Wednesday, May 09, 2012

James Taylor - RockStarTeacher

I've only really had a single goal with the guitar since I first picked one up at age 12. I've always wanted to be able to play like James Taylor. I like other music, even other guitarists. But I would die a happy man if I could play a reasonable facsimile of a few of my favorite JT songs. I realize it's a narrow musical goal, but it's what I've always wanted.

I've spent a lot of time playing in my life. I've had teachers, I've bought books, I've played with friends. I've proven to be a pretty slow learner sad to say, and it's been very difficult to find a way of learning JT's style. It's been hard for me to find a learning experience that meets me at my level, but still gives me a window onto my end goal. I think this is a common problem for learners everywhere.

So just imagine what it feels like for me to come across video guitar lessons led by the master himself, right there at, available for free! There he is, the one and only James Taylor, in a friendly, high fidelity experience, playing the exact licks I want to know. It's actually better than having James Taylor come to teach me in person!

I've often had dreams that James Taylor comes to my house for a visit. Maybe three times a year since I was a teenager. They're like flying dreams for me, they make me feel good for a week after I have one! They're always the same...James comes by for a chat, I tell him what a big fan of his work I am, and then we sit down to play guitar together. He teaches me some of his best licks and we part as friends. In my dreams, I learn easily. He plays the lick through a couple times, and then I play it for him. He makes a couple of corrections and then I've got it.

But if James Taylor really came to my house it would be much different from my dreams. He'd be gracious I'm sure, but still it would have to be kind of awkward. Fair to say that under the best of circumstances he'd be intolerably bored and I would be nervous beyond the point of ineptitude. He would play a lick and I would have no idea how to follow it.

And I'm pretty sure that -- even as affable as JT is -- the 100th time I asked him to replay a single measure of the intro to "Country Road", he would be packing up his guitar and remembering an urgent appointment with his endodontist.

In almost every dimension, James' video lessons are not only a good substitute for personal instruction by JT himself, they are a much more effective (and also possible and practical) way for me to learn. In short, they exceed my dreams.

With his videos, I can see him play the lick from every angle. I can focus on any part, playing along slow or fast, repeating any measure, as many times as I need to. I don't need to be nervous. I don't have to worry about disappointing my hero. He's as encouraging the thousandth time I try the lesson as he was the first time.

And it's finally helped me learn how to play a lot more like him than I did before. Or so it feels to me. And I'm betting it feels that same way to tens of thousands of other people. And if James Taylor keeps producing these lessons, and keeps them posted, he will end up teaching millions of guitarists to play his music in his style, far into the future.

This is the power of the RockStarTeacher. When a hero takes time to teach, using appropriate technology and media, using high fidelity production, assisted by the talented people who are drawn to the hero's vision -- something very powerful can happen.

And it is starting to happen. Some RockStarTeachers are starting to have the same scale of influence as the Beatles and the RollingStones, touching not tens or hundreds of students at a time, but hundreds of thousands or even millions. Its happening when James Taylor teaches thousands to play his music. It happens when Sal Khan teaches millions of students a month through his Academy. It happens when Norvig and Thrune teach AI to 150,000 students at a crack.

If I were still leading grad students, I know that I'd set some of them the challenge of making a feedback system for James. Allow students to upload their best recording of "Little Wheel" and compare it to a database of a couple hundred exemplars that James Taylor himself rated and gave feedback on. Use the same matching algorithms as things like Shazaam so that when you submit your recording, you get an evaluation back with James Taylor's advice on how you might improve ... Anyone got one of these laying around?

I have to get busy with Fire and Rain!