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Music lessons going digital: Live and online

Baltimore startup Bandhappy.com, savvy musician-entrepreneurs bring live music lessons to the web

By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

5:31 PM EDT, March 26, 2012

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Kyle Boyce takes a guitar lesson in Chicago every Wednesday night — with a teacher in Toronto.

No traveling is involved. Instead, Boyce fires up a computer, plugs in his electric guitar and launches into a live music lesson with his instructor on Bandhappy.com, a new Baltimore-based website that aims to bring such lessons to the masses.

"I was super-skeptical about it at first," said Boyce, 27, who is a guitarist in a band called Unvisioned. "But after my first lesson, I was hooked. It's so convenient and you're not sacrificing anything over doing a live [in-person] lesson."

Boyce is among a growing crowd of music teachers and students who are turning to live online lessons on the Web. Powered by speedy broadband connectivity, a site such as Bandhappy.com can connect people who want to learn music from a specialist instructor or from a musician they follow anywhere in the world.

But it remains to be seen how well online music lessons can co-exist with in-person instruction. Researchers are in the early stages of studying how well online distance learning can be applied to music lessons. And some music teacher groups believe online instruction can supplement, but not replace, in-person lessons.

"I don't know how I would deal with helping a student to adjust posture and hands to get a better sound," said Michael Blakeslee, a former strings instructor and deputy executive director for the National Association for Music Education, a 130,000-member nationwide group.

Yet some music teachers are clamoring to teach students online, because they can draw in more students and build their reputation beyond their geographic area, Blakeslee said.

"Any teacher has to know the new tools of the profession," he said. "The real key as a professional is knowing when to use each tool and how to use it."

Matt Halpern, the 28-year-old Pikesville native who founded Bandhappy, believes he understands the nuances of in-person and online teaching — and his website can accommodate both. He's been teaching drums since he was 16.

When he's on tour, Halpern eschews online lessons and uses Bandhappy to arrange in-person lessons with his fans.

Halpern hopes BandHappy, which launched in January, can streamline online education and e-commerce for music teachers and their students. His goal is to create an online marketplace for students and teachers to discover each other.

"I was using Skype for the video, Paypal to get paid, email and Facebook for marketing, and a separate calendar for reminders," said Halpern, who drums for Periphery, a progressive rock band that tours more than six months out of the year. "It was all very cumbersome and disjointed."

Teachers can set their own lesson prices; Bandhappy takes a 15 percent cut for enabling the lessons and processing payments, Halpern said.

The Web has enabled a wide range of new activity for musicians once limited by geography. Some sites, such as eJamming.com, allow musicians to collaborate and play live together — over the Internet — from wherever they are in the world. Some artists are putting on live performances for their fans on YouTube.com and Ustream.com. And various websites now sell recorded music lessons, helping artists make money online.

Before Bandhappy came along, savvy music teachers used Skype or other software for live Internet lessons. While Skype is free, it's one piece of software out of several a music teacher and student may need to teach and learn online.

Music teachers often have to build their own websites and use other services to market themselves and collect online payments. And students who want to continue their studies offline, through music exercises and assignments, would receive work from their teachers via other methods, such as email.

Dave Frank, a Manhattan-based improvisational jazz pianist, has been running his own online lessons using Skype and his website for the past 18 months, with great success. He teaches students in dozens of countries, as far away as India.

But Frank also has in-person clients who sometimes choose to stay in their apartments in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens rather than trek to his midtown studio.

He is interested in a site such as Bandhappy to expand his online business, he said. About 60 percent of his music lessons now are done over the Internet, Frank said. He thinks because he offers specialty training, he's able to attract students from all over the world.

"As an educator, you can now impart your knowledge in real time to anyone who has a computer, and it's a thoroughly effective learning tool," Frank said. "I've tracked the progress. My Skype students are moving at the same exact rate as my live students."

Boyce, the Chicago guitarist, said he's progressed steadily under the weekly tutelage of Aaron Marshall, a Canadian professional guitarist. Boyce said he knew of Marshall's music beforehand and had great respect for him.

"Once I saw him and what an amazing guitarist he was, I hit him up on Bandhappy," said Boyce. "The first lesson we had was amazing. I learned so much in an hour. I decided to keep progressing and keep taking lessons from him."

Bandhappy keeps the teacher and the student organized, Halpern said. In addition to live sessions, teachers can post recorded videos and files with exercise assignments for the student to practice offline.

Soon-to-debut features of the site include the ability to record a live session and group sessions that can tie multiple people together into one live video lesson.

The startup got a $75,000 grant to build the website from TEDCO, the quasi-state agency that supports technology industry development. Halpern also attracted two other Baltimore-area co-founders: Jonathan Rivlin, the chief operating officer and a classically trained clarinetist, and Andy Meister, a technology entrepreneur who is the president.

They hired R2Integrated, a Canton-based digital marketing firm, to build the site.

The site has signed up about 350 teachers and thousands of students, Halpern said. Each teacher and student can have their own profile pages. And teachers are pre-screened by Halpern and his team to ensure they are able to teach — Bandhappy asks them to post videos of themselves giving instruction.

Bandhappy is currently seeking new investors. Halpern said he hopes to use fresh investment to add new features and start a nationwide marketing push to attract musicians and students to the site.

"It's really about putting control in the hands of musicians," said Halpern. "I think it's great that we can expose young students to new teachers and new experiences from all over the world."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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