Music Magazine

Isaiah Mitchell of Earthless Talks About Teaching Music from the Tourbus

Posted on the 25 March 2014 by Doughnutmag

After a hotbox of an Earthless show in London last summer, I got talking with a soaked Isaiah Mitchell and learned that when he’s not manipulating time and space on stage, he’s also an online guitar teacher to players all around the world.

I caught up with him some time later to ask him a few more questions…

Isaiah Mitchell (Earthless) interview
Q: You were a busy man in 2013… an international tour with Earthless and a new album, a new Golden Void album and an album from Black Elk Medicine Band, your solo project. What else have you been working on?
Isaiah Mitchell: I’ve been playing a bit with another band called Once and Future Band. Really good friends and some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with.

Also been jamming with the legendary percussionist Big Black. He’s good friends with my landlord so he comes over and we hit the home studio and get weird for a bit. Very enjoyable. Golden Void is working on new material. Things are good right now.

Q: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a guitar shaman?
IM: If I wasn’t a musician I’d like to have been a marine biologist, an astronomer or a school teacher.

Earthless – ‘Violence Of The Red Sea’

Q: What’s your musical background? Was it formal education or jamming with friends?
IM: I took formal piano lessons when I was 4 but didn’t enjoy the bossy “you have to practice” attitude. Most kids that age don’t. Don’t think I lasted to long at that.

I got my first guitar when I was 9 or so. My dad showed me stuff and then started jamming with friends. No formal guitar lessons.

Q: With you busy schedule, how do you find the time and energy to teach?
IM: I’m not all that busy really. I’m playing with bands a few times a week and that’s usually at night. I have the daytime and most nights to teach. And when I tour I’m able to still teach my students over the Internet.

Q: Where are your students based?
IM: My students are based all over the world. I teach folks in Australia, UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia, Netherlands, Scandinavia, USA… all over. The Internet makes all this happen. Very awesome.

“I teach folks in Australia, UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia, Netherlands, Scandinavia, USA……..all over. The Internet makes all this happen.”

Q: Earthless is pretty ‘long-form’ rock and roll. Are your students more advanced prog/psych heads or school kids?
IM: My students range from beginner and intermediate to advanced and really advanced. I teach as young as 8 and as old as 65. We cover all types of genres and playing styles.

Q: Do you teach any fans?
IM: A lot of my students over the Internet contacted me because of my advertising on the Earthless and Golden Void Facebook pages, so I think their fans.

Guitar lessons in the 21st Century

Golden Void album cover

Q: What’s it like giving guitar lessons from an iPad on a tour van?
IM: It’s pretty rad. I feel like I’m using my time well when I try and coordinate lessons while I’m traveling from city to city everyday. The fact that I don’t have to take off a couple weeks from my students when I’m on tour is amazing.

In the past I’ve lost students because I wasn’t around enough and most students, primarily the younger ones or the ones just starting out, need that consistency to stay on the ball. Me being gone would take the wind out of their sails.

Q: From a technological point of view, how do you manage bad connections when giving guitar lessons via Skype or similar. At what point does it become a problem?
IM: If there’s a funky connection I’ll hang up and call back. Sometimes that helps. But myself and the student usually have a good wifi signal so there’s rarely ever an issue. If there’s a horrible connection and nothing can be done you reschedule.

I used to never rely on Internet technology but now I do and have to realize that sometimes it’s not gonna work due to a tree falling and breaking Internet wires or something. Weird stuff happens.

Q: Have you used Google Hangouts at all, or any other video streaming service?
IM: I’ve used Google Hangouts. It works good but I primarily use Skype and FaceTime.

“What they came here to learn I want to teach them. If they want to learn a Hendrix solo, we’re gonna learn it.”

Q: How do you keep students on your books when things are busy or their enthusiasm wanes?
IM: It’s hard to keep people into it forever. Eventually everyone will have gotten all they can learn from me. That’s the way it is. Fortunately most of my current students have been with for over 6 months and a good chunk have been with me over a year. I try and keep it interesting and give them challenges that might be a bit past their comfort zone.

I ultimately don’t have a lesson plan. I teach the same stuff to many students but each student gets their own tailored curriculum. What they came here to learn I want to teach them. If they want to learn a Hendrix solo, we’re gonna learn it. But I’m also going to show them the the science inside the solo like what kind of scales are used. Doing this gives you a leg up on tons of other solos you’d want to learn.

Q: How do you motivate students to practice?
IM: Students usually get homework. Most people really want stuff to work on and have a goal. Again most everyone that is with me wants to be there so me motivating them isn’t really an issue.

“…now you can throw an mp3 in an app on your phone like Capo and slow down Danny Gatton or Uli Jon Roth licks and not miss a note.”

Q: Access to information and learning material is pretty much universal at this point. How has this changed since you first picked up a guitar?
IM: It’s crazy! I’d probably be better if we had the Internet when I was a kid. At least I think so. I would’ve watched a lot more “How To” music videos and tutorials. But not having that really made me use my ear. I have a pretty good ear due to that.

I still learn most stuff by listening but now you can throw an mp3 in an app on your phone like Capo and slow down Danny Gatton or Uli Jon Roth licks and not miss a note. So awesome!

Q: Do you teach production or music marketing at all, or just guitar playing?
IM: I’ve taught a bit of how to structure songs, how to record them and how to add arrangements to hopefully make the song more interesting or alive. It’s fun helping students get their ideas down on a recording and getting the song to sound like it could be on the radio or something.

Never taught marketing. Just how to make music.

Q: What hurdles, new or existing, do music teachers and students face in 2014?
IM: I’m not too sure. I’m sure I’ll run into some. I mean the Internet is a fountain of knowledge. You can learn anything from the Internet. Might be bad for mostly guitar teachers. But you can’t beat the human connection.

If there was a musician that I looked up to and they were offering lessons, that to me would be priceless. An instructional video or video game would never be able to replace that interaction and enthusiasm.

Bad Beginner Habits

Q: What three bad habits do new players typically create for themselves and what’s your advice?
IM: The three that come to me first are:

  1. Not using all your fingers when practicing scales. Using more than just your pointer and middle finger will help you play cleaner and faster. But then there was Django Reindhart…
  2. Trying to play newly learned solos or scale patterns faster than you’re able to. Play things slow at first so you play it cleanly and accurate. Speed doesn’t matter if you can’t play it cleanly.
  3. Staying focused. If you’re having trouble with something I believe that you should keep working at it until you get it right. You’ll be super proud of yourself that you totally conquered something that was really testing your patience and skills. That’s what it’s all about. Strive to be better. Push yourself. It takes patience.

Q: Do you have any advice for musicians looking to tutor on the side?
IM: Go for it. It’s not for everyone. Patience is a must. If you’re too pushy you’ll drive people away. Just have fun. The student is there for your help to make them a better player. Find the joy in helping others.

When a student does something awesome, I pat myself on the back because I helped them get there. That’s the payoff. The student deserves all the credit, but you still helped them get there.

Q: How do you go about marketing your services?
IM: I’ve really only used advertising on Facebook and on Craigslist. Students recommend me to other people as well.

Q: Have you considered creating pre-recorded lessons for the public?
IM: I have. I need the tools to make that happen, but I would love to do that. Isaiah Mitchell’s How to Play Guitar Volume 1-4. That would rule…

Q: Lastly, what are your plans for 2014?
IM: Keep creating music. Release a few records. Build my teaching practice. Go on tour. Enjoy life with my wife. Do what I love as much as possible.

Catch Isaiah playing near you in one of his many bands, or contact him via his website about lessons to learn more of his mystical music-making secrets…

Image Sources: erikachantelle

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