Musician Toys

With Music Software, Timing is Everything

I'd like to say that I know my way around a computer. At my last full-time job (for someone else), I was called one of the "super-users". However, I  have been experiencing several challenges with my Studio Lab computer. It's operating on Linux Ubuntu and it's not as easy as Mac or as familiar to me as Windows or even Unix or DOS. Linux has some fabulous apps available for education and more specifically, music education and music. For example:

  • music notation software (e.g. MuseScore)
  • audio recording and editing (e.g. Audacity)
  • drum machine (e.g. Hydrogen Drum Machine)
  • note reader trainers and more

Music and technology has never been so tempting. "Sudo apt-get install" is just so gosh-darn easy to do. Getting the sound set up and audio controls cooperating with all one another? Now there's my technical challenge. Thankfully, some super Linux users have posted some helpful tutorials. The Linux Community Forums have been good too, but having the visuals and working through the steps along with the video helped. It's just been challenging getting the time in to focus on it. The process has made me rethink my roll-out strategy for these music software programs. Rather than having them all available for my students to explore at once, I am going to just roll out a few programs at a time. I have learned that it's important to have Jack Control and those connections set up properly. 

After three weeks of on and off fiddling and re-installs, I can say with confidence that Hydrogen Drum Machine, Virtual Midi Piano Keyboard and Score Reading Trainer are playing nicely together in my computer lab.

Life was so much easier when dealing with physical midi and audio cables. Trying to set audio up in a virtual environment has really challenged my learning style.

Using Webcams in Music Lessons

Last year, I purchased an HD webcam for my music studio. My students, their parents and I have enjoyed how easy it is to take a quick video clip or photo of either a hand position or drilling a troublespot in their music. They get to review it as many times as they need to at home as an unlisted Youtube video.

Computer assisted instruction aids music practice. Photo by R-M Arca

Some of my piano parents really like the overhead camera as it gives them the same view that pianists see when they look at their hands.

This year, we are moving full-steam ahead with computer assisted instruction. Thanks to Memory Express and Best Buy, I was able to take advantage of their huge sale on webcams. 

Webcam #2 is positioned to give that all important profile view. It's great for checking posture and ergonomic movement.

Technology in music can be as easy as a $30 HD webcam. Photo by R-M Arca.

It took a while for some of today's students to find Webcam #3. I have a few students who need the pedal view.

Having multiple camera views for computer assisted music lessons is ideal. Photo by R-M Arca.

My beginner piano students were pretty eager to test how well my computer could handle recording from two cameras simultaneously. It turned out all right. I'll have to fiddle around with the audio settings a bit, but at least my students and I are having fun with these toys as we explore the exciting world of music. Once we get a better handle on things, Skype piano coaching can't be too far away.

Helping Fidgety Students Focus with Active Sitting and Stress Balls

I have two students who are extremely fidgety during lessons. At some point, I'm going to have to read the information package I have on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder to see what other strategies I can use. The following are a few strategies I've come up with along the way.

  1. Keep changing the activities every few minutes
  2. Keep these students moving from one part of the studio to the other side
  3. Make them "play like a rock star" (play standing up)

This active seating disc is good for posture correction and fidgety students. Photo by R-M Arca.

I'm sure other teachers have come up with similar formulae:

  • Do some stretches and warm-ups
  • Play a scale
  • Tweak a scale
  • Move to the computer and watch a performance on youtube
  • Back to the piano to play a song and tweak it
  • Down on the floor to do theory exercises or games
  • Make them sit on one of my active sitting discs

This week, I've made a new discovery: combine activities and work with their fidgety nature. While I was demonstrating something on the piano to one student, I made her stand on my Fitterfirst Classic Sit Disc. She loved swaying from side to side and I was astounded to find that she paid attention better.

Another student is not just fidgety but his hands are always moving. This week, I decided to keep his hands busy by having him use a couple of stress balls (from the good ol' dollar store) whenever his hands were off the keys. In addition to that, he sat on my new FitBall Seating Wedge and placed the Classic Sit Disc at his feet.

At first, I thought it was overkill but he moved to the music when he played and continued to move rhythmically in between pieces. I was delighted to see that he focused a bit better (I, in the meantime, was moving rhythmically and practicing active sitting on a FitBall Seating Disc).

On another note, one of my other students asked if he'd be allowed to bring an active sitting disc into his piano exam. Why not? People bring active sitting discs and core stability balls to work in the name of better posture, ergonomics and health. Musicians sit a lot and suffer from back pain, so to me, it's a no-brainer.

If anything, I bet his examiner will be jealous and want his or her own active sitting disc.

Here's a video about active sitting:

All three sitting discs are available at Fitterfirst, located in Calgary.

(c) 2009 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada.

Practicing Piano While on Vacation

Some of my students are going to places warm and exotic for Easter Break. One of them, who's taking her Gr. 7 piano exam in June, asked me how to practice while on vacation. Bonus points to her for asking! What I've done in the past is put my music in a binder or duotang and study the score, analyzing the form, dynamics, articulation, rhythm and harmony. If my ear is on that day, I can hum the melody and practice how I'd like to shape it. I've also tap practiced the melody. That can be done in a 10 minute mini practice at the airport, on the plane, at the beach...you get the idea.

I know of one piano accompanist who played "air piano" while on public transit. Her husband, a conductor, would laugh at her whenever she grumbled over hitting a wrong note. "You're playing an imaginary piano. How do you know?" he asked.

She told him that her body remembered where each note was on the keyboard, so her muscle memory was finely tuned.

I've hopped on a few discussion forums to see what others do. If it's a short vacation, the rule of thumb is to enjoy the time off. If you're preparing for a major performance, one can practice as I outlined above. You can also see if the place you're staying at has a piano or keyboard that is nearby and make arrangements to play on it during low traffic times. Several posters advise packing headphones to plug into a keyboard so that the world doesn't have to listen to you drill a troublespot 50 times.

One of my young students brought an Keyboard Chart Chart on his Christmas vacation, which is available at most music stores. He placed the cardboard keyboard on a table or the floor to practice.

I've also heard of a "roll-up piano", made by Hecsan in Japan. Neat concept. However, advanced pianists would have challenges with the small length and the fact that it doesn't play chords very well.

If only we could be all like pop star Alicia Keys - she brings her piano with her everywhere she goes.

(c) 2007 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.