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How One Guitar Educator Has Adapted in the Zoom Era



Jazz Guitar Today talks to Dean Brown about how the Musicians Institute turned online instruction into an exciting experience.

True to its original name – the “Guitar Institute of Technology” – Hollywood’s Musicians Institute is now putting technology to use in ways that the great jazz guitarist Howard Roberts could hardly have imagined when he co-founded the school 43 years ago. When Covid-19 forced the sudden closure of the school’s campus on a Friday in March 2020, instructors had a single weekend to adapt to an all-online format. I met with one of MI’s top guitar instructors, Dean Brown, to discuss how the school has not only adjusted to online instruction but turned it into an exciting new way to bring MI’s unique Hollywood experience to the global guitar community.

Interview by Guest Contributor Travis Newlon

Guitarist/educator Dean Brown

Dean Brown is the real deal. When you first meet him, Dean’s friendly down-to-earth personality might lead you to believe that he’s just a regular guy. But take one look at his resume – or listen to a few bars of his playing – and you’ll realize you’re dealing with a titan of the modern guitar world.

A few highlights of his stellar career include playing on four Grammy winning records; appearing on countless TV shows, radio programs, and jazz festivals; writing instructional articles for various guitar magazines; and working with Marcus Miller, The Brecker Brothers, Joe Zawinul, George Duke, David Sanborn and other top artists too numerous to list here.

Dean also has a better sense of rhythm than any guitarist I know. Case in point: an MI drum instructor recently challenged event attendees to listen to a groove and try to identify the time signature. He stopped after a few measures and while other listeners were silent (myself included), Dean identified the meter as 19/16 without hesitation. Dean attributes his remarkable rhythm awareness to the time he’s spent playing with some best-in-the-business drummers like Billy Cobham, Dave Weckl, and Vinnie Colaiuta. “On those kinds of gigs, it’s sink or swim”, Dean noted with a laugh.

At Musicians Institute, Dean teaches courses like Advanced Ensemble Skills and Advanced Electric Guitar Styles, in addition to private lessons and performance workshops. I met with Dean to get his insight into what it’s like teaching guitar online at Hollywood’s iconic college of contemporary music.

Sophie Giuliani: “Having Dean Brown as an instructor has contributed to such a big part of my growth since I started my studies. Dean manages to pass on all of his knowledge in a way that is helping me find and develop my own personal style. His open-minded outlook on music separates him from the rest. Lessons are fun, intense, and challenging. It’s something l look forward to every week.”

How has your home studio setup changed this year for online teaching?

After trying a bunch of different things I wound up finally with a setup where I’m just using Logic, a small amplifier and my cell phone to play a click track if I need a click. I also have a little keyboard setup so I can do ear training with people because I prefer to do ear training with a piano sound as opposed to a guitar sound. My setup changed mainly because I realized that I had to be able to demonstrate things in context, and that was the biggest issue for me. Instead of just playing something that I had pre-recorded for people that was in sync, I needed to actually have something that would be in sync. It works for my private students and it works equally as well for classes. That’s how it changed – not so much having a bunch of new stuff but figuring out what I could do with what I have.

What are the main challenges that you have encountered as an instructor since the campus closed and what solutions have you found? 

I think the biggest challenge is that the student can’t see what I’m doing quite as clearly and I can’t see what they’re doing quite as clearly in terms of picking angle for example, and certain other technical things that have to do with playing guitar. But I’ve been teaching online for years so that issue has never been a problem because I’ve kind of figured out what works and what doesn’t work in the virtual environment. 

What benefits are there to the online format?

I think the benefit to the student is that they can do it in the comfort of their own home or wherever they are, but there are a number of other benefits. For instance, the concept of rescheduling is so much easier since you don’t need to find a classroom or practice room – you just work out a time.

Another huge benefit is that on most platforms – especially Zoom, which is what MI uses – everything is recorded. All the students can just go to the LMS (Learning Management System) and they can subsequently watch the lesson. It’s a wonderful thing because it means you don’t have to belabor points. The benefit to the student is a really obvious one: in terms of the amount of content the teacher feels comfortable with sharing in an hour or two hours it’s much more because it will be accessible again for review. As a teacher sometimes you have to beg students to write things down. In this case, you don’t really have to write it down. Even a lot of students who are music zealots don’t have a natural culture of learning that is organized enough, so the idea that it’s all recorded automatically is huge.

One more huge benefit: people live in different countries and time zones. This system makes it possible for more people to be able to study with us. If they have to study online because of our current situation right now but they would prefer to be in Hollywood, I would say don’t worry about it. Hollywood will be here. You’ll be ahead of the game if you decide to study virtually now.

Sophie Giuliani has been studying at MI from Australia since April 2020. This modal jam was homework from one of her private lessons with Dean.

You recently started teaching a Guitar Performance Workshop that’s all online. What has that been like?

When the idea was first presented to me, I knew that performance workshops on campus were in front of a class of your peers, so I was worried about the lack of interactivity online.Then I started teaching the workshop and I realized it was great for a number of reasons. Number one: people could still perform live. In other words, they could sign up for a slot in the workshop, let me know what they were going to do, then do it. So they’re actually having to perform for me as an element of their presentation and their ability to perform is graded. The other thing is that students can pre-record a performance. I’ve had some students send in some stuff that was literally record quality where they not only played guitar, but they did the drum programming – they did everything. Also, I think the motivational factor of having to have something prepared, or have to be prepared to play, that little bit of pressure is a good thing. It’s been great and I look forward to it every week.

What do you like best about teaching online?

If you talk about the advantages versus the disadvantages, that is an interesting conversation. To me, I feel just as comfortable teaching someone online. By that, I mean my comfortability in the knowledge that I’m able to convey whatever it is I’m trying to convey, and in my knowledge that the student is able to comprehend and manifest that information. Rather than say what is it that I like about it, I would rather just say that it’s not that different.

How do you envision MI’s future?

The best thing about MI or any other higher education place is probably the sense of community and interactivity between students and teachers, but mainly between the students themselves. I went to Berklee for five semesters and the best thing about that experience was being in a place with like-minded people in a town like Boston which was sort of a petri dish for creativity – not dissimilar from LA. Each place is unique: Boston, New York, LA, Miami, North Texas – those are all the big music education meccas, right? But what LA has to offer that some of the other places don’t is employment opportunities after you get out of school. Hopefully, we’ll be an important trade school like we’ve always been, preparing guitarists for the world of professional music after they’re done.

Interview by Travis Newlon, Associate Director of Programs and Faculty Musicians Institute

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