A Pentastic Practice Tool

The pen is mightier than the sword if the sword is very short and the pen is very sharp.
~Terry Pratchett

Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?
~Friedrich Nietzsche


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

An “early adopter” is someone who loves to get the new gadgets, fresh from Chinese factories, built with resources from Australian mines, using ideas often from people in Silicon Valley, with customer support from India. I’m not usually an early adopter because first generation gadgets usually have glitches, gremlins and other ghosts in the machine. But recently I made an exception which is such a fantastic new tool I just have to share it. It’s called Livescribe. The second generation is now out and I can say that the company has actively eradicated bugs from the system and that it works brilliantly.

Livescribe is a pen that records audio as you write. Nothing special there, right? But the cool thing–or one of them anyway–is that when you touch the pen to what you’ve written, you hear the audio that was taking place while you wrote it! Below is a little demo I put together for my students, so you can get a taste of how it works.

Music Lesson Pencast Demonstration

The pen records audio with pretty good fidelity. I’ve used it to record concerts with my free improv group Meh! , and the sound is pretty darn good. But where the pen really shines is in music lessons. I use it for students during their lessons, and during my intense weekly djembe classes at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. There is so much information flowing in this djembe class that without the pen I would find it difficult to practice the material because there is too much to remember!

For example, today when I lug my trumpet and djembe over to the practice room, I’ll fire up the pen, touch the part of the page where I took notes about Taka Woro, one of the djembe pieces we’re learning, and there I’ll see the notes I took on each of the 2 djembe parts, and the three dunun parts, as well as other important things such as history, the break, and what the piece sounds like when it’s all put together.

How does the pen know to hook the audio to the writing? The paper you use (a full-sized notebook is around $5) has tiny dots on the page, and each page has a unique ID. The dots are so small you can’t see them, and these dots create an x-y grid so the tiny camera at the tip of the pen knows where it is on the page. The text you write is linked to the audio recorded at the time.

This is the most awesome lesson tool. Truly. With it you can record exactly what your teacher says and demonstrates as you go through your lesson so that if you’re stuck or need a review mid-week, it’s just a click away. But it’s even cooler than that. You can post these notes online and share them with whoever you want, or make them totally private so only you can see or hear them! There is a piano function, too: draw a piano keyboard and you’ll hear the notes plink away when you touch the piano key. It can translate simple phrases in several languages, too. Check out the vid below for many more details.

The most basic 2Gigabyte model, the Pulse, costs about $100, while the newest model, the 4GB Echo, is around $140; the 8GB Echo is about $170. The best value is the Pro Pack ($250) which gives you everything you need to really take off. It’s spendy, yes, but this far and away the best technology purchase I’ve made in a long, long time (and I buy a lot of tech). It’s helped my music improve (and that of my students!) at a much faster pace. And the ability to archive lessons for both myself and my students is priceless.

So if you’re a student or a teacher, consider getting one of these pens. It’s made a world of difference to my practice as a musician and had a substantial impact on my effectiveness as a teacher. If you want to learn more, check out the informative vid below.

Have fun, and good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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