What if I don’t play piano?

What follows is thoughts spilling out of my head, prompted by several conversations I’ve had with students over the past week. If it sounds scattered, incomplete or just dumb, well, you’ve been warned.

In my life as a college teacher, I spend most of my time teaching “Music Technologies” classes. The content of the courses is mostly up to me, which is both great fun and a real challenge. This term I’m teaching a basic course in GarageBand and a more advanced Ableton Live class. We also cover notation software (Sibelius) in a different semester. One of the big challenges in these courses is trying to help the students develop some literacy in “Music Technologies” rather than just facility with a few specific programs.

While this really comes down to a problem of general musical literacy and musicianship,¬†facility with the programs is a big issue, and wrapped up in it is another issue: piano playing. The problem is that the most obvious and natural method of getting notes into any mainstream sequencing program is to play them on a MIDI keyboard. If you’re a piano player. I’m lucky to be one of those, but many of my students are not. As the keyboard has effectively become the only metaphor for notation in mainstream music software, this can create a serious bottleneck in the creative process, if the goal is (as it is here) to make music with a computer.

So, no matter how well I teach the software itself, a lot of people still get hung up at, “What if I don’t play piano?” I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot, and I’ve got some thoughts; some are more technical, less conceptual and possibly less helpful suggestions, and some are less tied to procedure and have more to do with how you approach making music.

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Christine just wrote about a project we’d conceived earlier this year called Shuffle. She’d set out plans to get three projects done this year, and this is the last one, so the pressure’s now on. You can read bits of our grant applications (which were rejected) in her post, but the general idea is more or less as follows:

Christine and I both have a bit of trouble fleshing out ideas – I’ve got a lot of little snippets of song kicking around that are lovely but unlikely to grow into full pieces. So instead of recording a regular 8-10 song album, we’re going to record 40 or 50 little snippets of music – just single ideas. The catch is that each track has to be able to somehow connect to any other one. You put them in your iPod and hit Shuffle, and you get a different piece of music every time.

I’m really looking forward to working on this. It’s both really creative and really geeky. Just my thing.

Everything all the time

Everything All The TimeI just spent the day recording with Everything All The Time. I’ve been a member of this band off and on for a few years. It’s off right now, but they were generous enough to invite me to play on The Pinnacle, a song we reworked while I was a member.

I love playing with EATT, and I regret having to leave – between baby, school and work I had no chance. The music is fantastic, but even more than that, they’re so good to work with. Everybody has enormous input compositionally and nobody’s afraid to speak their mind when something’s not working. It’s a warm, happy, effortless environment. A perfect balance between good, danceable music and creativity (often outright weirdness) that’s usually really difficult to get right.