Occasionally I drift slightly from the main topic of this blog to draw ideas from my other passions—in today’s case, from my passion for the performing arts in general, and musical performance in particular.
One of my musician friends sent me a web link to a gizmo that replaces the tuning mechanism on a guitar with one that automates the tuning process. Press a button, and the guitar tunes itself. We got into an interesting too and fro as to the merits of such a device (there are other similar devices on the market.)
A Self-Tuning Guitar? I don’t Get It!
I don’t want to come off like a Luddite, but the concept of a self-tuning guitar is problematic to me. From my perspective:
- Guitar tuning is an important part of ear training. The feedback from a good guitar tuner (there are many types of electronic tuner, or tuning forks and even pitch pipes work fine) along with the aural feedback from listening to the plucked note, improves musical skills. Letting technology tune for you deprives you of this. I envisage a future of players brought up on auto-tuning gizmos that won’t know a flat from a sharp!
- Tuning a guitar part of the Zen of musical performance. There is something of a ritual to tuning a guitar—something you do every time before you play. Tuning not only ensures your instrument sounds ‘right’ relative to other instruments (or to your own ear if you have perfect pitch) but it also helps get your head into the practice or performance you are about to embark upon.
- Done properly, guitar tuning actually takes a fair amount of knowledge and skill. For example, knowing that you should always tune from below the target note, never from above, so that any slack in the tuning mechanism is taken up, and once tuned, the string is more likely to stay in tune. Knowing to always go back and re-tune each string, especially if there’s a tremolo device on the guitar, because the tension of one string can affect all others. Knowing all the alternate tunings (variations from “standard” tuning) increases ones versatility—just selecting “Open D” on an automatic tuner, for example, doesn’t help you learn the notes of an “Open D” tuned guitar. Acquiring these simple tuning skills and knowledge is part of learning to play—and of preparing to perform.
- A guitar is almost always out of tune—it is so sensitive to temperature change that even a few degrees difference in ambient temperature will impact tuning. People who just pick up a guitar and play without tuning are usually out of tune, even though they say, “My guitar is great—it never goes out of tune!” If the temperature changed, or even the humidity (with certain types of guitar and strings) the tuning will have also changed.
So, gizmos that automate tuning are anathema to me. I say, “shame on Gibson for colluding with those who would like to take the musicianship out of music!” (On the other hand, it can be a great help if you play in a lot of different tunings and need to move rapidly from one tuning to another.)
Learning and Performance Support Tools? Those I Get!
On the other side of the “does technology help or hurt” balance sheet, there are a plethora of technologies that REALLY do help in learning an instrument and navigating the path to mastery. Here’s a few that I have used and from which I’ve benefited greatly.
- There are tools that let you slow things down as much as you want without changing pitch, or change pitch without changing speed. The latter is very handy for learning songs where the original performance was in some non-standard key (or where the entire band was out of tune!) These tools typically let you set loop points to focus on particularly fast or tricky sections of a song.
- There are tools that have captured the musical scores (e.g., guitar tablature) for thousands of popular songs, and let you play along, slow them down, loop them, adjust the volume (or mute) particular tracks, and so on.
- Tablet devices are very handy for holding and displaying musical scores, lyrics, chord sheets and even provide access to your MP3 library or to YouTube.
- One of my favorite additions to my bag of tricks is my iPad and a Bluetooth-connected gizmo called AirTurn, which features a forward and backward pedal to silently turn pages on a tablet device. This is a tremendous learning aid—following a score while playing without having to worry about page turns. And for live performance, while it is infinitely better to have learned the music and/or lyrics, it can be very handy to be able to take a quick peek if needed!
- In conjunction with AirTurn, I use the strangely-named Deep Dish Gigbook on my iPad to store and organize scores, songbooks, charts, lyrics, set lists, and so on. I used to carry around a half-dozen 2.5 inch 3-ring binders of music—weighed more than my guitar! Now I have far more content packed into a 1 pound device (that does so much more than my 3-ring binders!) This set up also lets me write notes on the score, and organize things into play lists—no struggling to remember what we’re playing next!
YouTube and Lesson Websites
YouTube is a goldmine of resources for learning an instrument and learning specific songs. There are a zillion lessons out there, many very professionally produced. And even beyond lessons, just watching an original performer (or someone who’s copying the original) can help you see the fingering, technique, and, in some cases, the gear they were using and, to a degree, how they achieved their tone. And if watching the performer does not provide insight into their tone, there are websites out there from people who’ve made their life’s work out of analyzing how some top musicians achieve their distinctive sound—information they are thrilled to share for free.
The Bottom Line?
Yes, technology absolutely can help with achieving mastery—or with simply getting started on a learning journey. But not all technology fulfills this promise. Some of it is pure gimmickry, maybe fun to have, but potentially derailing the learning process.
Photo courtesy of Mastery Bridge