Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Novelty vs. Utility vs. Reality pt.6


Yes, I’ve been avoiding reality.  This whole thing started over my Spring Break, when I had all this time to sit around and browse craigslist for toys.  I traded my beloved Viliv S5 for a Sony Vaio P.  The Viliv was one of my longest running toys at almost 9 months before I got rid of it.  I would have happily kept it, but this opportunity to trade it for the P came up and I went for it.  I have gotten more into writing since discovering, and had been pining for a keyboard.  The Viliv was great for content consumption, but I found that even for just email, I would set it down and go to the laptop to type.  I enjoyed the ability to handwrite notes into Evernote, but I’m still faster typing that trying to get stuff in with handwriting recognition.  I enjoy the keyboard on the P so much that I finally started the blog I’ve had in my head for so long.

But then, reality hits.  As much as I love the Vaio P, it still can’t replace my hackintoshed HP Mini 311 as a “work” computer.  Now that I’m back to full time teaching and heading into the busy season of performing, I have less time to play with toys and need to get more directly to work.  I’ve taken the P to the studio a few times, but didn’t really use it.  It doesn’t run Smart Music.  As it turns out, Smart Music is the one tool that really gets used regularly.  No matter how neat it would be to have music on a lightweight tablet than can be set on the stand, I will still have to haul the laptop if a students needs to play with accompaniment.  I’ve also had some requests to try more assessments.  It would seem that some students enjoyed that more than I had thought.  Smart Music has fairly hefty processor requirements, which is rather annoying.  It won’t run on Atom hardware unless it’s over OSX, like my hackintoshed Mini 311. 

The Mini is over 3 pounds, which may not seem like a lot in the context of laptops, but I really feel it my teaching bag.  I’ve managed to trim down the amount of music I carry with me, but I still carry a heavy bag already.  I can throw in my nook or even the Vaio P without noticing the difference.  The 3 pounds of Mini does make a difference.  That means, I would ideally find a device that’s under 2 pounds with enough horsepower to drive Smart Music.  I’m not sure why that extra pound makes such a difference to me, but it does.  Ideally, it would be a slate that could be set (safely) on the music stand.  As it is now, getting the Mini to music height for students is not easy.  9” screens can display Smart Music readably, but 11” is better for PDF sheet music.  Actually, a Smart Music iPad app would be fit all those requirements.  Let’s see if Make Music can get an app out before some hardware manufacturer can build a Windows box that will do it. 

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Novelty vs. Utility vs. Reality pt.5

Utility – SmartMusic

SmartMusc is a great piece of software capable of so many things.  I’m currently only taking advantage of a few of the things is can do, but nothing else out there can do what this software does.  It plays accompaniment files while displaying the music on the screen and scrolling the display to keep up.  It will also listen to the performer and adjust playback to match.  This is adjustable so I can set how strictly my students need to follow. 

This is tremendously useful for me, as my own piano accompaniment skills end about halfway through book 1.  Smart Music allows me to hear my students with the piano accompaniment and even create graduation recordings with the proper accompaniment without the need to hire an accompanist and set aside a special day to record.  Recordings with accompaniment can now be done in the lessons. 

It’s only $30 for a year subscription, which allows you do download all the music you want from their library.  I have all the Suzuki violin and viola books, in addition to some neat little song books I picked up along the way for fun.  It allows you to create playlists, so i have a playlist for each review day to make going through the review lists easy and much more fun.  Sadly, the assessment feature doesn’t work in the Suzuki repertoire.  I can understand why the Suzuki association chose to leave that out, but there are times it would be nice to have. 

It will do assessments on all the songbooks.  It listens to the performer and then goes back and turns all the notes you got right green and drops red notes where it heard extra or wrong notes.  It’s a neat visual feedback and can turn practice time into a video game.  I’ve used a few times in lessons.  Most students think it’s neat, but none have ever asked about doing more.  I think it’s more a novelty that an actual useful tool.  Perhaps if I set up a system where they had to work their way through a particular set, or replaced the reading book with using the songbooks here.  Most students just really enjoy the pieces they are already playing and don’t feel much of a need to play around with the more simple pieces in the assessable books.  They also know when they’re playing it right or wrong and don’t seem to be particularly motivated by little green or red notes.  It’s too bad, as it seems like such a neat idea in theory, but it’s never really taken off in practice, at least not for me.

While the assessment feature is not as useful as I would have thought or hoped, the ability to provide piano accompaniments to more advance Suzuki repertoire is huge.  Even if I had another device to consolidate a PDF library of my music, I would still need to bring the laptop in for Smart Music accompaniments on occasion.  Finding a tablet that could run SmartMusic would really be ideal, but this is not a lightweight piece of software.  It won’t run on the Atom processor that powers most netbooks and tablets, at least not under Windows.  My hackintoshed HP mini 311 handles it just fine in OSX.  I’m not sure whether to blame that on Windows for being crappy, or MakeMusic for writing bloated software. Heavy duty recording stuff (logic, pro-tools) used to run on less.   Either way, the only way to run it on a slate would be to try something like the Havnon slate with it’s CULV processor, or find a tablet that can be hackintoshed. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

Novelty vs. Utility vs. Reality pt.4

Utility – Music Teacher’s Helper

For as fun and rewarding as teaching is, it is still a business, with all the things a business needs to be managed.  I have to keep track of students, families, lessons, invoicing, and event planning.  I use a website called Music Teacher’s Helper to get that done.  These are the things I’m currently using it for:

  • student database – including online registration; separation into active, wait list, and former students; and mass emailing
  • invoicing – tracking tuition per student, automatic charging it monthly, and emailing PDF invoices with a link to Paypal
  • calendar – my full teaching schedule with recurring lessons, syncing to Google calendar
  • file sharing – it has a file upload area where my students can do and download things I post for them

There are so many more features that I’m hoping to take advantage of going forward.  This is the first year I’ve actually used the calendar feature since it can now be synced with Google.  This means I see the same calendar on the website, on iCal, and on my Droid.  I can make changes anywhere and they sync back to everywhere else.  One feature I’m going to be investigating is the notes feature.  You can reconcile a lesson after it happens and add notes, which can then be emailed.  I’m not sure if it will be enough to replace my current lesson notes, but I am working on eliminating the paper system.  Unfortunately, there is no wifi at the studio, which makes using a web-based system for notes more difficult.  A mobile solution would be great, but there are no iPhone or Android apps yet.  An iPad app could be fun, but with a screen that big, just using website directly may work.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Novelty vs. Utility vs. Reality pt.3

Utility – the electronics

The march of technology has not completely passed the world of classical music.  There are several electronic tools we use in the practice room.  Sure there are electronic instruments, but they are more toys as I can’t teach from them or take gigs with regular orchestras.  I do have an electric and enjoy it on occasion, but that’s for another post.  The tools I’m talking about here are the tools of the practice room – tuner, metronome, and quick recording devices. 

The metronome started out as a mechanical tool, but modern electronics can offer more features in a smaller package.  I had been using the same metronome for a good 10 years and finally decided it might be time for a new one when I broke the kickstand on my current one.  One would think a neat little electronic gizmo with a bunch of buttons and lights and a pretty little screen would be interesting, but no.  The thing beeps at me.  That’s about it.  Not much to play with there.

Well, it does do more than just beep, it’s a tuner.  Most devices now are combo metronome/tuners.  The electronics all fit easily in the same size box, so why not?  The only stand alone tuners now are the kind that clip on to the instrument.  I’ve never tried one of those and don’t really care to.  The tuner simply supplements the work my ears and brain are already doing.  It’s mostly just there to keep me honest and check the initial tuning of the instrument.  I don’t have perfect pitch, so when I first get going in the morning, I need a reminder of a true A 440.  The tuner offers a little more room to play though.  Even though I don’t have perfect pitch, I like to try to sing an A first thing to see how close I am.  Beyond that, not much of a toy.

There a good video of Heifitz on youtube watching slow motion video of himself playing as a practice tool.  Recording is one of the best ways to get a truly objective idea of how you sound.  We all know we should do it and we all hate it.  I have used many tools in the past to record myself with great success, when I actually do it.  The problem is, I hate to do it.  I don’t mind recording myself so much as I hate to take the time to listen to it.  There are some dedicated recording devices that are targeted at musicians, with better microphones than your standard voice recorder, but I don’t know anyone who has one. 

All of these functions could actually be accomplished with just my Droid, but I don’t use it for any of them.  All the metronome apps lose time.  It’s apparently very difficult to properly allocate the resources to keep that perfectly steady click going.  And a metronome that’s not perfect is useless.  I know there are tuner apps, but I’ve honestly never tried them to know how accurate they are or aren’t.  My metronome has a good tuner on it already, so I’ll just use that.  I can do voice recordings with my Droid, but I hate doing that, so I don’t.  Besides, I do actually have a nice microphone and real recording set up for when I need to produce good recordings. 

So, while there are a lot of electronic tools in use, none of them are particularly exciting.  The tools are simple, dedicated things that do their one or two things very well.  As much as I love the novelty of a new gadget, these tools are nothing to get excited about.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Novelty vs. Utility vs. Reality pt.2

Utility – the actual instruments

So, what are the tools of a musician?  I think the most important would be the actual instrument.  Those haven’t changed in hundreds of years.  Sure the pitch of A has risen some, requiring a few structural adjustments.  The modern bow is a little more modern than some of the music will still play, but only a little. 

The biggest change to the actual instrument in the past hundred years would probably be the strings.  That’s also the one thing musicians actually seem to want to talk about and try new things with.  Most people are interested in experimenting with new strings, but as each set can last a month or more, and strings are not cheap, it’s a rather drawn out process.  Each instrument is so unique that the strings that work best on one will likely not be the best on another, so this is also an endless debate of personal preference.  I will on occasion try different strings, but I keep coming back to the brand I’ve been using since high school.

Sure, there have been advances in carbon fiber and its use as a material in instrument construction.  It is relatively accepted in the world of bows, as most people will keep a carbon fiber bow around as a “beater” for gigs in less hospitable environments, or as a backup for when their main bow is getting a rehair.  Musician are actually willing to talk about these things and play “can I try your bow?”  Carbon fiber instruments on the other hand are relatively newer and more rare.  I’ve come across a few, and the people I know who have them agree that they sound just like a carbon fiber bow plays – consistent.  Flat, stiff, and brighter than all get out, but consistently so.  Good for outdoor gigs and not much more.  I should probably have a carbon fiber bow of my own, but this technology really doesn’t excite me.  I mean why drop the money on a bow, when I could spend it on an iPad?  I have two perfectly good bows already.

Novelty vs. Utility vs. Reality


It’s no secret that I love gadgets.  I love getting a new thing, poking and prodding it to figure out what it can do, then selling it off once I’ve figured it all out.  Living in the Bay Area of San Francisco means there is no shortage of new toys available on craigslist, and a good market for selling them off again.  There’s always Gazelle for the other stuff.

Why do I get so much enjoyment out of gadgets?  Why does anyone enjoy any hobby?  I think for me it’s the thrill of discovery – new devices that do new things in new ways.  Also, there’s a strong pull towards shiny things.  I do like shiny things.  I’ll figure out what they actually do later.

Perhaps the other factor is that all of these devices come in squarely in the “toy” category.  I like to think they will be useful as tools, and some do gain “tool” status eventually, but not many.  I try to keep only one “toy” class device at a time, so there’s a lot of coming and going of gadgets as the novelty of the latest “toy” wears off.  The only way a device can hang around is to either move to the “tool” category, or be cooler than all the other “toys” currently catching my interest.  To become a tool, a device has to fill a utility role (that is not already covered by a current device) in my current work/entertainment flow. 

I realize this is backwards from the way a lot of people do things.  Most people want to do something, then find a tool that will do it for them.  Perhaps that’s what separates the gadget nerds from the general market.  For me, the potential of the device is exciting whether or not it actually fills a need.  So many in my field will grudgingly have a computer around for email, but could really care less about technology and have no vision for what it can do.  Considering what we do has remained the same for hundreds of years, with very little electronic intervention, there’s not really a pressing need for new devices or new ways of doing things.  But I’ve found a few interesting options….

Utility coming soon, reality will hit after that.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hi, I’m new here

Wherein I will attempt to make useful contributions to the internet at regular intervals about Technology, Music, and anything else I feel like writing about.

For example, just yesterday I wandered into Best Buy (again) to play with the iPad (again).  Like many, I’m intrigued by the device but not yet convinced of its usefulness at a level that will cause me to part with $500+.  I have been after this idea of carrying PDFs of sheet music (my entire library) in a single device for a while now.  Like an ebook reader full of sheet music. 

I was convinced that the iPad’s screen would not be big enough to properly display sheet music readably.  So, I wandered over the iPad display, waited my turn, and when I got to an iPad, pointed the browser to  This site is like the Guttenberg project for sheet music.  It is every work available in the public domain for free download or viewing as PDF.  It actually fit the screen nicely.  One full page of music filling the screen, no scrolling in portrait.  Flipping it over to landscape would make the music bigger and more readable, but I felt the size in portrait would be big enough for one person just practicing. 

Now I want an iPad.  Darn.  I would at least need to hold out until the 3G one is available as there is no wifi at my studio.  I have until then to come up with $650.  Hm.