More and more, aspiring musicians are turning to YouTube for free music lessons. But are they effective at moving you from chopsticks to Tchaikovsky?
Last year, all top 10 searches on YouTube with the word “lesson” in them were music related, and searches for guitar tutorials jumped 50% in 2011 from 2010. Besides music, viewers can surf YouTube for yoga classes, salsa dancing tips, and crochet pointers. Other sites, like teachertube.com, offer geography, history, and details on how to make model volcanoes. KhanAcademy.com, of course, has 3.5 million unique visitors each month who tune into Salman Khan's math and science lessons.
The main reasons for video 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 2 a.m. in your pajama pants, if 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 or more that traditional music lessons cost.
Searches for intermediate guitar lessons jumped 70% in 2010, says Annie Baxter, a spokeswoman for YouTube. “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 says. “It's naturally very interactive.”
Andrew Furmanczyk is a 24-year-old piano teacher in British Columbia who’s played 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 says. From the beginning, his idea was simply to spread his musical knowledge to people he couldn’t reach as an in-person teacher. Soon enough, that’s exactly what happened.
After a slow and steady climb, his video lessons are now some of the most popular on YouTube, with more than 22 million views. Viewers from places like Nevada, Vietnam, and Argentina flooded his website with grateful comments and stories of the progress they’ve made with help from his lessons.
This same story is unfolding all across YouTube. Some channels, like Furmanczyk’s, focus on teaching music theory, while 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. Justin Sandercoe , who runs the most popular guitar lesson channel, has 97 million views across all of his videos.
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. Though 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 unique challenges. And, so far, no famous composers or pianists have attributed their skills to YouTube.
Furmanczyk said that, while in-person lessons are tailored to each individual student, he has to make his YouTube lessons accessible to every possible type of viewer who might stumble across his channel. “You can’t be fully understood by a 5-year-old, 70-year-old retired veteran, and a 17-year-old teenager all at the same time,” he says.
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 says.
Whitney Gardner, a piano teacher in New York City, founded a consortium of freelance music teachers called InThePocketNYC.com. She compares online music lessons to workout videos versus personal trainers. "Workout videos can be very helpful to those who know what they are doing and who have the drive to keep up with them," she says. But a personal trainer can offer better observation to train a person in rhythm, timing, and physical technique beyond elementary levels. "It's the physical learning that needs guidance."
As with any form of online education, students learning via YouTube have to be independently driven, since there’s no flesh-and-blood teacher to make sure they’re practicing. “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 says. “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 says.
Will the free music lesson community move on to more advanced skills? YouTube is rolling out a live-streaming feature for partners, which would let teachers give lessons while students watch and comment in real time. And 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 (in-person) students I take on,” says Furmanczyk. “With enough viewers it might generate enough income to replace a full-time teaching job, although it’s not at that point yet.”
"If anything, these videos help keep music alive and that's what all music teachers want," says Gardner, who only offers in-person lessons at present. She said the video lessons by Furmanczyk and others only help increase the pool of prospective serious music students by "whetting the appetite of those who really want to delve in to further private instruction and wedding out the students who really just want to learn how to play their favorite pop song and be done with it."
--Paul Glader  contributed to this article.
[Image: Flickr user Joseph Choi ]