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Charting the future course of music history

Not long ago, a professor of piano pedagogy at a prestigious collegiate institution asked me to be a guest lecturer for a day. The topic was technology. The class was attended by a fine group of young pianists who were completing work on a graduate degree in piano performance.

During the session, I got to know the students a little bit. I was interested in their current use of contemporary technologies. Not surprisingly, I discovered that they were all regular users of smartphones, laptop computers, social networking groups on the web, Skype video conferencing, and many other modern technological resources. Interestingly, none of the students had any knowledge of contemporary tools that directly apply to their chosen profession!

This situation is not unusual. I often have the opportunity to visit with college music students and faculty. Frequently I discover that graduating piano performance and piano pedagogy majors are ill equipped to leverage contemporary tools that relate to their future profession.

This raises some interesting questions. Are we preparing students for our past or for their future? Is it really so hard for piano teachers to come to grips with modern technologies that apply to teaching and playing the piano and to employ them for the benefit of their students?

Missed opportunities

We're now living in an era in which private teachers can stream student recitals on the Internet from their home, pianists can practice piano concertos with a virtual orchestra that will follow changes in tempo, students can take lessons at home with teachers who are located almost anywhere in the world—and so much more. Yet, only a small percentage of the piano teaching profession is taking advantage of these developments. Worse, many of the institutions that charge upwards of $40,000 a year for a college education choose not to train their students in the use of these new tools.

Are we dealing with unprecedented circumstances? Do the technologies of the early twenty-first century pose unique challenges that were never faced by musicians of past eras? Is our era so different from earlier times that we struggle with technology issues that posed no problem for our musical forbearers?

Lessons from the past 

The history of music making is an amazing story of technological change and innovation. Over the centuries, there has been a dynamic interaction between performers, composers, and instrument makers. When someone in one group innovates, everyone in the other groups reacts and thus change takes place. It is reasonable to say that there is no musical composition that we play today that could exist without prior technological innovation.

Take the horn, for example. This venerable instrument dates back to around the sixth century B.C. Not surprisingly, the raucous sounds of early horns were deployed on the battlefield where they could provide audible signals and generally contribute to the terror and mayhem of war.

As the horn became more refined during the last millennium, the hunting horn (cor de chasse) emerged in Europe. The easiest notes to play were the lower, triadic notes of the harmonic series, which are the notes we generally associate with hunting-style riffs. By the baroque era, however, composers were challenging horn players by writing music in the upper range of the instrument where it could be played more melodically.

Naturally, as the instrument itself evolved and its sound became more refined, performers responded by developing new techniques for playing it. As the baroque era gave way to the classical period, horn players developed the technique of inserting the right hand into the bell of the horn, thus enabling them to produce notes other than the tones of the harmonic series. Such innovations made it possible for the composer, Mozart, to write his horn concerti and for horn virtuosi to play them.

Even with these developments, the eighteenth-century orchestral horn was limited in the number of notes that it could play. If a composer wrote a piece that modulated to a new key, he either had to drop out the horn part or give the horn player time to swap one length of tubing (known as a crook) for another in order to transpose appropriately. It was common for horn players to have several crooks on hand to enable them to play in a variety of keys. Obviously, it was cumbersome to deal with multiple crooks.

In the early nineteenth century, instrument makers explored competing solutions for eliminating the need for crooks. One solution was the omnitonic horn. This instrument featured a spaghetti of additional tubing which made the instrument both more versatile and heavier. Alternative solutions used less tubing, were lighter, and deployed piston or rotary valves for the purpose of changing the effective length of tubing immediately on the fly.

Omnitonic Horn—Jacques Charles Labbaye, Paris, circa 1820—Paris, Musée de la musique.

For some period of time, it was not obvious which version of the horn was the ideal one for a composer or a performer: the natural horn (which needed crooks), the omnitonic horn with its extra weight, or a valve-based horn which required new performance skills. By the end of the nineteenth century, the rotary valve-based horn emerged as the winner and become standardized (and later called the French horn even though the instrument is primarily of German origin!).

Clearly, the horn with the rotary valves would not have become the standard instrument unless performers were willing to play it and composers were willing to write for it— and teachers were willing to teach with it!

Our historical role as teachers and performers

Similar histories can be told for all other instruments, including the piano. And in the case of modern instruments, there is no reason to believe that we have reached the end of these story lines.

Let's think about the modern piano and its history. Today we have an instrument whose major component parts have been standardized for well over 100 years (e.g. pattern of white and black keys, number of notes, number of pedals, size of hammers, height of the keyboard, et cetera). In addition, a large body of its literature has become standardized and many systems of instruction have become institutionalized.

How different would things be today if... 

• ...Bartolomeo Cristofori had not invented the escapement action in 1700 (or thereabouts)? 

• ...Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach had not written An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments in 1753? 

• ...Mozart and Beethoven had not adopted the use of the sustain pedal? 

• ...Alpheus Babcock had not invented the cast iron piano frame in 1825 (which supports 40,000 pounds of string tension in the modern grand piano)? 

• ...Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt had not developed performance techniques and written compositions that required faster actions and more resonant instruments?

• ...the pneumatic player piano had not brought live music into the homes of the rising middle class in the early twentieth century? 

• ...the 1980s and beyond had not seen the development of MIDI, digital pianos, reproducing systems for acoustic pianos, and the Internet?

Throughout the history of the piano, both teachers and performers have played an important role in the evolution of the instrument. Without the blessing of teachers and performers, various innovations would not have survived. For example, during Schubert's lifetime, there were attempts to add percussion sounds to the piano, triggered by extra foot pedals. However, such instruments did not gain a popular following.

Six-pedal piano, ca. 1810; Fritz from Vienna. The levers are: sustain, moderator 1, moderator 2, bassoon stop,Turkish percussion effect, and sustain. Photo courtesy of Ratko Delorko.

Unless players and composers are willing to utilize new instrumental features, instrument makers have no reason to add them. If piano teachers won't teach the music that is written for the new features, there is no market demand for the new compositions that require them.

Whether consciously or not, we all make daily decisions about new technologies that we choose to incorporate or not incorporate into our professional activities. In this way we participate in the ultimate market decisions that give a thumbs up or thumbs down to new innovations.

Modern technologies and pop culture

I think that one of the reasons that traditional piano teachers struggle with new technologies is that many innovations are associated with pop culture—at least initially. For this reason, we often have a negative first impression when we see a new technology that may apply to our profession.

For example, MIDI is a concept that was developed for keyboard instruments in 1982. MIDI makes it possible to connect two or more musical keyboards or tone generators together or to connect a keyboard with a computer. What were the best selling MIDI instruments of that decade? At the high end, there was the Yamaha DX7. At the low end, there was the Casio CZ-101. Both instruments had their virtues for various musical applications, especially in the fields of pop and rock music and even electronic music composition (in the case of the DX7). Neither instrument was appropriate to the performance of piano music from our rich classical tradition.

The 1990s saw the rise of the digital piano.Within limits, digital pianos can substitute for acoustic pianos, and they offer a number of benefits: no need to tune them, can be used with headphones, can be connected to a computer, et cetera. Modern examples with sophisticated speaker systems and grand piano actions (such as the Yamaha AvantGrand), can feel and sound remarkably similar to the real thing.

During the 1990s, the most expensive and impressive digital pianos offered hundreds of orchestral voices, automatic accompaniments, styles, and registrations. Again, these features had great application in pop music and had little if anything to do with traditional performance of classical music. Nonetheless, these features constituted great educational resources for the adventurous teacher who was able to proceed beyond first impressions.

Teachers are lifelong learners 

Another impediment in dealing with new technologies has been the issue of learning new things. When personal computers started to become commonplace, they came with thick manuals, as did music software programs and even new keyboard instruments. For many people, the necessity of wading through an instruction book was a severe impediment to learning how to use new tools—especially if it was not clear from the start that the end result was worth the effort.

Thick user manuals are now a thing of the past. At this point in time, most technology-based products come with very little documentation. The expectation is that you learn to use new products by applying your experience with previous products and by employing trial-and-error experimentation. If you have no previous experience to call upon, that, of course, can be an impediment.

Young kids are especially good at learning through trial-and-error. They typically exhibit little fear about breaking things. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be overly concerned that they will do the wrong thing and damage a product by pushing buttons or changing settings without first knowing the consequences. Worse, they may fear that they will demonstrate their ignorance.

Fortunately, piano teachers are lifelong learners who love to try new things, right? Didn't most of us become teachers because we love to learn? Are we not experts at developing learning strategies that enable us (and our students) to conquer problems in the shortest possible amount of time?

Good teachers are cognizant of their students' varied learning styles and look for ways to leverage their students' strengths when teaching them new things. Teachers—theoretically—are more facile learners than other adults because they have the potential to analyze their own learning styles and to apply efficient learning techniques to the task at hand. For these reasons, piano teachers are good candidates for learning new technologies.

Looking to the future 

In the 1990s, I often spoke with teachers about the amazing things that we'll be able to do in the twenty-first century. Guess what? We're more than ten percent of the way through the new century, and we're surrounded by amazing tools that offer us exciting opportunities for our teaching and performing. You can be sure that this column will continue to keep you up to date with the latest technological developments and the pioneering work of your peers. If you haven't yet jumped on the technology train, we're ready to welcome you aboard!

Tech Tips

What should I look for in a technology-equipped piano? 

Now that we are more than ten percent into the new century, it is important to consider embedded technology when contemplating a new or used piano purchase. If we are limiting the discussion to instruments that can support the full body of piano repertoire, options can be distilled into three basic categories:

• an acoustic piano with embedded technology 

• a virtual acoustic piano 

• a digital piano

In all cases, it is important to start by considering the musical quality of the instrument. How good is its touch and tone? Answers to that question are highly subjective, of course, and are usually offered in the context of the available budget and whether the instrument will be one's primary instrument or a secondary instrument.

An acoustic piano with embedded technology is usually one of the following:

• a piano with a built-in record and playback system (i.e. a high-tech player piano) 

• a piano with a built-in MIDI strip (that enables MIDI output to a computer or tone module), often including silent system technology

A high-tech player piano will enable you to record your own playing or that of your students. On playback, you can change tempo, transpose, and in some cases mute one hand or the other. These pianos usually have a complete MIDI system, which means that you can have full interaction with MIDI software running on a computer or iPad. Some of these pianos also have a silent system that enables you to prevent the hammers from hitting the strings. In silent mode, a built-in digital piano sample is activated, and you can listen to your playing over headphones or speakers. In some cases, these systems are built-in at the factory. In other cases, they are added to an existing piano.

When comparing acoustic pianos with embedded technology, one should consider the accuracy of the playback system, including whether or not the piano records and plays back incremental pedal positions. One should also consider whether the company typically provides upgraded control units when new technology comes out. For example, it used to be common for high-tech player pianos to store recorded data on floppy disks. Many of these piano are still fine pianos today, but obviously the technology component is seriously dated.

It is generally best to stick with instruments that have an upgrade path for the control unit. However, if you are only interested in the ability to interact with computer software, even a piano with an old control unit may suffice.

I use the term virtual acoustic piano to refer to high-end digital pianos that have actual grand piano or upright piano actions and which have very sophisticated digital tone production. The idea is that these pianos provide a playing experience that is remarkably similar to that of a real piano and which goes noticeably beyond what you experience with typical, weighted-action digital pianos.

Virtual acoustic pianos have the usual electronic benefits: full MIDI system, no need for tuning, and possibly a variety of other bells and whistles. From a performance standpoint, the crucial question is: How realistic is the playing experience? Not only do you have to determine whether the tone quality is good, you need to ask yourself whether what your ears hear matches the tactile sensations that you experience while playing the instrument.

Lastly, there is the broad category of digital pianos. A good digital piano has a weighted action, of course, as well as a satisfying piano sound. You will find a vast variety of instruments in this category with wide-ranging features. Some sort of record-and- playback system is common. A complete MIDI input/output feature is standard, even in very old digital pianos. 

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