Blog Post

Amateur-to-Amateur Music Lessons

Imagine that you’ve recently become a big fan of salsa or Cuban son.  You decide you want to learn more about how the music works—maybe even take a few conga lessons yourself. On a whim, you do a YouTube search for “conga lessons”.  Today, the top result is a lesson called “Poncho Sanchez- Fundimentals of Latin Music- Conga”, posted by Gordanius in 2007.  It has attracted 469,226 views, which seems to lend it a bit of authority.  You hit play, and Poncho Sanchez introduces himself and starts to explain the names of the different-sized conga drums in front of him. 



While the video runs, you idly scroll down to the comment section. In the “Highest Rated Comments” section, a commenter seems to be defending Sanchez from a criticism that’s no longer onscreen:



Your Spanish is good enough for you to understand that this defense relies on the claim that no gringo can match the Latin touch, which is inborn in the blood of Latinos. (And if you’re me, you find this whole line of argument depressing.)  Further down, another commenter criticizes Sanchez—first for pedagogical inefficiency (he could explain the same material in fewer words), but also for playing that lacks “sabor”; he’s fine technically, but he doesn’t SPEAK with the congas. 



Another person recommends a different YouTube channel, and notes that these days students don’t have to rely on a single teacher’s example:



This seems like a good point, but you don’t feel qualified to compare different players’ techniques—you’re looking for beginner lessons. You back up to your search results page and click on the second video in the list, which is titled “Conga Lesson 1: Basic Tones- Nate Torres”. 68,158 views, not too shabby.  Nate Torres introduces himself and promises that this video is the first in a series.


Both the teacher and the video production are far less professional than in the Poncho Sanchez example.  It seems very likely that the Torres video was made for YouTube, whereas when you Google the title of the Sanchez video it looks like it’s probably an excerpt (unauthorized?) from an instructional DVD of the same name released in 2005.  Sanchez is on stage or in a studio, with well-miked drums displayed from multiple camera angles.  Nate Torres seems to be in his living room—or maybe more likely his parents’ living room, given his age and the visible décor.  The lighting isn’t great and the sound reproduction is fuzzy. Torres fidgets with his hat and shifts in his seat; he has none of Sanchez’s gravitas.  On the other hand, by 35 seconds into the video Torres is telling you exactly how to position your hand in order to get an open tone out of your drum.  “What you’re going to do is have your fingers lined up just like this, close together, with your thumb out, so your thumb doesn’t get in the way.”  He uses his own left hand to shape the position of his right hand, inviting you to do the same—a physical correction from an imagined teacher.  He offers a visual cue for exactly where to strike the drum: “making sure that your knuckle line lines up with the rim of the drum”.  Then he slowly demonstrates three strokes and looks right at the camera, seeming to ask, “Did you get it?” 


When you scroll down to the comments, you see that Torres must be “prpapito3000”, the person who uploaded the video; he’s responding to comments and questions (though the last responses are from six months ago). 



Both of these videos were first posted in 2007, an eternity ago in YouTube time.  This no doubt partly accounts for their placement in the search rankings; they were among the earliest conga lessons uploaded to YouTube, and once they had attracted a decent number of views their view counts were positioned to snowball (among the limited audience entering a query for “conga lessons”, anyway).  Neither video functions as a teaser for another online business or for private lessons with this teacher.  While the Sanchez video appears to be excerpted from a commercially-available DVD, that DVD is not linked from the YouTube page or cited in detail (indeed, the title is even misspelled—probably a typo, but sometimes an indicator of deliberate evasion of copyright enforcement).  Torres just seems like a friendly teenager who’s messing around with YouTube and imagining what he could contribute. 


These YouTube videos and their associated comment threads offer an excellent example of amateur-to-amateur music pedagogy (how about A2A for short?).  The first uploader, Gordanius, has posted a professional musician’s lesson as a public service; in the comment thread, viewers demonstrate their own expertise by offering criticism, defenses, and their own advice to learners.  The second uploader, prpapito3000, is an amateur himself, but certainly knows enough to offer useful lessons to beginners; moreover, he’s willing to periodically interact with his viewers online, answering questions, offering encouragement, or brushing off typical YouTube slagging about his wardrobe with a format-idiomatic “lmao” (that’s “laughing my ass off”—and I’ve typed and deleted this several times now, wondering whether anyone who’s read this far would need an explanation).  His youth and non-professionalism actually make him appealing; after all, if I’m watching this video I’m probably playing congas in my living room, too.  And if I’m still just learning how to produce an open tone, do I really need to get a lesson from a venerable professional performer? It’s also quite likely that I’m only aspiring to be an amateur player myself, in which case maybe Nate Torres is a better role model for me than Poncho Sanchez.  He’s certainly more accessible.  Here’s a bit of the comment thread for one of his other videos:

I wonder what all this A2A pedagogy means for the future of music learning? I’m sure there are some people who would argue that Nate Torres shouldn’t be rubbing shoulders with Poncho Sanchez as a conga teacher. And after all, I’m a pro in this business myself; maybe I should feel threatened by the fact that a YouTube comment exchange can pretty much sum up a week’s discussion in my college course on Latino diaspora music (topic: is salsa Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Nuyorican?).


So far, though, I’m more than happy to have help from both Sanchez and Torres in the classroom.

Kiri Miller's picture
Kiri Miller is an ethnomusicologist whose work focuses on participatory culture, popular music, interactive digital media, and amateur musicianship. Her current research project investigates dance videogames, motion-sensing interfaces, and multisensory interactivity. She is currently Associate Professor of Music at Brown University. Miller is the author of Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism (Illinois, 2008) and Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (Oxford, 2012). She has published articles in Ethnomusicology, American Music, 19th-Century Music, the Journal of American Folklore, Game Studies, Oral Tradition, and the Journal of the Society for American Music. In 2010-11 she held fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the American Council of Learned Societies. Miller's regular course offerings include Musical Youth Cultures, Diaspora Music in the Americas, Introduction to Ethnomusicology, Music and Technoculture, Ethnography of Popular Music, World Music in Theory and Practice, and Sacred Harp Singing.