Interview | David Butler: The Future of Music Education

Nothing less than a revolution in how music education takes place. That’s what former AOL exec David Butler has developed and is bringing into widespread usage. Sure, teaching via video has been around since at least the 1980s, distance learning and video libraries for nearly as long—but no method until now has offered such an interactive, social media platform, even allowing for recordable, two-way interactions between students and instructors—among them, some of the best in the world. Back in the day, David’s development team built the original 1.0 AOL software (he rose to VP of Technology Strategy for their tech division); today, he continues to work on the leading edge. In this in-depth interview, David walks us through the origins, development of and future of ArtistWorks and what makes it such a special place online and off.

Victor: Why did you create ArtistWorks, and how did it get started? 

The genesis of the idea came about six years ago when I was looking for a way to further my guitar studies. I was interested in learning jazz guitar, a more serious and more difficult musical style. Since I couldn’t find a local teacher I liked, I studied for a while with a teacher that lived pretty far away. The traveling became onerous and I began to look for alternatives, you know, method books and DVDs, and downloadable guitar lessons and so on.

I was disheartened by the uneven-to-poor quality of what I found. I even tried some lessons with a teacher on Skype, which devolved into “I can see you, but I can’t hear you, can you hear me?” frustration. I realized that what I needed was more of an interactive situation, where I could learn from and interact with a real-life guitar teacher, and perhaps also interact with the other students studying with him.

Since nothing like that existed, I decided to create it myself. I figured others would appreciate something like that too, and that it might have wide application.

So you could say it was my love of guitar and my desire to play better drew me into this. That’s why music education is the first application of the ArtistWorks online education platform. In 2006 I began to work on this thing in earnest.

I hired some like-minded technology people, and we refined and evolved the concept for about two years, and during that time we built a reasonably successful site that served as our prototype. By 2008 it became clear to all of us that we were on to something, so I founded ArtistWorks with my wife Patricia Butler to take the ArtistWorks distance learning platform to the world.

I handled the technology, and Patricia handled the business end of things. Patricia is also a classically trained musician and began her college education as a music major. Her knowledge of and experiences in formal music education have been essential ingredients in formulating our strategy at ArtistWorks.  Many of the rest of ArtistWorks staff are musicians as well; this helps us understand the needs of both the online students as well as our teachers.

We worked out of our home until 2009, and then opened an office and studio in Napa, Calif. We now have a full business and marketing staff, technology department, and media group.

In summary, our goal was to find a way to connect students in a profound way to the best teachers in the world, and give teachers the right tools to reach and teach them, and we feel that we have achieved this goal.  Today many thousands of students are learning music using the ArtistWorks approach. We’ve essentially re-imagined music education from the ground-up.

Victor: How would you describe what ArtistWorks offers?

We are building a constellation of online music schools that ultimately will cover every major instrument in every genre of music.  We currently offer music instruction from some of the best virtuoso musicians in the world, teaching classical piano, jazz guitar, harmonica and a full complement teaching bluegrass guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass.

We even offer hip hop turnable “scratching” online with the world renown D.J. Qbert. We have ten schools operating now, and an additional fifteen or so are in the works, with momentum building. The next major offering will be the “ArtistWorks Drum Academy” featuring Thomas Lang (rock drums), Billy Cobham (jazz and fusion drums), and Luis Conte (Latin percussion), opening in December 2011.  Students enroll in these online schools, and take progressive lessons (there are lessons at all levels).  When a student first enrolls, he or she finds the right level, digs in, and starts making progress right away.

And students get individualized guidance from their teacher via the ArtistWorks “Video Exchange” technology. The online student’s experience is made even more interesting with the ability to have group chats, one to one chats and we also now have Practice Charts so that students can monitor their progress over time.

Victor: How do you choose your teachers?

Our teacher selection process is rigorous. We only work with virtuosic musicians who are widely recognized as being at the top of their instrument, often well-known award-winning recording artists.  We further ensure that they have impeccable teaching credentials, because sometimes great players are not necessary the greatest teachers.

We have to determine if they have what it takes to teach in an online situtation and lead an online community, which is a whole other set of skills.  We want the public to have confidence that any ArtistWorks teacher has been thoroughly vetted and has unquestionable virtuosity and proven competence as an online teacher.

Victor: Why do teachers decide to partner with ArtistWorks?

There are multiple reasons, and each of our teachers has his or her own story.  We have found that many of the great musicians of the world feel a “calling” to teach, and feel a responsibility to impart their knowledge and skill to the next generation of musicians.

But busy performance and recording schedules generally make it hard for these high profile musicians to take on students.  The ArtistWorks approach provides an efficient way for these teachers to reach students.  Also, because we provide them with a home video recording studio, they can teach and stay close to their family when they do.

Many musicians are also interested in diversifying their revenues.  Most musicians’ income is event driven, so they need to constantly be recording and selling CDs, or be on the road doing gigs, or selling teeshirts and so on,  in order to earn money. The ArtistWorks business model provides our musician-partners with a stable income stream by teaching students all over the world what they know best.

Victor: These are very advanced musicians. How do they feel about teaching beginners?

At the very first there was some resistance to this. But I asked them “if you want your child to learn to play, are you going to just send them down to the local music store or buy them a DVD?”  They emphatically said, “Of course not, I would teach them myself! I know best what they need to do to get started.” Exactly. Beginners need to know how to get started, how to practice, and most importantly and how to not get mired in false starts and bad habits.

Victor: Many of your teachers have previously published learning materials in the marketplace.  Do your teachers use those for their online schools?  

No. The ArtistWorks approach is very specific with regards to the presentation and pacing of the material.  Well before the school opens, we work extensively with the teacher to adapt his or her teaching method to the ArtistWorks approach. Once their curriculum has been thoroughly outlined (normally 100-200 lessons), the teacher travels to our studio in Napa, Calif., to film this entirely new set of lessons. The filming process is arduous and can take a week or more to complete.

We use the latest technology, utilizing up to seven cameras to perfectly capture what is being taught.  The resulting lesson videos provide multi-angle vantage points, and often employ slow-motion, so the student can see, hear, and understand exactly what the teacher is doing.

The lessons we produce become the “textbook” of the teacher’s ArtistWorks online school—fully comprehensive curriculum that literally starts at the beginning and takes a student to a very advanced level. The full curriculum is visible to all students. Where it is appropriate we provide the students  transcriptions and play-along tracks, so everything a student needs is right there.

Victor: Tell me about “Video Exchanges”, how do they work?

One the biggest problems with instructional DVDs and downloadable lessons is this:  The student has no way to know whether or not they are “doing it right.” I realized early-on that for an online learning environment to be effective, communication between the student and the teacher would be critical.

On an ArtistWorks online school, Video Exchanges is the main way students interact with their teacher.  It works like this: Enrolled students start taking the prerecorded lessons, and work through the lessons at their own pace.

At strategic points in the curriculum, the student will encounter a teacher’s suggestion that the students record a video demonstrating the skill or technique taught in that lesson. After working on the skill, the student turns on his webcam and records himself playing. He then submits (uploads) the video to the teacher, looking to get the teacher’s assessment and guidance.

The teacher watches and assesses each of the submitted student videos. ArtistWorks provides each of its teachers with a video studio set up in their home. The teacher records individual video responses to each of the submitted student videos, telling each student how to improve. The teacher’s response video, when paired with a student’s submission video, is called a Video Exchange.

All these Video Exchanges, that is, the video interactions between students and the teacher, are published in the school’s Video Exchange Library, with new Video Exchanges instantly available to the student community. In that way, each student gets individualized feedback from their teacher, but also, the entire student community learns from every Video Exchange.

As the school operates over time, the Video Exchange Library becomes a massive repository of teacher-student interactions that deepen and enrich all the concepts taught at the school.  And everyone is learning from everyone else.

Victor: There is a lot of talk about how social networking impacts online education. Does ArtistWorks promote social networking?

Absolutely. In the spirit of “it takes a village”, each of our online schools is also an online community built around a particular instructional method, and supported by a full complement of social networking features. Each school has blogs and forums, instant messaging, chat rooms, student pages, and a lot more, all for students to communicate with the teacher and of course with each other.

Studying a musical instrument can be a lonely experience, so we wanted to create a place where students can meet each other, make friends, and support each other’s learning. The individual members of these online learning communities are all dedicated to goal of becoming better musicians themselves, so they find that they have a lot in common with each other.

We find that students feel safe exposing their playing to other students, because everyone is there to get better, and the students really want to encourage one another.

Our sites are available around the world, so we are seeing student connections that cross cultural and national boundaries. And, someone might meet a fellow student who happens to live just across town—a connection that can lead to a new band mate or picking buddy.

Victor: That’s a good point: Isn’t playing music about “getting out there and playing” rather than sitting in front of a computer?

Of course.  But throughout history, musicians have to spend time to develop their craft, and they have to do it by learning and practicing. ArtistWorks is about making the process of learning easier and more effective.  Students don’t have to wonder if they are “doing it right”, they’ve been given guidance and mentoring.

The performance skills that they learn, and the new techniques and new tunes that students learn get applied when they go out and play with friends, play in their bands, or play for an audience.  The proof of the pudding is in the playing.

Victor: ArtistWorks teachers all seem to be recording and performing artists, do students get to see any of that?

Yes.  To enhance the learning experience and inspire their students, our teachers provide them with lots of performance footage playing at gigs and concerts, and they also post interviews with their famous friends, often the legends of their instrument or genre.

For example, students of Martin Taylor’s school can see him interviewing and performing with the legendary and somewhat reclusive Earl Klugh. Tony Trischka’s students get to see interviews with (his student) Béla Fleck and also celebrity banjoist Steve Martin. Nashville session guitarist and Bluegrass great Bryan Sutton’s students get to see Bryan interview and play with fellow his fellow Bluegrass luminaries Sam Bush and David Grier. New interviews and performances are added regularly, and are available exclusively to the enrolled students. These schools end up being a rallying point, so to say, of the instrument and music genre being taught there.

Victor: How much does it cost?

It was important to me that the ArtistWorks approach be widely available and affordable.  To do that we had to set our prices dramatically lower than some other well-known music institutes, which often times charge over $1100 for a single 3 month course without even providing an video assessment or feedback.

Our prices are much lower, and vary a bit based on the length of your enrollment period, and on which school you are enrolling in. Our most common pricing is $90 for a three-month enrollment, $150 for a six-month enrollment, or $240 for a one-year enrollment.

I should point out that this is the only charge for an ArtistWorks school, there are no subsequent fees for courses or for any new materials that are added.

Some of the classical instrument schools opening next year will be a bit more expensive, but will still affordable for most families.

Victor: How long do students stay?

Some serious students join the first week the online school is open, and never leave. For them, they feel that the online school is just a part of their lifestyle, and the $20 a month (annual enrollment is $240) is a considerable  bargain.

But others join and stay for a few enrollment periods to brush up their skills a bit and learn a few new tricks.  Because the schools are self-paced, it is easy to tailor your studies to match your lifestyle and music instruction needs.

The ArtistWorks schools become close knit online communities, and the students enjoying seeing great progress in their own and each other’s playing, and that is a big reason our retention rate is high.

Victor: What are your thoughts on music education these days?

That is a great question. This is a tough time for the arts. School systems in the US and Europe are defunding the arts at an alarming rate. It seems that when budgets get tight, the arts are the first to go.  With funding cuts, music teachers are stretched across multiple schools to conduct the band and individual instrument instruction is going by the wayside. Society says basically that music instruction is a luxury we can no longer afford.

With little or no music instruction in schools, how will children learn to sing, harmonize, and play musical instruments? As important as science and math are, there is more to education than job training. Even though I am a computer scientist by training, my personal and professional life has been enriched immeasurably by the arts. I know this is true for most people of my generation.

There are still great music institutions here in the US and around the world where the most serious music students continue to go to become the next generation of professional musicians. But what about the rest of the children?

The exodus of music education from our school systems leaves a void. With that void, less children are taking up musical training. There are less music teachers. For parents who would like to see their children learn an instrument, what is available?

There are always method books, DVDs, and downloadable Internet lessons. But there are great inconsistencies in the quality of these music instructional materials, and the results are rarely encouraging.

Victor: What do you feel is the future of music education?

It is a discouraging time in all fields of education, but particularly for the arts.  We hope that the economy will eventually improve, and local school systems will receive better funding. But for the foreseeable future school systems must continue to find ways to stretch their dollars further.  We feel that ArtistWorks can help fill the void that budget cuts have left in music education. We have created an affordable way for parents to provide music instruction to their children.

We are in talks with some future-looking school systems interested in incorporating the ArtistWorks approach as a way to leverage their music education funding. The ArtistWorks approach could be applied to this situation—students could get their individual musical instrument instruction online from an ArtistWorks teacher, freeing up the band teacher to focus on working with the kids on ensemble playing during his limited time at each school.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own life helped to inform your approach to creating ArtistWorks?

When I was growing up in Memphis, music was all around me. At school I sang in choir, and learned the trombone in marching band class. I even took piano lessons for a stretch with a local Lithuanian woman whose house smelled like moth balls. At around eleven years of age I begged my parents to buy me a guitar so I could learn to play like some of the other kids in my neighborhood. When I finally got my little Sears guitar, I played it until my fingers hurt.

We’d have ten guys pounding out “Gloria” and “Louie Louie” and whatever else was on the radio at the time. Kids that couldn’t play themselves would sing or clap along, or just keep time by banging on a box. My next-door-neighbor taught me Johnny Cash’s “I Walked the Line” (I think it was the only song he knew). When I was older those of us who could play would bring guitars to parties and we’d play Dylan and Crosby Stills and Nash tunes. I loved making music, and I loved learning new tunes and techniques, and sharing what I learned with others.

Much later in life, I decided to get back onto playing guitar. I wanted to study from someone who I had actually heard of, someone who was the “best of the best”. I found that the really great teachers only had time to teach a handful of students, and they typically choose to take only the best, most advanced students. That locked me out.

I kept circling back to this idea: Why do great teachers teach only a few advanced students? I decided to look into this. I convinced a couple of very high end music teachers to let me sit in and watch them teach their private lessons.  What I found was startling: The teachers said pretty much the same things to all of their students. Also, many students needed techniques or exercises to be demonstrated and explained by the teacher over and over.

Worse, I noted that for any given student, THIS week’s lesson, by in large, was a repeat of last week’s lesson, as much as 90 percent. Perhaps this is because students were universally nervous and intimidated by their teacher, a situation that is probably not too conducive to learning. And at the end of the teaching day, the teachers felt absolutely exhausted and drained by having to say and teach the same things over and over again.

Victor: Well, isn’t that just the nature of private lessons? 

Well yes, of course. But I figured that there just had to be a better way, and tackled the problems one by one. The problem of repetition is solved by video taping the curriculum. By having the teacher design a curriculum and then taking the necessary time to teach it right, under ideal lighting conditions and with multiple cameras, and utilizing slow-motion in the presentation of the lessons, the teacher creates lessons that can be watched, and re-watched by the student over and over.

And the student can actually see the teacher better on video than he or she would be able to see in a private lesson. The student no longer has to feel intimated to ask the teacher to repeat something, instead he or she can just replay the video as many times as he wants. This is great for slow-learners who need lots of repetition. It is also great for students who learn quickly, who can march ahead at their own pace, without having to wait until their next scheduled in-person lesson.

If repetition of the lessons was ALL a student needed to progress, then you could simply sell the material as a set of DVDs or downloads. But in playing musical instruments, students need to periodically have their playing evaluated if they want to make maximum progress and reach their potential as a player. Without visual feedback, students lock in bad habits, and find themselves hitting the proverbial “brick wall.”

The ArtistWorks Video Exchanges are an efficient mechanism for students to validate their playing, and get guidance, and not get stuck.  So the ability to watch the high quality lessons as many times as needed, individualized guidance from a teacher, and a supportive community—that’s our formula.  It’s good for students and teachers both.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market? 

At this point ArtistWorks has a pretty unique approach to teaching online. There is a sea change happening and many conversations are taking place about how to leverage the Internet and the current technology in order to create a productive and effective online learning environment. We are beginning to see others try to imitate some aspects of our approach, but the best teachers want to work with us, not an imitation. We will soon be announcing a large number of new ArtistWorks schools with more of the best virtuosos in the world.

The ArtistWorks Video Exchange approach has a patent pending, and we have spent more than five years developing our technology approach to online education. We are well along the way to having a comprehensive constellation of online schools across all the major instruments in all genres.  And we continue to invest in improving our technology, with improvements rolling out on a very regular basis.

Victor: What does the name mean?

The best performing musicians are often referred to as “artists”, and “works” means purposeful effort.  By naming our company “ArtistWorks”, we want to project that we are artisans working to reinvigorate music instruction for all.

Victor: Where can you get it now?

At this writing we have ten online schools taking students. They are:

Qbert Skratch University

Andreas Guitar Universe

Peery Piano Online

Howard Levy Harmonica School

Martin Taylor Guitar Academy 

Artistworks Academy of Bluegrass

Missy Raines School of Bass

Darol Anger School of Fiddle

Mike Marshall School of Bass

We have announced four other schools, the Andy Hall School of Dobro (which will be added to the Academy of Bluegrass), and the newly announced ArtistWorks Drum Academy.

Artistworks Drum Academy

Thomas Lang (rock drums)

Billy Cobham (jazz drums)

Luis Conte (Latin percussion)

You can learn more about ArtistWorks at:

ArtistWorks Inc.

About Us | ArtistWorks


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:

  • James Taylor


    Thanks for this great article about the work we are doing here at ArtistWorks.

  • Jack Holland


    I’ve been a student at Academy of Bluegrass School of Guitar since its inception, I am thoroughly satisfied with the method and format and will probably renew my subscription annually

  • Vili


    I’m a conservatoire music student, teacher and fellow blog writer. I think that there is some fantastic applications of online teaching like this but I’m not sure if it could completely replace a live teacher. Although it is possible to learn quite a lot from this type of teaching, I do believe that there are some subconscious things that you pick up from your teacher in a live sense. Also techniques such as playing together with your student in unison, harmony or octaves can’t be done. There’s not an internet connection in the world that world that can achieve perfect timing in a video feed. Although they can supplement live teaching I really think that for more advanced students couldn’t really have this as a stand alone teaching method. Sure for teaching the basics to beginners but when it comes to conservatoire and tertiary students I think the live teaching is essential. Perhaps as technology becomes greater this could become a really viable option.

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