Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Computer Taught Me to Play Guitar!

Did you hear the one about the guitarist who learned how to play from a book? Sadly his career was ruined by a misprint! Well now there is a computer program, a development of the Guitar Hero game, that offers a course in how to play the guitar. Unfortunately I have never played Guitar Hero, so most of the description is lost on me. The closest I have gotten to anything like this is the scene in Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johansson is wandering around in a Tokyo video arcade and sees this guy playing what I assume is Guitar Hero. Here is a video clip about the method:

I have to admit that I dipped in and out--I have a short attention span for this sort of thing--but I did notice some things that seem appropriate. There is a feature, riff repeater, that allows you to isolate a particular short, difficult passage for practice. Well, of course, this is how you learn stuff, by breaking it down into small, easily-digested parts. So maybe this might actually facilitate learning guitar. It might even be an improvement over your local rock guitar teacher who is likely an inarticulate dweeb.

The impact of the possibilities offered by computer software and the internet on teaching is probably just in the very early stages. There are a whole bunch of mediocre guitar teachers, piano teachers, instructors in business and sales and, a particularly ripe target, college professors, who have hanging over their heads, whether they realize it or not, the sword of Damocles. The MOOCs (massive open online courses) just starting to be offered by universities, are going to have a huge impact on the institutions of higher learning who have been going down the road of less for more for a long time. Tuitions are skyrocketing as undergraduates find themselves more and more stuffed into huge lecture classes of 300 or more students with a once-a-week session in a smaller group with a grad student. Replacing this with an online course would likely be an improvement!

A couple of little anecdotes from my experience. In the early 70s I was an undergraduate in a Western Canadian university where I was lucky to get an excellent introduction to a university education. Apart from music I had classes in linguistics, English, German and philosophy. Each of these classes, at the first-year level, had no more than twenty students. The philosophy class in particular was taught by a recent PhD and he did it by assigning readings and then debating them with us. In other words, we actually did philosophy in the class in much the same way that Socrates would have in the 4th century BC. Years later I became an instructor myself in that same university and was shocked to discover that that same first year philosophy class now had 300 students! There won't be any debating in that class! Another example. In another university where I was teaching a music appreciation class to non-music majors, with an enrollment of around 100 students, I was waiting outside with a group of students for the previous course to end when I fell into conversation with one of my students. As we walked in a few minutes later she confided in me that she was in 2nd year psych and just now was the first time she had actually spoken to a professor. Now I was just a sessional lecturer, but I got the point. Universities have, in many respects, turned from being transmitters of the great traditions of Western culture into sausage-factories, turning out certified know-nothings in great quantity. It wouldn't be quite so insulting if it were not that the cost of this has become prohibitive--in the US at least. Canadian universities are still pretty cheap, though with a lot of the same problems.

All this makes universities a big fat target for internet instruction.


Rickard Dahl said...

The problem in the US (basing it from what I've heard from others) is that the college degrees have become too common and not valuable enough. This leads to higher standards where a degree may be preferred or even required in jobs where that degree is of course not actually needed to do the job. Another thing is that too many people graduate in fields where there's already an overflow of people without jobs in those fields. The problem would be reduced if people would graduate in fields where there is a demand. Another problem (related to the first point about degrees being too common) is colleges lowering standards to get more people to pass. The example you pointed to with 300 students in one classroom could be an example of this. Besides, how can a teacher teach 300 students in a good way? Online courses won't solve the problem, they will just enlarge it. I think internet is probably very valuable for teaching in general (for instance: Khan Academy on Youtube has lots of great educational videos mainly about math but also some about physics, economics, biology and so on) but to remove the classroom element and things such as discussions or labs is going too far. The interaction between student and teacher even in high education can be very valuable.

On a final note: I think there's a country that only allows people to pursue certain degrees if there's a the market need (if I remember correctly it was Switzerland) and I think it could be a good idea (maybe not in the case of music though, I don't know). On one hand, sure, everyone has some kind of passion they would like to follow, but on the other hand the reality is that it may very well be a field where the jobs are few and the competition is tough. It's probably better to learn on your own anyways in the cases of topics such as history or philosophy rather than going to college.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm pretty sure I'm not a typical case, but after that excellent introduction as an undergraduate where I had a number of excellent professors in small classes, most of what I know I learned on my own. A university degree is, in many ways, just an introduction, showing you the nature of the field and where to go to find out more. Doctoral seminars are a bit different, but still, you will do most of the learning on your own. Just a wild guess, but I suspect that 80% of what I know about music, I learned on my own.

Susan Pagenkopf said...

One thing is sure, the internet will never replace the relationship between a music teacher and their student in the context of the private lesson. The things that one learns in a lesson, watching the teacher demonstrate technically and hearing their musical interpretation, having their expertise in adjustment of physical approach to the instrument, not to mention their instruction and suggestions regarding style, touch, and all the minutae that make up a compelling performance are impossible to be reproduced by someone on Youtube showing you a few repeatable riffs.

Of course, there are many useful things to be learned via the internet including music instruction in the general sense (much like a classroom situation), but in terms of learning to master an instrument, I don't think there will ever be a substitute for an experienced performer passing on their craft to a willing student!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi, Susan and welcome to the Music Salon.I could not agree more with your thoughts! As someone who mostly taught private lessons in conservatory and university for 25 years, I share your opinion entirely. The idea of a computer program teaching how to phrase, how to elicit a good sound, how to handle dynamics and balance independent voices is ludicrous. I have often said here that I think that, at the higher levels, music instruction is much like a medieval apprenticeship with a small group of students gathered around an acknowledged master. Certainly that was how I learned. And if we look at university music departments we find the one thing that has not changed over the years are the private instrumental lessons. While most courses have ended up with huge class sizes, instrumental instruction simply cannot be taught that way. So it is not vulnerable to computer or internet courses.

But those big, overstuffed lecture classes in philosophy, psychology and a lot of other things certainly are!

Susan Pagenkopf said...

I agree, and am quite gleeful that, in spite of the unattractive financial life of a musician, we will always be indispensible to society!