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16 minutes reading time (3234 words)

How do you use technology in the study of advanced literature?

Working with advanced students is challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is the issue of time management. As the students become more advanced, they tend. outwork simultaneously on both longer pieces and a greater number of pieces. For this reason, lessons must take very efficient use of the available time. 

The last thing that any teacher wants to do is to interject some other time-consuming element into a lesson - unless, of course, that element truly benefits the student and the learning issues at hand. 

The two responses below, from Linda Christensen and Jason Sifford, are quite interesting. Each teacher is obviously very comfortable with certain contemporary tools that are readily accessible in their studios. You get the sense that they can pull out these tools on a moment's notice and use them seamlessly in their work.

Of additional interest is the fact that their applications of technology function both during the lesson as well as between lessons when their students are working on their own.

Please read on! 

Using technology with college piano majors                                           

by Linda Christensen

Gadgets, anyone? 

Anyone who knows me knows that I love new gadgets. However, I find that in my teaching I don't use the newest gadgets; rather, I am quite conservative in my choice of technology for teaching purposes. The most useful technological tools in my studio are my CD recorder and MP3 recorder, which I use to record each student's lesson.

Digital recorders

The idea of recording lessons is not new. Modern CD and MP3 recorders do, in fact, work very similarly to the tape recorders that we have had in our studios for years. However, CD and MP3 recorders provide more options. Not only do they enable us to be able to make a recording, they enable us to save it to different types of media, such as a computer hard drive, CD, or digital music player like the iPod (www.apple.com). 

I use these digital recorders to record each student's lesson, and then I send the student home with a copy. Sometimes I ask the student to listen to the recording right away as a reminder of practice techniques we used in the lesson. Other times I request that the student simply file it away for future use. Some time later, in about 2-3 weeks, I ask the student to go back and compare a recent performance of a piece to a past performance.

Comparing past and current performances is highly motivating for students, particularly if the student feels she is not making as much progress as she would like. By comparing the current performance to a performance (or lesson) from a few weeks ago, the student can evaluate the progress that has been made and be assured that the current practice techniques are paying off. 

Of course, if the student is not practicing as he should, comparing the recordings during a lesson provides me with an opportunity to demonstrate the lack of progress. While I don't often use my recorders for this purpose, there have been times when it has been necessary. This exercise generally helps the student to reconsider his commitment to piano lessons!

Extended uses of the digital piano

Another technological tool that I use with my advanced students is my digital piano. With my advanced students, I use two particular features to help students learn Baroque repertoire.

To start with, I use the different tuning options on the keyboard to demonstrate how tuning differed during and before Bach's time. Although students may have a hard time understanding what these tunings are all about when given a verbal description, they notice their implications immediately when they have the opportunity to perform a Baroque piece using a Baroque tuning.

For example, when we switch to well-tempered tuning, my students notice right away how out of tune the modern piano really is. This exercise also provides them with some perspective on the problems instrumentalists have when playing with equal tempered piano accompaniment. 

The on-board sequencer is indispensable

In addition to the alternate tuning feature, I use the digital piano's on-board sequencer to help students develop the necessary hand and finger independence required by Baroque repertoire, especially fugues. Students use the on-board sequencer to record each voice of the fugue onto a unique track. This requires careful score study and decision-making. After completing this assignment, it is very easy to help the student recognize which voice has the fugue subject and, related to that, which voice should be the most prominent at any particular time.

When a student begins memorizing one of these pieces, we use the previously recorded sequence as a memorization tool, and I engage the student in a memory challenge. We start playback of the recorded sequence and the student plays along using both hands. At an undetermined, random time, I ask the student to stop playing one hand while continuing to play with the other. The student continues playing for a few measures, at which point I say "rejoin," and the student continues with hands together.

After we have done this a few times, I alter the activity by asking the student to stop playing both hands, while allowing the sequence to continue. After a few measures of listening to the sequence (which continues playing), I again say "rejoin," and both hands have to rejoin the music at that point.

During this activity, the sequence is always playing, thus providing the student with an aural framework for the music. I find that after challenging the student in this way a few times, I can get the student to repeat the activity again without the assistance of the recorded sequence.

In my experience, it is helpful to use the sequence when we first perform this exercise. I believe that the aural memorization of the piece is stronger than it would be ifwe had not used the sequence.

I use this technique myself, particularly with music of the Baroque period. If I can keep one hand going at any time, and if I know the piece so well that I can continue playing it in my head, the odds of having a memory slip are greatly reduced. 

Locating recordings on the internet

Finally, I cannot discuss technological teaching tools without mentioning the computer. I have found that many of my students no longer go to the library, but rely on the computer as their research tool. As a result, the students are getting a large quantity of information, but the quality of that information can be very inconsistent.

I take the time to go online and compare different recordings of the same piece by different artists. I also educate my students on the differences between MIDI files and audio files. Once the students understand the differences, it is easier for them to use each type of file according to its strengths. Downloading these files to the student's digital music player is a simple matter today, and it is quite easy to help students build a quality library of piano music.

As technology develops, I'm sure we will see even more options available to us. If we can help our students learn while using the tools with which they are comfortable, perhaps we can reach them in a different way than we have in the past. 

Technology in the school and private studio                                                 

by Jason Sifford

When working with advanced students, I tend to adopt an attitude of "the right tool for the right job." The question for me is: What does my student need to most help with and how can technology be used to satisfy that need? 

Online services

As students become more advanced, it is important that they develop a sense of style. Mozart requires a different approach than Chopin, and the best way to gain a feeling for each composer's style is to become familiar with a broad sampling of that composer's works. To this end, I tend to use the iTunes music store (www.apple.com) and the eMusic subscription service (www.emusic.com). These resources can be helpful in a few different ways. 

If I have a student working on the Op. 28 Beethoven sonata, I might suggest that the student listen to the 6th Symphony. If I have a student who's interested in Spanish music, I tell the student to look up the music of Granados, Albeniz, and de Falla. The point is to provide students with listening material that will inform and inspire their performances, and the available technology makes this easier than ever before.

Both iTunes and eMusic also offer the ability to preview tracks. This can be helpful in the selection of repertoire. If I want a student to learn a Scarlatti sonata, I can ask the student to browse through available recordings and pick a few favorites. I do this myself to build my own library. These online resources are especially valuable given the fact that most traditional retail music stores only stock the most popular works. I can literally browse online with my ears for those lesser-known gems before ordering the scores.

Recording

The last few decades have seen huge advances in the quality of recording equipment available to teachers and students of music. For a few hundred dollars, we can now make recordings that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars just twenty years ago.

Recording devices are now available that have high-quality microphones built-in. And, you can use them to record digital audio files that can be saved to a computer and played back on MP3 players (like the iPod and similar devices). 

One popular recording option is the Zoom H4 Handy Recorder by Samson electronics (www.samsontech.com). Although it costs less than $300, it includes two built-in microphones for stereo sound and can produce an excellent quality recording.

I record students while they're preparing a piece and when the piece is finally presented in recital. In the early stages of learning a piece, students can listen to themselves to identify problem spots or places where they might want to explore a different interpretation. Later, the microphones serve as a surrogate audience, helping students get a handle on their nerves. And finally, a recording of the performance serves as a record of all the hard work and success they've found with the piece. 

 Building ensemble skills

When students reach more advanced levels, they're often called upon to play in ensembles. Helping students share their talent in a church group or school jazz band can be a great motivator, and technology can help students transition from solo playing to ensemble playing.

When the student is practicing an ensemble piece at home, technology can supply the other members of the band for the purpose of creating a virtual rehearsal. In other words, you can use a variety of technologies to provide an audio or MIDI play-along environment that substitutes for the missing members of the ensemble.

One approach is to use the MIDI accompaniment features that are available on many digital pianos. These accompaniments can provide play-along tracks in a wide variety of styles.

Don't worry, however, if you don't have a fancy digital piano with those features. Another alternative is to use computer software for easily creating MIDI files and audio CDs. For example, you can use these software tools to make recordings that provide a bass and drum accompaniment to whatever tune a student might want to play.

For example, PG Music's Band-in-a-Box (www.pgmusic.com) software program is available on both PC and Mac OS platforms and has been a part of my teaching arsenal for years. With Band-in-a-Box, you can create accompaniments to almost any tune by simply typing in the chord progression, choosing a musically appropriate style, and then setting a tempo. The software does the rest - adding a drummer, bass line, guitar accompaniment, and more. Burn your creation to CD, and you have a backing track for practice or performance.

Of course, there are also ready-made, play-along materials from a variety of publishers. For example, if you are looking for a more realistic sound, check out the various play-along books from Hal Leonard (www.halleonard.com) and Jamey Aebersold (www.jazzbooks.com). These books come with recordings of studio musicians presented in such a way that the piano part can be removed. A wide variety of repertoire can be found, and the experience of playing with professional musicians is a fun experience. 

Coming together

Of all the benefits of technology, perhaps the greatest is the fact that the world has become a smaller place. The world-wide- web offers us remarkable opportunities to share our musical experiences in new and exciting ways. Two of my favorite Internet hangouts are worth mentioning here. 

Piano World (www.pianoworld.com) hosts a variety of discussion forums and is a virtual meeting place for hundreds of musicians, both amateur and professional, who come together to share their ideas. A newer and complementary site is Piano Society (www.pianosociety.com). a promotional location where amateur and professional pianists as well as composers offer free recordings to the general public in order to generate interest in their work.

As the Internet evolves, we can expect to see more ways in which people can come together. A quick search turns up innumerable blogs, podcasts, and personal sites of musicians around the globe. By using these Internet resources, advanced students can join the community of mu sicians around the world and share their gifts with others. The Internet is a big place, and there's room enough for everyone! 

Tech Tips                                                                                                 

George Litterst, Editor

Q. Should I buy an iPod? What are my alternatives? 

A. An iPod is simply a very convenient and portable digital music playback device made by Apple (www.apple.com). There are similar devices made by a number of other companies, such as Creative Labs (www.creative.com), Sony (www.sonystyle.com). and iRiver (www.iriver.com). Most of them are generically referred to as MP3 players.

The reason that these devices are called MP3 players is that they are capable of storing and playing a compressed audio file known as an MP3 file. The MP3 file format is quite popular since it enables you to store more song files in the MP3 player than you can if you use most other file types, such as .wav. Devices that fit in the palm of your hand can now store up to 1,250 hours of music. Many MP3 players will also work with .wav files and other audio formats.

Before deciding whether to purchase such a device or which device to purchase, it is useful to understand fully the relationship that these devices have to your personal computer. It is also important to consider whether you have recording needs that should be factored into the decision.

The basics
The typical, portable digital music player is a device that depends upon your computer for some of its functionality. The basic idea is this:

• Use your computer to gather, sort, and otherwise manage your library of recordings in a digital audio format (such as .wav files, .mp3 files, etc.). 

• Connect your portable digital music player to your computer with a simple cable in order to transfer files to the player for listening. 

As you can see, you use your computer as your audio librarian, and you merely copy recordings from there to your music player for portability and listening convenience.

How does music get into your computer in the first place? Generally speaking, a portable digital music player comes with computer software for gathering and managing your recordings. For example, you can use the program called iTunes to gather and manage recordings that are destined for playback on an iPod. 

The librarian program can be used to:
• rip (i.e. copy) music from your audio CD collection

• purchase audio recordings online

• import recordings that you have downloaded from the Internet or received via email

• import recordings that you have made yourself 

One of the nice things about these librarian programs is that you can easily use them to sort your music by performer, genre, composer, etc. and to create playlists, which are groupings of pieces to which you would like to listen. For example, if you have a student studying the Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven, you could organize your different recordings of that piece into one playlist and have them available for easy comparison. You can then burn this playlist to an audio CD. This latter task is something that you can do conveniently using the free iTunes (www.apple.com) software program, regardless as to whether you actually have an iPod.

Reasons to have an MP3 player

The biggest reasons to have an MP3 player are size and portability. MP3 players are small and easily transported. You can listen to music privately (using wired earbuds or even wireless headsets) almost anywhere. There are many accessory items that will enable you to enjoy MP3 playback in your car using your car's speaker system. And, you can usually connect the headphone jack to speakers in your studio if you want to playa piece for your students.

Don't forget, however, that effective use of an MP3 player starts with management of your audio library on your computer. Once you have organized your audio library in your computer, you will no longer have to fumble with CDs, cassettes, and LPs. Finding a particular recording in your computer library is easy, and transferring it to your MP3 player is pretty simple, too. 

Choosing the right MP3 player

It is helpful to take a look at some MP3 players and try them out. A good source of information is probably your class of students. Ask them to show you their MP3 players. Find out what features they like and don't like.

When making a choice, consider these issues: 

Library management How easy is it to copy "songs" to the MP3 player using your computer? (Sorry: in the contemporary vernacular, we must refer to pieces as songs.) How easy is it to manage your library on the computer using the recommended software?

• Ergonomics How appropriate is the size and shape of the device? 

Ease of use How easy is it to navigate the device itself? Is the screen easy to read? 

Storage capacity How many songs will the device hold? Do you really want or need to carry around an entire listening library (which may be possible with a high capacity device) or will you be content to keep the bulk of your library on your computer and then copy songs to a low-cost, low capacity MP3 player as desired? 

Battery life How many hours of listening can you enjoy between battery recharges? Is the battery conveniently rechargeable?

 Recording 

Although it probably seems natural to a piano teacher that an MP3 player would have recording features, most MP3 players do not. Apparently their designers did not have music teachers in mind! 

An interview with Dan Coates: "A Place at the Tabl...
A student's view of the benefits of piano study
 

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