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The use of technology in practice

January 14, 2017

Technology is one of those things that can dramatically improve our lives (and it does every day), yet when misused, it can add distractions, interruptions, inefficiencies, and frustrations to our lives. While I love new technology, especially in the music world, I force myself to be cautious in adopting new technology only because it's new. I want to be sure my use of technological means moves me toward a goal. (I love what Cal Newport has to say on this topic. Check out some of his thoughts here and in his insightful book, Deep Work.)

 

With that said, I definitely make use of technology every day within my work (besides the obvious of having electric lights, talking on my cell phone, emailing colleagues, etc.). Specifically, I want to share a few uses of technology that have aided me in practice and preparation for performance. I expect that many readers may already make use of some or all of the ideas mentioned below, but perhaps you'll find a new idea that can help you (or your students) in your practice.

Audio recording 

I hope this is an obvious one. But surprisingly underused (admittedly by myself, too!). The feedback provided by the objective, unbiased recording device can be very humbling. One of my teachers often said, "If you think you're having a good day in the practice room [and your head is getting big], record yourself playing." Another advantage Rob Knopper and others point out is that when you are recording, you can focus on playing and not on analyzing your playing, because you can do that later when listening back to the recording. Audio recording is also useful in improvisation; it can help you remember the bits and pieces that you liked best so you can use them in the future. Recording also provides a means for tracking progress and archiving past performances.

Good recording devices (Sweetwater is a great vendor for this type of gear):
   - Zoom H4n (~$200)
   - Zoom H1 (~$100)
   - Zoom Q8 (audio + video, ~$350)
  

You can also go with a USB microphone, which connects directly to a computer (many options available - click here for more), or choose a nicer mic (such as large diaphragm condenser) + audio interface for your highest quality recording potential. Whatever you choose, the key is to not let the recording/gear get in the way or slow down your practice. Sometimes the simplest setup, with decent quality, is the way to go.

Video recording

 Similar benefits to audio recording. Also offers a view of what the audience will see. You can use video to focus in on technical skills (How do my hands look? How about the motion of my arms? Do I look relaxed?). I have even used video to help me discover exactly what wrong notes I keep hitting while playing a large spread across the keyboard. Another benefit of both video and audio recording is the added sense of performance. It's like someone else is listening once you hit RECORD. I have found this to be quite valuable in the long run. Even if you never watch the video you took (you should watch it!), there is still the benefit of an added sense of pressure during practice. It's easier than ever to record video, because nearly every one of us has a smart phone with HD video recording capabilities. I set mine up on a mic stand with a little selfie stick clip (something like this), press record an go. Simple as that.

Audio software

Software that can speed up or slow down music. Software that can loop segments, combine independent chunks of music, or add a metronome to a recording to aid in practicing. My experiences as a performer and teacher have helped me recognize the importance of many quality repetitions. Loop it. Over and over again. So I occasionally make use of audio software to slow down a segment and loop it. The computer plays the recording again and again while I run 20 or 30 reps of that chunk until I get it. Making use of such software is especially helpful in preparation of concerti (if you have a recording), rep with electronic accompaniment, chamber rep (I use it for duo practice all the time, playing back the other part on my headphones/speakers) and orchestral excerpts, though I'm sure there are other great uses.

Good software to use for this type of work:
   - Audacity (free)
   - Amazing Slow Downer (This is great for slowing down AND setting up loops, ~$50)
   - Garage Band (comes with all Mac computers)


Notation software/playback

As mentioned above, I often practice with slowed down and/or looped recordings of the other part in duo repertoire. Since Colin Hill and I formed BluHill in 2010, we have never actually lived in the same state. So one way to get a decent recording of his part is by using notation software (in my case, Sibelius) to input the music and create audio files of each part from the MIDI playback. I send him my part to practice with, and I listen to his part when I practice. It's like a virtual duet partner. There are certainly some limitations here, but with the great sample libraries available, one can create a pretty good quality recording that is still quite helpful. Though it can be time consuming to input an entire piece, it might be worth it. Or maybe only a segment of a work needs to be inputted for playback. Other uses of notation software may be to create practice exercises, customized click tracks, or playalongs for exercises/pieces that need a little something extra to keep your interest in practice. (Check out what Pablo Rieppi did with the Délécluse etudes!) 

 

Metronome

I had to include this, because I use the metronome on my phone all the time, specifically the app called Tempo ($3). I also occasionally make use of Tempo Advanced ($4). There are a thousand ways you can make use of a metronome when practicing, which I won't get into here. Just make sure that at some point you are incorporating metronome use into your practice, whether it's through a phone, tablet, computer, or dedicated metronome.


Video sharing websites

Such as YouTube and Vimeo. All of us probably use these sites nearly daily. In the past year or two YouTube has become one of the top online destinations for music discovery. As a practice tool, it might help you answer questions about stickings, musical phrasing ideas, or tempos. While I must be careful not to let it become a distraction, it can also provide a boost in motivation for practicing at times (unless I'm watching Kevin Bobo, which usually has the opposite effect, making want to quit playing marimba forever). 

While I am sure there are other ways to use technology to aid in practicing, these are a great start. What am I missing?

 

(This post is adapted and updated from a 2011 post on my old blog site.)

 

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