Editorial By Tom White, President & CEO, MMA
Consider this: MIDI technology is 20 years old, yet still as useful and popular as ever. MIDI is so much a part of the music products industry that many manufacturers and retailers take it for granted. And yet most people in the world have never heard of MIDI, so they have no idea what opportunities for music making MIDI can provide.
Thanks largely to NAMM , more people than ever before are hearing positive messages about the benefits of music making. But turning those people into music-makers will also require helping to remove the various obstacles to playing an instrument, such as time, difficulty, accessibility, and more. Fortunately, the music products industry has technology that can address those obstacles, and its called MIDI. My suggestion for how to create some more new music makers is to promote MIDI and all the unique ways it can help people to experience and enjoy making music. Here are some examples:
Computer users want to make music
Computers are not a future trend anymore. Children are using them at very early ages, parents are using them at work and at home, and grandparents are buying them to keep in touch with friends and family. About 10 years ago NAMM commissioned a study that concluded home computer users have significant potential to become computer music makers. In response, the music products industry has done… well, not much. Only a handful of companies produce products specifically to encourage music making at home, and few retailers market to computer owners. As a result, computer owners might want to make music, but the majority don't yet know they can even do it. What are needed are market development programs to generate demand from people of all ages that own computers and want to make music. The technology (MIDI) is already built in to the major computer operating systems, and allows the integration of computers with musical instruments of all kinds (even Band & Orchestra instruments!). All that's needed is to get the message to the desired audience.
Making music is hard, but technology can make it easier
About ten years ago my son was in high school band, learning to play the trumpet. At some point he had the opportunity to talk with his teacher about what is father did for a living. My son explained that I work with companies that develop technology used for making music. A while later I happened to run into that teacher and after a brief introduction he said to me "oh, I don't like technology, it puts people like me out of business."
"Actually," I replied, "technology could help you. Your goal is to get a group of children to read properly, play properly, and then play together. Your problem is you have to work with all of them at once for one hour. And when they go home to practice, you can't be there to tell them what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong, so when they come to class again, their progress is probably minimal. Now imagine this: your entire repertoire is on a CD-ROM, both the printed sheet music and an audio performance. Your students can display and hear any parts they chose. Now imagine a program that listens to what the student plays, and indicates when the student is flat or sharp or late or early. The music can be played slowly -- yet still in pitch - so that the student can develop the necessary skills. And the student's progress can be recorded and viewed by the teacher so that you can provide your personal feedback."
The teacher, wide-eyed, responded, "Is that possible?"
The answer, of course, is yes, via MIDI. There are one or two companies that offer products with some of these features, and the industry-sponsored TI:ME organization is reaching out to educators to explain how to use MIDI to teach music. It's a start, but more needs to be done.
Making music can be just for fun
Not everyone wants to work hard at making music. For people who just want to have some fun, a major keyboard manufacturer has developed a program that encourages music making using a simple principal: that technology can help ease the process of learning while making the result more immediately rewarding. Rather than learning to play piano solo, the student plays along with pre-arranged compositions that provide familiar arrangements and a greater sense of accomplishment. Moreover, the lessons can be played at any comfortable speed, and in any key, using whatever instrument sound the student finds most encouraging. This approach has been shown to be particularly useful for encouraging seniors to start playing, and MIDI is the technology that makes it all work. Because MIDI is an open standard, there's no reason more companies couldn't be using it to encourage "recreational music making".
Playing music by yourself is not all that bad
Industry market development programs like VH1's Save the Music and NAMM's Weekend Warriors promote music making as a social event. But what programs do we have to promote making music in the privacy of your own home? My neighbor, Jerry, is in his 70s, and he makes music on his home computer. Jerry was a sewing machine repairman, and when he retired he decided to start playing the saxophone again, something he hadn't done in 30 years. He found he wasn't very good anymore, but someone turned him on to "Band in a Box" and MIDI files on the Internet, and he got just what he needed: a band that would let him practice without complaint. They played any time he wanted, day or night, any song, in any key, and at any tempo. They'd play the same section over and over again without ever getting tired or angry. Eventually Jerry got good enough to start playing with other people again. His band now plays 40s dance music every week at the local senior center and for private parties. What got Jerry playing again was MIDI.
Making music with MIDI
In each of the above examples there are already companies that understand how MIDI technology can encourage people to make music, and they are taking steps to capitalize on MIDI. But there is no industry-wide effort to inform the public about the benefits received by applying technology to the process of music making - benefits that would certainly encourage more people to consider taking up a musical instrument.
Current industry initiatives to increase music makers all seem positive and successful. But we should do more. Let's develop an industry-wide program that markets MIDI to kids who aren't interested in school band. Let's have a program that markets music-making to seniors who already have a home computer. Let's tell Moms and Dads who spend leisure time playing solitaire on their computer, that they can plug a musical instrument into the computer and jam, or practice, or study, or compose.
Everyone in the music products industry should cooperate to make it known that we can make playing music easier and more rewarding. It doesn't matter what age you are, what instrument you like, what kind of music you like, whether you want to play alone or with others, whether you want to compose original music, arrange music, learn about music, just play for fun or play to become proficient, we have technology to help.
People like technology, and people like music. In MIDI, the music products industry has a proven technology that makes music making easier, more rewarding, and more practical for millions of people. I think we should share that secret with the rest of the world.
This editorial was written for Musical Merchandise Review , a music trade magazine, in 2005.