When Online Practice Leads Students Astray

  • SumoMe

At no other time in human history have so many people had so much access to the collective knowledge of the human race. Not only does the Internet offer simple access to information, but to education in the form of online college courses and the like. For music students, however, just getting information doesn’t mean the same thing as good instruction.

If you’ve been studying a long time, learning music might seem pretty simple. There are beats, notes, scales, chords, and so forth. If these things can be explained and demonstrated in video or audio recordings, why would you even need a teacher? Music learning websites and practice routines for just about every instrument are common, but learning or practicing online might not always work out as well as you’d think.

One of the biggest reasons people use the Internet as a learning tool is a lot of it is free. However, free information is no use if it can’t be understood. Learning from free information but with no guidance at all is just “monkey see, monkey do.” Especially in music, it’ll cost you more time to unlearn bad habits and retrain yourself than if you’d had professional instruction from the beginning.

There’s also a lot of nuance in learning music that you might have a hard time picking up on by yourself. Basic transitions in tempo, meter, and scale should be interpreted by the musician. Even if music can be described as a kind of math, there’s a very subjective quality to it. We don’t really listen to music to appreciate the math behind it, but because music speaks to our emotions. It’s the way the musician performs and brings spirit to the music part that makes the difference between an OK performance and really good music.

If you just watch instructional videos online, how much can you pick out on your own? Without anybody to point things out and answer your questions, can you understand why and how notes or chords can be stressed to bring out certain themes or forms in a piece? If the answer is “no,” then no matter how good the videos are, you’re missing out on an opportunity to learn. A good teacher points out important concepts, and also adjusts for you to help make understanding easier and practice efficient.

A formal learning process requires some sort of feedback between you and your teacher. When you interact, a good teacher is able to spot deficiencies in your technique and correct them. As the one being taught, you need the opportunity to question and draw on the instructor’s expertise so you get something out of your practice.

On the other hand, there definitely is such a thing as a bad teacher, or at least a teacher who doesn’t work too well with you personally. If your practice isn’t getting you anywhere, you and your teacher just can’t seem to communicate, or you know your bad habits aren’t being corrected, you might be better off using online materials to practice on your own, at least until you can find a better instructor.

Finding a good instructor for you is one way the Internet can help beyond just providing free videos and tips. If you find a teacher some distance away, there’s no reason the power of the Internet can’t be harnessed to let you practice together. This might be as simple as having a web cam and microphone on both ends of the connection. Other options are available too, but the important thing is some level of connection with a real person so you can get the guidance of a teaching relationship.

A real live instructor has always been the best way to learn music. Because of all the free information online, it might seem like music teachers are at risk of going the way of the dinosaur. In reality, internet technology has opened up a great opportunity for students and teachers, since both can now connect across a much wider field of candidates. However, students must be wary of teacher-less alternatives, and remember that something free can still have costs.

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One Response to When Online Practice Leads Students Astray

  1. Jayme Barnard March 17, 2012 at 3:15 PM #


    Great article,

    I agree that technology cannot replace the importance of studying with with a live teacher. There are a lot of great tools out there but if you don't have a strong understanding of musical concepts, it can be very confusing for a young musician.

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