Photo: transcribed solos by Jamie Aebersold. Not high-tech, but invaluable. Now, let’s hope Apple’s latest is just the tip of the offering for tools to help make us better musicians. Photo here, below (CC) naturalkinds.

What’s the biggest obstacle in music making? For most people, it’s basic musicianship. I’m not at the Macworld keynote, but the well-done TUAW liveblog tells me that Apple has in fact offered a product hoping to solve that. GarageBand ‘09 will come with built-in musical training, with add-on “celebrity” training packs for US$4.99 each. It’s great news, but it also makes me hopeful that the music education end of music technology will develop and flourish more than it has – along with music education in general.

As far as Apple’s new offerin, if I’m understanding this correctly, you’ll first need GarageBand ‘09 via iLife ‘09: that’s US$79 to upgrade, US$99 new, or free on a new Mac. You’ll then get nine lessons on the basics. (It’s actually not clear that there’s much else improved in this release of GarageBand; given Apple’s focus on incremental, specific feature improvements, this may be it.)

To get additional tutorials, you pay $4.99 a lesson. The pay-off is lovely, though: on-screen frets and keys show you what to do if you’re an absolute beginner, and the likes of John Fogerty, Colbie Callat, Sting, and Sarah McLachlan are the teachers.

There’s no question about it: this is a great way to get casual musicians hooked on music and music learning, and even if you’re not a Sarah McLachlan fan, that’s good news for all of us. But it’s also just the beginning.

Mac users are already assuming this will sell a lot of Macs, but that was the assumption with GarageBand. Not to burst the bubble here, but I think you’d probably be a little silly to invest in an entire Mac for a few minutes of video training; I’m not even sure if it’s worth $100 if you don’t have much other use for iLife. But it is a significant offering, and I think the smartest idea here is offering $5 lessons. It’s so smart, in fact, that it’s too bad that GarageBand is apparently a prerequisite. So you ought to be smelling an opportunity if you’re in the training business: inexpensive, on-demand training could be addictive, even if traditionally this sort of lesson has been sold in a bundled or subscription form.

Apple is doing informal, video-based learning in a new way. It should be great for casual users. But for real music lovers wanting to go deeper, there are already other products, and this should be an impetus for them to both step up the quality of their delivery and capture GarageBand graduates in a new way.

Three tools immediately spring to mind.

One is SmartMusic, which is an enormous, in-depth set of Mac/Windows software tools for really learning to play. Band, orchestra, jazz, method, classical, solo, the whole enchilada is in there. The concept of the tool is that you get a set of repertoire and exercises and work through them, with intelligent accompaniment following along with you as you work. I actually hope CDM can spend some time looking at how SmartMusic is being used; while it’s not exactly a household brand for music software, in education this tool has been huge. Apple’s offering isn’t really comparable, so the lesson to SmartMusic maker MakeMusic ought to be that they have a real chance to start thinking about consumer channels as well as schools.

Another good example: Alexander Publishing. In addition to music tech offerings (that bit being more common), they have titles like founder Peter Alexander’s own Professional Orchestration Home Study Program. These are available as digital downloads, and if Fall Out Boy isn’t quite heady enough for you, they analyze Ravel, Mozart, and Stravinsky string writing. Taking advantage of the online medium, you get downloadable lessons, QuickTime videos demonstrating string bowings, a booklet showing string positions, study scores, live recordings, and online library access. These sorts of things were really hard to follow in the old days unless you got to hang around an orchestra, which not all composers can – certainly not all the time, and not at their own pace. (In fact, the ones that could had an unmistakable advantage).

The other, more conventional offering is Jamey Aebersold Jazz. The soul of the Aebersold approach is a set of recordings of really brilliant musicians playing rhythm section so even something as simple as practicing scales makes you feel like a be-bop jazz star. Aebersold sells tons of other stuff, but it’s the Play-A-Longs that rightfully made them famous. The human element makes it all meaningful. I actually got to go to a couple of Aebersold summer workshops as a young student, and it was life-changing, even though I ultimately didn’t decide to pursue jazz technique. The events and the recordings both are enormous confidence boosters for young musicians, because they put people in the kind of inspiring creative environment that’s the reason we all get into music in the first place. You begin to see technique as do-able, as something you can get by practicing, and you find new respect for what’s expressive in your own music. The bad news about Aebersold is that it’s still largely sold as books and recordings. Those media work well for some things, but there really ought to be an iTunes for Aebersold, or Abersold on iTunes. (How many of you would go impulse buy a Play-A-Long right now? And I’d rather play along with Coltrane than Sting, somehow.)

Apple’s offering, yet again, reaches a big audience in a way that’s important. And make no mistake: Apple just stole the spotlight in music education in a big way. But that could be good for everyone, provided deeper tools step up to the plate. There’s no reason an Aebersold Play-A-Long – or equivalents for other musical styles – couldn’t be just as successful. We’re living in an age in which music education in general faces major challenges. Technology alone certainly won’t solve that – but it can be a part of that solution, and since we’ve got it, we can use it in smarter ways.

And if anything, it’s worth any reminder that practicing and learning music has to be coupled with music making. It’s what allows players, no matter how casual, to really feel musically expressive. I hope we can look forward to more.

This story will be updated with GarageBand info as it is published.

  • ericdano

    While the iLife Garageband lessons sound good, they won't really hammer you to get the song right. It appears there won't be any sort of "plugin" and it grades you on the song type thing that other educational programs offer. Though, it does give you THE ARTIST who wrote THE SONG telling you how THEY play it, which is pretty darn cool if you like the song and stuff. It will encourage a lot of people I think, and it is priced fairly well too.

    Smartmusic. While I do use SmartMusic a lot, it does fail in a lot of ways. The interface is terrible. It can grade you on how well you play stuff, but it isn't very accurate. The green line for playing back frequently is a little behind, and there is no way to adjust it on songs that have real audio accompaniments.

    Smartmusic does have a GREAT catalog of music, and for sightreading, or working on a song, it is a great tool.

    Aebersold…….I don't understand why they have not jumped into the iTunes thing. You can sell whole albums on iTunes with a PDF, which would be exactly what Aebersold would do. Piracy fears? Dunno…..

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Yeah, I agree, SmartMusic isn't perfect — it's also the only really comprehensive offering of its type. So do get that feedback to MakeMusic!

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  • http://store.gospelmusicians.com/ Jamal Hartwell

    Don't forget what the boys over at Gospel Musicians are doing with the videos and presentation.

    Check out their store with full length digital downloads: http://store.gospelmusicians.com/

  • MonksDream

    One of the classic Aebersold Play-Along descendants on the software side is Band-In-A-Box. The idea was/is that you can computer-generate the accompaniment based on arranging rules (styles) for each part. Add the ability to set up chord changes and repeats and Voila! instant Aebersold.