3 Lessons of the YouTube SuperLearners

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Meet Amira Willighagen. She’s 9 years old, from Holland, and she sings really, really well.

The best part? Amira has never had a single lesson. Raised in a musical family (dad’s an organist; mom plays flute, brother violin), she learned by watching YouTube videos of great opera singers.

Here’s the interesting thing: when you start to look around, it turns out that there are more than a few Amiras out there. Like these kids. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one.

In fact, they’re everywhere. Kids on skateboards are doing tricks that no one has ever done. Skinny teenage violinists and pianists are playing concertos that were previously considered playable only by world-class masters. There’s no way to precisely measure it, but indications are clear: we seem to be experiencing an epidemic of prodigies.

The question is, why? Is it better teachers? More nurturing parents? More global competition? More motivated learners?

My answer: all of the above. But one factor might be bigger than all of them: YouTube.

Because YouTube is perfectly aligned with the way the human brain was designed to acquire skill. Namely:

  • 1) You stare at someone doing something amazing
  • 2) You love it so much that you can’t stop thinking about it
  • 3) You try it, reaching for a target
  • 4) You compare your result to the target
  • 5) You reach again. And again. And again. (Repeat.)

We instinctively think of being self taught as a drawback — but as Amira and the other prodigies show, it’s actually an advantage. With YouTube, she has opportunity to stare at what she loves. To study top-quality talent, to model her technique on proven methods. To listen deeply. To reach for a target, over and over — her brain getting faster and more accurate with each reach. And above all, to have ownership over the process.

Quick thought experiment: imagine if, instead of spending enraptured hours singing along to YouTube videos, Amira was informed by her parents that she would be driven to weekly lessons, where she would practice scales and do vocal exercises with some teacher she’d never met. Can you feel the buzzkill?

Not all of us can be prodigies. But there are a few takeaways from their learning process that can apply to everyone.

  • 1) Staring at great performers is underrated. You could argue that it’s the most important thing a learner can do. Why not give learners regular opportunity to stare/mimic the best in the world? Why not mix age groups, so that younger kids get the chance to watch better performers?
  • 2) Coaches are overrated in the early days. Those days are the time when someone’s identity gets connected to the skill — where they learn to derive real personal pleasure from executing the skill. That’s the time for parents to take a step back, be supportive, and refrain from getting overinvolved.
  • 3) Ownership is everything. Because at bottom, developing a talent isn’t about parents or coaching or school — it’s about creating and sustaining the love that fuels the hard, fulfilling work of getting better.

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16 Responses to “3 Lessons of the YouTube SuperLearners”

  1. Interesting, but I want to see what they’re doing 20 years from now. Children are good imitators. Will all this exposure (and apparently mawkish media encouragement) lead to earlier maturity and innovation, or stagnation and fragmentation? Time will tell. I don’t actually have an opinion on this, because empirically, this is a novel time for humanity.

  2. MickRR says:

    Youtube has definitely become a source for the “Ignition” part of the Talent Code.

  3. djcoyle says:

    Great point; thanks for making it. You could even make the argument that’s it’s more important than any other factor!

  4. Jon says:

    Another great post, Dan. Amira’s performance actually brought tears to my eyes. whew! Also spot-on observation of the incredible power of motivation and inspiration that watching great performers provides. Reminded me of pro surfer Kelly Slater’s comment: “Motivation is temporary, inspiration is permanent.”

    YouTube is SUCH a game-changer, especially for musicians. Your readers might be interested in a couple cool tools out there to squeeze even more juice out of YouTube learning.

    1.The free Chrome browser extension that allows you to loop YouTube videos. Hand for learning to imitate a short passage. (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/looper-for-youtube/iggpfpnahkgpnindfkdncknoldgnccdg?hl=en)

    2. SoundSlice (www.soundslice.com): a tool developed by Chicago musician/web developer Adrian Holovaty that allows you to loop, slow down, and add guitar tablature to youtube videos. Incredibly powerful learning tool. A game-changer in its own right.

    PS: am loving the “Little Book of Talent.” Recommending it to all my students. Perfect size to throw in an instrument case. Thanks!

  5. Jon says:

    woops. that Soundslice link isn’t live. Here it is again:

    http://www.soundslice.com/

  6. Andre says:

    This guy is also doing a phenomenal job teaching guitar players, for free. He emphasizes slow and deliberate repetitions etc.

    http://www.justinguitar.com

  7. Chris says:

    I agree with the youtube sentiment. My 7 year old son is a very good golfer….I am not willing to use the “P” word….and 90% of his learning has come of watching the Golf Channel and youtube. He loves it when I pull up golfers on youtube so that he can watch their swings in slow motion.

  8. I absolutely love this blog post and believe completely. Thank you so much for writing it and for highlighting a positive effect of the internet. This is a wonderful example of monkey see, monkey do! And I love the playful nature of watching and copying. Thank you for your insights!

  9. Allen Hopgood says:

    Interesting insight. As a guitar teacher I have thought that getting lessons online is good but they cannot correct any mistakes the student is unknowingly making. This article/blog changes my whole perception on that. For musicians it may not be just about “listening” anymore, but watching too.

  10. djcoyle says:

    Hey Jon, That is fantastic — thanks so much for sharing those tools. I’m forwarding them to my guitar-playing son right now. Best, Dan

  11. Raphaël says:

    I totally agree with you but don’t you think you might take the problem from another point of view : there has always been Mozart’s around but YouTube is only giving them the spotlight they didn’t have 200 or even 50 years ago…? I mean there are 7 billion people on the planet and we see a few hundred gifted children getting some attention on YouTube. I guess it’s not one or the other option though but both of them together : access in both ways.

  12. Dan, how do you think this would work if the techniques are slightly different? For example, some of the older cellists play in a manner that that bow stroke isn’t the same, and it’s almost impossible to get all details from a video, as portions of the hand are hidden. And do you think this work work for older folks like myself?

  13. Luke says:

    Some good points. The only thing i would add is as a vocal coach myself learning to sing by imitation alone can be risky. Kids may achieve what sounds great but may be risking their vocal health in the future. Self learning has limits in vocal training.

  14. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Luke — that’s a very good point for parents to remember, esp since most kids like to imitate pros who are far older. Though I’d say the same doesn’t hold for all disciplines. For example, there’s no difference between adults and kids when it comes to golf swings.

  15. djcoyle says:

    Hi Karl, Great question — I’d say that the fact that you are even noticing and appreciating the small differences in the bow hold is a sign that you are using the video in a positive way. It need not be only a mirror to copy — it can also be a useful template from which you can diverge. As for whether it works for non-kids — I see absolutely no reason why not.

  16. James Briggs says:

    Nothing explains everything. There were prodigies before youtube. But IQs are rising and we are getting high levels of performance at younger ages. Youtube plays a big part and doing something you love your own is the secret of excellence. Children, we all, learn best when we learn our own way. Right now there’s a big debate over teaching math. The new system teaches the ideas behind math and for abstract thinkers it works best. But it leaves the memorizers feeling confused. Sooner or later it will switch back to memorization and the abstract thinkers will be confused. That’s why I home schooled my daughter. What’s wonderful about computers and the internet is they give children the opportunity to learn they own way. The points made about the youtube are wonderful but it’s impossible for youtube to exist in a vacuum. Everything had an effect but it looks like youtube played a big part.

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