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Local music academy posts all lessons free on YouTube

A still image from one of Joseph Hoffman's YouTube videos on learning the piano.

It's hard to imagine a business being successful when it gives its most-valuable product away for free online -- but for Joseph Hoffman, it just made sense.

"We felt really committed to making music education available to everyone," says Hoffman, the owner of Hoffman Academy in Northwest Portland.

Hoffman moved his family to Portland eight years ago to start his piano academy. Hoffman had been teaching piano for years, and knew the Portland area celebrated the arts and had plenty of parents who wanted lessons and music education for their kids.

The online side of it all came a little later, at his wife's suggestion.

"We were running this music school and realizing that we could only reach so many people, and some couldn't afford the lessons," says Hoffman. "So my wife had the idea actually of, 'Hey, let's put them online.'"

But the grand idea started as a work-in-progress. Hoffman had the theory, and he had the experience teaching kids, but something about the online lessons weren't clicking. Once again, it was his wife whose innovation helped him take that next step.

"It wasn't really working until she was like, 'Look Joseph, you've been teaching 10 years, just teach how you would teach a 7-year-old,'" remembers Hoffman, recalling his first attempt at online lessons. "When I started teaching to the camera exactly how I would imagine a typical 7-year-old would go, BOOM, it just worked!"

Now, Hoffman's video lessons on YouTube have been viewed more than 10 million times. His style is friendly and playful, and his lessons are geared toward young learners, but he has students of all ages learning piano, for free, around the world.

"We just had a guy from Nigeria, some guy in his 30s, wrote us on Facebook and said, 'Hey, I found your lessons, and I'm learning to play the piano!'" says Hoffman. He's also heard from people in Australia and all over the U.S.

"We had no idea if it would work, you know? We were doing it evenings and weekends, and kind of on a wing and a prayer, and the response has been overwhelming," says Hoffman.

His music theory is complex, but it boils down to this: music lessons need to be fun AND rigorous.

"Kids don't want to just learn dead guys' music," he says. "Bach -- kids don't really have any way to relate to that. So I wanted a method that had them play Justin Timberlake or Star Wars, but that also had the theory, so they'd really learn to read notes."

"They're decoding these strange foreign symbols to figure out a song they're not even familiar with. But if you take familiar songs and use those as the first songs they learn to read, there's a reward like, 'Oh! I'm reading and I know what that's supposed to sound like!'" he says.

Hoffman believes music is an important enrichment for a young mind. He cites studies that show brain structure fundamentally changes when kids have music lessons, and his team teaches about 300 students in their offices off Northwest Cornell Road. But that's not available for everyone.

"Private one-on-one instruction can be expensive," he says. "I know, because we offer that here. But what about those kids who can't afford that? Are they never going to get that opportunity for piano?"

So he offers every one of his video lessons online, close to 250 of them in all. And he offers a premium package for online students, for $18 a month, that adds sheet music, MP3s of backing music, and personalized instruction to go along with the lessons available on YouTube.

"It's maybe more like if you went to a teacher, and the teacher said, 'You know what, every lesson you take with me is free, all I'm gonna charge you for is the books and materials and things,'" he explains.

His first lesson, a primer on the 88 keys of a piano and Hot Cross Buns, has been viewed more than a million times. So has his lesson on "How Far I'll Go" from the Disney movie Moana. And that's made the unassuming piano expert a bit of a celebrity among the people who use his videos.

"Sometimes kids call when they're going on vacation and they're passing through Portland, they'll actually call our office like 'Can we come meet Mr. Hoffman?'" he laughs. "To my live students, I'm just another guy, but to these students who come from out of town, I'm like a rock star. It feels fun."

Sometimes his online students post videos on the Hoffman Academy Facebook page, showing their technique. At first Hoffman was concerned those videos might show a gap in what they were learning, versus what live students were getting from lessons. But he soon learned, he needn't worry.

"The ones who listen to the videos and follow my instructions, they look great," he smiles. "They look as good as a lot of our live students."

And he has some big plans for the future.

"I have a crazy dream that someday someone's going to do the whole online course -- I want to go all the way up to advanced course where they're playing Beethoven sonatas. I would love to see some kid only doing online lessons and make it into Julliard School of Music," he smiles. "That would be leveling the playing field."

Hoffman figures to get to that level, he'll need to post another 1,000 or more lessons online. But that's something he's working on, along with possibly starting to post jazz piano, guitar and even voice lessons online from some of the other instructors at his academy. It may sound like a big load, but it seems he wouldn't want it any other way.

"It's cool when you find, if you're lucky enough to find, this is my gift that I have to give."

Here's Lesson One:


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