New Tech and One-Size-Fits-All

In past blogs, I’ve talked about the problems created by the willy-nilly unaccepting push to adopt new technology and new software simply because it’s “new,” and new must be better. But there’s a situation where “early adoption” is not only counter-productive, but the negative effects can be far-reaching.

Needless to say, as is often the case, I heard about this instance from my wife the music professor. Her institution has decided that, following the example of several private and very well-endowed universities, that the music department should require all incoming music students to purchase customized IPads that can display what used to be called sheet music. The rationale behind this is that students won’t have to carry around reams of music; all of it will be displayed on their IPads.

At a state institution such as the one where my wife teaches, the department budget won’t cover the estimated $800-$1,000 for each of the special IPads, and most of the students are drawn from rural and small town or working class backgrounds with large families, for which such an outlay immediately on entering college will be quite a burden, especially if the student drops the major. This cost, of course, was ignored in the enthusiasm of “new technology” and the thought that the department could be a “pioneer.”

And, yes, this approach could be a boon of sorts to students in orchestras and bands and other large ensembles, all of whom have a comparatively limited number of works performed in a year, and the instrumental ensemble directors were all for it, effectively insisting that one approach fits everyone. Unfortunately, vocal students face a different situation… because every vocal student has a largely different repertoire from every other one, and must learn more new music every semester, especially if they’re classical performers. Music departments, and especially universities with schools of music, may be dealing with at least 30-50 students, and often hundreds of voice students. That requires music for thousands of individual pieces. While the idea of consolidating all that music in electronic format sounds wonderful, the reality of the situation is far different. My wife the professor, who has a wide range of contacts, got in touch with several music publishers, and all of them made, in various ways, the observation that, at present, only about twenty percent of the vocal music they controlled and had as sheet music was available in electronic form, and that it would be between five to ten years before they’d be able to catch up, given the volume of such music. And that’s probably an optimistic projection.

Now… that doesn’t mean that the students couldn’t scan the sheet music and upload it, but… then there’s the problem of copyright, and for the music to be “legal,” the student needs to keep available the hard copy. This is also a problem for those students entered in various competitions, because they have to have produce “original music” for every piece that they sing, and in some competitions, two copies, one for the singer [even though the singer has to sing from memory, because the singer is supposed to have bought the music, rather than copied it and stiffed the composer] and the other for the accompanist.

Since the most accomplished students, those aiming at a career as either a performer or a teacher, need to prove their ability through competitions, and since those organizations sponsoring the competitions have not yet made provisions for certifying “original electronic” copies, the IPad requirement becomes superfluous and expensive at the present time, at least for vocal students.

In addition, because voice students are largely broke, the IPad requirement is going to encourage even more copying of music, and more copying is going to reduce even more the payment living composers receive, while encouraging singers to sing older works no longer in copyright… and thus further reducing income to living composers.

Then, too, there’s the question of what happens when the accompanist’s IPad crashes during a performance or recital. Sheet music doesn’t crash.

I’m not against change, and neither is my wife, but history shows [even though most people don’t learn from it] that early adoption of new technology can be far more expensive, to everyone, than waiting a bit until things sort themselves out.

But then, you can’t claim to be the great pioneer, while putting the costs off on everyone else.

6 thoughts on “New Tech and One-Size-Fits-All”

  1. Tom says:

    “… I’m not against change, and neither is my wife, but history shows [even though most people don’t learn from it] that early adoption of new technology can be far more expensive, to everyone, than waiting a bit until things sort themselves out…”

    ‘Things’ are sorted out by who and where? The sorting out by those not involved with the use of the new technology leads to such things as ‘improvements’ by microsoft or apple or your local IT department. The music department of a university should work out the electronic music system’s bugs; but not by forcing 101 technology upon students, who have more important things to do with their time. This is yet another example of businesses not taking care of their business with thorough research and development before launching a product.

    Why do we not learn from history (apart from the fact that we do not know history)? This is puzzling when the information is now so easily available (So … a little work separating out the fake data will kill you!?) Enquirer (oops) – inquiring minds want to know.

    1. No music department can speed up conversion of music publishers’ inventory, nor do most musicians have the time or expertise to develop conversion protocols, which would be illegal under current copyright law, nor can one small university’s faculty change an entire system just by being a “pioneer.”

      The problem with this kind of “early adoption” is that it is forcing costs and difficulties on students before the supporting systems are in place and ignoring faculty who understand the legal and logistics problems… as well as ignoring the problems as if they don’t exist and making no effort to address them. As is often the case in academia, wishful thinking triumphs over practicality. You can sort out the fake data all you want, as we’ve seen, but those who like the fake data won’t ever be convinced, sometimes not even after disaster results.

  2. Derek says:

    Being a pioneer isn’t inherently a good thing. With the history in Utah, it’s worth remembering that poorly timed pioneers usually freeze to death.

    I’m sure there’s a lesson there.

  3. Wine Guy says:

    4 reasons history most people do not learn from history (listed in conversational style):

    It is because 1. they don’t know the history, and 2. it takes effort to interpret how it applies to a situation even if they learned it in the first place.

    Both of these 3. take time to do, which no one seems to want to spend anymore because 4. doing something as prosaic as actually thinking about a situation merely than reacting with “what seems best” has gone from being “prudently taking time to making a decision” to “wasting time and stalling” because no one wants to admit to not knowing the answer instantly and being incorrect is quickly vilified.

  4. Tom says:

    @WineGuy. I guess we just do not want to be the best.

    Mr Modesitt. It still seems to me that if a product is aimed at a specific group of people, the development of such a product would be achieved quicker and with a more practical result if that group is involved in its development. Implementation and coordination is, as you note, difficult. That is where the business man should be of help to the tech company.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    Presumably such experiments should be left to wealthier universities, orchestras, choirs, etc; and others should learn from them before jumping in.

    Crashes should be rare, if rigorous control is applied – not installing unnecessary apps, testing OS updates before using them widely (and giving updates some time to bake in and following user reports e.g. on or the like), ensuring the iPads are charged, and rebooting them not too long before the performance and from then through the end of the performance, only running the sheet music display app. Also, it’s possible to use enterprise IT level mechanisms to create “profiles” that prevent unauthorized apps from being loaded or sites visited, predefine user accounts, email configuration, etc. The less the user can change from a stable configuration, the less there is that can go wrong.

    While I tend to prefer Apple devices, I’d think the real opportunity for sheet music ought to be with an e-ink device like some of the Amazon Kindle models. That would work in any lighting where sheet music could be read, and an e-ink device, not being self-illuminating and not needing power to sustain an image but only to update it, gets MUCH more battery life, although there might be an issue in terms of refresh speed, for the equivalent of page turning. However, I’m not aware of extensive soft copy sheet music use on such devices.

    I agree that except in cases where relatively appropriate and where cost and support are not a problem, this is premature. But if you’re stuck with it, there’s all the more reason to learn from those who have made the best of it.

    It’s all too common a situation in almost all institutions and even businesses, that some dangfool mandate from the boss is at least initially unwise and worse than existing procedure. Sometimes it truly is unwise or premature; other times, it turns out after awhile to have been a good gamble. Since this is premature in terms of content availability, it’s not a good gamble yet, but the time will come when it will be; and jumping in neither too soon nor too late, may be difficult enough even for bosses that aren’t caught up in superficialities and buzzwords.

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