opinion | Piano lessons at the Panoptikum – The New York Times | Start Classified

PROVIDENCE, RI — A few years ago I started taking jazz piano lessons online.

It had been nearly a decade since my last lesson, the old-fashioned way of driving to my teacher’s house, sitting at the piano in his cluttered living room, and playing for an hour.

That was different. Instead of meeting up with someone, I stayed at home and watched YouTube tutorials. I did so guiltily at first while searching for a real teacher, but soon I became engrossed in the wealth of instruction on every jazz style I found online. Some nights I would jot down notes for a lesson on edgy bebop patterns. Other nights I’d practice neo-soul grooves over a trap beat and try to pick out a teenager’s spontaneous jam on Instagram.

My favorite teacher was a St. Louis pianist named Peter Martin, a virtuoso player who is considered in jazz circles to be one of the finest pianists in the world. His early lessons were short, shaky clips recorded on an iPhone. As Mr. Martin’s following grew, some of his video tutorials began incorporating many technological gimmicks. Multiple cameras provided different angles of the keyboard; Transcriptions of the music ran along as he played. Viewers could replay sections of video and change their speed, studying the teacher’s flying fingers in slow motion like soccer players watching tapes of past games.

Jazz is difficult to learn, both because of its complexity and because of its improvisational nature. Many players accumulate an encyclopedic knowledge of the structures of music, but learning to improvise is as much a physical skill as it is a mental one.

After a few years of diligent practice, I flew to St. Louis to meet the teacher I had listened to for hundreds of hours. As an educator myself, I wanted to understand why my game had improved so dramatically under his guidance. I had been taking piano lessons since I was 7 years old, but never had a teacher had such an impact on me. Was that his doing? Or is there something about the particular intimacy of online instruction—the way a student can examine a teacher’s most subtle movements—that has transformed the learning process?

I arrived on an August morning last year as a crew was getting ready for a recording session. A videographer adjusted the light balance on one of the four cameras surrounding the Steinway grand piano, while an audio engineer positioned microphones. In the past two years, Mr. Martin’s website had grown from a simple one-person operation into a thriving online school called Open Studio, offering lessons from some of the world’s leading jazz artists. Registrations skyrocketed.

“There used to be no cabs in St. Louis, and then along came Uber. That’s how I feel about online classes,” he told me.

Growing up in a musical family, Mr. Martin was interested in jazz from an early age. He met Wynton Marsalis when he was 13 when the trumpeter came to town to perform with the St. Louis Symphony, where Mr. Martin’s father played the viola. Mr. Martin skipped school, went to the concert hall early and played for Marsalis, who was smitten with the teenager.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but Wynton was so encouraging,” he said. “He told me to transcribe the solos from Thelonious Monk, so I started dropping the needle on those records and trying to hear what Monk was playing.”

I asked Mr. Martin if online education is moving beyond this model and revealing the mysteries of the craft. Now students can study their masters—world-class artists—from every angle, over and over again. And they can interact with them on social media, asking questions about intonation, trill technique, and rhythmic feel.

“Yes, maybe we’re making it too easy for ourselves,” said Mr. Martin. “It’s something I wrestle with. You don’t want it to be too easy because you’ll miss out on the grit you get from having to learn it yourself.

I nodded and started to reply before he cheerfully interrupted me, “Hey, would you like to have a piano lesson later?”

The rest of the day passed in fog.

The crew recorded a Facebook Live session where my teacher asked questions about quarter voicings over major seventh chords. I stood in a corner, terrified of the upcoming lesson. The progress I had now made seemed cartoonish to me.

I heard my name being called. He waved me over to the piano.

“I thought it would be nice to record a master class,” he said as someone clipped a mic to my shirt. “I’m sure members will get a lot out of it.”

Two worlds had collided and I was stuck between them. The pressure of an old-fashioned piano lesson was to be compounded by the panopticon of the internet.

“So what were you planning to play today?” he asked.

I played the first thing that came to mind: his own arrangement of the Gershwin standard “Love Is Here to Stay”. When the time came for a solo, I played what Mr. Martin had spontaneously improvised in class, which I had transcribed and learned like a bedtime prayer. “Wow,” he said as I clattered to a halt. “I played all that?”

I don’t remember what happened in the next hour. I had the feeling of walking through a musical hall of mirrors: here the teacher commented on the student’s performance with his own solo. It was scary, but it made sense. Hadn’t I spent the last two years being inspired by Martin’s beautiful performances, studying his quirks and quirks and trying to make them my own?

The technological aspects of our encounter suddenly seemed irrelevant. Inspiration and imitation were the true teachers, as they always were.

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