Technology in music practice. The good and the bad.
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
As a guitar teacher you’d probably expect me to be firmly against things like Youtube lessons and teaching apps. Surely they’re making me irrelevant and are an example of human workers being replaced by technology!? As it happens, when used in the right way, I think most of the technology available to us can be a brilliant aid to learning, doubly so when used alongside traditional learning methods.
Here are some of the positives and potential pitfalls of using technology when it comes to your practice.
Access to music
You have access to pretty much every piece of music ever recorded. How can that not be good? Not only that, but you have the ability to slow that music down, or skip back and forth to specific tricky points over and over again. Brian May once said that he had to learn songs by slowing records down from 45 to 33 rpm. This not only slowed the music down, but also changed the pitch of the music, so he’d have to retune his guitar to suit the key, play the entire song over and over, and then re-work it for the proper speed when he sped it back up to 45. Be glad you can just go to Youtube and slow the song down with the click of a button! Not only that but there are channels exclusively dedicated to stripping guitar parts out of songs so you can use them as backing tracks!
The best use of this technology to my mind is in learning to develop a musical ear. If you can listen to a song, and then play along with the backing track, you can try and emulate some of the subtler nuances of the original guitarists playing, or try to put your own spin on it. You can also easily find new music The only downside to all of this access is that the player is the only one in charge of what they learn, meaning they are likely to get stuck inside their own comfort zone if someone else doesn’t push them outside it. Other than that, it’s one of the best things about the internet right now!
As with anything free, the music lessons available on things like Youtube are of varying degrees of quality. There are some really insightful lessons on technique and theory, but there are also plenty of awkward play-throughs of full songs, often featuring questionable technique, but titled as lessons. Bad lessons make students feel like the song is easy, and that they are incapable of playing something, which can be enough to put someone off learning for good. Good music lessons explain which parts are most difficult and how certain techniques should be performed in order to play the parts effectively.
If you’re using Youtube for your lessons be sure to look at more than one lesson for any individual song or technique to be sure you’re not picking up any bad habits that the player may have. If you’re wanting to save money on guitar lessons consider just booking one in per month to have a bit of a technique check-up before going back to your own self-driven practice.
replacing free school music.
My favourite thing about the availability of technology for guitar practice is that it puts music back within the reach of people that don’t have the money to take lessons. It’s been well documented in recent years that the government have been heavily cutting funding at schools, and the ‘non-essential’ things, like music tuition, are inevitably the first thing to go when the budget is up against the wall.
For kids with well-off parents that’s fine, they can have private tuition if they want. But I’d argue that it’s the kids who grow up in the poorer parts of Britain that we really need to hear from. They’re the ones with something to tell us about the world, and historically music has been their outlet. Access to free learning tools could be enough to make that the case once again where other avenues have failed them.
There are tons of forums and Facebook groups dedicated to letting guitarists of all levels communicate with each other. For something that used to be quite a solitary pursuit this can be brilliant, as people can post videos of their playing, or questions about what they should be learning and get instant feedback and advice from more experience guitarists and teachers. The issue, as always with the internet, is the lack of quality control here. A beginner can’t necessarily be expected to sort opinion from fact, and of course some people will always just seek to be negative about anybody else who is of a different level to them.
Often it’s better to have just one or two opinions and make progress, than to have dozens of contradictory opinions and feel frozen and unable to decide which path to follow. I would advise finding one guitar group with a small and friendly community and just watching it for a while before jumping in with your own videos and questions.
Apps like Yousician are great in theory. I’m in favour of anything that gets you off the ground and trying to play something. But I believe their usefulness dies out pretty quickly from there. These apps mostly focus on getting you to play certain sequences of notes or chords at a set speed. There’s no doubt that that’s part of what music is, but they fall short of giving the user any understanding of what they’re playing or why, and by their nature cannot give you feedback on technique, emotional impact or any other aspect of musicality outside of whether you played the right note or not.
For people who want to use these sort of apps I’d make sure you immediately combine them with some of the other resources that are available. Half an hour a day on Yousician combined with a quality Youtube or other online lesson and asking some questions in a well moderated forum could make up for some of what you miss by not getting guitar lessons.
Whether you use free software like Audacity or the free phone recording apps that exist, or something a little more fancy like Pro Tools or Logic, it’s incredibly easy to record yourself playing in high quality now. It’s one of the most important things you can do as a student of guitar as listening back to your own playing will help you pick up on all sorts of small errors you missed when you were playing, but it can also show you how good you really sound when you’re normally overly critical of yourself. All musicians should record themselves as much as possible to get a real sense of the level of their ability.
So if there’s one really big issue I have with all of this access to technology, and this even goes for myself at times, is that it becomes a very easy excuse not to practice when you don’t have access to it. Your internet goes down, or you can’t find your laptop charger or your speakers don’t work. Whatever the reason, it’s something I hear from time to time from students as a reason for not having practiced.
For some people they use so much equipment when they’re playing that it takes half an hour to set up before they can practice. This can be a real obstacle when your motivation is low. In many ways there has never been a better time to try and learn an instrument, but taking the time to turn off all your devices and just sit with your instrument and play is an important part of becoming a more rounded musician and really enjoying the process of learning.