Learning new software, especially an application in a new category of software, can be a daunting, frustrating, and sometimes seemingly impossible task. As the music technology coordinator at a small New England college, I am faced with this task on a regular basis. There are, however, a few things that I have found that help reduce my stress level.
As soon as I know I have to purchase a piece of software (and, of course, learn it), I start by researching what titles are available and compare the capabilities of each. Does it do what I need it to do with a minimum of fuss? Will it allow for more sophisticated tasks in the future? Does it do much more than I’ll ever need or want to do? I also ask colleagues, friends, listserv, and the occasional passerby what their choice might be. After I have all the information I need I take the plunge and order my software.
The software has arrived…now what? I prefer to take Aristotle’s advice, What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing. Software seems to lodge itself in my long-term memory more often if my ultimate goal is a specific project. If I merely go through the tutorials and then leave the software laying in wait until it’s needed at some future time, I find that the material learned seems to get lost in some irretrievable corner of my brain. So I like to have something to do once I’ve finished the training. However, don’t try to learn a sophisticated piece of software (e.g., music notation) two days before your project needs to be completed. Give yourself some time to internalize the bells and whistles of your software before you start your project.With that said, now it’s time to learn how to use this program. If you’re going to go the self-taught route, I highly recommend doing it when you have a good chunk of uninterruptible time. I’m talking hours/days not minutes. Trying to learn software on your lunch hour during the school year will most likely turn out to be an exercise in frustration. Find a time when you and your computer can have a few quality hours with each other. Also pick a time of day when, to paraphrase my son, your learning cells are on. I know, if I try to learn a new software package after everyone else is in bed, and I’ve been up since the crack of dawn, I just wind up staring at the screen and the next thing I know it’s two a.m. and my desk has made a nice impression on the side of my face. Once you’ve cleared your calendar and your head, turn off the phone, quit your email program, close the office door, and run through as much of the software’s tutorial as you can. Try to avoid any other computer tasks while you’re learning, this is not the time to multitask.
After you’re gone through the tutorials and feel as if you’ve gotten a handle on what the software is about. Open a new document and play around with the program. Pull down every menu and try every menu choice you can. Since this is not your project, don’t worry if things get messed up. This is also a good time to work on experimenting with undo and redo (if these options exist). Make mistakes and try to fix them. I know this is a difficult thing to do for us Type A personalities, but after you get over the initial trauma of making an intentional mistake, it can be quite fun.
At this point you should be fairly comfortable with the software, so now it’s time to tackle your project. Again, I highly recommend doing this long before any deadline. Give yourself time to work through any problems. To help you solve any problems not covered in the user manual, you can purchase any of the popular how-to supplements, such as the “Dummies” series or books by Peachpit or Berklee Press. I’ve found that a better approach is to consult with experts in user groups and listservs. Usually there’s someone who has an answer to your particular problem, or can point you in the right direction. There are also the technical support folks at your software company, who are knowledgeable and typically very helpful. Unfortunately they are also terribly busy and can’t always respond as quickly as someone in a listserv or user group.
I can’t guarantee a 100% stress-free experience, but I can say from personal experience that if you follow the steps described here your software learning should go smoothly.
Many thanks to Steven Estrella and Tom Rudolph for their suggestions.
by Craig Sylvern
Keene State College, NH
by Craig Sylvern