I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with technology. On the one hand, I find all of the new things out there to be fascinating, but on the other hand many of the available “toys” out there are far too expensive for me, and the ones I do have tend to occupy time that could be used more productively. Even technologies that are ostensibly intended to lessen one’s workload or increase productivity often fail to deliver on their promises or create as many problems as they solve. The music teaching profession is by no means immune to the lures of technology, and a number of my colleagues seem to delight in trying the latest devices and apps to improve practice, performance, instruction, or all three. While I am sometimes intrigued by these new tools, I often wonder if they are worth the time and money spent acquiring and learning to use them, and if they really deliver measurable improvement over the old ways of doing things, at least with acoustic instruments like mine. Occasionally, though, I encounter a technology that is inexpensive, easy to use, and delivers some noticeable improvement with little change in one’s overall approach to practice and teaching. That is the case with the app Drum Beats+, which I first heard recommended at the Alessi Seminar last month.
One of my biggest complaints about students these days is a lack of a secure sense of time, and the resulting poor rhythmic execution that results from this. While traditional metronome practice is normally an effective remedy for this, I have long wondered if the ubiquitous presence of a strong rhythmic pulse provided by drums and other instruments in popular music has impaired students’ ability to feel time when the drums are absent. Playing the preprogrammed rhythm patterns in this app during students’ lessons has yielded immediate improvements in their sense of pulse. While this is achieved with the use of a normal metronome, the advantage of the drum machine app is that it provides not only a sense of the individual beats but also a sense of the measure—there is a stronger feeling of which beat is the downbeat of the bar, etc. than with a metronome only. While one hopes that students will be able to transition from needing to hear this beat to being able to feel it internally, any tool that will help to remedy a faltering sense of time is a welcome addition.
An added benefit of the drum machine app is that it seems to be a bit more fun than traditional metronome practice, but I wonder if this effect will last once the “new” wears off. I should also state that I am not sure that the Drum Beats+ app has any particular advantages or disadvantages compared to other apps with the same purpose. I have not surveyed the available apps in any comprehensive way, and suspect that this is but one of many apps that can effectively serve in this way.
The other item to which I will direct the reader’s attention today is a relatively new podcast called The Brass Junkies, in which former Boston Brass members Lance LaDuke and Andrew Hitz interview some of the greatest brass players in the world. (Despite their self-effacing claim to be “thoroughly average” players in each week’s introduction, these gentlemen are both fine players in their own right, as well.) I have been a big fan of podcasts for a couple of years now, though to this point I have mainly looked to this medium for news and Christian commentary (which, by the way, has substantially reduced the time I spend reading online articles—and I am a much better steward of my time for it). I have only recently subscribed to The Brass Junkies and have yet to listen to all of the available episodes, but so far I have found this to be a useful and enlightening addition to my regular listening, and I encourage every brass player to subscribe.