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In New Orleans, learning music by watching the feet

David Weinberg Feb 10, 2014

In New Orleans, learning music by watching the feet

David Weinberg Feb 10, 2014

Of all the industries technology is disrupting, the music business is experiencing some of the biggest changes. One thing that has not changed significantly: Music education. But the inventor of a new tool hopes to change that.

Shannon Powell is one of the best drummers in New Orleans. He’s played on a platinum record with Harry Connick Jr. and studied under the New Orleans legend Danny Barker.

“This is where it all started, right here on St. Phillip Street,” says Powell, standing in front of the house where he’s lived his entire life.  “I roamed along this whole neighborhood.”

Powell grew up in the Treme neighborhood, where he learned to play the drums by studying the musicians who passed by his front door every weekend during the second line parades, and by watching the women in church play the tambourine.

“All of the rhythms that I was listening to when I was a kid are assimilated to the street beats of New Orleans,” he explains. “It’s all a part of that Habanera,  African rhythms and Spanish melodies.”

Powell teaches music occasionally at the University of New Orleans. That’s where he met a student named Darren Hoffman.

“He showed me how to play the tambourine,” Hoffman recalls. He was surprised at how the lesson began. Powell told him, “if you want to learn to play the tambourine, watch my feet.”

“The reason why I tell him to watch my feet,” Powell says, “is because when I play the tambourine up high with my hand, I’m doing rhythm with my feet.”

Hoffman realized that much of what he learned in his lessons with Powell came from watching him. “It’s not just in how he sounds, it’s in his style and his personality,” says Hoffman.

Before studying music, Hoffman studied film, and he got the idea for a new tool to connect musicians like Powell with music students so they could learn from masters, the same way Powell had as a kid. So he brought Powell into a recording studio and surrounded him with video cameras.

The result is the Tutti music player app. When the program is pulled up on a PC, phone or tablet, the screen displays five different frames, each one focused on a different instrument, all of them being played by Powell.

It allows the user to choose which instruments they can see and hear. So if you want to isolate the vocals, or the tambourine, you can. Or you can mute the drums so you can play along, even slow the speed of the video down by half.

Hoffman and a business partner, Kristen McEntyre, are working with music education programs to get Tutti in schools. “We have 400 high schools that are using this, and a number of universities, including courses at Berklee College of Music, and of course we have our at-home musicians,” McEntyre says.

The app itself is free, but the songs have to be purchased individually. A percentage goes back to the musicians who recorded them.

Hoffman and McEntyre plan to expand the offerings of Tutti to different genres of music, and eventually create a subscription model to generate revenue.

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