Piano Lessons in the Panopticon
Sept. 15, 2018
By Elias Muhanna
Mr. Muhanna teaches literature at Brown University.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A few years ago, I began taking jazz piano lessons on the internet.
It had been almost a decade since my last lesson, the old-fashioned kind that involved driving to my teacher’s house, sitting down at the piano in his cluttered living room and playing for an hour.
This was different. Instead of meeting with a person, I stayed home and watched YouTube tutorials. I did this guiltily at first while searching for a real teacher but soon became absorbed by the wealth of instruction on every style of jazz that I found online. Some nights, I’d take notes on a lesson about angular bebop patterns. Other nights, I’d practice neo-soul grooves over a trap beat, trying to pick out a teenager’s spontaneous jam on Instagram.
My favorite teacher was a pianist from St. Louis named Peter Martin, a virtuosic player regarded in jazz circles as one of the finest pianists in the world. His early lessons were brief, shaky clips recorded on an iPhone. As Mr. Martin’s following grew, some of his video tutorials began to incorporate a lot of technological gadgetry. Multiple cameras provided different angles of the keyboard; transcriptions of the music scrolled along as he played. Viewers could loop sections of video and change their speed, studying the teacher’s flying fingers in slow-motion like football players reviewing tapes of past games.
Performance of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" with interactive notation by Peter Martin (piano), Greg Hutchinson (drums), Reuben Rogers (bass).Video by Open Studio
Jazz is difficult to learn, both because of its complexity and because of its improvisational nature. Many players amass an encyclopedic knowledge of the music’s structures, but learning to improvise is as much a bodily skill as a mental one.
After a couple of years of diligent practice, I flew to St. Louis to meet the teacher I had spent hundreds of hours listening to. As an educator myself, I wanted to understand why my playing had improved so dramatically under his tutelage. I’d been taking piano lessons since the age of 7, but no teacher had ever had such an effect on me. Was that his doing? Or is there something about the peculiar intimacy of the online lesson — the way it permits a student to scrutinize a teacher’s subtlest 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 was adjusting the light balance on one of four cameras surrounding the Steinway grand piano, while an audio engineer positioned microphones. In the previous two years, Mr. Martin’s website had grown from a simple, one-person operation into a flourishing online school called Open Studio, offering lessons by some of the world’s leading jazz artists. Enrollments were surging.
“It used to be that you could never find a cab in St. Louis, and then Uber came along. That’s kind of how I think about the online lessons,” he told me.
Growing up in a musical family, Mr. Martin became interested in jazz at an early age. When he was 13, he met Wynton Marsalis when the trumpeter came to town to perform with the St. Louis Symphony, where Mr. Martin’s father played viola. Skipping school, Mr. Martin went to the concert hall early and played for Marsalis, who was wowed by the teenager.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but Wynton was so encouraging,” he said. “He told me to transcribe Thelonious Monk’s solos, and so I started dropping the needle on those records and trying to hear what Monk was playing.”
I asked Mr. Martin if online education was leaving that model behind, and serving up the secrets of the craft. Now students can study their masters — world-class performers — from every angle, again and again. And they can interact with them on social media, asking questions about intonation, trill technique, rhythmic feel.
“Yeah, maybe we’re making it too easy,” Mr. Martin said. “That’s something that I wrestle with. You don’t want it to be too easy, because you miss out on that grit that you get from having to learn it on your own.”
I nodded and began to respond before he interrupted, brightly, “Hey, want to have a piano lesson later?”
The rest of the day passed in a fog.
The crew taped a Facebook Live session, where my teacher fielded questions about quartal voicings over major seventh harmony. I stood in a corner, panicking about the looming lesson. The progress I’d made now seemed cartoonish.
I heard my name being called. He was motioning me over to the piano.
“I thought it would be nice to tape a master class,” he said as someone clipped a microphone to my shirt. “I’m sure the 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 poised to be magnified by the panopticon of the internet.
“So, what did you have in mind to play today?” he asked.
I played the first thing that popped into my head: His own arrangement of the Gershwin standard “Love Is Here to Stay.” When the time came for a solo, I played the one that Mr. Martin had improvised spontaneously in the lesson, which I’d transcribed and learned like a bedtime prayer. “Wow,” he said when I came to a clattering halt. “I played all that?”
I don’t remember much of what happened over the next hour. I felt like I was wandering through a musical hall of mirrors: Here was the teacher commenting on the student’s performance of the teacher’s own solo. It was uncanny, yet it made sense. Hadn’t I spent the last two years inspired by Martin’s beautiful performances, studying his tics and flourishes 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’d always been.