A teacher called Claire
Music tuition on the Mac
She listens, she talks, she sings, she teaches - and she's more patient than any human music teacher we've ever met. Ian Waugh gets friendly with Opcode Claire, a Mac-based ear-training program with a difference
Ear training, sight reading, music theory... they don't exactly strike you as gripping subjects, do they? In today's music-production world, where 'bpm' is often far more important than 'ppp' or 'fff', it's easy to overlook the conventional musical disciplines which are the reason we are all here in the first place.
Yet the fact is that the majority of musicians possess some level of ability in one of the above areas, even if they've acquired it by accident. Many have mastered two, while the third eludes them. Even many pros have problems with the theory and if you're studying music, you simply must be adept in all three areas.
The trouble is, the only way to improve these skills is to practise, and you really need to practise graded exercises if you want to progress. And in this, as in so many other things, computer software can be a great help.
There are other music training programs but where Claire differs, and where it stands out from the crowd, is in its user interface. Claire talks to you and you talk to her. Now is that friendly or what?
Before you use the program you create a User file containing your name, age, and level of ability - beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Next you sing into the microphone to let Claire know your pitch range. If you have a poor range, Claire will exhort you to try a bit harder. You can change your Foundation key later on if necessary. Many people find that their range increases once they warm up.
These details and the results of the exercises are kept in your file so several people can use Claire, each with personally tailored settings. Thus the program lends itself to use in the classroom, where both student and teacher can check on progress and areas of difficulty. Claire actually monitors your results and adjusts the exercises according to your progress.
Claire's tuition system is based on 'solfege', which uses Do, Re, Mi, and so on for the note names. You can even choose between Fixed and Moveable 'Do'. In Fixed mode, Do is always C, Re is always D, and so on. This is the mode to use for improving sight reading and helping to develop perfect pitch. In Moveable mode, Do is the root or tonic note of the scale. In the key of C Do is C, in F Do is F, in B Do is B, and so on. Use this for teaching relative pitch and harmony.
Claire's exercises vary according to each individual's progress, but basically, a note or series of notes appears on the screen and you must sing them. Claire may sing a note and then wait for you to sing it. She may sing a complete phrase or just the first note in a phrase. In the hardest exercises, Claire doesn't sing at all, so you get no pitch clues.
"If you've been struggling with an exercise for a while but failed to complete it, Claire may suggest you move onto another one"
When the program is waiting for you to sing, a cute Mac with ears appears onscreen. If you need to sing higher or lower, an up or down arrow appears. If you're nowhere near the correct pitch, a square appears on the stave. You can keep trying until you get it right, or you can accept that discretion is the better part of valour, back off, and try another exercise.
If you have been struggling with an exercise for a while but failed to complete it, Claire may even suggest you move onto another one.
Yes, Claire not only sings but talks, albeit in a rather middle-class American accent. Actually, she sounds late 30s and not at all unpleasant. She's strict but fair, she says, and occasionally, if you've been messing about rather than concentrating on your lessons, you will hear a disapproving tone in her voice. Very smart.
The contents of your User file are not only used to adjust the exercises but to log your progress. An Intonation chart shows the notes you hear and sing well and how far you vary from the target pitch. This is very interesting, because the chances are you are better at recognising certain notes than others. With Claire's help, you can get to know which areas you need to concentrate on.
Claire is optimised to respond to the human voice but you can also input from an instrument - although if you can read the dots that's not much of a challenge. However, Opcode are planning a series of plug-in modules which will cater specifically for the mechanics of other instruments such as the violin.
The program is fully customisable. You can adjust everything from the sensitivity of the microphone to the speed at which the program interacts with you. You can also adjust the program's tuning, volume, and sensitivity to pitch, select scales, alter the tempo, change the note head and size, and select the clef you want to use. You can even switch the voice off and revert to visual prompts - though it's not half as much fun.
"Chances are you are better at recognising certain notes than others"
There is, in fact, a good deal more to Claire than meets the eye and it's a good idea to run through the manual to familiarise yourself with all the options. You can, on the other hand, 'plug-in-and-go' because there is also an excellent on-line tutorial which takes you through all the program's main functions.
It's the speech and vocals which give this program its appeal. Without them, it would be just another aural training package. With them, it's educational without being sleep-inducing.
However, Claire doesn't teach rhythm, only intonation, although there is a metronome so you can practise in time. After mastering the pitches, it would be nice to be given a few melodic sequences of notes - commonly known as 'a tune' - to sing.
And then there's the price. Regardless of Claire's overall worthiness, this is a tidy little sum to be paying for an ear-trainer, however much fun it may be.
That apart, Claire is the most accomplished program of its kind I have seen. It's a must for schools, colleges, and music teachers, and if any individual wants to buy it and work their way through it they can hardly fail to improve - and have a little fun in the process.
Price inc VAT: £149.95
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Review by Ian Waugh
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