Online teachers: the million-scholar video stars

Forget night school or correspondence courses. If you want to learn an instrument or improve your Italian, the web is the place to go. Rhodri Marsden on the success of the hi-tech teachers

Wednesday 17 February 2010 01:00

Up until now I've never had a guitar lesson in my life, and it shows. Teenage years spent hacking at the six strings of a battered acoustic along to old albums by The Cure was never much of an education, and my woefully inadequate technique has been exposed in seconds by Justin Sandercoe, a man who can reasonably claim to be the one of the most influential guitar teachers in history. While the legendary Bert Weedon estimates that his Play In A Day book and album has, since the 1950s, steered some 4 million guitar players towards competent picking and strumming, the extraordinary worldwide reach of online video has seen Sandercoe's free lessons amass over 58 million views in not much over three years, while an army of devoted disciples excitedly spread the word. I'm lucky to get these precious moments of private tuition – Sandercoe gave up one-to-one lessons last year when the waiting list for his services became ridiculously long – so I make the most of his fingerpicking guidance while I can. By the end of the lesson I'm still sounding a bit like Simon and Garfunkel wearing mittens after too many beers, but that's undoubtedly my fault, not Justin's.

He's one of a new breed of teacher that has not only achieved international recognition by offering free video tutorials, but has managed to make a living by doing so. Sandercoe is as surprised by this as anyone, as he certainly didn't conceive any grand online masterplan. From humble beginnings in Tasmania charging his friends a dollar a lesson at the age of 12, he slowly began to carve out a career as a teacher; a chance meeting after moving to the UK led him to land the job of session guitarist with Katie Melua, but it was time spent sitting on the sofa of his studio in front of a cheap webcam that really caused his fame to spread. "I already had a website that I was putting hints and tips on in the form of images and text, mainly with the aim of getting more private lesson work," he says. "I even remember thinking how wicked it was when I was able to put my first audio clips on the site. But when I first encountered YouTube in 2006, I knew that making videos was going to be an amazing step forward. Because I've done so much one-to-one work, I know where people are likely to slip up, and so I can anticipate and correct their mistakes before they've even made them."

Television history is littered with personalities whose patient, step-by-step guidance has endeared them to audiences of millions: Delia Smith, Barry Bucknell's DIY projects, Percy Thrower's gardening tips, painting skills taught by Bob Ross or Nancy Kominsky, and even guitar lessons (although not quite up to the calibre of Sandercoe's) by Ulf Goran. That kind of programme has been edged out of the television schedules in favour of racier entertainment, but we've not lost our hunger to learn; Google processes millions of "how to" searches every day, and individuals and companies alike have moved in to satisfy demand. "I find myself going to the web for exactly that kind of information now," says Sandercoe. "In fact, I just found out from YouTube how to shave using a proper razor – no need to try and persuade a barber to show me any more."

A similar, but unsuccessful web trawl for a video showing how to change the tyre on a car led to the birth of tutorial site Videojug, based in the UK and now at the forefront of online self-help. "When our founder, David Tabizel, drew a blank on that search he realised that this kind of information – 'show me don't tell me' – really needed to be out there," says the website's chairman, Rupert Ashe. "So we began by creating around 65,000 films: short, sub-five-minute nuggets of wisdom that would teach people a new skill." Videojug is slowly setting about its aim of producing millions of videos that cater for every conceivable problem that people turn to the internet to solve; unsurprisingly, one of their biggest categories is food and drink, but love and dating also score highly, as do beauty and style. Indeed, the top-rated channels in YouTube's "Guru" category are all make-up related, and our thirst for tips on mascara and eyeshadow has turned South Shields-born Lauren Luke (see box) into an unlikely international star.

Sandercoe also has his fair share of incidents of being stopped in the street, and has discovered that a teaching relationship online can still be strong, despite rarely getting to meet his pupils in real life. "I went to buy a new video camera the other day," he says, "and a guy serving in the store came over and thanked me for helping him learn guitar from scratch, which was amazing." In fact, the good will generated by Sandercoe's tutoring has seen him make a living from voluntary donations alone. "Not a great living, admittedly," he says, "but it certainly enables me to eat and pay the rent." It's a hint that the much-derided "free" business model might just work with teaching; many teachers have trouble selling lessons online for as little as a pound a shot, but giving them away seems to prompt us to do the right thing and contribute financially. "People have clubbed together to help me buy a decent video camera. One even offered to pay me a full year's salary to devote all my time to the website, which was incredibly generous. But I haven't taken it up yet – I've been working on my album Small Town Eyes, for the past year – but maybe if it flops and everyone says my record sucks, then I could do it full time and look into sponsorship or something, because 4 million page views a month? That's big."

It's a web phenomenon that hasn't gone unnoticed by certain parts of the music industry; aside from winning a number of celebrity fans including Queen guitarist Brian May, Sandercoe has recently been approached by "a certain major label" to ask him ("actually, you could even say that they're begging me", he laughs) to teach his pupils how to play a particular artist's tunes. "It's interesting," he says, "because while that label see me as a promotional opportunity, another industry body has recently issued me with a notice to remove the tabs (guitar chord charts) of every single song from my website." However, this drawback won't derail Sandercoe's plan this year to complete his "intermediate" series to accompany the exhaustive beginners course that so many have benefitted from. "Beyond that," he says, "who knows? There's a chap in the US who's interested in filming some 3D guitar lessons, so maybe that's the future – fingerpicking from every conceivable angle."

Those of us who have a talent to share and a desire to teach could soon take advantage of the launch this Easter of Videojug's user channels, where teachers' mini-sites can offer hints and tips in return for a slice of Videojug advertising revenue. And with no troublesome pupils to deal with, it could just become the perfect classroom.

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