If you're of a certain age, you will remember promises being made long ago of how simple our lives would be made by the advent of the Digital Age. Society, we were told, would become paperless, and we would enter a Brave New World of information retrieval and convenience.
And so it came to pass. Mobile phones are now smart. Music is instantly available and extremely portable. Computers and tablets and notebooks and iPads keep us constantly in the loop and all the information known to mankind is stored in the Cloud, ready to be retrieved at our whim by Google search.
Why, then, was I so afraid when I was cleaning out the closet and came across a large, closed box? Well, it wasn't exactly closed. It was too full for the lid to fit tightly and its overflowed content threatened to twine around my arms like an Evil Constricting Vine as envisioned by a Hollywood special effects master.
Then - disaster! I dropped the box and the malevolent mass was free on the floor. I was looking at every piece of wire that ever came into the house with a new electronic gadget.
We all have nests of these orphaned snakes of plastic coated copper in the house somewhere. At least I hope we do. I'd hate to think I was the only one who is afraid to throw away a perfectly good piece of technology, especially when it comes wrapped with a twist tie and so nicely packaged in a little zip-lock baggie. And what about all those poor under paid Chinese children who toil night and day to produce these cables and connectors and power cords? How can I not value their efforts?
But what do you DO with these things? Every time you purchase a new device, it comes with more cables than you need, because the cables from the old machine you are replacing still work just fine, thank you very much.
I learned a while ago to keep the ones I use frequently slung over the door to the computer cabinet. That way when I want to upload photos from my camera (mini USB to USB in computer) or sync my iPod (stupid Apple has to use proprietary plugs different from everyone else in the world), I don't have to dig through the smaller stash of rechargers and connectors I keep in a drawer.
But these things spawn in the dark. And like some new archeological find, their purpose is lost in the mists of time. There's a plug on one end. Fine. That one is easy. It goes in the wall socket. The other end presents more of a challenge. It's round but it doesn't appear to fit into the hole of any electronic gadget I currently own. And the square transformer box on the wire is no help. All it says is
"Class 2 power supply. WARNING ..."
and then goes into a bunch of electrical jargon that I feel stupid for not understanding.
I can't throw these things away. Perhaps I'm a secret hoarder. I cried out for help once. I took the entire box to a computer repair man and told him to take anything he would find useful. He looked at me with pity and revulsion, and said that they hadn't manufactured the Commodore 64 since 1988, and it was probably safe to get rid of that one.
The Digital Age has, to an extent, gone paperless. Instead we are left with a plate of electronic spaghetti which I think is harder to get rid of.
But this time I'm not going to put the box back in the closet. Oh, no.
I think I'll have my husband carry it to the basement instead.
How often have you gone to a concert or session to have the performer say something along the lines of
"I got this tune off the legendary Joe Pat O'Shaunessy one night we were locked in at the aulde Harp and Pint Pub in Bailebeag, Co. Donegal. He was a fine fiddler so, and now his grandson is grown and teaching this same tune to his own children."
Do you feel inferior yet? How many of the tunes you know did you learn at the knee of some Jedi Master of Irish music?
This is the dilemma that we, as musicians who play Irish music but whose parents had the misfortune not to birth us somewhere in rural Co Kerry face daily. Ah, the shame! We have rhythm but our parents didn't.
What is a poor American (Irish) musician to do?
We work with what we have. We turn to technology.
It starts innocently enough. You buy a CD or download an mp3 file of a couple of tunes that strike your fancy. I'm going to learn that set, you think. But wait, the tune rushes past your ears faster than the beer you just drank requires recycling. Was that da da da DA da DAAA ~or~ da da DAAA da da DAAA?, you ask yourself.
Well, there's software for that. Some people swear by the
Amazing Slow Downer, but for ease of use and added features I personally prefer Transcribe!
Despite the name, Transcribe! does NOT actually transcribe the music into notation. (There is a software that does that - TwelveKeys - but I've never used it so I can't speak to it's functionality.) With Transcribe!, you can slow down any music file on your computer or change the key it's played in without hurting pitch in the least. The tunes work best. If you try the program on a song you get an amusing reverse homage to the Chipmunks.
Oh, no, no!, you say. I learn MY tune sets the old fashioned way -- by going to sessions. All I can say is you must have a phonographic memory. Or a really good digital recorder.
Some people have good luck using their iPhone recording app, but I think I must be dumber than my smart phone.
The choice of digital recorder is as personal as your comfort level with the number of buttons you have to push to get it to work. Personally, the less I have to manipulate small switches or touch screens in a darkened pub after having a beer or two the better.
I own the Zoom h4n. I find it a bit difficult to operate quickly, but if you are less technologically impaired than me and do manage to get it running in a timely fashion, the sound fidelity is great and it's easy to upload the files to your computer. The only other downside is that the unit itself is very bulky. It's really hard to be inconspicuous as you set it up and get it started.
I recently purchased the Olympus LS-5, which is much smaller than the Zoom, and promises to be much easier to use. (Strangely enough, I found this unit for more than half the price of Amazon.com at an online record shop in the UK, even after the shipping. Go figure!) The Olympus model has a lot fewer buttons to push - so far so good.
I'm not saying that I've got the best recorder going, I'm sure there are very good ones out there that I don't kow about. If you'd like to check out a nice comparison review of other models, click here.
There's An App for That:
You're at your Thursday night session. The group swings into a tune you KNOW you know. But you can't for the life of you remember what the name of it is. It's driving you MAD.
Well, there's an app for that too. It's called Tune Pal. It's a digital version of the old TV show "Name That Tune".
All it needs is a few bars of the tune to identify what's playing. In fact it's so accurate that there are people who try to play very obscure tunes just to see if they can stump the Tune Pal.
And not only will it identify the tune, it will give you the ABC notation as well. It's available for iPhone, iPad, Android and you can use it on your PC if you have a microphone hooked up.
And just last month a new app came out, created by an Irish woman, and performed by a 15 year old girl from Cork called "Irish Fiddler".
There are also apps for tuning your instrument, Metronome apps, Guitar Tab apps and so very much more.
Things change. You can't smoke in the pubs anymore. The Celtic Tiger is now a scarred old tabby cat. And in Ireland, pubs are closing at the rate of one every two days. Pretty soon that dark, sticky old pub won't even be there to house the current Fiddle Hero. Traditional music isn't really learned in the traditional fashion any longer, even in Ireland.
We are the test tube babies of Irish music. It doesn't make us any less legitimate so long as re respect the music. Welcome to the digital age.
PS - I'd love to hear what devices you use to help in your study of the music. If there are enough responses, I'll update the blog to include them.