My favorite thing about the internet is it gives people with limitations (financial, time, logistical, etc.) an opportunity to pursue a musical education in a way that wasn’t possible pre-internet. Sure, back in the day, you could teach yourself by listening to records, or by buying used lesson books, but you didn’t have a hundred free videos of Barry Harris at your fingertips, and you certainly weren’t able to attend an hour-long masterclass with Mark Guiliana for no charge.
Over the past several years, I have seen my students build these elaborate, patchwork curriculums out of a wide variety of internet resources. Their determination and resourcefulness is an inspirational reminder of how much I love music, and watching them construct these makeshift schools has filled me with pride.
I love the internet, but I am aware there are dangers associated with online learning. So here is how to avoid the potential pitfalls.
Use your ears
There is as much bad information on the internet as there is good information. The only way to tell the difference is to use your ears. Whether you’re looking at a guitar tab for your favorite song, or watching a video about improvisational techniques, the only way to assess their validity is by listening very closely. One of the most valuable things about having a private teacher is they are able to listen for you and translate what their ears are hearing into something a beginner can digest. If you aren’t in a position to have a private teacher, it’s not the end of the world, but you have to listen extra carefully to compensate.
Don’t trap yourself alone in your room
Above all, music should be a collaborative endeavor. Learning from someone online is interactive in a sense, but it’s not sufficient if you want to feel whole as a musician. Find people to jam with online, at your school, at your work, or in your neighborhood. When you receive all of your musical stimulation from the internet, it is easy to feel as if it is all you need. Your computer is a valuable musical tool, but it is NOT a replacement for human interaction. You can have the most insane bedroom chops in the world, but if you don’t practice with other musicians those chops are null and void. It’s like having a vast, flowery vocabulary, but never talking to anybody.
If you don’t have a network of musician friends, it requires courage to approach someone cold and ask to play music with them. But if music is important to you, you must brave the potentially awkward social interactions.
Avoid being distracted from your goals
For all intents and purposes, there is an infinite amount of music education resources online. If you’re not careful, the sidebar videos on Youtube can lead you down a rabbit hole. You start watching exactly what you went online to find, and before you know it you have twelve tabs open and you’re learning about Indian rhythmic solfege.
If your time is of the essence, it’s important to go online with a goal in mind. If your goal is to learn anything and everything about music, then, by all means, putz around for a few hours and let autoplay take the wheel. However, if you want to be a pop songwriter, there’s no real reason to watch a jazz saxophonist break down Donna Lee. Similarly, if you’re trying to learn about film scoring, you probably don’t need to watch a video about how to build a custom snare drum. I’m not saying you wouldn’t learn something from those videos, but when you have the opportunity to learn anything, what you choose to learn becomes critical.
Recognize you don’t know what you don’t know
Online learning is a new phenomenon. We know it has transformed how we think about education. We know it is convenient. And we know it has the potential to provide information on a scale we never could have imagined–but we still aren’t aware of all the drawbacks. If you’re using the internet as your primary tool for learning about music, you have to be discerning in order to avoid setbacks. To steal a line from Smokey Bear, only you can prevent bad habits from burning your musical education to the ground.
Jacob Unterreiner is from Phoenix, Arizona. Around the valley, Jacob is known for three things; his musicianship, his strange habit of wearing the same eleven shirts he’s had since middle school, and a strict 10:00 PM curfew that he adheres to religiously in order to maintain his sanity as a high school English teacher.
Photography: Mark Guiliana by Deneka Peniston.