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Interview with Laurie Niles on Violinist.com and the Internet Changing Musical Education



Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Laurie! Please introduce yourself and tell us how Violinist.com came to be.

My name is Laurie Niles, and I'm a violinist, teacher, and the founder of the website Violinist.com. I first spotted the violin in my public school classroom, and it was love at first sight. I took lessons, I practiced many hours. I earned a Bachelor's degree in music at Northwestern University, then a graduate degree in journalism at Indiana University. That's where I also met my husband, Robert, who started building websites in the mid-90s. As for me, I played in many orchestras, taught violin, and also worked as a newspaper reporter.

You might guess, it was this combination of my intense love for the violin and his for the Internet that led him to buy me the domain name "Violinist.com" as a Christmas present in 1996. The website evolved, based on how I thought it could help people. At first, I started a directory to allow people post their resumes on the website for free. It was like Facebook for violinists, only in the late '90s! We then decided people should be able to talk to each other, so we created a discussion board. Then Robert said, "You should write a blog," and I said, "What's a blog?"

I did figure that out, over time! I also started to notice that our members were beginning to come from nearly every continent on the globe. Tens of thousands of violinists have registered as members of the site, and even more read the site. I felt it my responsibility to offer education, information and inspiration, and that is how I continue to steer the site, which now has discussions and blogs written by many different people on diverse topics related to the violin and viola.


Violinist.com is an extremely active site catering to what is basically a very niche audience. What do you think this says about people's interest in classical music? Is it a dying breed?

More than 50 percent of Violinist.com readers are age 35 or younger, and they are certainly a knowledgable and enthusiastic group. While I don't feel we can take classical music for granted, I also don't feel it is dying. New people discover classical music every day, and they develop an intense interest in it. For a young person, the classics aren't "tired and old," they are a brand-new experience! This can be an exciting discovery, when they realize that this music is not so difficult to understand, after all, and that it can transport them so many places. The symphony orchestra has all the range of a synthesizer, but it's much more astonishing to behold because the effort involves so many talented people, performing at the top of their game. To a person learning an instrument, it can be quite an inspiration.

While I love music of all genres, classical music tends to be artfully crafted, and it stands the test of time. I love Beethoven's 7th Symphony with all the intensity -- maybe even more -- that I did when I first played it as a high school student in about 1984. By contrast, Get Outta My Dreams and Into My Car which the world first heard around the same time, has clearly run its course! My kids scream to change the channel when "Call Me Maybe" comes on, and that's only a year old!

Of course, there are pop tunes that are well-crafted and stand the test of time, but many things about classical music make it a more enduring and involving experience.


Is the Internet having an impact on musical education?

Absolutely. The Internet emboldens people to explore areas of interest that might have seemed less accessible before -- either because they didn't have access to an expert or they were afraid to show their lack of knowledge by asking someone in person. The Internet allows for anonymous exploration. YouTube allows people to listen to classical music, without the obligation of buying a recording that they aren't sure they will like, or the obligation of going to a concert where they feel unfamiliar with both the music and the customs. They can try it out before getting more involved.

People can even get started on an instrument, using Internet tutorials, though I think that has its limitations, when it comes to teaching the violin. Eventually, one needs some live instruction and interaction.

Beyond encouraging self-exploration among people with a potential interest in classical music, the Internet, as I mentioned, is a great tool for music teachers. Skype can be used to teach long-distance. Also, teachers can post videos as practice aids on YouTube, providing students accurate and consistent demonstrations of the exercise they are supposed to do, or the harmony part -- that they can reference at home. This can be particularly helpful in a public school setting, where it's difficult to give every student an up-close tutorial. People can also go to community sites like Violinist.com to seek advice from other players, teachers and professionals about everything from instrument gear to repertoire choices to the particulars of executing certain techniques.


Is it important for music teachers to have an Internet presence these days?  Why or why not?

I think it's more important that teachers have an Internet "awareness" than it is for teachers to have an Internet "presence." The most important thing that a teacher can do is to teach well! The Internet has become a valuable teaching and communication tool. A teacher can post videos for students, recommend classic recordings that are on YouTube, talk with other teachers across the world about pedagogy, find competitions and youth orchestra opportunities…so many things!

When it comes to having a "presence": Of course, initially, one must build a studio. For this, an attractive and well-organized website can be helpful. I think that it can also be helpful to engage in a community such as Violinist.com and share some expertise; this does help establish for people what your personality is, your areas of particular expertise, etc.

However, let's not get carried away. Ultimately, your teaching reputation will hinge on how well you know your subject, how well you communicate lessons to your students, whether your operate in a professional manner, how successful your students are in learning the instrument, etc.


Say a music teacher wants to become more of an online presence but doesn't know where to start. What are some easy things they could try?

Well, of course I will invite any violinists, violists, cellists and any fans of the violin to join Violinist.com! Violinist.com started as a place for teachers and professionals to post their information online, and this feature remains something we offer for free. When you register on Violinist.com, you create a page on Violinist.com -- on which you can post your resume, picture, contact info. and philosophy. You can change it whenever you like, and you can use the link as your "website." As a member of Violinist.com, you can also post blogs whenever you'd like, and they are kept under your name.

You can also create a studio page on Facebook, but this does require that parents and perhaps students also be on Facebook; I would argue that it would only work well with older students. The legal age for having a Facebook account is 13, and having been on the Internet as long as I have, I absolutely agree that kids should be at least 13 before having an account. I have enforced this with my own two children, as well. So this could be limiting, if you have younger students.

One piece of advice, if you create your own website: make it functional, above all else. Avoid visually fancy design that will require long download times and make it harder to navigate your web page. Keep in mind, anything that is a barrier to getting needed information is…a barrier to getting needed information! Put yourself in the place of the hurried reader, student or client, and make it easy for them to find exactly what they need.


Thanks, Laurie!

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