Desktop Masterclass

John Robert Brown

Film director Ian Singleton had the idea to capture great teaching on video and then make it available on the internet. Singleton began with a classical guitar module which featured Professor Gary Ryan from the Royal Academy of Music. To develop the idea into a workable business concept Singleton teamed up with businessman Andrew Jenkins, an experienced businessman with a strong musical background. Thus began I Can Play It, written in contemporary style as icanplayit.

"In short order we expanded into the rock world", says Jenkins. The rock guitar module is presented by Hugh Burns, "An enormously proficient guitarist across a range of genres." With Tim West, the company produced a piano module, then branched into the classical world through clarinettist Emma Johnson.

Jenkins explains that Emma Johnson was very taken with the concept of icanplayit. "She based her module on the masterclass experience, from the teaching she's done all over the world. She goes right from the beginning, dealing with posture, embouchure, breathing techniques, throat notes, crossing the break, the different registers, legato and staccato playing, reeds, tuning, vibrato. When dealing with fast finger work she does a wonderful lesson on The Flight of the Bumblebee. She closes with a masterclass lesson on Schumann's Fantasiestücke Number One, where she breaks down each passage."

A 32 lesson course costs £29.99, or it can be purchased on subscription for 7pound;9.99 per month. To get started you need a broadband connection and a PC or Mac with a web browser and an Adobe Flash plug-in. All courses are recorded and delivered in written and spoken English. A help line is available.

"I find it fascinating just listening to a great musician like Emma dissect a piece and go through it," says Jenkins. "For clarinettists, young or old, what she's produced is a marvellous supplement to someone having lessons with an individual teacher. To have a great artist like Emma share her experience and her ability with others is wonderful."

Asked about interaction between student and tutor, Jenkins explains that each lesson is self-contained: "There's the written music, and there's the video. It can't be interactive in the sense that there's someone present at the other end. We've supplemented the module with a course book that Emma's written, with fingering charts, and top tips, on a lesson-by-lesson basis. She invites anybody who has any query on the module, or their own playing, to email her."

I wonder about those people who can only be described as time-wasters. Is an unlimited amount of advice available from Emma, or the other teachers?

"That hasn't been a problem,' says Jenkins. If someone was sending questions that aren't valid or genuine I guess that we would hit the delete button!"

Already the company offers a bridge between the rock world and the classical world by way of the Theory of Music module, which covers the requirements of the Grade V ABRSM exam.

Jenkins explains that the next instrument to be offered is likely to be the flute. And for the saxophone the plan is to engage Chris White, who was the Dire Straits saxophonist for many years. In response to my observation that his instrumentalists are better known as players than as teachers, Jenkins admits that this is a point that he has considered - and wrestled with. "We deliberately came down on the side of high profile players," he says, "Even though that could be a two-edged sword. Partly, this is to differentiate our videos from everything else that's available the internet. There is so much 'noise' out there. Much of what is offered is free. Unless we get someone who is well known, and is not someone from round the corner - who might be a brilliant teacher, but who hasn't got the cachet of their name, or who they've played with - we thought that would be our unique selling point. For example, our recently introduced bass guitar module is with Pink Floyd's bass player Guy Pratt. He's played with just about everybody, but he's also a hugely engaging personality. My 13-year old son went through the module. Afterwards he said: 'That guy's really good fun'. That captures what we really wanted to do in that area."

"We are targeting the schools market. In time we want to produce a full cross section of modules, for a variety of areas. Emma's module is at an intermediate level. Other modules are geared more towards beginners. In the next round of production of new modules we'll be producing more advanced guitar modules, for example."

"Eventually we want to offer the principal orchestral instruments, and expand our range of rock instruments. In terms of online tuition, the classical world is relatively untapped compared with the rock world."

"On the classical side, we thought that if we can engage with people like Emma Johnson, their experience and ability will shine through and inspire. Emma's module isn't going to replace a one-to-one teacher for a young clarinettist. Rather, it will be a wonderful adjunct to any player's learning. Emma is opening up and sharing her experiences, knowledge and playing skills in a way that couldn't be done normally. For instance, a week ago somebody in South Africa bought the module. Normally, that person would never get to meet Emma Johnson."
First published in Classical Music, 21st June 2008. Used by kind permision of the editor.
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