New tricks

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This is my old dog. He’s awesome.

Sixteen (!) or so years ago, when I was a student in London, I often supplemented my income from music with a few moderately well-paid temporary secretarial jobs.

I could make more money than most temps, because I had a typing speed of 116 wpm. This was faster than most people’s. I had taught myself to type using a touch-typing program that happened to be installed on a computer in my school when I was 11, and my finger dexterity from playing the cello and piano enabled me to build high speeds. Because of this, most of my jobs didn’t involve filing, photocopying, or answering phones; for the most part, it was audio typing and copy typing. The other secretaries in the offices where I worked were jealous that I could make £4 or so more an hour than they did. It wasn’t a fortune, but it paid the rent and enabled me to save enough money to live comfortably for the next three years in Texas without going into debt.

The kind of pay bumps I enjoyed largely don’t exist any more. These days no one needs a typist, because everyone does their own. If someone really can’t type, there are voice-activated software and scanners and so on. My skill that I prided myself on is now both universal and obsolete.

I was thinking about this the other day when I overheard some undergraduates complaining about a class that compelled them to learn to code even though it wasn’t a class in computing. And I thought, “Wow, why would you not want to learn to code?”

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I happen to be learning to code myself. The reason I’m doing this is because my husband and I are co-authoring an online open-access textbook on college theory and aural skills, and though we have the assistance of a coding expert, we have to figure out a lot of this ourselves.

And it turns out I love coding. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about all the cool things I learned about coding that day. Then I fall asleep and dream about coding and all the cool things I’m going to do with it tomorrow. Coding is incredibly fun and geeky, and I feel that knowing how to do it sets me apart as a writer and a teacher.

When I considered this, I started to wonder whether coding wasn’t the new typing — a skill that is prized now because not everyone knows how to do it? But a skill that 15 years from now will likely be universal. And then maybe I won’t be so exhilarated that I know how to do it, because it won’t set me apart any more, but right now it feels like the kind of heady high I used to get from typing fast and accurately while the other secretaries looked on enviously.

And then I thought about the skills a subset of modern cellists have now that aren’t considered mainstream yet, such as reading lead sheets, swinging the rhythm, improvising over agreed-upon chord changes, the kind of extended techniques that you can use in pop or rock or Latin jazz and so on, singer-songwriting…. I greatly admire the cellists that do this, but I don’t (yet) have any skills in those areas. Will they be the norm fifteen years from now too?

To get some historical perspective of shifting skill sets, we should consider that fifty years ago it wasn’t yet completely mainstream for performers to attempt to perform early music in a historically informed style, but today just about everyone has some knowledge of it even if they’re still using modern instrument setups. And sixty years ago, mainstream cello technique was so “un-extended” that for many years a piece like Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto was more or less the exclusive property of Mstislav Rostropovich because not that many people could play it. Now it regularly appears on the required repertoire lists for cello competitions.

One day playing popular styles may be the only credible way to earn a living as a cellist — in part because so much of contemporary classical music is unpopular with the already dwindling audience of people who enjoy mainstream classical music.

So I’ve sort of decided that my next geeky hobby is going to be learning electric bass, and maybe I’ll translate some of those skills to cello playing, and who knows what I’ll do next.

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