Monday, February 7, 2011

Warning: The following post could change your musical life...

Back to happy thoughts for this week's bloggerama. Based on some of the comments from a few weeks ago, I started thinking about all the technologies I used when teaching private percussion lessons on a regular basis. Two examples are especially helpful, and I use them all the time - both in my own practicing, and when teaching.

First of all, if you record yourself practicing and then listen to the recording, you're practically "double dipping" in your practice time. It's the best possible way for you to improve on your own... everyone is their own worst critic, and we can hear our own flaws much easier when we're not worried about playing the darn thing. In preparation for auditions, I always record EVERYTHING, and then listen to it later. Hugely helpful, and puts the "improvement factor" on steroids. Extend this to teaching, and the same thing happens. Students hear the mistakes they're making (or the "stuff" that I keep harping on as their teacher) and realize what needs to be done to fix it. I also sometimes ask them to record their practicing so I can help them develop appropriate practice habits and help them use their practice time efficiently. It's always incredible how many students practice like crazy, but accomplish nothing because they don't know HOW to practice. Getting students to listen to their playing (when they're not busy actually playing the piece/etude/excerpt/etc) is key to their continued development. It gets them analyzing and critiquing their own performance, and it also starts them on the way to self-improvement without the constant need for a teacher. With my more advanced students, we play orchestral excerpts and then compare their recordings to mine, or their recordings to those from a professional orchestra, or mine to a professional orchestra. It's amazing what the students are able to hear, and then incorporate into their own playing. When one of my students has an audition on the horizon, I'll put together a "mock audition" for them and record it, so that they can listen back on their own time. Also, when dealing with a large ensemble rehearsal situation, I often record the rehearsal so I can listen back later, analyze what I didn't hear on the podium, and take steps to fix it up at the next rehearsal. To accomplish all these recording tasks, I use a (oh... free advertising) Zoom H2 series recorder. The thing is awesome... you can record anything in beautiful quality sound. It has two sets of xy microphones, allowing you to record in stereo... fantastic. You can also listen to yourself through the device as it has a playback feature, and supports SD cards up to 8GB in size. If you're a musician, or a teacher, buy one. Seriously.

The second thing I use, much in the same way as the Zoom recorder, is a Flip video recorder. It's small, easy to use, and you can easily watch the videos on the machine. Furthermore, it's very simple to hook it up to your computer, and watch the videos on a bigger screen, email them to students, etc. Same principle here as with the audio recorder, but it allows the students to SEE their hands, and then correct the problems they see. I've also used it when teaching students crash cymbals, as they can SEE how they're crashing, and correct any technical deficiencies. The Flip recorder connects directly to your computer, no cord needed, allowing you to quickly and efficiently watch the videos/save them for future lessons, etc. It should also be noted that Zoom just came out with a camera similar to the Flip recorder, that uses the same microphone set up as found in the H2 audio recorder. Might be worth checking out.

I love it when technology not only improves my own practicing and rehearsal efficiency, but also helps my students to improve as well. Seems to me this is the whole point of technology - it works, it's useful, and it allows us to do things never before possible. It's user friendly, not at all clumsy or cumbersome, and really does fulfill a purpose that would otherwise remain unrealistic.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I wonder how much bandwidth this post will take...

Usage based billing. These three words (or two, depending on whether or not you choose to hyphenate anything) should strike fear into the hearts of everyone who reads them. Imagine a world where internet companies are allowed to mess with your wallet the same way cell phone companies often do. Ladies and gentlemen... we have entered the realm of usage based billing. For those of you who haven't heard the news, as of early March internet providers are allowed to lower their limits for internet usage, and charge for excess usage much the same way that cell phone providers treat "minutes" and data plans. Again, for anyone with a cell phone, we all know how difficult "usage limits" can be on these devices. The only thing more irritating than "going over" your limit and having to pay, is having to keep minute-by-minute (or megabyte by megabyte as the case may be) track of your activities.

Sometimes I just want to watch one of my favourite TV shows online. Or check out a YouTube clip. Or research for a paper. Honestly, when doing any of these things, the last thing I need is to worry about how much "data" I'm using. Considering the amount of technology we're asked to use on a daily basis (in our courses, in our research, in our day-to-day lives, etc), it would be nearly impossible to impose self-restrictions on internet usage. The majority of things I do online simply have to get done (homework, teaching activities, etc). Of course, the internet companies must realize this (unless they're completely oblivious, which I sincerely doubt is the case) and as such figure that there's money to be made, and they're going to take advantage of the opportunity.

There are a few very serious implications stemming from this change on the horizon. First, how much data does a video take? How much data will I use to complete tasks as usual? Where do I find this information? Is it even POSSIBLE to find this information? Second, how is this funding alteration going to change how we're expected to teach? How will this widen the socio-economic gap between the kids who "have" and the kids who don't? Some families can't even afford computers (which have arguably become a standard piece of equipment for education today), so how are they supposed to deal with this additional potential cost? Further along these lines, this proposed change will forever alter the expectation for homework. Is it appropriate for teachers to expect students to use their family internet allowance (or their personal internet allowance) to complete mandatory school work? How will this impact the thoroughness of the assignment? Will students and families be reimbursed for this additional mandated cost? Will ALL students still have access to the resources and materials they need (videos, large files, etc) in order to complete their work? How will this change the way schools spend their money? Will teachers still be able to use the internet to teach their lessons? How will this impact the "smart board" revolution?

In my last blog entry, I spoke about how I use YouTube in my private drum lessons. I LOVE YouTube for teaching... it's a fantastic resource. However, depending on the video, it can "cost" a lot of data usage. Would my students lose the opportunity to see these videos as their lessons if my internet was limited? Considering the fact that I've got anywhere between 10 and 15 students at any given time, you bet. I doubt I would be able to give those students this kind of multimedia experience if I had to budget my data needs for research, course work, personal use, etc. Similarly, I'm not sure it would be appropriate for me to instruct my students to use their own personal internet for tasks that I assign, either in the classroom or as "practice" for my private students. The internet, as will many different technologies, has the potential to be an absolutely limitless resource... unless of course someone decides to limit it for personal financial gain.