Learning Software, Part 1: Creative Cramming

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We all know what a pain in the rear it is to learn software. The complex retraining of your instincts, plus the fear of using any tool we haven’t utterly mastered yet under “do-or-die” conditions, causes many of us to postpone (in some cases for years) the chore of adopting new programs, or even of upgrading old ones.

I’ve had certain key weapons (Finale, Performer/Digital Performer) in my arsenal for upwards of 20 years and others for varying amounts less. But even with those lengthy relationships, I dread every upgrade, because I hate anything that gets in the way of that floating feeling, that nirvana I experience when I can work the software without having to think about it. Imagine if, every year or so, your beautiful Steinway had some of the keys rearranged or the strings on your loyal Les Paul interposed with an important gig breathing down your neck. I’ll bet software companies take this into account, timing upgrades to maximize functionality (and profits) without unduly frustrating users.

However much we hate mastering them, new products (and upgrades for existing ones) are inevitable, thanks to the law of the jungle inherent in free enterprise. How, then, do we remain competitive as painlessly as possible, and minimize our time away from nirvana?

Every software package is its own little society, with rules governing what you may or may not do. What makes learning it difficult is the voluminous, and rather arbitrary, connections between actions and their triggers. When you make a sound on an instrument, you get tactile feedback, easily distinguishable from that of any other. A computer, however, uses a finite set of keystrokes and mouse actions to achieve many different functions within different programs. Many tasks, many sets of similar triggers, many rules governing their behavior. Eventually, most of that detail has to be in your head, or something like it, and accessible in a flash.

Unless you have a photographic memory, it takes many repetitions of accessing and using each element before you really own it, and that’s without the mind-fogging stress of a looming deadline. What if you had a way to organize all this detail for perfect, stress-free, and nearly instant recall? Some would turn to the manual, but I’ve never seen one yet that didn’t take require at least 20-30 seconds to find answers to any of the hundreds of “how do I…” questions that plague the rookie.

How does one assimilate that much detail quickly and thoroughly and still sleep at night, with jobs and careers on the line? Simple. You cheat. Remember the concept of crib sheets from your school days? As a substitute for feeble memory, they can’t be beat. But, to be practical and useful, they have to be compact and utterly efficient. The key to their effectiveness is creating labels you will remember in the heat of battle.

Start yours like this. Make a three-column spreadsheet. Label the heading for column 1 as, “Desired Action,” and it should contain the shortest mnemonic that will remember in a hurry. Here are three examples from my Digital Performer 5 crib sheet, tiered by broader to narrower focus: “Mixer, Selected Control, Show All But…,” “Mixer, Selected Control, Show Only,” and “Mixer, Unlock Channel Layout.” It’s basically an indexed approach. Call column 2, “How To Accomplish,” and it will contain the most condensed set of keystrokes that will do the job. Column 3 will be “Additional Explanation,” and should include the fleshed-out explanation of the shortcut in column 2, so you can understand the process, if necessary.

In Finale, to remind yourself how to make the small-sized title appear on the score and not on the parts, the online manual takes you down the following path: Table of Contents > Chapter 37: Creating Parts > Linked Parts > Special Mouse Clicks and Keyboard Shortcuts. Here you’ll find half a page of instructions. Because they are long on explanation, manuals are good for initial training, but ineffective for subsequent reinforcement.

Here’s my crib sheet approach: Column 1: “Show on Score (hide on parts).” Column 2: “Document Menu > Edit Score > Text Tool > Select page item handle > Cmnd-Opt-Shift-U, H.” Column 3: “(Ctrl-click&drag on item handle>”Unlink in All Parts;” Cmnd-Ctrl-click&drag on item handle > uncheck ‘Show.’)” In most cases, once you are remotely familiar with the program, you can stick to the elements in bold. See how much more condensed this is? Even a batch of a couple of hundred such cribs, using smallish fonts, might fit onto three or four pages, making consultation almost as fast as your memory, and a lot more reliable and resistant to stress.

If the software’s manual is small enough, I prefer to simply go through it, page-by-page and front-to-back, and put every feature and command into a crib sheet. Or, if the manual is huge, then perhaps studying tutorials will at least get you moving. Or, tackle a non-critical gig using the new software cold turkey. But, as you learn each new function, take the time to condense it and feed it into the crib sheet.

As each added “how to” explanation is yours immediately, accessible in seconds, and unforgettable under pressure, the more you add, the more bulletproof you will become. Constantly alphabetized, and kept open alongside the software you are using (or printed and reachable,) your personal crib sheet will be the best time-spent-vs.-time-saved tutorial investment you will ever make.

Next time: Less painful upgrades using macros.

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