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by Bob Brooke


Thanks to new technology a beginning musician in California can take learn how to play the piano or guitar from a teacher in Maine, or even Spain and for a lot less than in-person music lessons.

Need spawned the first of these ventures. In 1995, Andrew Mercerís best friend and fellow musician moved away to take a job at a university. "Our collaborations, our compositions, all of our music stopped, so I went to the Internet to see if there was any type of technology out there to allow two musicians to connect and collaborate over the Net," said Mercer of St. Johnís, Newfoundland, Canada. "And there was nothing there."

Mercer developed the necessary software and concentrated on uses for his new technology. "Up to that point, people had never been able to take music lessons in a fully interactive fashion while physically separated," he added. "Now they can play their keyboards and the teachers on the other end can stop them and demonstrate to the student on their keyboard what the student should be playing."

Taking lessons on the Net is fully interactive. The student plays his or her keyboard and the teacher hears it immediately. The teacher sees all the studentís keystrokes, all his peddle work, every note, every nuance of whatís being played very clearly over the Internet in CD quality sound.

Online Conservatory
Mercerís company has developed, one of several Web sites currently dedicated to making learning music as easy as surfing the Web. targets nontraditional piano students at all skill levels. "We donít expect to compete against traditional music education," said Mercer.

Teachers, from all over the world, set their own fees, but lessons cost an average of $20 for a 30-minute session. OnlineConservatory charges teachers a small fee for use of its software.

Mercer noted that some teachers are offering English-As-Second-Language music lessons. "Foreign students study with U.S. teachers to learn English while learning to play the piano," he said.

During the lessons, the image of a keyboard appears on both the studentís and teacherís computer screens. As each strikes the keys on their electronic keyboards, the corresponding keys on their computer images light up in bright pink and green.

While handles those interested in taking lessons, Mercerís other site,, showcases his companyís Melodus technology. This free site is open to intermediate and advanced musicians who want to jam online. All they have to do is download the free software and plug in their keyboards.

New Music School
Another top site is the from Interactive Music. This site offers guitar, as well as piano lessons. For $8.95, students get 12 months of unlimited access to the password-protected lesson package they choose. The site now offers four beginner packagesĖthree for guitar, and one for pianoĖas well as lessons for intermediate and advanced instruction.

The lessons start with a very basic introduction to the instrument, then move on to teach notes and chords," said Jan Renner, president and CEO of Interactive Music. Students play the attached sound files to hear just how the notes should sound. And each lesson teaches a song."

"We recognize that people learn at different speeds," he added. "Some people fly through the lesson in a month, while others take one lesson, and then donít return for three months. The year of unlimited access lets student learn at their own pace and on their own schedules."

NetMusicSchoolís lessons use Macromedia's Flash technology, streaming animation over the Internet to show proper hand position and movement. An animated guide, a stick figure appropriately named Sticky, walks and talks students through each lesson.

Mercer said one of the misconceptions is that student need expensive equipment to do this. They can go to their local Radio Shack and buy a Musical Instrument Digital Interface-compatible (MIDI) keyboard for $70 that will allow them to take music lessons or play off the Net.

Both men agree that the better the equipment, the richer the experience. While a built-in sound card in a five-year-old computer will do, an investment of about $40 for a Soundblaster Live card will upgrade the sound considerably. Add to that a good set of speakers with a subworfer for about $14 and a 28.8 Internet connection, and the student is all set.

Among the drawbacks to online lessons is a lack of feedback. NetMusicSchoolís Sticky can't tell students what theyíre doing right or wrong. "We recognize the value of feedback, and we highly recommend that people go out and get private instruction," said Renner. "Our site offers an online database of music instructors, so students can search by location and find a teacher."

Online lessons are no substitute for a flesh and blood teacher. "This is a great way to get started," said Renner. "So many people are afraid to make a fool out of themselves in front of someone else. Online lessons give them a chance to practice first."

This article originally appeared in Hispanic Magazine.

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