Have you ever considered sharing your talents to a wider audience than just your students? Would you like to make some extra income on the side while you sleep?
Today’s episode is all about taking the idea of teaching online to another level by teaching large groups of people online and then offering a back catalogue of recorded lessons for people to download.
In fact, my guest today brings in around $60,000 each year in addition to his other jobs, just by offering online lessons to people around the world.
The best thing is, anyone can do it!
Online lessons to large groups can be created using free software like Google Hangouts (which, incidentally is what I use for my webinars), with a simple mic and camera and not a whole lot of tech know-how (please see Episode 53 and Episode 52 for beginner tech ideas).
Mike Verta has taken online learning to a next level. He has shared his skills to many many people and when he teaches his sessions are honestly providing genuine assistance to all his students in his live sessions. He has lots of experience in creating and presenting amazing sessions.
While Mike explains his pretty complex setup, don’t be intimidated by feeling you have to create something quite as impressive as this when you’re starting.
As a teacher you will be able to learn a heap of things by watching one or two of Mike’s free videos.
Please find a full transcript of this episode at the bottom of this page. Alternatively, click below to download a PDF. If you are an Inner Circle Member, you can find the full video and transcript in the Member Resources Area. Not a member? See below for how you can get $50 off your membership today.
Does the idea of teaching online music lessons seem a bit daunting? Do you know what equipment and technology you need to teach a successful online lesson? Do you know how to set up and use your equipment? What about finding students? Or getting paid? Or setting up your policy? Or knowing which activities can be successful in an online lesson? Are there specific teaching tips you should use for online lessons? How about pros and cons of online teaching? Or troubleshooting when something goes wrong?
Do you ever think, “I could never teach on Skype because I’m afraid of using technology during piano lessons” or “I wish I could stop teaching so many makeup lessons”, or “I’m moving soon and I don’t want to leave all of my students behind!” or “I wish I had more students to fill the rest of my teaching schedule” …. then these videos are just what you have been looking for!
Put your fears behind you and learn to be a successful and confident online teacher with the step-by-step information included in my training video series, “Learn to Teach Music Lessons on Skype”. Learn what equipment you will need, where to purchase it, how to set it up, the pros and cons of online lessons, how to teach an online lesson, and much more in this 85-minute training session.
“Learn to Teach Music Lessons on Skype” will help you develop the online studio you’ve always wanted! If you want to be the most forward-thinking and trend-setting teacher on the block, if you would love to increase your client base, teaching hours, and income, and if you want to offer experiences to students that they will remember for years to come, then online teaching is just what you’ve been looking for!
Join me as I answer your burning questions about online music lessons, help you gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence you need to start teaching online lessons, and help you discover ways to expand your studio offerings, set your studio apart, and take your studio to the next level!
As a valued podcast listener, you’re eligible for a $50 discount on an annual Inner Circle Membership. This discount lasts for as long as you’re a member and whatever price you sign up for today is the price you’ll pay as long as you remain a member.
Copy this coupon code to use when you see the “Coupon Code” box: TTTVPODCAST.Become a Member
There are a lot of podcasts you could be tuning into today, and I’m grateful that you’ve chosen mine.
Being a full-time teacher myself, I know how busy teachers are and how much time, effort and passion we put into our students. Sometimes, the last thing we want to do in our time off is listen to more piano teaching stuff! So, well done for using this time for self-improvement.
Whether you’re at the gym, on the bike or in the car, I know that you and your students will get lots out of what you learn in the long run. Just make sure you try out some of the ideas before they get lost in the business of your next lessons.
If you enjoyed today’s show, please share it by using the social media buttons on the left of the page.
Also, kindly consider taking the 60-seconds it takes to leave an honest review and rating for the podcast on iTunes. Reviews are extremely helpful when it comes to show’s ranking and you can bet that I read every single one of them personally.
Lastly, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, to get automatic updates every time a new episode goes live.
Which bit of Mike’s technology would you like to own? How could you explore taking your online teaching to the next level?
Interviewer: Mike Verta, welcome to the show.
Mike: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
Interviewer: All the way from sunny Los Angeles. It’s summertime over there. Right?
Mike: Yeah, it is, always.
Interviewer: And we’re struggling through winter, which to Melburnians is always freezing cold, but nothing compared to what half the states get. Now look, I’m really interested in hearing a little bit about your story, how you started teaching, what your training was in, and what you’re doing now. Can you give us a little bit of background?
Mike: In terms of teaching, I had no intention of teaching. It happened by accident. I was a working composer or I am a working composer. I’ve been working since I was 16, and I had joined an online forum for composers and I would post some of my work, just sketches mostly.
And right from the time I started posting work, people would ask questions. Other composers would ask questions about pretty much every aspect of writing music, about composition, the orchestration or performance techniques or studio issues, even things related to the business and all that sort of thing. And over a course of six months to a year, the questions got…there were so many of them. I just couldn’t answer them anymore. I was doing that all the time in email and/or on the forum. I was spending way too much time on it.
And of course I wanted to answer, because they were asking the exact same questions that I asked when I was coming up, but you can never really get straight answers especially from professionals who are working. You always feel like there’s some secret. It’s like the nuclear launch codes. People won’t tell you what the real truth is about business negotiations or what their tricks are when they write.
So what I did was I thought, “Okay, you know what I’ll do? Is, I’ll do a couple of free podcasts. I’ll do a couple of podcasts and a couple of YouTube videos and I’ll put them on, and this will probably take care of that.” Except it went exactly the opposite way, because now people had little pieces of media they could share. So there was just more and more interest in this.
And so I informally said, “Well look, if I did a masterclass series on these various disciplines, is that something you guys would be into?” And there was a lot of interest there. So like I said, without really intending to, but having the teacher’s spirit or something, I decided, “All right, let’s just do this.”
So I didn’t have much of a game plan when I started. I knew I could talk about pretty much anything in the industry. And I thought, “How long should the classes be? An hour and a half, something like that.” And I picked a price point, and then I just started. They grew in popularity pretty quickly, and now I have a really nice core group of people who come. There’s more every day, pretty much.
Interviewer: And so what does the outcome look like today? How many lessons do you provide? How many students do you teach? Do you have the numbers?
Mike: What I did was with the classes, I do them live and I do them on Friday nights in Los Angeles’ time. They’re very informal. It’s almost like a hangout, and there’s a structure. There’s a plan for the class. And then I take questions and the live people help shape the class, because they’ll ask for more clarity on a point.
And I’ve done to date I think 24 or 26 classes over the course of the 4 years. So they’re not regular. It’s usually between gigs. And I’d say each class, I’d have to do the math. But I sell them for 30 bucks. I make them 30 bucks because I wanted to make it super cheap.
Mike: Yeah, because the way I figured it was I knew when I was studying with a professional myself, it would cost me about $125-150 an hour for a guy who had a 30 year pedigree in the business. Kids coming up, they can’t afford that. That’s ridiculous. And it wasn’t going to be about the money. Like I said, this was all just gravy. I wasn’t planning on doing it. So I figured I’ll give them $30. That’s near impulse buy, and just for once in the life, they’ll get more than they paid for. This will just be one little piece of justice in this world.
But then if a hundred people sign up for the class and I don’t do any prep really or maybe an hour. And actually the classes don’t go an hour and a half. I think the shortest class I ever did was three hours. The longest one was just a couple weeks ago, it was nine hours. It was just nine hours on the air. Because I stayed on until…
Interviewer: Nine hours?
Mike: Yeah. In fact, I have a free one that’s on YouTube, which is six hours.
Interviewer: Oh my goodness.
Mike: Because if that’s how it’s going, if people have questions, I want them answered. And if it’s still staying engaging, then I’ll just keep going. So it ends up being this really sick deal for people.
Mike: It’s packed full of information. It’s super cheap. How many have been ordered? I have to check the numbers. The classes I’d say, I don’t know if this is a lot. But I think right now, I think they make between maybe $50,000 or $60,000 a year in sales.
Interviewer: Sounds great. Sounds really good. The thing is that you are able to scale it. And that’s why I really wanted to focus on this online teaching concept, because it is such an incredible way to scale what you’re doing so you can make that kind of money.
Mike: Again, it’s not a full time thing. But once the class is done, people can buy it after the fact. So that’s the thing. Is that I always encourage people to come to the live show, because then you can ask questions, and then it’s literally one on one, especially if I’m saying, “Listen, I’m going to sit here until you’re…have gotten your attention.” So there’s people who will make sure that they show up for the live ones. But then there’s other people who, like if they live in Europe and it’s always [4:00] in the morning…but then they’ll buy it after the fact, and then they can watch it as many times as they want to. So it’s got an evergreen product.
The first classes that I did are right now somebody’s first class they just bought today. And typically then they just go down the line and end up…so it’s worked out that way, and then they stack on top of each other.
Interviewer: It’s great. We’ve had two podcasts this months by the time this one is released. And the first one was very much about getting started teaching online one on one using Skype, and FaceTime, and things. Last week was we had Mario Ajero who’s a real specialist in technology for piano teachers. And so he’s stepping it up a level, some of the extra technology you can use and sharing keyboards and having the sound come out of your digital piano from the other person’s piano, things like that.
This is now going that extra level of, “Well here’s another thing you could do. Have one live lesson for a whole group of people, record it so you can make the income from that, and then keep selling it too.” Really clever.
Mike: Absolutely. And like anything else. I’ve done zero advertising on the classes. It’s all been word of mouth. But if your content is compelling, and I can talk more about how to actually do that, but people will tell each other and will post a thing about it on forums. And so every once in a while, I’ll go and check just to see what the in path was, where was the referral links coming from? And they surprise me all the time. It’s like, “How did that get all the way to Russia in this bizarre niche game forum? How did that end up getting…?” But that’s the beauty of everybody being connected, is you don’t necessarily…your audience will find it, build it and they will come, is what we’re saying.
Interviewer: So I want to rewind a little bit back into your history. I can see not less than four keyboards behind you, and a Stormtrooper mask, and a disco ball. Did you start as a pianist or with piano lessons traditionally?
Mike: I was trained classically from the time I was…I started just before I was six, and started with the goal of writing music for film. I was five when I made that decision, my life decision.
Mike: And so I knew what I wanted to do. So I started training at a conservatory, which just happened to be three blocks up the street from my parents’ house in Chicago where I was born. So I was actually working professionally writing jingles and commercials when I was 16.
Mike: It’s when I started. So I did that for a few years. Then I came out to Los Angeles to get in the business or whatever.
Interviewer: To make it, to make it big.
Mike: Yeah, right. To do it. And I got a record deal when I was young. I think I was 20 when I signed that first thing. And so I was doing albums and touring, and I was a session musician. There aren’t as many of them now, but back then you could have a life as a session player. So I’d play on records, and commercials and things. And that’s what I was just going to do, just continue doing that and then started doing film work.
And then along the way, something that was just a hobby of mine, which was the early days of computer visual effects and motion graphics accidently became a parallel career. That’s a whole other story. But in the end, today I split my time between doing music work and doing basically every other aspect of postproduction. So I direct a lot of commercials. I do color correction work, and editing, and sound design and just lots of visual effects work.
Which I think totally in this business and in this town, maybe everywhere, however you multitask, whether it’s inside your field or into related fields, I think multitasking is an artist’s best trick.
Interviewer: It’s a given, isn’t it?
Mike: Yeah, because if one well is empty, another well is full. If this one opportunity dries up…and they have seasons. As a composer, suddenly there’s a lot of work and then there’s a year there isn’t a lot of work. It goes up and down. I think even though we’ve all signed up for a life that may not have the greatest stability in it, having lots of other trees to pick fruit from can help mitigate that.
Interviewer: We’ll have to put some links to some of your work in the show notes, if that’s cool.
Mike: Sure. Of course.
Interviewer: I’ll be fascinated to hear about it. I love composing and helping my students compose. I wonder whether your teacher had some skills in that area that drove you down that path, or were you very much self-taught?
Mike: You mean as a composer or as a teacher?
Interviewer: As a piano student, as a young boy, did your teacher encourage that stuff?
Mike: No, they hated that. Because what happened was I was studying classically and I was at a conservatory that took it very, very seriously. And all I wanted to do was change the music. I had no reverence or respect for it. Literally I had a teacher with one of the rulers on the knuckles, just whap.
Interviewer: Oh my goodness.
Mike: So I said, “Okay.” So I did five years of that, and then somebody said, “You ought to switch over to jazz piano because they like that there.” I was like, “Great.” So I switched over to jazz, and that was actually the first stuff that I was writing, was big band, and jazz trio, and quartet stuff. And my first album was actually a jazz album. But I was playing in rock bands and doing everything else as a keyboard player. And it was the 80s, so that was the time to be a keyboard player.
Interviewer: And you’ve been able to then take all of this experience and the experience you continue to gain in so many different areas, and that’s what you’re able to then teach people.
Mike: And having had a formal education, I also learned how much of what I use in my day-to-day professional life was everything I got outside of school, was everything about being onstage and talking and working with musicians, and violating virtually every rule that composers are taught to follow. And the things that you just can’t necessarily teach. You have to give somebody the experience. They have to experience it.
So my goal was to say that with my classes, in 2016 or whatever, all the information is out there. So it was, to me, going to be partially the way I gave it to people and what I could give them that you might not necessarily be able to find because professionals guard those secrets so carefully. I wanted there to be a place where they heard everything that they can sense is out there, but nobody says. I think it’s like a magician giving all the tricks away. And so that’s built a pretty loyal following.
Interviewer: And probably riled some people up as well, I imagine.
Mike: The way I look at it is if what’s holding you in the game, what’s keeping you in it is a trick, then you’re living in a constant state of fear because it’s only a few minutes before that trick is revealed. And I would much rather succeed on a level playing field. Here, everybody has got the same bat. Now how hard do you hit the ball? I prefer that just philosophically. So I can’t say that anybody has been upset about it, but I think the only ones who would be upset about it probably have reason to be upset about it.
Interviewer: You share my philosophy of the teaching that I do with teachers as well. It’s like open the doors of our studios. Let’s share, and that’s what I do. So can you give us a bit of an insider look into one of your lessons? What are they like? How do you structure them?
Mike: First of all, I will say there are a couple of them they’re for free on YouTube. I think one of them is called FREE-FOR-ALL, in fact. What you can get a sense for certainly is the flavor of it. And what they are is, like I said, they’re conversational. They’re just like this. It’s Friday night. Everybody is usually drinking Friday night.
Interviewer: If you’re listening to this and you can hear ice cubes, then that’s my cup having a drink.
Mike: And part of that is, for me, not being a teacher and not being formally trained in teaching, I nonetheless found out that communication is something I’m decent at, whether it’s through music or by being a director and talking to actors. So I just figured, “Well, let that just be the impromptu way I do the class rather than have it be super rigid and super structured. I know what I’m going to be talking about, whatever the topic is.” So if it’s a class on how to develop an idea, I can do 15 classes on that. I could talk about that for a year.
So I will usually start with taking the discipline of reducing things down to very simple, practical things that a composer can walk away from that class right now and be a better composer. That’s the discipline that I ask of myself, really give them something practical, tangible, simple. And if you’ve been doing something for 30 years, you should be able to express its essence.
And so every class has what I call the magic takeaways, the things that when you listen, you can sit down and have a trick you didn’t have before, have an understanding you didn’t have before, have a technique, a process, something to conquer. Any aspect of composing, whether it’s orchestration, or writing music, or how to develop an idea, or how to break through sticking points, or another aspects of the business, how to negotiate and all those things.
And so they usually start with, in my mind, a rough idea for the outline of it. But inevitably the live players will say, “Well wait a minute. What about when I didn’t sign a contract?” Or, “I did sign a contract, but now I want to change it.” “Okay, that piece of information, okay, we can talk about that.” Or if we’re doing a class on orchestration and I’ve explained something, I have some tricks. And if somebody says, “I didn’t understand that. Can you explain that another way?” Yeah, we can explain that another way. And just having the opportunity to amend and change and have the input from 50 people, we end up getting the ideas out in a way that everybody understands and everybody has a takeaway from.
That’s the thing that is most reported back to me, is people say, “I just learned more in an hour than I learned in 4 years at Berkeley.” I get that comment all the time. And it doesn’t surprise me because you don’t get that sort of personal attention usually, and you don’t usually get it from somebody who’s literally doing it to make ends meet every day. Like I said, they’re fun and they’re irreverent and cheeky. I do this thing. I started doing this after the second class. I put up this little red banner before the class.
Interviewer: So for people that are listening, it’s like a warning before the movie comes up. It says, “The following program has been approved for restricted audiences only by a parent with at least some sense of responsibility.” Nice.
Mike: And I put that up because it was the second class or something, and somebody asked me a question that just got me going. And I just was like, “You know what? I hate this.” And I just was immediately I was on it and dropped a few F-bombs or whatever. And he goes, “So just give me one moment. My little kid is in the room.” That’s right. That’s right. It’s not just my house.
But that thing where if you see the classes and if you take the classes, that’s exactly who I am. It’s exactly who I am on a real Friday night. And so it creates a bond that works both directions. I feel very connected to the people that take the class, and then they feel connected to the work and then they feel grateful. That, “Wow, I’m better now than I was yesterday.” That’s a huge thing when people feel like that for real. And then I encourage them to send me their work and they do, and people get better, and that’s the sexiest thing in the world.
Interviewer: It’s really fulfilling as a teacher to do that. That’s why I love teaching.
Mike: So you do too, but I tell them now, “Look, if you know two things, teach one.” First of all, you never learn something the way you do when you have to teach it. It just forces you to think about it, forces you to be able to communicate the essence of it, and that makes you better about it. So teaching is huge, got to do it.
Interviewer: So Mike, you’ve got an audience of piano teachers listening to this who have incredible experience, years of teaching and knowledge. If they’re like, “I would love a little bit of extra income. I recon I could make this work.” Where would you say that they should start? We’ll talk about technology in a second. Just conceptually.
Mike: Conceptually here’s what I would say. The first thing about if you decide that you want to do this, and I don’t care what online venture you want to do, start by preceding an audience. I didn’t realize this was happening, but I was building my first audience over the course of a year, and those were people who were going to be there on day one.
And having some early momentum makes a big difference in any venture. It’s why if they’re opening a new McDonald’s, the sign is the first thing that goes up. They haven’t even put up the walls yet, but the sign goes up. And that’s to get people in the neighborhood, “Oh, there’s a McDonald’s coming. There’s a thing coming.”
If you want to do a Kickstarter campaign, you want to get some people who will put in money that you know they’re going to put in money on day one, because nobody likes to be a part of a venture that looks like a deserted town. They like to feel like something is already happening. Psychologically it’s good for your audience, it’s good for your business model, and it’s good for you. You don’t want to be sitting there on camera when there’s nobody listening.
Mike: It’s dark. So I think preceding your audience by joining the communities, finding the people that you already know that you want to talk to, I think that’s an important step.
Interviewer: And you did that through forums online?
Mike: I did that through forums.
Interviewer: Public forums.
Mike: And like I said, it was accidental. But if I was going to start another business or my sister was asking about doing something for her business, that’s the way you start. Go find the people right away and start to build some excitement. This is coming. That’s the second thing I would say is…that’s the third thing I’ll say. Second thing I would say is that the content, everybody says content is king. But the chances are that the content is out there in one form or another.
So focus on the unique voice that is your delivery, whatever that is. I’m a big advocate of blurring the line between your professional self and your personal self just because that’s how we are as a society now. We’re so connected. We’re all Facebook and social media. And you can play that two ways. You can either always be fake on social media and always have to put up your good Instagram photo, or you can go the other way which is everybody knows everything, so here is who I really am.
And so I think personability and your personal voice, something that’s uniquely you, the unique way in which you’ll teach material, the unique way in which you approach your material should be present in your message. Otherwise the information is out there. We’re drowning in it. So why are they going to come to you and not somebody else?
And I think just thinking about, “Because I’m so great.” I don’t know about that. I don’t know that we can count on that. Might be true, might not. But will that get them? I think what gets people is when there’s something distinctive, and there’s nothing more distinctive than who you are.
The third thing I would say, actually I was thinking, is have an idea of what you want to do. Have your plan, have your best laid plans, but stealthily find out what your audience wants. They’ll tell you, especially right after you start. My first few classes immediately were the most instructive on teaching me how my class was going to ultimately go. Because I came in with my plan, but the audience helped shape my program. I could tell what they were more interested. I could see what they were engaging more to. That’s why these companies do all these surveys 24 hours a day. They want to find out. It’s targeted marketing, targeted advertising.
And the line there is you don’t want to flip it upside down. You don’t want the cart to lead the horse. You don’t want to just say, “What do you want?” Because people want, “You’re the teacher. What should I know?” You have to work what that dynamic. But I think that rather than have any rigid expectation about what it’s going to be, allow yourself the flexibility of your audience to shape your presentation so that you’re fulfilling the clients’ wants, the customers’ needs, while still offering your unique product.
I’m down to…what else? The other thing I would say is set the expectation right from the beginning for your audience. A lot of times people when it comes to doing online work or social media work, they’ll tell you you got to have constant media. You have to have constant updates, constant this, constant that. And there’s a measure of truth in that.
But what they don’t say, and what’s important to realize is that’s relative. Just set it. If you set up your thing that people are expecting an update from you every day, then the one day your kid is sick and you’ve got to take him to the hospital, they’re disappointed. And that’s because you set up that expectation.
So when you think about what you’re going to do, think about what you can really sustain because you do want it to have momentum. You do want it to have something that people can join your community. “Oh, it’s on Thursday nights. I tune into Tim’s show on Thursday nights. And I’m used to it. I like it. And I count on it. And I’m part of the Tim club and all that.” That’s what people do. We like to join little groups.
So for me, they’re always on Friday nights. They’re always at the same time. They’re always the same flavor. And so there’s a community that’s built, and that’s your loyal base of people that you can count on both from a programming standpoint and from an income standpoint, and they’re probably your most passionate people who are spreading the word. So just think about that.
When it comes to the aspect about what you should charge, it’s the same advice I give composers, which is there is no number. It’s whatever number you want it to be, whatever number is worth the time that you take to do the class, the time it takes to prepare, the time that you didn’t spend with your family, what you need to pay your bills for that hour, what you want in creature comforts. Nobody can tell you that number. Just make sure that that’s the number, and if you’re worth it, then stick to it.
But also don’t be afraid of the economies of scale. Like I said, you can sell one class for $1,000. You can sell a thousand classes for a dollar. And the truth is in today’s expectation, you’re on a game. My little boy, he wants to play a game. He’s like, “Oh, it’s just 99 cents.” Just like 99 cents, it’s nothing. It’s like 99 cents.” Those are multimillion dollar games by the end of the day. So don’t be afraid to capitalize on that aspect of our interconnectivity.
And the other thing I would say is practice. Being on camera, and having a personality, and being able to engage with people, even being able to be comfortable looking at a camera.
Interviewer: You’re very good at it. I’m very impressed.
Mike: It’s practice. And it’s a show. It’s a show. And I think practicing that performer’s aspect of it is an important part of letting the audience know that you’re in charge, and you’re comfortable, and you’re worth their time and their money. It’s a thing that I see is overlooked a lot. I see a lot of people point a camera at their process, but that’s not necessarily personal and engaging. And if it’s not personal and engaging, there’s a lot of impersonal stuff out there already that they can get to. So I think that just turning on the camera, and watching yourself and getting used to it, because it’s really, really weird when you first do it.
Interviewer: Yeah, it is. A lot of people wouldn’t realize the time that I put into if I’m doing a presentation, a keynote, or something at a conference, I’m practicing. If it’s a new presentation I haven’t done before, I’m practicing it a lot. And I know everybody in the industry, you don’t see it, of course. It’s like the performers. You get up on stage and do this amazing Rachmaninoff, whatever. You don’t see all the hard work. But as you say, you’ve got to practice. If it’s delivering to a camera or to an audience somehow, you’ve got to practice it.
Mike: Absolutely. But I think, too, I think however you apply those and other principles, I’m sure there’s other great pieces of advice. There’s no question that it is an absolutely sustainable and viable supplemental income model, if not a primary income model if you really wanted to work it. I think if you’re starting to plan your curriculum or if you’re starting to plan what you want to teach, the first thing that you come up against is a very hard, long look at yourself in the mirror about what do I really have to offer and making sure that your skill set is …
Be realistic about what your skill set is and teach the skill set that you’re a master of. Not that you’re not going to continue learning and probably will learn from your students, but I think that you’ll speak most confidently and your presentation will be most compelling about things that you know you know it. You know it at [3:00] in the morning hangover. You know it. That’s your wheelhouse. Spin it and invite people to it.
But have no question about it. Even though there’s this huge glut of media out there, there’s plenty of opportunity. Because there’s always turnover too. Somebody gets burned out doing their show. They’re just, “I’m done. I just can’t stand it anymore.” Now time for your show.
Interviewer: All right. Let’s talk technology, because I know that can scare off people sometimes. What do you do for your live shows? If you’re going to have a hundred people watching, how does that work?
Mike: Because I have zero patience for technology. That’s just a thing. I’m surrounded by it. I love it. I live with it, all that. But it’s like a child. I’ve a disciplinarian. They cannot crash. I can’t stand it. So for me when I was gearing up, this comes into the practicing thing. I can build my live show rig blindfolded. It’s like a gun. I can just close my eyes and build it. I could just do that. It’s bulletproof, and it’s very simple.
What it is, is my classes go out. I use Wirecast on a laptop, on a Mac laptop. Wirecast, that’s my show organizer. It’s made by Telestream. And that’s been solid and stable. It’s got everything that I have needed in the classes. So I can use multiple cameras. I can have multiple audio inputs. It has one of those desktop things. So if I want to show the desktop from my Pro Tools station or a keyboard overlay while I’m playing, I can bring those up and I can do split screens and all that sort of thing by setting up some very simple templates. I can drag media in. If a client says, “Will you review this piece on the air?” I can drag it right in and play it. So that’s been my software. I use…
Interviewer: Sorry. Is that free or does it cost?
Mike: It’s a paid product. There’s two versions of it. For an initial investment, I think it’s pricey. I think it’s 500 bucks or something or maybe $1,000 for the pro. Not for…
Interviewer: What’s it like? Is it like some other software I would have heard of? I’m just trying to picture exactly what it does. Is it a streaming thing or a webinar thing?
Mike: It’s a broadcast mixer. So you’ve got a number of panels: audio, video sources. And it’s got one window. I don’t have any source in here, but this is just an example. It’s like how I did the red thing. If this is just a video of another video…
Interviewer: I was going to ask you about how you did that too.
Mike: So the Skype is being fed by Wirecast. I’d run all my audio. So the microphone that’s being drawn here is going through Wirecast and the camera is going through Wirecast. And I have a mixer, so I can video mix. You saw the picture in picture up there, so those sorts of things. So it just allows me to…
Interviewer: It’s brilliant. It’s completely seamless. I’ve never seen such a seamless overlay or transition.
Mike: And you can do that a couple of different ways. I was trying to see here if I had any show stuff loaded. I don’t think I do. But what I will do is for each show, I’ll usually load up some media beforehand, and then I can just click on it and it’ll bring it up. It’ll bring it up as a transition. I can do overlays. So it’s very, very simple software, but it’s very powerful for managing multiple types of media in a show.
Interviewer: It sounds really powerful.
Mike: Like I said, I run it off of a laptop. Sometimes I do the classes from my piano in the living room. Sometimes I will do them with my Pro Tools workstation. And so all those things are all on the local Internet in the house, and they’re all sources in Wirecast. So if I want to, if I say, “Okay, let’s move to the piano,” I’ve got a camera out there. I just click on the camera and that camera goes on along with the mic that’s underneath the piano. And then as long as I’m carrying around something so I can see the…
Interviewer: See what’s being broadcasted.
Mike: Yeah. Then it’s very, very flexible. And it’s never crashed on me.
Interviewer: Wow. And you do it all wirelessly?
Mike: I have a wired network in the house. It works wirelessly, but just to make sure that we have the highest quality stream, I was able to have everything wired, so I do. But occasionally it’s…
Interviewer: Sorry, go on.
Mike: I was going to say so. But the wireless signal, I run a reasonable bit rate so it’s never had a hiccup in that capacity.
Interviewer: So Wirecast helps you do all the backend and produce the stream and everything.
Interviewer: Is that also covering the audience side or is that a different bit of software?
Mike: Wirecast is my production studio. That’s where I’m managing the audio, and the video, and any one of the input media sources. That’s where the show is happening. What’s coming out of Wirecast is the produced show, the final image and the final sound that an audience is going to hear. Then what I do is I go and I use Ustream. Ustream is where I host the show.
So Wirecast natively talks to Ustream. So it’s just happening on Ustream. I will usually check the feed to make sure it’s okay, but it’s just seamlessly happening on Ustream. And Ustream also has a chat roll, a social interactive chat roll, and that’s the primary way in which students interact with me. When I first…
Interviewer: Got it. So you keep an eye on the chat roll.
Mike: Yeah, and that’s where I get the questions. When I first started doing it, I was using another service where everybody had a camera and was talking to me, and it never worked when there was 50 or 100 people. It was just this big cluster and the bandwidth would have problems. I understand that they’ve since worked all that out. But I’ve never found that necessary.
Interviewer: So you don’t see your students or hear them. They just type, like a webinar.
Mike: Just type. It’s like a webinar. And that’s never stopped people from getting their questions answered. In fact, I think it forces them to think about their question. Nobody has ever complained about it. And as much as I love them, I don’t actually need to see their living room. You know what I mean?
Mike: Because it’s not a one-on-one. It is for 50 or 100 people at a time or whatever it is. And lots of times, you know how that is, you do a thing. You got a spotlight in your face anyway. You can’t see anybody out there.
Interviewer: That’s right.
Mike: So that’s worked out. That’s been my process so far.
Interviewer: And for the replays, are they hosted still on Ustream or somewhere else?
Mike: So what happens is when you sign up for the class, you get the login, the password that’s valid for that night. It’s password protected, so only people with the password can sign on to the live stream. Those people after the show is over, the classes get uploaded to my Vimeo channel, and also password protected. And anybody who was at the live class automatically gets the password for the Vimeo channel. Any future people who buy it get the Vimeo channel link and the password.
Interviewer: Okay, good.
Mike: And so they go and they can just view it there and take their time with it.
Interviewer: And does Ustream handle all the signups and link sending and all that stuff?
Mike: Actually I have been doing that quasi manually for four years. In fact, my website right now is pulled apart because the web store is finally being completely automated. I just needed to do it for four years and didn’t.
Interviewer: Oh my goodness.
Mike: But at this point, yeah. It’s just too busy. At some point I was like, “Okay, this is ridiculous.” So now it’s all entirely automated. I won’t even know about it.
Interviewer: Is that a separate software?
Mike: I’m using WooCommerce for my website and PayPal. And that’s also allowed me now to use affiliate links. Because other websites have said, “We want to put links to your classes for little discounts and a little kickback and all that.” So that now will all get automated once they’re registered. If they sign up with that thing, then they’ll get their percentage. The person will get the links and the class and just go…
Interviewer: I can’t believe you were doing manual emails and links for years. Oh my goodness. You must’ve been going crazy.
Mike: I think that goes to the fact that it’s all very personal and homegrown. It’s the nature of it. Even if the scale might betray that, it’s always felt like that.
Interviewer: So just to recap, you’re using a software called Wirecast which takes all the different feeds from different cameras and allows you to mix in the audio, and it produces a video product that you take to Ustream, which is the place where people sign on to watch and interact with you. And I’m thinking Wirecast is obviously a little bit of an investment. I would imagine if a teacher listening to this wanted to try it out, they could try the same concept with Google Hangouts or some other software options just to test the waters and see how it goes.
Mike: Absolutely. Because depending on your thing, you may not need a whole lot of multiple setups. And there’s a million ways to skin this cat. I come from a postproduction background. I had a postproduction studio for many years. So I was used to having a production switcher. That’s how I ran the facility, where we could just route audio and video and any kind of media around to different workstations or client areas. And so that’s how my brain works, and I was spoiled by it, and I was like, “I need a video switcher in here.” But you don’t have to do that.
Interviewer: No. It does. I’ve got to say that looked so professional. I can’t believe it. When you put that overlay up before, I’m like, “How the hell did he do that?” That was great. Really good.
Mike: Look, if the income that you’re making is commensurate with…you’ll know if it’s worth it. You’ll know if the investment is worth it or not. And if not, there are plenty of simpler ways to do it, but that’s my way.
Interviewer: So for you, you said you were up to 50 or 60 grand, let’s say, income from this. A significant amount. Would it ever be something that you would like to do more of and make a complete living out of it?
Mike: I think if I spent any time at all on advertising or spend any time at all trying to recruit new people, I probably could double that, probably. Which again, is that lot or not a lot? I don’t know. It depends. Living in Los Angeles, 60 grand, that’s your groceries for a month. That’s ridiculous how expensive it is out here. But again, that’s a volume sales model. It’s classes for $30 for Christ’s sake. But like I said, it’s not my primary income. I think I could make it.
But I also like not being beholden. I don’t think I didn’t do a class for almost seven or eight months in this last stretch because I was working on other projects, which actually then became the first class that I did. The first class back was, “Okay, I’m going to take you through this whole project that I did.” It was another model.
Interviewer: Oh, that’s cool.
Mike: It was a film score, and so it was a nine-hour class just going through how I scored the whole film.
Interviewer: Nine hours. Wow.
Mike: We were on a roll, man.
Interviewer: For $30?
Mike: People fell asleep and woke up, and then they said, “Oh my God. You’re still going.” I was like, “We’re almost at the end. We’re almost at the credits.” Just how it was, a lot of fun.
Interviewer: That’s great. That is awesome.
Mike: Yeah, it was fun. It was cool.
Interviewer: Can you give us an example of just a few of your recent lessons, like the topics?
Mike: I have Composition 1 and composition two, and orchestration one, and orchestration two. And those cover things that seem very elementary, except the way that I teach them I have a lot of professionals who take them and say, “Wow, you just put something together I never thought of.” I have classes on…one is called “Kickstarters.” Another one is called “Secret Weapons.” Those are like when the well is dry and you have no ideas, here is a bunch of things that you can do to kick start your ideas.
I have classes on rhythm and percussion. I have classes on writing horror music, action sequences for films. I have a class that’s on just the business, just negotiating and dealing, how not to be afraid of the clients and not be afraid to ask for the money that you’re worth or whatever.
What else? I have classes where I’ve analyzed the works of some famous composers. I have two classes on John Williams, I have a class on James Horner, people that inspired me, and taken the piss out of them a little bit, breaking them down and showing where they learned and stole all their stuff from and [inaudible [00:42:05]. And love, and respect, and all that. What else do I have classes on? Just lots of different ones.
Interviewer: Fantastic. Many of them, that would fascinate me. I’d love to learn more about lots of those things.
Mike: They’re fun. Some of them I’d be like, “You know what? I don’t know what you guys want to know.” I think I was two years in the class and somebody said, “Counterpoints.” And I was like, “How did I never once think of doing a counterpoint class?” So okay, that afternoon, fine. Counterpoint, next Friday?
Interviewer: People wanted to know about counterpoint?
Mike: Yeah, because the way I teach in a nutshell…
Interviewer: If you can make counterpoint exciting and fun, I’m there.
Mike: It’s good. It’s a fun class. But that’s the thing about it, is I think music is usually presented in a way…the analogy that I use is, especially for composers, they look at all these huge disciplines. They look at composition, and orchestration, and all the voice laying rules. And they look at having to learn all the instruments and the ranges and think about transpositions. And they have to think about counterpoints and all these things. And it just seems like it’s this giant, enormous thing.
But the truth is that there is a way in which to think about music and a way to teach music that is much more in tune with the way your brain learns, and it’s the same mechanism by which we learn to walk. You can’t walk consciously. You couldn’t do it. You can’t think, “This muscle fires and then this tendon pulls. And then I balance in my ear.” You couldn’t do it if you tried. There’s a billion things going on that you’re not even aware of. And yet not only can you walk, you can run, and dance, and do acrobatics.
So there’s a way to think about all of these hyper complex disciplines all at once and all together that actually makes it a lot simpler to understand and to recognize patterns and work with it. So once we turn that switch on and get you to look at it differently, then actually all those extra disciplines, they don’t become another level. They become just like another flavor in something you’re already doing.
Interviewer: Now you’ve really got me intrigued.
Mike: One thing I always say in the class is, “We’re going to stay on the air until everybody has something that’s profound.” I want everybody to have that moment where they’re like, “Wait a minute. Wow.” If you really work at it and think about it, there’s a lot of those moments to be had, and everybody loves that feeling. Everybody loves to be smart and everybody loves to see something that looks so intangible and so complicated. And suddenly they’re like, “Oh my God. I get it. I never got it. I totally get it.” That’s the best for everyone. So it can be done, even about something as complicated and seemingly mystical as music.
Interviewer: Have you got a favorite film composer?
Mike: I saw Star Wars when I was five. That’s the movie. I came out of the movie theater and told my mom I wanted to write music for movies.
Mike: So it was John Williams’ score, that first one, that literally started a program running. And to be perfectly frank, a lot of the calls that I get for work are for writing in that style and that idiomatic style. I’ve got a piece online that’s called The Race. It’s on YouTube. And you’ll hear right away. You’ll hear the influences in there. But many others. James Horner was a huge influence. Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith. But then later, of course, I went back and discovered all the symphonic roots where they stole all their material from. So it was all back in Ravel, and Shostakovich, and all the greats.
Interviewer: Have you ever met John Williams?
Mike: No, not personally. He lives actually just up the street. I’ve seen him a bunch coming out of his house. He sent me a nice note about some of my work once, but we just never cross paths. We use the same recording engineer, Shawn Murphy.
Interviewer: Oh, wow. You’re going to have to meet him one day and tell him that he’s the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing, surely.
Mike: We had just crossed paths, but not met, and so many times that I eventually just sat down and I penned him a note. It was like I wrote it, not type it. I wrote it. And it was one of those notes that I probably spent 30 years thinking up. And I had sent him one of the pieces of my work. And it was just a thank you and “This is what you did, this is your fault” kind of note. True to his nature and his reputation, he was just so gracious and encouraging. So I feel like I’ve had my John Williams thing. I’m almost afraid that maybe the man wouldn’t be as exciting. I have my note from him and I have that in my special place.
Interviewer: I was thinking now, “He’d be a good podcast guest too.”
Interviewer: We’ll have to get you to hook me up.
Interviewer: All right, Michael. Thank you so much for your time today. I’m going to start wrapping it up. Where can people find out more about you and your courses?
Mike: Right now, like I said, the website is pulled apart. It’s usually just mikeverta.com.
Interviewer: So M-I-K-E-V-E-R-T-A.com?
Mike: Yeah, and that’ll work 9/10ths of the time. If you go in the next few days, it’s probably still going to be down. Just put /wordpress and you can get into it anyway.
Interviewer: I think I found you through Google, actually. Because the websites were a bit like, “What’s going on here?”
Mike: Like I said, the developers have all pulled it apart. But in there, they’ll be the music links to the music stuff that I’ve done and then all the visual effects, and graphics, and directing and everything else is all in there. And there’s a section on where all the masterclasses are listed, the descriptions of them, and the links to buy them and all that. So yeah.
Mike: But in the meantime, definitely go check out the ones that are free. Just YouTube my name and they’ll all come up.
Interviewer: Okay, perfect.
Mike: And the bunch of podcasts, free podcasts. There’s technique classes, one where I review student compositions for six hours. That was one. And in there actually were all the ones from when I was a kid. I would secretly throw them in and just destroy them just so people didn’t feel bad. But that was actually a really popular class that got a lot of followers. So those are free. Check those out, and you’ll get the flavor. The whole thing, you’ll get it.
Interviewer: Brilliant. And we’ll check a whole of links on the show notes page and maybe embed some YouTubes. I’ll go through and have a look. I’m looking forward to exploring your stuff. It has just been awesome to talk with you. I really, really enjoyed it.
Mike: Hey man, I appreciate the opportunity anytime just to talk. Your stuff is great. So I’ll just send you links. You don’t have to pay. I’ll give you some links
Interviewer: Okay, I appreciate it.
Mike: Just hit me up.
Interviewer: And look, you’re a specialist in this. Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask you that you’re just like, “Oh my God, he’s got to ask me this question,” or anything?
Mike: No. No, I think you’ve done a really good job of covering the bases. And I think just your being the aggregator, because I know I’ve seen some of your podcasts. I looked once we talked. You’ve provided a lot of information from a lot of various people with a lot of different takes on it. And that in and of itself, just focusing it down, is so crucial. It makes it mortal and gives people confidence to do it. So you’ve done a huge, huge great service that way. And I’m really honored to have an opportunity to share some of what I’ve done. Because this stuff is fun and it’s viable, and the world needs more good teachers.
Interviewer: Awesome. Thank you so much. Let’s wrap it up there. Great to work with you today and we’ll keep in touch.
Mike: Thanks buddy. Thanks again. Good night.
Interviewer: All right, see you.
Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.