Founders of ArtistWorks David Butler and his wife Patricia work from their studio where they broadcast online music instruction school with some of the country's most famed and acclaimed musicians in Napa on Friday, October 11, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Napa company offers customized music classes online

A music student's dream of learning from the best is usually reserved for those who are fortunate and talented enough to attend one of a handful of America's top music schools.

But it doesn't come cheap. Schools like the Berklee College of Music, Julliard or the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami are for serious music career-oriented students and cost tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.

Sure, you can go on YouTube and find a competent drummer teaching the basics of Elvin Jones' polyrhythmic style or a Jimmy Page devotee demonstrating one of the guitar legend's favorite pentatonic licks. These, however, usually fall short of ideal music instruction, and an aspiring musician can quickly become lost in a YouTube education maze that lacks structure and focus.

That's the void Napa-based online music school ArtistWorks hopes to fill. Co-founded by a former AOL executive, ArtistWorks has collected a faculty of acclaimed musicians, including Grammy winning artists such as legendary British guitarist Martin Taylor or jazz bassist John Patitucci.

For less than you would pay for a single music lesson at a local music store, ArtistWorks offers a month's worth of online instruction with such talents as internationally renowned classical guitarist Jason Vieaux or jazz drumming legend Billy Cobham, who once played with Horace Silver, George Benson and Miles Davis.

A year-long membership will cost you $240, or $20 a month.

"When I tell people they don't believe that you can have access to this caliber of teacher for that price," said David Butler, who co-founded ArtistWorks with his wife Patricia in 2008.

With 24 different "schools" and about 7,000 online students, ArtistWorks is part of a growing trend in e-learning, a phenomenon that extends from the vastness of YouTube servers to countless online music instruction sites that bring lessons to anyone with a credit card or PayPal.

But more than just an online bank of streaming music instruction, ArtistWorks offers one-on-one video exchanges between students and instructors. Students are able to upload videos of themselves playing their instrument. The teacher can in turn respond, on video, with personalized instructions for the student.

The school also offers a virtual campus environment that allows students to interact with each other, pose questions and comment about their lessons.

Joe Rash, a retired real estate professional who lives in Windsor, joined ArtistWorks about eight months ago, about five years after he resumed playing the guitar. Before that, the last time he played the instrument was in high school 50 years ago.

Rash, 69, is taking classical guitar lessons online from Vieaux, as well as taking in-person lessons from award-winning guitarist Eric Cabalo at Sonoma State University. Often plagued by performance shyness, Rash said online instruction allows him to focus more on the lesson.

"It's easier for me to concentrate and zero in when I'm doing the e-learning," he said. "On the e-learning, when I miss a note, I know I did and I don't have to stop and have a conversation about that."

Butler says ArtistWorks' talent and video exchange differentiates it from other online music instruction sites. The company has applied for a patent on its video exchange technology.

In fact, ArtistWorks marketing VP Ian Alexander says you'd have to look to Berklee College's new online bachelor's program — recently announced for the fall of 2014 — for something comparable in terms of talent.

That program, however, will set you back $16,500 a year in tuition alone, an aggressive price point that's less than half the school's on-campus annual tuition of $36,514, according to a recent article in The Boston Globe.

Unlike Berklee and other accredited music schools, ArtistWorks is aimed at the "lifestyle learner," the intermediate musician who wants to take his or her skills to the next level with structured instruction. That goal was the genesis of ArtistWorks.

When Butler left America Online in 1999, he was only 45 years old, financially independent and too young to retire.

Butler, who departed as vice president of strategy for technology, was one of the "early people" at the online giant, and one of three people who wrote the first version of AOL's online platform. Butler had the luxury of pursuing his interests, one of which was music.

"I always played guitar at a young age and wanted to learn to play jazz guitar," he said.

He eventually found a teacher he liked in Philadelphia. At the time he and his wife were living in the Washington, D.C., area and Butler was forced to travel for his lessons.

When the couple left Washington, Butler tried to continue his instruction via Skype and iChat. But those platforms were unreliable and did not lend themselves to effective instruction, he said. By the end of 2006, Butler started thinking about a better way of conducting online instruction.

Butler and his wife Patricia, a former financial executive with Merrill Lynch, were living in Napa at the time. Patricia, a student of the Institute of Masters of Wine, was doing an internship at Rubicon Estate Winery in Napa.

The couple founded ArtistWorks in 2008 and began recruiting teachers. They launched the social e-learning platform in the spring of 2009.

The platform has seen rapid growth in the past year, going from just 12 schools to 25. The company has 12 employees and its offices, which include a studio for videotaping instructors' lessons, are located just south of downtown Napa.

Butler and his wife are the company's only investors.

"We've finally got to the point where we're breaking even, enough to pay the bills," he said.

While their goal is to make ArtistWorks a financial success, it's not the only consideration. Butler said he and others at ArtistWorks are "passionate" about a platform that can deliver such high-quality instruction to people who could not otherwise afford it.

He said he wants ArtistWorks to branch out into other areas of education. The company recently added a visual arts school.

"What I really am hoping is that we can see this technology — social e-learning and video exchange — used in other disciplines," Butler said. "We have 25 schools now. I can easily imagine us having 200 schools in five years."

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