Watch What You’re Doing!

In June of 2005, a month after we’d finished moving into our new house and were mostly done unpacking boxes, I bought a new computer.

I’d been talking for years about getting a machine that I could hook up to a musical keyboard, load with software, and use with my students for composition. In fact, I’d even trained on the software while staying at a conservatory in California in the summer of 2000.

So, I took a deep breath and ordered the machine, plus the software I need as a blind person to make everything on the screen get spoken out loud so I can work. Then there was all the music software, which also had to be adapted to work with the screenreading program. In short, it was an expensive project.

Once everything arrived, Ted had the unenviable task of making all the different programs talk to each other without killing each other. It’s one thing to just take a computer out of a box and start running with it when it’s designed to be used by the average person who does everything with a mouse and needs only a word processor, an Internet connection, and Solitaire. (Ah, the good old days!) It’s quite another to make it run smoothly when the user finds a mouse as helpful as a lifeboat in the desert. (And why is it called a mouse, anyway, unless it’s because they’re annoying little rodents that can get almost anywhere they’re not supposed to.)

Once he got everything sorted out, it was my turn at the controls. I’d never learned to use Windows properly (the extent of my computer use was reading my E-mail). I couldn’t keep straight when a command was “Alt-this” or “Control-that”, and, more than anything else, all I wanted to do was “control everything”!

Well, everything except my temper. The cool part about most software now is that it comes with instruction manuals that get loaded right onto your computer. So I decided to take the summer and teach myself to use Windows and the other software I had (Sibelius for producing print musical scores, Cakewalk for creating digital music, and JAWS to tell me everything on the screen).

In the first six weeks, I’m not sure who talked more, the computer or me. I do know that I used a lot more four-letter words than the machine did. When I wasn’t swearing at it, I was trying to quell my burning desire to throw it out my office window or kick it senseless. The only thing that prevented me from doing either thing was the thought of how much I’d just paid for it! Cold comfort!

Other times, I’d end up in tears. Finding files stymied me for weeks it seemed, especially when they were shown in multilevel directories. Even if I could find the file I wanted, I was in such a bad mood when it finally appeared on the screen that I’d willfully forgotten what I wanted to do with it, and I’d close it (that was one command I knew real well: Alt-F4!).

What sighted people do with a mouse, I had to do from my keyboard. “Click on this thing here” might make complete sense when someone says it to you while leaning over your shoulder, but it didn’t work for me. When I wasn’t talking to my computer, I was “talking” to my husband. I’m surprised and thankful he lasted that summer, because I was worse than nasty on many occasions. If I couldn’t make my computer feel how pissed off I was, my husband was a convenient scapegoat. Besides, he knew everything and had programmed this evil thing, so I could blame him for all my problems. And, unlike my computer, he’d bleed if I poked him too hard, and I wanted blood.

Well, not really. And fortunately, I didn’t. I slowly worked my way through manuals. I went from being terrified to try anything in the fear I was going to break something, to trying it anyway and figuring that, in the worst case scenario, Ted could fix it!

If something went really wrong, I’d just turn the whole machine off and walk away. But after one instance when I actually changed the shape of all the icons on the toolbar and made the printer “disappear”, I stopped doing this. Now, if a weird message comes up, I don’t even try something I think might work; I call Ted.

Not all the time, though. In the realm of music, his knowledge is almost useless. Questions about quarter notes or panning or velocities of notes mean nothing to him, so I’m really on my own.

One great thing is that, because I use the computer daily, I’ve gotten reasonablly comfortable with it. I’ve found airline tickets on my own, made electronic bank transactions, all kinds of stuff. Every week, I learn something new, and starting this blog has made me even faster at getting around a screenful of links.

Last year, as part of our annual Piano Olympics, we were able to do all the students’ compositions on the computer and burn them to CD. By all accounts, the results were well-appreciated.

This year’s competitions will be in April, so it’s composing season again. And with my “Soul Essence” work plus other assorted projects, the digital music software and old Roland keyboard have become real workhorses.

Two days ago, while finishing the editing on a “Soul Essence” I am giving as a gift at the end of this month to a longtime friend, I must have typed something weird, because when I did the usual command to refresh the screen, I got this: “Warning: You may have either added tracks or moved tracks. Without saving your project, closing it and reopening it again, …”

Oh, crap. I’d never heard that before! So, I saved it, closed it, reopened it. It sounded fine; all my instruments were still there, and it was making the changes I was programming it to (i.e. getting louder or softer, speeding up and slowing down). But a few minutes later, when I did another screen refresh, I got: “Warning: You may have …”

The computer had one suggestion for what I may have done, but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall what it was, except that maybe I’d pressed Tab to do it. But I didn’t want to compromise this piece with it so close to being finished. So, since it wasn’t really bothering the computer (just me), I finished editing, shut everything down, and went to bed.

The next day, I did some more editing work in different pieces in the morning. Always, when I refreshed the screen, I’d get: “Warning: You …” Also, whenever I selected more than one track to work on at the same time (for instance, when I wanted both the violins and violas to get softer at the same time), the computer usually tells you what tracks you’ve selected, and then it’ll say all the tracks you can see on the screen. Well, I knew something was odd when I got this message: “Selected tracks are one through four. On the current page, tracks one through minus eight point five two are visible. There is another page of tracks.”

OK, I know computers have some strange quirks, but usually, they count forward like the rest of us. What was this “one through minus eight” stuff? I didn’t know, but it was still working other than that, so … Do I chalk it up to the fact that I’m using Version 4 when they’ve already come out with Version 6?

In the afternoon, I started working with several students on their compositions. Now, before the first student started, I figured I had a clean slate and nothing to lose. So I pressed “Shift-Tab”. If you add the shift key to Tab, it goes backward instead of forward. Then, kind of holding my breath, I did a screen refresh.

Bingo! I got the little cascade of bells that lets me know it’s done a good job, and my computer said: “Fit as many tracks into the track pane as possible, loaded the Triple a layout, refreshed the screen.”

Hallelujah! I’d fixed my problem, even though I still didn’t know what my problem had been.

It’s been a long journey from confusion to confidence and competence. There’s still a lot I have to learn. But if I can go from cursing my computer (I propose adding a function key called “F-U!”) to using it on a daily basis to earn a living and expand the education of my students, then anyone can do it.

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