How the School of Song Became Indie Music Royalty’s Online Anti-MasterClass

We spoke with the LA-based online program’s founders, the Microphones’ Phil Elverum and Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus about how the organization that started as a means of generating revenue artists during COVID has become a tight-knit community fostering lyrical and instrumental expression.

Music Features Scene Report
How the School of Song Became Indie Music Royalty’s Online Anti-MasterClass

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in a Zoom waiting room with tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, here’s a spoiler: It starts with 30 seconds of loud humming noises in C, plus an open invite for viewers to join in.

At least that’s how Garbus opened her first lecture for the School of Song, an under-the-radar online school with big-name teachers. Adrianne Lenker, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, Kimbra, Courtney Marie Andrews, and Phil Elverum of the Microphones and Mount Eerie have all taught courses. Garbus is the latest artist to complete a course, which ran from the end of February into March. Though she’s run workshops before, the School of Song experience was a new one. “There is something very familiar about it—but this kind of very rigorous, if tUnE-yArDs was a college course, let’s break tUnE-yArDs down into [parts] and then derive a curriculum from it? No way, man.” she says.

That class curriculum, which consists of five meetings spaced out over a few weeks, includes lectures, songwriting homework, Q&As and access to the instructor in School of Song’s Discord channel. It culminates with an online recital: Songs written by students are shared on Instagram, and sometimes reshared by their teacher. For the 24-hour lifetime of an IG story, students can have a reshare from Garbus or Pecknold or Lenker.

How did an online school with their first class in 2021 end up hosting workshops with some of the most celebrated indie songwriters of the past decade only a few years later? By comparison, after around three years, the popular online megaschool MasterClass had featured courses with Carlos Santana, Deadmau5 and Reba McEntire—but the School of Songs is definitively not MasterClass. “Oh my god, we love talking about how different we are from MasterClass,” says Blue Sheffer, one of the organization’s co-founders and a former Stanford PhD candidate. “It’s one of our favorite topics somehow.”

The 29-year-old from Nevada had been in a doctoral program when COVID hit and, like many people at the time, Sheffer was looking to reprioritize. That led him to re-center music, which in turn led him to his high school buddy, Steven van Betten. “We’ve used [MasterClass] as an actual counterpoint, because MasterClass is so slick—everything’s super highly produced,” says van Betten. “We tell artists, ‘You can make mistakes, you can cuss. It’s actually better if it’s rough around the edges, like “house-show” energy.’”

After graduating from California Institute of the Arts, a private art university north of Los Angeles, van Betten had moved to the city proper. There, he was teaching music one-on-one, and eventually in a group setting under a tree in his front yard. “My original motivation was just to get all my adult students to be playing music together and to be experiencing music in a more communal setting,” he continues. “[It was] a breakthrough on the scaling model of, whoa, I’m teaching like eight people at the same time. Now, they’re all paying less, and I’m making twice as much as I was before.” Meanwhile, he had been making music with various smaller bands—and opening for some future big names. “I had done a tour and played shows opening for Big Thief,” van Betten concludes. “Buck Meek especially had become a really dear friend of mine.”

Back to COVID: Sheffer and van Betten reconnected and, with artists looking for a source of revenue, Meek took inspiration from van Betten and posted on his personal Instagram—offering a chance at online guitar lessons. The response was considerable. “He hit me up saying, ‘Man, I don’t know what to do with all these people, I don’t know how to wrangle them all!’” van Betten says. “[Sheffer] and I started talking about if we could figure out a format and a context in which [Meek] could teach everybody.”

Thus, the idea for School of Song was born, with a modified version of the curriculum van Betten had been using to teach online. The first songwriting workshop was in January 2021, taught by van Betten himself. “[He] would talk about some aspect of songwriting, give everyone a songwriting prompt, and then over the next few days, [students] write their songs, come back, and then share those songs with each other,” says Sheffer. “That core mechanism is, still today, what happens—just at a larger scale.”

One of the students that went through the course was musician Jack Symes; after taking the class, Symes asked if he could teach the next one. The class after that was taught by Molly Sarlé of Mountain Man, and then Sheffer and van Betten returned to Meek. “We were like ‘Hey, we think that we have something that works,’” Sheffer says. “So he taught a songwriting workshop, and that’s when things really blew up.”

Blowing up, in this case, looked a lot like getting @-ed by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, who responded to a post about another workshop, this time featuring Meg Duffy of Hand Habits. “[Pecknold] just reposted their post and said, ‘Oh my god, this looks so cool. I want to take this and I want to teach one!’ Not reaching out to us, just like, on main, on his Instagram—so our inboxes are flooded,” Sheffer says. After talking with Pecknold, Sheffer and van Betten confirmed “that we were going to do one in January of the following year, and that same day is when I quit my PhD.”

That open, word-of-mouth approach was how Sheffer and van Betten brought Phil Elverum on board as well, for a class taught in November 2022. “They just emailed me, basically,” says Elverum. “I asked my friend, Dave Longstreth [of Dirty Projectors], who had taught one. He thought I should do it. He said, unequivocally, yes.” Despite the low-key approach, Elverum says that developing his course was definitely not something he could phone in. “They basically said, ‘Block out the whole month. You have a full-time job for the month that you’re teaching this class, and for maybe a month or two leading up to it to prepare,’” he continues. “So, yeah, that was true. I was writing hours of lectures every week.”

All the writing and teaching actually helped get Elverum himself back into songwriting shape, and opened him up to the growing company of School of Song graduates. “I hadn’t written a song in a while, for maybe a year or more, before the class, and now I’m just a fire hose of ideas,” he says. “Every time I play a show where I’m out there, people are constantly being like, ‘Hey, I was in your School of Song class.’ It’s been amazing.” That sense of community, united by shared acts of creativity on Zoom and in the breakout rooms and on Discord, is something that Garbus felt while teaching her course as well. “At a time when it really feels like the ecology of musical culture is really being eroded from the bottom up, it feels like [School of Song] is replenishing the soil,” Garbus says. “They’re really nourishing a musical ecosystem.”

For a company founded online, the ecosystem in question is heavily IRL. School of Song has had student meetups and song shares in New York and Los Angeles, with some gigs even consisting of former students now playing together. Students also put together their own song shares in cities across the country. None of this musical ecosystem would be possible, of course, without a business plan. While the landscape of the current musical economy is built toward extracting value from artists, Sheffer and van Betten have focused on two things—keeping the artists paid (their “number one expense,” according to Sheffer) and the classes affordable.

“Generally, there is some scaling with the size of the workshop,” Sheffer says. “But on the student side, it has been the same amount of money no matter who teaches. It’s not like if there’s this bigger artist that more people want, we’re going to hike the price or anything.” An example of the steady pricing is Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting workshop, which wrapped up in early 2024, and costs the same ($160) as Big Thief bandmate Buck Meek’s upcoming class in April—after another songwriting class at the same price offered by Sam Evian this March.

For Sheffer and van Betten, being able to offer artists and students an economically appealing, win-win structure that also seems sustainable is a major point of pride, especially considering the time frame from inception to their current success. “Getting to work with these artists that I love and respect so deeply, and then getting to pay them an amount of money that, most times, just kind of blows their mind, is so satisfying,” van Betten says. “It’s a deep joy.”

You can find more information about the School of Song’s courses on their website, or via their Instagram.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin