In a well-traveled corner of cyberspace that’s safe from the current turmoil in the for-profit education industry, a unique sort of online education has been gaining traction. More and more, aspiring musicians are turning to YouTube for music lessons that are free and, sometimes, effective.
Andrew Furmanczyk is a 24-year-old piano teacher in British Columbia who’s played the instrument since he was five. He began producing lessons for YouTube nearly five years ago. “I started with nothing but a half-broken 5 megapixel digital camera placed on an oatmeal box shooting at 320×240 resolution and no video editing knowledge whatsoever,” he said. From the beginning, his idea was simply to spread his musical knowledge to people he couldn’t reach as an in-person teacher, and soon enough, that’s exactly what happened. After a slow and steady climb, his video lessons became some of the most popular ones on YouTube, with 18.9 million total views.
Folks from places like Nevada, Vietnam, and Argentina have flooded his website with grateful comments and stories of the progress they’ve made with help from his lessons. “You really do make people happy, all over the globe,” one viewer wrote. “ Not many people can say that about their work and efforts.”
This same story is unfolding all across YouTube. Some channels, like Furmanczyk’s, focus on teaching music theory, and others just teach viewers how to play popular songs like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Some of the more prolific teachers have embedded their videos into dedicated websites to make them easier to browse. And would-be students are certainly logging on to find them.
Justin Sandercoe, who runs the most popular guitar lesson channel, has 97 million views across all of his videos.
Last year, all the Top 10 searches on YouTube with the word “lesson” in them were music related, and searches for guitar tutorials have jumped 50 percent during the past 12 months. The main reasons for YouTube lessons’ popularity are the most obvious ones: they’re convenient and free. You can pause or rewind them at will, and you can take them at two o’clock a.m. in your pajamas if you’re so inclined. And, in these lean economic times, there’s a growing number of people who can’t afford to pay the $20 per half-hour that traditional lessons sometimes cost.
But though viewers don’t shell out cash for YouTube lessons, some of the more popular teachers have found ways to turn their videos into revenue. YouTube’s partner program lets owners of original content share advertising revenue generated from their videos. Depending on how much advertisers are willing to pay per view, a channel owner with hits in the millions could make thousands of dollars per month.
In most cases, ad revenue is not enough to make YouTube lessons anyone’s main gig—most of the better teachers also hold day jobs as traditional, in-person instructors—but in the online space, teachers have found an extra stream of income and a way to market themselves, both as teachers and musicians in their own rights.
But of course, the most important question is whether online students are actually learning; and, though the comments on websites like Furmanczyk’s and Sandercoe’s show that plenty of people are satisfied with their results, this method of teaching does come with a laundry list of unique challenges. Furmanczyk said one of the main difficulties is that, while in-person lessons are tailored to each individual student, he has to make his YouTube ones accessible to every possible type of viewer who might stumble across his channel.
“I don’t think it’s possible to do it perfectly,” he said, “since you can’t be fully understood by a five-year-old, 70-year-old retired veteran, and a 17-year-old teenager all at the same time!”
Another thing missing from YouTube lessons is the instant feedback that students get from in-person instruction. “I don’t believe you can ever replace the way a teacher can adjust a student’s arm or hand in real time,” Furmanczyk said.
As with any form of online education, students learning via YouTube have to be rather independently driven, since there’s no flesh-and-blood teacher to make sure they’re practicing and making constant improvement. But if someone without the time or money for traditional lessons really wants to learn an instrument, YouTube is becoming an increasingly legitimate option.
“I like to think of free lessons as giving people a taste of what music is about without asking them to commit to anything up front,” Furmanczyk said. “It’s a great way to bring more musicians into the music world who otherwise wouldn’t have made the initial commitment.”
This is why Furmanczyk doesn’t think his online lessons cut into their traditional counterpart’s market. “At some point the student will outgrow the YouTube lessons and need a teacher in-person,” he said.
But Annie Baxter, a spokeswoman for YouTube, shares an interesting statistic: Searches for intermediate guitar lessons jumped 70% during the past year. “We’re seeing growing interest in music lessons on YouTube, and we think this is because the nature of the YouTube community lends itself to learning,” Baxter said. “It’s naturally very interactive.”
Could it be that, as the YouTube lesson community grows, its students are learning enough there to move on to more advanced skills? And if the demand is there, might some channel owners discover an effective way to give intermediate and advanced lessons over YouTube? If so, they might take advantage of recent developments to the platform that could give teachers and students new potential for interaction and feedback.
The site is rolling out a live-streaming feature for partners, which would let teachers give lessons while students watch and comment in real time. Newly launched Google+ allows users to embed YouTube videos in their ‘hangout’ chats.
“The added revenue added by YouTube has enabled me to upgrade my video equipment and has given me the ability to be more picky about which students I take on,” said Furmanczyk. “With enough viewers it might generate enough income to replace a full time teaching job, although it’s not at that point yet.”
Regardless of what these numbers and fresh features mean for the future of the space, Furmanczyk probably put it best. “By having free lessons available to anyone, you expose more people to music,” he said. “Some of those are bound to continue, while others will simply decide it’s not for them. Either way, you’re expanding the global music community as a whole.”