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My High Tech Studio Transformation

Amy Beth Horman

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Published: March 19, 2015 at 3:17 PM [UTC]

This blog is about implementing technology into your private studio and practice.

One thing that has been coming up a lot lately in conversations with other teachers is how much technology I am currently using in the studio. My reaction to this is always the same. I genuinely continue to surprise myself at the fact that I am embracing a high level of technology in my private studio and in my own work. I was never a “techie” kind of person. Not too long ago, I had no website, no Facebook, and couldn’t operate my own phone properly! But things have changed and because I was never someone who used technology much before (I believe I was in a practice room!), I am proud of having now embraced it as an adult.

So what motivated me to change my ways and take a leap toward technology? I encountered some of the most talented kids I have ever known in the last couple of years. As I realized how fast these students could move, I was instantly motivated to explore how I could match their pace. In my studio, the students all learn a bit differently but the pace was staggeringly fast this year and the student numbers were higher. It was exciting and challenging to keep up with it all. Tracking each student’s work and straddling multiple pieces required detailed note taking on my part along with a fair amount of strategizing outside of lessons. One consistent problem we encountered was extending that pace and energy to home. My goal was to make the energy and pace they feel in the lesson extend all week so that it was fluid and invigorating.

My own life also changed a lot too with three kids now of my own to raise and keep up with. Somehow in the midst of all of this, I was receiving a growing amount of performance opportunities. I am not one to turn down opportunities or the possibility to experience great music. Frequently there was a question mark in my head about how to run a competitive studio and produce high-level performances while still raising my young family.

I brainstormed and spoke to some parents and colleagues about how to effectively implement some things that would enable the flow of learning to continue through the week as seamlessly as possible. Parents were integral to this process, using the tools at home, so we found ourselves guesstimating the amount of time needed to coach the parents as well. Most of the technology brought up included things I had not used prior to this or at least had not used in that combination. Some parents were more tech savvy than others – and this I understood all too well!

For my own rehearsals and practice, I needed to be able to capture what had happened and retain it for sometimes an entire day before I would be able to address it. Being the mom of two toddlers with a full studio, my practice schedule had no guarantees except at night. Every minute would count. I had to be fluid about practice and grab time as it appeared getting right to the problem spots.

In our brainstorms we contemplated many things:

How do I keep the studio informed about events, master classes, and opportunities in real time so they are in the loop?

How productive and efficient can I be in relaying information in my teaching?

How can I help them prep for their first lesson on something so we hit the ground running?

How can I keep track of my own practice and rehearsals and retain them longer?

I realized there was so much more that I could contribute to students outside of my own knowledge and teaching. I also had an important realization that I needed to implement technology into my rehearsals so that I could be productive in my own practice. Initially this was awkward but I was spending an inordinate amount of energy trying to remember and retain information from one day to the next around my teaching and family schedule. In the end, I knew I needed to develop a system where all aspects of the lesson/rehearsals and information about the studio were retrievable, portable, and easily accessible through even a smartphone.

We decided to expand beyond just our website, Facebook and twitter accounts. We built an app and put it on iTunes for free at the end of last summer. Our thinking was that our students would download and it would mainly be for them to keep them in the loop. Now, to our surprise, 6 months later 700 people have it around the world. It shows our event calendar, website news, Facebook, pictures from events, clips from our students, and notifications on competitions and cancellations. It also has buttons for luthiers I know and trust, music stores for buying scores, and SHAR for accessories and strings. I have put everything at their fingertips. If we are starting a new piece, notice the need for new strings, or require a mute, they can order things right there in front of me.

With that part of the equation done, we implemented two more important pieces of technology to capture the lessons and bring them home with the students. We added a permanent ZOOM camera to the studio for videotaping lessons asking the parents to supply an SD card, and introduced what is now one of my favorite gadgets, the livescribe 3 pen.

The ZOOM camera is great because it records high quality sound and is HD. I can demonstrate techniques and they can record run throughs of their piece to review later. There is no question that having that visual is so instructive. Some of the techniques the students are learning have such subtleties and watching it demonstrated over and over can have a real impact on them finally capturing it and being able to reproduce it themselves. It is very user friendly and connects straight to a computer opening immediately with QuickTime Player. We have used recordings made in our studio using the Zoom for competitions everywhere and although professional equipment is obviously preferred for bigger competitions, the Zoom has gotten us into Final rounds of regional, national, and international competitions. It is our “go to” piece of recording equipment.

Now for my new friend the smartpen! I heard about the Livescribe 3 pen from a graphic design person I know who posted about it on Facebook. I looked at the features and immediately thought it would be useful in a music studio. The smartpen from Livescribe isn’t just a normal smartpen that records pen strokes. It hooks up to your iPad or iPhone and records sound happening while you are writing. It has a feature where you can PRESS on a note using touch screens and then hear the very thing that inspired it. No more parents taking notes and everyone playing the musical version of the “telephone game”. No more having to fast forward or search a video for the moment in the lesson you need help with. All they had to do was find the comment I made that pertained to a problem section and press to hear that portion of the lesson. With 24 students wanting to try this innovation, I had my work cut out for me because the pen wasn’t exactly designed for a violin studio. With customer service on my side, I was able to buy different varieties of notebooks in enough combinations to make it work. We spent quite a few weeks training parents as they walked in. My husband was on standby for when I had difficulties getting the pen to sync or pair up with a device and we extended lessons to accommodate for the learning curve. With it all said and done, I am able to keep a written notebook for everyone the way I have for years in their binders but it was now creating a digital record with sound attached! I can even send previews of lessons to fellow students so they can get a preparatory lesson on something before they even bring it to a lesson. Talk about hitting the ground running!

After one lesson in particular where I thought the pen had saved the day, I wrote Livescribe customer service a thank you email. I didn’t expect a reply but got one about a week later from the head of PR. He asked to interview me and wanted us to shoot a video showing how we use the pen. We did so gladly, excited to show them how effective this is for music lessons.

Here is the video we shot featuring our 13 year old student Michelle Li performing the Conus Concerto.

Using the ZOOM and the pen together made the lessons completely portable. Better yet, it cut down on emails during the week, questions from parents, and needs for clarification from students. The zoom provides a needed visual for techniques being assimilated in lessons. The pen creates what is called a “pencast” (audio and notes paired together) that can be accessed on your iPhone or iPad.s Students take their iPhones straight to the music stands and “play” their notes point by point in their practice. Everything is more streamlined now and some of the students are even listening to their pencasts in the car on their way to lessons or events.

The cost to students is very low as it is just the price of an SD card (15-30 dollars) and a Livescribe notebook, generally under 10 dollars. And the cost of the pen and Zoom? While higher, I was happy to absorb that cost and now see it having paid me back in spades with so few emails coming in during the week needing lengthy answers or explanations.

I hope this blog inspires others to implement technology into their private studios and practice with confidence. I am so thrilled I made this leap!

From A.J. Noble
Posted on March 21, 2015 at 3:16 PM
Wow! Thanks for sharing this information! This sounds like an amazing way to make lessons and practice sessions much more efficient and effective.

I'm doubtful that I would be able to get either of my daughter's teachers to implement the system, but I'm thinking that perhaps I could find a way to use this for my daughter's lessons.

We've also been trying out an app called Practice Center, which seems to be pretty useful. What I would really like to see, however, is an app that can track how much time is spent on each particular piece or exercise.

From Amy Beth Horman
Posted on March 21, 2015 at 11:56 PM
Thanks for your comment. I am glad you found the blog helpful!
I think if I were a parent of a serious musician and definitely wanted to give this a try I would consider buying the pen if I had an iPhone or an iPad. You can hand the pen to your child's instructor and they can just use the starter notebook the pen comes with. You will have the digital copy then on your device. If they are used to taking notes it won't be that different to them. The pen retails for 150 but you also have 30 days to return it if you are not satisfied. You can also record lesson with the iPad or similar if you have one. Basically I think you should feel empowered to take this into your own hands. One of my parents after using the pen ONCE in the lessons here went out and bought her own pen to use for both violin and piano lessons for her two kids. So she brings her iPad and pen to lessons and does great.
From A.J. Noble
Posted on March 22, 2015 at 4:57 PM
Thanks, Amy! I'll look into the pen. It sounds like it could really help to make lessons and practice more productive.

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