Music Education With Linux Sound Tools, Redux
Four years ago I wrote an article for Linux Journal about my use of Linux software for music instruction. A lot has changed since then, so I thought I should update that article to reflect my current use of Linux in my work as a music teacher. I'll follow the presentation of materials as I organized it in the original article, but first I'll share some observations about the changing nature of my trade.
I'm interested in how and where my younger students hear new music. Some of the old channels still work for them, especially live shows, but television and radio have little appeal. On-line music services such as iTunes and Magnatunes are very popular, many students have directed me to music tracks and performances on YouTube and MySpace sites, and the Guitar Hero games have inspired some students to learn tunes they may not have heard elsewhere. Surprisingly, very few have ever tuned in to an Internet radio station. Students still share mix CDs, but of course the iPod is now the preferred portable media player.
Thanks to the webcam and inexpensive digital video recorders we now have the great resources of the video Web. I've directed students to on-line video demonstrations of playing technique, historical footage of performers in concert, and tutorials on music software. I expect to make ever more use of YouTube and similar channels, and I intend to add my own bits to the stream.
Recently two students asked about getting lessons on-line in realtime via webcam or by exchanging video files. They're moving to a small town in Alaska, and they'd like to continue studies with me if at all possible. Hopefully the video capabilities of the Net will make it possible. Instructional videos are nothing new, but the new things include custom video lessons, on-line subscription lesson plans, and other experiments in long-distance learning. I've only begun my own experiments, but I'll be sure to report the outcome of my efforts in this new domain.
I don't teach from published method books, so I maintain an ample supply of blank manuscript and tablature pages. Currently I use and recommend the blank music pages available from Perry Roland's Music Paper Web page. Alas, that site contains no template for chord frames (most of my students are guitarists), but help is at hand on the I Love Guitar downloads page. I've found other Web pages with free templates for chord frames, but the template found on the ILG site includes nice large grids, very easy to mark and to read (Figure 1).
By the way, my printer is now an HP DeskJet 6540, thanks to a recommendation at OpenPrinting (previously at LinuxPrinting.org). I often print from the Web (via Firefox) as well as from OpenOffice, the GIMP, and XPDF, and I've yet to find fault with the 6540. If you need a printer that will see heavy employment, check the OpenPrinting site's Suggested Printers list before making your purchase.
Media & Players
Students still bring in their own custom CDs, but they also bring in iPods loaded with their personal music collections. The iPods get patched into my audio system with a simple adapter cable, normal audio CDs get played with Ti Kan's venerable XMCD, but MP3 and other audio files are now player with either AlsaPlayer (when played from my file manager) or Amarok. Amarok also supplies some excellent educational tools, including lyrics retrieval, cover art displays, and links to artist biographies on Wikipedia (see Figure 2). Incidentally, I often recommend Wikipedia as a starting point for music history and other related topics. My students understand that Wikipedia's entries are not intended to be exhaustive, but I've found that the service usually provides good guidance for further study.
I see fewer commercial CDs these days, again due to the greater popularity of the iPod and similar hardware players. The commercial audio CD may not exactly be doomed, but it is certainly under fire from the new media player technologies. I don't see much use of the DVD as a sharing format (the iPod strikes again ?), but I have seen some excellent video productions on DVD from a few students. I expect to do more with the format, as both storage and playback medium, but I doubt that it will gain significant ground against the portable players.
Aural Skills Training
In Ye Olden Dayes we worked on our ear-training by learning songs and passages of music from vinyl disk recordings. If the particular piece was a track on a 33 rpm long-play disk (a.k.a an album) then we could bring the turntable speed to 16 rpm (if the table supported that speed) and try to learn the music at half-speed and almost an octave down. The technique worked, but I ruined many an album since the process included placing a phonograph needle into the selected track over and over. Obviously loop-playback of a selected area was out of the question then.
Now we have Audacity, with which I can change the playback speed without changing the pitch of the original file (WAV, OGG, or MP3). I can also alter the pitch along with the speed to accommodate tuning discrepancies or even put the song in another key. Audacity has the further attraction of being a cross-platform application, which means that my students can use it at home exactly as they see it used at their lessons. Audacity has become a fixture here, and I recommend it to all my students, regardless what music they're practicing.
My electroacoustic guitar has a built-in tuner, but my regular electric and bass guitars need tuned from an external source. Fortunately Linux musicians can choose from a variety of chromatic and sintrument-specific tuning programs, most of which have nice big displays for easy reading and adjustment. Figure 3 shows off Gilles Degottex's FMIT as it appears on my 64 Studio box, the main studio machine here.
A similar situation exists for metronomes. Many metronome programs exist for Linux (see the list on the Musician's Utilities page at linux-sound.org), but typically I'll write and loop a simple drum track in a MIDI sequencer. I've found that students have more fun playing with the sound of a recognizable musical instrument (such as drums) than when they try to keep up with the unchanging tick-tock of a conventional metronome (hardware or software).
Although I'm fluent with standard music notation I prefer to work with tablature for my guitar students. They are more familiar with it (it is ubiquitous on the Web), and there is often no definite purpose to learning standard notation in the beginning stages of instruction. If a student develops towards classical or jazz the skill of reading standard notation becomes imperative. Students planning to do formal music work also find it a necessary study: For example, a guitarist who wants to lead a praise & worship group may well need to know how to read the standard notation found in most hymnals and other collections.
Currently I write out all lessons by hand, but I intend to make more use of programs like KGuitar and TuxGuitar. I've prepared the same songs many times over the years, and I'd rather have a nice library of prepared scores and transcriptions to save time in the lesson. Of course, LilyPond remains my preferred tool for preparing arrangements in standard notation.
If a student needs accompaniment software Band In A Box still rules in the Windows world. That program runs very well under Wine, but I plan to use Bob van der Poel's excellent Musical MIDI Accompaniment (MMA) more often, along with Bob Keller's Impro-Visor (Figure 4). Impro-Visor has the added attraction of being a Java application, so again my students can see it and work with it identically at home and in their lessons.
Some students want to learn how to record and edit their own musical ventures. None of them use Linux, so I can't recommend Ardour (yet) or my other Linux audio favorites, but I can and do recommend Cockos Software's Reaper audio/MIDI sequencer. I've written about Reaper many times already, but here I'll emphasize its ease of installation and operation for Windows users. Reaper's pricing is also attractive: The program can be downloaded entire, with no crippled aspects, and the user can use it without paying for it first. A mild nag notice appears at start-up, but otherwise the program functions whole and entire. Given Reaper's extensive features and its reasonable pricing policies, I encourage students to pay for the program if they continue to use it.
Reaper also runs nicely under Wine, especially with the wineasio driver. Thus, as with Audacity, students can watch me work with the program in their lessons, then they can go home and work with exactly the same software in exactly the same way. And lest my free-software-only colleagues feel I've gone too far here, let me declare that when Ardour runs on Windows they can bet that I'll be recommending Ardour first.
I still love to teach. I find it hugely gratifying to work with my students, particularly when they've prepared for one of our student shows at Coffee Amici, a local coffee house that has a regular schedule of concerts with nationally-known and local performers. I also still have to work to keep up with the new technologies that have the potential to make both the teaching and learning processes more efficient, more effective, and more fun. As I noted, I expect to make more use of video and other technologies as basic components in my instructional arsenal, and of course I expect to do it all with Linux.