Monday, May 25, 2015

Its never too late to learn music using apps and online resources

Last year was a bit life changing. I reached that critical threshold point where I felt I could no longer thrive in my paid part-time job. I guess the public service worldwide is facing the same pressures: diminishing budgets, over-regulation, micro-management, politicians in crisis mode meddling in the day to day running of departments and constant restructures that dis-empower anyone who actually provides real services to the public. So it was time to leap into a new life, one as a full time housekeeper, edible landscape gardener and indie writer. But what to do for R&R. Running got knobbled when my right knee packed it in, complaining that I was never designed to be an athelete. Knitting complex cable jumpers is fun but I only need so many. Gardening is nice but then there are the long days over winter where it struggles to get to 10 degrees Celsius outside. Writing is my passion but sometimes you need a break to let ideas percolate. Cleaning up our old house to sell I found my old tin whistle, one my dad had bought me when I was a teenager. Never had a clue how to play it so I would just go up the bush and make sound, enjoying myself but rather unproductively. The thing is, despite the interest, I didn't seem to have inherited any nature musical ability, I couldn't tune a guitar to save myself and the choir teacher at school prefered, well, that I didn't sing.

I had one last attempt to learn music in my early twenties, taking singing lessons and buying myself a keyboard but really I had no clue if I was on key or not. In never learned anything more than the right hand melodies. I certainly didn't seem to have a feel for rhythm or timing or any of the other skills a musician is supposed to have. So I sold the keyboard and put the tin whistle into my glory box.

Then apps happened. Having finally learned enough Spanish using Duolingo that I can actively use the language I wondered what else apps might help me do. Could I learn to hear when a note was in tune? If I could do that then maybe I could look at getting a musical instrument and trying again to learn some music, at least for my own pleasure. After a bit of a look at potential apps I settled on the Functional Ear Trainer. It promised that ear training could be taught. I doubted that very much but thought that it might be a good brain game. So ten minutes a day I started with it. I was appalling at first I must say but surprisingly I quickly started making some progress. Okay this was good. It was obviously possible to learn to hear relative pitch at least. Maybe I wasn't a total lost cause.

While working with the ear training I started looking for apps and resources that would teach me some actual music theory. Here are my favorites:

A visit to my local library got me a copy of "Idiots Guide to Music Theory" which pulled all the bits together for me.

Feeling empowered I installed a piano app (there are many to choose from) on my tablet so I could start practicing reading some sheet music and playing some actual music. I also unearthed my tin whistle and started considering what music instruments were out there and what might suit me best.

Keyboards are pretty much the go for music beginners but seemed pricey until I found out about the Casio LK120 which, on special, sells for under $100 Australian dollars. The keyboard is specially designed for beginners as it has a memory bank of 100 tunes, has a three step learning process and allows you to practise the left and right hand separately. In the first step you hear the tune at the pace it is meant to be played, keys light up showing you which keys to press but if you make a mistake it still plays the correct one. In the second stage you play the notes as best you can at your own pace but you will hear mistakes. In the third step you perform the piece at the pace it is meant to be played. Correct fingering is also taught through and on screen display and a voice guide which is annoying so I switched it off right away.

But keyboards, while good in the home, aren't something you can readily carry around with you. That led me back to considering a second instrument I have with me most of the time. Actually I settled on two: the tablet keyboard and the tin whistle.

Pianist HD learn Piano, like the Casio keyboard has a memory bank of a hundred songs (the usual copyright free kids tunes, carols and classical pieces) and access to others you can download. It is actually a very similar teaching approach but getting the timing right is more intuitive as the length you need to hold each note is shown visually. I think it is a good way to learn note measures. As I'm not into carols and the kids tunes quickly became boring I drifted into playing with the classical pieces and found I loved it. I didn't realize I was already familiar with so many. We must hear them all the time in advertisements and tv shows. A lot of classical doesn't do it for me, frankly I never got the whole scene, but I do enjoy these popular pieces. The thing is now I am learning their names, their composers and the magic in how they are pieced together and played. Another app called Piano sheet music has quite a few more classical pieces and shows how the notes relate to the sheet music but unfortunately it gives no way to play along.

Back to the tin whistle. I quickly discovered my Bflat tin whistle wasn't in the standard key for tin whistle music. Fortunately that doesn't really matter as you can play standard tin whistle fingering in any key, just cover the holes as indicated. Much of the music around for it is they copyright free stuff which initially limits you to the ubiquitous nursery rhymes and carols but fortunately also a large amount of traditional Irish and Scottish music. Not knowing most of these tunes it pays to look them up on Youtube and listen to a performance first before trying to learn them. I've since bought a Feadog Pro D tin whistle in the key of D. It is higher pitched and therefore more of a challenge to hit the high notes without causing what my partner nicely calls a cat squeal but otherwise it does have a nice tone. Since most tin whistle pieces are written for the key of D. It is possible with some practice to create semitones which allow you to play a greater range of sheet music. Your main limitation is the lowest note in whatever piece you are playing can't be lower than the lowest note on the whistle so if you want to adapt a piece of sheet music to the whistle you must transpose it to the key of your whistle. Fortunately their are apps to help you do this too. The other limitation is that a musical piece must cover no more than two octaves. Those restraints aside the whistle is something you can carry with you anywhere and I believe there are also two piece ones that fit in your handbag for transport.

My next job is to learn some of the tin whistle ornamentation such as tonguing, tapping and rolls. Tonguing allows you to cut the air flow when you want a clear transition between two wide apart notes. Tapping is as it sounds, a quite double tap on the desired note which is useful for giving a held note a beat whereas otherwise you would just get a long drawn out note. Rolls are short musical pieces, a series of quickly played notes that, well to be honest I'm not sure where you'd use them yet but I'm guessing they are useful for adding interest to an otherwise boring patch of music. If you do opt for a tin whistle check out the collections of tin whistle music on Pininterest. like my favorite pieces such as "Country Road" and "Ode to Joy." And for the more traditional Irish stuff check out The book of sheet music he has is a good collection for beginners but you will find many more on his website including modern popular pieces

One day I'd like to try a Dobro or slide guitar. Being sometimes a massage therapist I don't fancy what the average guitar does to your finger tips but the slide guitar and its variations look possible. Something for later on though. At the moment cost is a deterrent. If a second hand flute turned up cheap at a garage sale I might try that too but I hear they need specially shaped mouth for you to play them well and I have no idea if I qualify. Refer Embouchure: This is not an issue with the tin whistle or oriental and native American Indian end blown flutes.

You may ask why I haven't gone to someone to learn music. Well the fact is I live in a remote wilderness area with a dearth of music teachers. That aside I've never enjoyed the whole being taught experience. I prefer the direct nonjudgmental feedback of apps and my own ears. My approach wouldn't work for everyone but as a brain game and a personally pleasurable experience its enough. In the meantime I'm having lots of fun.