Mike Johnston is a trailblazer in online education, having seen the immense potential within the platform when YouTube first launched in 2005. Today his aesthetic and educational delivery is seen as the benchmark.

MD: How long have you been involved in distance learning?

Mike: I started making video lessons for students in 2006, when I got my first video camera. The quality was terrible, as was my presence on camera, but I definitely saw it as a way to reach students that couldn’t show up for their in-person lesson that particular week. 

MD: What came first: providing online content or offering online lessons?

Mike: To be honest, in 2006 teaching drums was the only content I had. No one was YouTube famous yet, and it would have been weird to share anything “personal” on YouTube.  

MD: What was the catalyst for you to pursue teaching virtually?

Mike: Running out of hours in the day. At the time I owned a drum school called the Drum Lab, and I was teaching seven days a week from 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. I knew that I would never be able to reach more students than the hours allowed unless I switched over to the digital/virtual world. 

MD: What percentage of your career or how much of your daily energy is centered on your online instruction?

Mike: I would say at least 75 percent, though more since the coronavirus. I usually get to the mikeslessons.com studio around 8:00 a.m. and work on content and student interaction—emails, DM’s, student reviews—until 7:00 p.m.

MD: How is the core of your teaching philosophy either enhanced or hindered by the online environment?

Mike: I think you just have to invent the person you are teaching inside the camera. In my mind I’m always speaking to a ten-year-old from a foreign country that is just learning English. I know that if I can make him or her understand the concept that I’m teaching, then the average online student will do just fine. 

MD: What is the best way for a prospective student to approach distance learning with you?

Mike: I think that they need to really understand how long the process of learning one small thing on the drums can actually be. How long did it take most of us to get a smooth double-stroke roll down? One year? Two years? Still working on it? My job is to break things up into baby steps, video by video, course by course, so that they constantly feel the growth instead of being shown how far away they are from the end of the tunnel. 

MD: What insight would you share with a novice drummer that’s looking to explore online learning? How might that insight differ for an intermediate drummer? An advanced drummer?

Mike: I honestly wouldn’t recommend online learning for any musical instrument without supplemental in-person lessons for a beginner. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. I do it all the time, but I’ve spent years creating courses specifically designed for people that are truly “starting from scratch.” Not to mention, we have our Student Upload feature that allows me to see your technique and then send you a video of my feedback.

MD: How do you manage student accountability in an online format? 

Mike: You have to have a way for the student to show their progress. We have a private Facebook page for this as well as the Student Upload feature on our site. At the end of every course students are encouraged to submit videos of themselves demonstrating that they can actually play the material from the course before moving on to the next course.

MD: Advances in technology are making it easier and more affordable for amateurs to have professional production value. But that doesn’t equate to an increase in quality of the actual drumming content. How do you approach balancing quality of educational material versus quality of the production value?

Mike: The production quality has to at least be at a level that it doesn’t distract from the education. I remember how hard it was to learn from those early YouTube videos because of how bad the sound and video compression was. For me the cameras, lenses, angles, etc.…it’s all a hobby, something that I always want to improve on. But the teaching, that’s pure passion that comes from my soul. As long as I’m teaching and explaining at the highest level possible, with the highest level of passion, the cameras and the gear won’t matter. 

By David Ciauro