Online orchestration: Renowned musicians teach via online exchanges

| Friday, April 12, 2013, 8:33 p.m.

A website is serving as a bridge between aspiring musicians and noted masters of their field. lets anyone from the hobbyist to the well-trained hone their musical skills by learning directly from renowned artists from all over the world through video exchanges.

“It makes the world a little smaller for musicians,” says Patricia Butler, president of the Napa, Calif.-based company. “Students who really want to be proficient and make it the center of their lives can find a home here. Some just want to improve their skills or maybe it's just a hobby. There are lessons for everyone.”

ArtistWorks partners with experienced instructors who create videos for students of their particular genre. Some are taped from various angles and can be slowed down to allow the students to see clearly what the instructor is doing. Students also can put portions of the video on loop to watch again and again.

Today, students in 72 countries use the site and learn from dozens of virtuoso ArtistWorks teachers specializing in genres ranging from classical to rock and jazz to bluegrass. Each one has “really taken a lifetime of learning and recorded it, from how to play all the way to performance and audition tips,” Butler says.

The classical component of the site launched in February and currently has seven instruments available for study: violin, piano, flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet and guitar.

Instructors are esteemed soloists, conservatory teachers and principal players of leading orchestras. They include Jeffrey Khaner, principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and former co-principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; and William Caballero, principal horn with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Students can submit videos of themselves playing for evaluation, and teachers provide written and video responses. All site members can see each posted video, so they can learn from what other students are working on. It provides social networking forums where users can communicate with other students in their respective fields and beyond. The site also provides study materials, such as sheet music.

“Everything you need to play and practice and become a better musician is here,” Butler says.

Inspiration for the site came when CEO David Butler — Patricia Butler's husband — dreamed of learning jazz guitar. After his retirement as an AOL executive in 1999, he devoted time to studying music but found more-conventional teaching methods lacking.

“We had a house full of DVDs, books and tapes,” Patricia Butler says. “But it was an unfulfilling, one-sided way of learning. He knew he needed one-on-one.”

David Butler found a teacher on the East Coast, but travel soon became too costly and time-consuming. Seeing a need for an easier way to connect with key educators, David Butler developed ArtistWorks.

The site eliminates problems with schedules, geography and accessibility, and gives teachers and students a place where they can come together when it's convenient for them, regardless of where they are in the world.

Membership in the ArtistWorks Classical Campus, or any of the other genres, costs $90 for three months, $150 for six months, or $240 for 12 months. Teachers are compensated.

Caballero, who chairs the brass department at Carnegie Mellon University School of Music and is the current associate teaching professor of horn, says today's technology is shaping musical instruction.

“Even myself, if I need to learn a new piece, I go to the Internet and YouTube to find an orchestra or soloist who's performed it,” he says.

Caballero says one-on-one instruction is particularly important to the genre.

“It's a very refined craft,” he says. “It's very personal.”

He likes that if he answers one student's question, all students can see the response and learn from it. Caballero says when he finished filming his curriculum, which took more than a week, he realized he'd just passed on 30 years of learning.

He praises the Butlers for their efforts to make that kind of knowledge widely available.

“They're taking the angle of doing something really unique and helpful for all,” he says. “It's terrific.”

Khaner says it would have been “really fantastic” to have this tool during his early learning years.

“You can develop a relationship with a student that isn't in person, but it's as close as you can be,” he says. “It's a phenomenal resource.”

Lydia Roth, 17, a student from Grand Rapids, Mich., who will attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in the fall, has taken periodic in-person lessons with Khaner for several years when she's on the East Coast.

“I have learned so much from him every time I've played for him, and the site offered an opportunity to hear his opinions without traveling to Philadelphia,” she says.

As an example of how the site has helped her, Lydia points to a “frighteningly long orchestral excerpt” from “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”) by Debussy.

“Most of us cheat and sneak in at least one quick breath,” she says. “When I submitted that excerpt on the site, Mr. Khaner asked me to actually attempt the difficult breathing, and then he explained how to use tone color, dynamics and other musical aspects to be able to achieve that goal.

“If he had just told me to do it, I would not have attempted it. I needed that explanation of how to do it. His teaching gave me all the encouragement I needed to start learning the Faun solo as it should be played.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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