teaching drums without the teacher

yesterday my brother forwarded me an article from New Scientist entitled Robotic drumstick keeps novices on the beat. I’m still wrapping my head around what i think about the whole thing, but i can initially say that even though i’m a pretty big promoter of technology in music and music learning, i believe that there’s more lost than gained from this particular approach over the long term.

at first glance it seems to have potential – the gap that we have in teaching anyone anything physical is the lack of being able to directly influence subtle adjustments of muscle memory. This robotic contraption has the potential to create a consistent approach to drumming between a lot of different players which has practical application to, say, marching percussion lines in which creating a consistent approach to playing the drum is paramount. But that’s a very particular context and one that i firmly believe doesn’t serve to create good musicianship in the same way that giving someone a step-by-step recipe instruction doesn’t in itself create a good chef. and as far as i’m concerned, good musicianship is what should be the ultimate end goal of even the very first steps of music pedagogy.

to me, the development of the mechanical skills should move beyond the process of physical imitation to a process of mental understanding. When serious students initially learn how to hit a drum or breathe into a mouthpiece, they’re translating what they’re doing physically into a cognitive recognition and experimenting based on internal and external feedback to find what will produce the best result. The more times they can say in their head, “this feeling makes this happen, that feeling makes that happen,” the more they can truly comprehend the relationship between what is happening physically, how that affects the sound and their perception of that sound, and what sort of mindset has created that effect.

Having a mechanical guidance system like this feels like it takes the mental understanding aspects out of the equation and reduces instrument learning to a physical process instead of a musical one. The article says that the subjects “learned how hard to hit the drum 18% more accurately than when they tried to mimic a rhythm after just hearing it.” If you treat it like a physical process only, you’re surely more likely to get instant gratification statistics of that nature, but why would we ever want to train a musician to not listen? How many problems do we have already with virtuoso instrumentalists who may be technically amazing but don’t know how to blend with the ensemble or stay in time or move out of time with an ensemble? How many of those who could hit the drum 18% more accurately will become better musicians than those that didn’t? How many could be potentially worse?

Some might argue that a tool like this can at least be used as a source of guidance for those that are struggling, but i think that the pedagogical approach needs to be consistent with what ultimately creates the ideal musician. Yes, there are people who have gaps in their physical technique, but a tool like this seems like it’s a) a cheap and easy shortcut that doesn’t create cognitive retention of the concepts, b) assuming there is only one technique or that that technique cannot waver, and/or c) promoting the notion that understanding the physical aspects of sound creation supercedes the need to learn how to listen.

ultimately i think it stifles the creativity of the performers and what sense of individualism they can bring to a piece of music. if i wanted to hear a technically perfect and literal rendition of a piece of music designed to be played by a live acoustic performer, i’d stick the music into my MIDI sequencer and call it good. i find that the use of this sort of technology in music is far more valuable in other paradigms, such as the silly but awesome Tsukuba Series. If that’s not a good use of music technology, i don’t know what is.