Technology on Tour: The First Installment

Have you ever wondered how technology can enhance the touring experience for arts organizations and artists on the road?  My name is Katie Grennan, and I'm AMT Lab's current Chief Editor of Research. I'm also a professional Irish fiddle player, and as you can imagine, March is the busiest month for many of my colleagues and I because of St. Patrick's Day, the holiday that makes everybody Irish for 24 hours! For St. Patrick’s day, I'll be on the road with for the majority of the weekends during March and for all of spring break. Even though playing Irish traditional music requires a fiddle, a bow, and a bit of rosin (and okay, some practice too), I rely on many different kinds of technology as a modern touring musician. Each week this month, I'll give you a recap on where I played over the past 7 days and the different kinds of technologies I used to make my life easier, which might make yours as arts managers easier as well!  Last weekend, I was assisted by the Parked Car feature on Apple Maps, hotel texting capabilities, the MetroTimer app, an electronic drum machine, and Facebook Live.

First Stop: Lavin Cassidy Feis, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (March 3-4)

Dance competitor Grace Geraghty and myself (and some of my gadgets)

Dance competitor Grace Geraghty and myself (and some of my gadgets)

One of my favorite parts of being a musician is playing live music for Irish step dancing competitions. These competitions (called féiseanna - meaning Irish Dance competition in Gaelic) are run by local non-profit organizations all over the world and generally have anywhere between 500-1,500 competitors from the age of 4 to 21 and above. In order to maintain the tradition of dancing to live music, each competition usually hires five to ten musicians to play all day for the dancers.

One of the perks of being a musician for these competitions is that you are hired to play for beautiful dancing all over the country, but this in turn presents the most challenging aspect of the job. The weekends can be exhausting because I typically arrive at the venue Friday evening, play for 8 + hours on Saturday and Sunday, and then travel back home, either driving or flying back that night or the next day. Therefore, technology is an essential way to make the experience a little easier when squeezing in a weekend work trip while still fulfilling my responsibilities as a grad student: 

1. Parked Car Feature on Apple Maps 

As busy arts managers, you all know what it’s like to be running from thing to thing to (make an event successful). We’ve all had that moment of panic when you can't quite remember where you last parked your car. One of Apple Maps newest features alleviates the stress of forgetting where you last parked your car. When you are in a time crunch to get somewhere without much time to spare, Apple Maps can remember where you parked. In my case, it was essential for getting myself to the airport early Friday morning after a long week of graduate school classes where I didn’t need to worry about where I had parked my car. Not sure how to enable this feature if you have an iPhone? For this feature, your car will have to have either Bluetooth or CarPlay functionality. Next, make sure you have the updated operating system installed (iOS 10). Next, go to Settings>Maps, and then scrolled down to the bottom to enable the "Show Parked Location."

Now, the next time you leave work or your house to make the trek to your car, all you will need to do is open the Maps app and click "Parked Car." Don't have an iPhone, or want to check out other options? Click here for Mashable's list of top 5 car finding apps. 

2. Hotel Texting Capabilities

One plane ride and a car trip on either end later, I found myself at the Geneva Grand Hotel, located in Wisconsin, where the feis was held all weekend. After I checked in and headed to my room to put my belongings down, I received a text message from the front desk, thanking me for staying with hotel and asking me to text back to confirm they had the right number. Although I didn't get the chance to take advantage of this feature over the weekend because I was working almost the whole time, this is a feature that I could really see coming in handy for groups that are traveling with a large group of performers who are used to communicating through text message. For instance, dancers in a dance company traveling out of town on a tour could simply text the hotel on their way back from a show requesting additional towels or ice instead of flooding the front desk upon their return. This feature that I caught a little glimpse of this past weekend is part of a larger trend of "smart hotels" - hotels that are recognizing communication trends and adding convenience factors like texting for their guests. Tour managers should consider including these features on their list of attributes when going through the booking process. 

3. MetroTimer App 

Feis musicians are required to play at designated speeds for each dance competition and are expected to be as precise as a metronome. These speeds range from 66 all the way up to 144 beats per minute, depending on the dancer's age, level, and selected dance. When I first started playing for the competition on Friday night, I had to get set up quickly, so I relied on my handy metronome app to make sure that I played a steady beat for each dancer. There are a variety of different apps available to help musicians stay in time, but the one that I have found works for me is MetroTimer. The app has a sleek grey and blue interface, and includes a variety of features found on expensive stand-alone metronomes, including a flashing "visual indication allows you to 'see' the beat", and a tap tempo functionality, which allows you to get in the ballpark of the tempo that you want by physically tapping on the screen. Arts managers and educators who use live music in performance or instruction should encourage musicians to use this app to encourage steady playing, which is always a good thing!


4. Electronic Drum Machine

Once I had a few minutes break between the first couple of competitions, I hooked up my Alesis SR18 drum machine to the stage's sound system. Although the metronome app is helpful to me as a musician, I'm the only person who can hear it. The addition of the drum machine allows each dancer to hear and feel the beat while they are dancing on stage.  Using electronic drum machines at these traditional dance competitions is a relatively new phenomenon and could be considered controversial.  Good dancers should be able to detect the timing and beat of the music's melody without the aid of an electronic beat. However, at feiseanna, there can sometimes be as many as 10 musicians and stages at the same time in one large convention center or other open space, causing the sound to bleed between stages. Many dancers complain about not being able to hear the music,  so these drum machines are now being used to inject some consistency into the day. This consistency keeps the dancers and musicians on the beat. The judges and audience members can listen to the drum machine to keep track of how accurately the dancer is dancing and helps them tune out the sound they may be hearing from other stages. After all, isn't that what technology is make things easier? Arts organizations that teach music in large groups, especially in the non-classical realm where there may not be a conductor, should consider investing in one of these machines. When the machine is connected to a powerful sound system, it has the horsepower to reach all students or musicians in a room, enhancing their performance.

5. Facebook Live

I would be amiss to write about technology and performance without mentioning social media. Towards the end of the second day of the competition, I decided to live stream a few of the tunes I was playing that day on my personal Facebook page. Playing for 7 or 8 hours straight with limited breaks can become monotonous and sometimes a little lonely. As the stage musician, you play off to the side of the stage and don't have much time to interact with the dancers and spectators since you are the one providing all of the music. I was inspired to start posting a few videos throughout the day from colleagues who were doing the same in other places around the world. It definitely gave me an extra boost of energy at the end of a long day to see live comments and greetings coming in from friends and family around the world while playing one of my favorite tunes! On Saturday, I posted two videos, one with a quick description of the tune, and another linking the tune to the Facebook page of the band from which I learned the tune when I saw them in concert the previous week. Although I can't directly attribute the triple viewership for the later video solely due to the act of linking it to another Facebook page, I have a feeling it had some impact to some degree. Perhaps it got more attention because people the band and wanted to hear my rendition, or it could have had something to do with a backend algorithm and/or time of day that I posted. In any case, arts managers should take advantage of live streaming features on various social media platforms in order to reach their audiences, and recognize that "DIY" videos have a certain appeal - not everything must be professionally done to make a positive impact. 

Come back next week for another Technology on Tour update from my performances with storyteller Tomaseen Foley's Irish Times in Pensacola, Florida as well as the start of Irish Tenor Michael Londra's tour across the US.  

Have you found certain technologies to come in handy while on the road? We would love to hear from you, so comment below!