At ArtistWorks, Feedback Is A Good Thing

ArtistWorks (AW) takes pride in being different. The interactive digital platform employs proprietary technology invented by co-founder David Butler, a tech savvy IT industry pro, that gives AW students direct access to their teacher via user-submitted videos. The artist replies directly with taped personal critiques delivered to the student’s account. These back-and-forth interactions—what the company calls video exchanges (VEs)—are also open to the full AW community to learn from and comment on.     

And that feedback between student and artist is music to ArtistWorks’ ears.     

Co-founder Patricia Butler says she and her husband founded the company after coping with the frustrations of conventional music instruction.    

“We decided there’s got to be a better way. We wanted to create a repository of materials to allow global musicians to subscribe. We took that one step further so the master teachers could evaluate the students directly. To do that, they need to watch the student and demonstrate how to do it better. Then we went one step further to leverage the ‘aha’ moments in teachers’ videos so we could share and make that visible to everyone on the course,” she explained.     This unique tech allows AW to provide a more pedagogical approach to instruction that’s very student-friendly. Many competing services employ the proven tutorial format where the artist plays the piece at normal and slow speeds, with the student watching and reading the music along. That’s instruction, but it’s not teaching.      

AW artists, on the other hand, interact directly with their students, sending lengthy videos critiquing the student’s technique, posture, and much more. It’s more expensive, but delivers an enriched learning experience. AW users can also access a reservoir of digital content including PDFs of lessons and background materials, plus additional videos from their instructor.       

Bluegrass superstars Missy Raines, Noam Pikelny, Bryan Sutton and more share their hard-won knowledge here. I reached out through the VE platform to Mike Marshall for his thoughts on being on the AW staff. I also asked his advice on how aging players suffering from debilitating hand issues, as I do, can maintain right-hand speed and control.     

“One of the things I love about this site is the ability to reach so many people,” Marshall told Bluegrass Unlimited. “I’m a teacher and have been a teacher since I was in high school. Even when I was with the Grisman quintet, I’d come home and teach private lessons. And then David and I created the Mandolin Symposium with 150 mandolin students. So, sharing ‘the knowledge’ with people who are into it has always been half of what I did.”

After submitting my video, I got a 20-minute video reply where Mike gave me direct tips on my playing posture and why that is so important. He suggested I use a foot-rest, and change to lower-tension strings. Marshall did not, however, address a key question about right-hand drills to help me regain speed and control. I’ll address that in my followup video, and no doubt he will have great suggestions and drills I can work on.

I also hit up the Mandolin Cafe forum for comments from AW users, and many respondents said they actually developed a friendship with teachers like Marshall and Noam Pikelny.

John Ritchhart, Mars Hill, NC, had this to say: “My favorite Mike (Marshall) response to one of my videos started with, ‘So, we’re friends right?’ I had sent in a few videos and Mike and I were on the same wavelength with each other. I believe in critical feedback in order to progress. I told Mike early on that I wanted direct and honest feedback for my money. He’s willing to do that if your ego can handle it.”     

ArtistWorks stands as one of the premier online bluegrass music instruction services for good reason. AW delivers excellent online content, with deep digital archives, and a unique way to interact directly online with your instructor. It’s very complex tech, and at times it showed. I repeatedly felt that I wanted a faster internet speed, as my home WiFi connection struggled at times to open a video screen promptly. But once opened, the functionality proved excellent, with video and audio quality about the same as your all-too common Zoom meeting standard.      

All students have personal learning styles. Generally, I prefer the tutorial approach, but that’s just me. But with its industry-leading technology—which the Butlers hope to expand into many more areas of online education—ArtistWorks offers bluegrassers a personal connection to the stars that many students love. Sometimes, a little feedback can be great.

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