right now,'" says John Hamilton, founder and executive director of Sacramento, California, youth music education organization Dept. of Sound, which brought its programming online through a partnership with Spotify-owned music-making platform Soundtrap. “But this is the only thing right now. And it might be like this for a minute."

Winston echoes that point: "We have to do this now, because this [situation] could keep happening and we're not prepared to educate people."

But virtual music instruction comes with new challenges. It’s tricky to replicate the hands-on experience of learning an instrument or handling gear virtually -- that is, if students have access to those tools at home in the first place. “Students are practicing on pots and pans" in place of percussion instruments, says Haas. "We’re running into problems with neighbors."

Hamilton, Winston and others are fine-tuning their methods by holding virtual one-on-one “office hours” sessions and limiting some classes to between 10 and 20 students. But as educators across the country are now well aware, huge swaths of students lack technology to learn virtually at home -- an inequality that researchers have long termed the “digital divide” that’s particularly prevalent in low-income households. Last May, Pew Research Center reported 29% of American adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone, 44% don’t have broadband services and 46% don’t have a computer.

Winston is currently seeking funding to help supply technology to her students, of which 96% are low-income. “We’re going to have to get mobile devices into their hands,” she says.

“When you have a Zoom conference of a class of 15 kids, let’s say a third of their webcams aren’t working and another 20% of them are going off an Android or an iPhone,” adds Hamilton. “It’s not like we were able to deploy a bunch of computers and test everyone’s networks before this all happened. We’re just making the best of what we have.”

Even so, the current boom in virtual music tools is just the beginning. All educators interviewed for this piece said that they plan to continue and improve upon their virtual programs long after social distancing ends.

“I think that with music and a lot of other creative expression forms, people deep down want to do it, they just don’t always find the time to,” says Hamilton. “But in a situation like this, if someone’s got a guitar at their house that they haven’t played in five years, it’s like, ‘Well, I’ve got time.’”

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