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The Sound of the future

The Sound of the future

Editor's note: In the November/December 2014 issue, Clavier Companion launched a series of articles addressing the future of piano teaching. The following article is part of that series.

In the mid 1900s, electronically produced sounds were only available to an elite group of composers, artists, and recording studios. Today, our students have easy access to nearly any electronic sound, as well as superior sound samples. A sound sample is not electronically generated, but rather is an actual sound that has been recorded or "sampled," often from an acoustic instrument. These recordings are then mapped to each note on the keyboard. The role of these sounds or "voices" continues to be a major player in our students' fascination with music.

A sound is worth a thousand words

Judy was a piano teacher's dream. She came to me as a transfer student, a fifth grader with a refreshing eagerness to learn and discover. Judy was also innately musical—an added bonus that made the lesson time fly! By the time she entered high school, she was working on late-intermediate repertoire. The hauntingly beautiful melody and rich harmonic texture of Brahms's Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2, lingered easily under Judy's fingers. However, the relative minor section came to be a curious bump in the road for her. The intense melody that Brahms weaves between the hands was lost, especially amidst the added rhythmic texture of two even eighth notes against eighth-note triplets. Judy's intellect understood the intent, but her fingers were not bringing out this rich inner melody. 

I kept a synthesizer in my studio, so I turned it on and brought up a string ensemble sound. We played this passage together, with Judy playing all the notes as before. I played only the poignant, interwoven melody using the strings sound, controlling the dynamic rise and fall of phrases with finger pressure and the volume slider. After playing, Judy turned to me and looked as if she had seen a ghost. "Can I play that?" "Sure," I said, and we traded places. Judy had played the synth before and knew that even though the keys were spring-loaded as opposed to weighted, they were velocity sensitive. She used more finger and wrist pressure for more intensity in the middle of each phrase. The sound grew rich and full. It was one of those moments where words fall short. That one sound was worth a thousand words. Judy returned to the piano and was able to bring out the gorgeous "string part" in the minor section that had been so elusive.

Sound investigation

Little seven-year-old Kingston loved music and enjoyed discovering sounds on the Yamaha Clavinova. Part of his lesson was spent exploring how different sounds changed the character of his pieces. Like all children, he loved percussion. Unlike many seven-year-olds, he was able to play slightly complex rhythms, independently fingering various drum sounds on the keyboard. His physical skill and rhythmic intellect were far beyond his elementary music reading ability. After he learned each early elementary method book piece with its quarter, half, and whole notes, I encouraged him to choose intriguing sounds on the Clavinova that brought out the character of the music. For one particular piece with a "heavy" beat he chose a sound called "Guitar Hero" for the quarter notes. For the half notes, he pressed the left pedal, which activated an enormous pitch bend that lasted two beats. I chuckled inside because Kingston took ownership of his piece by assigning the rhythmic aspect of the piece to a sound component!

Rock guitar is typically a favorite sound of young boys. However, virtually all of the sounds interested Kingston, not just the distorted guitar sounds. When we discussed dynamics, he brought up a harpsichord voice and played the piece first with no feeling or dynamics. When we changed a major chord to a minor chord, he selected a tremolo strings sound, which created a "creepy" feel (his words). He also played a violin sound that made it feel sad. Of course an instrument sound is not the same as tone on the piano, but listening in this manner can be an important first step for young students.

The sounds of childhood

Apps that offer the opportunity to play along with popular songs on an acoustic piano are engaging students in their own listening spaces. These pop tunes and their sounds are part of our students' lives and times. We can capitalize on this by including their music—along with ours—in their piano lessons. It goes without saying that specific sounds are an inherent part of the music we listen to. Can you imagine "Over the Rainbow" without hearing Judy Garland singing, or "White Christmas" without hearing Bing Crosby's voice—or sound? Can you play a piano reduction of Tschaikowsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" without hearing the magical celeste sound? The music and sounds of our childhood are an essential part of who we are. Playing music with the sounds that evoke a feeling or memory is heartening, health-giving, and undeniably human.

Sound discoveries

Virtual instrument apps that contain superior sampled sounds continue to draw in our young students. The ability to quickly and easily record a composition using a myriad of "cool" sounds is compelling. In the presence of a digital sound, we ask ourselves "How can I use that sound to teach something relevant and musical?" Music is about listening. Sound samples give us the opportunity to raise the listening bar of our students. This is our chance to invade their "different listening space!" At a workshop in the 1970s, Lynn Freeman Olson challenged teachers to ask their students (rather than tell), "What can you tell me about this quarter note?" If he were here today, he might ask, "What can you tell me about this tremolo strings sound? What is that fluttering we hear?" Or, "Tell me about this harpsichord sound. Why can't you play it softly?" These sounds provide an invaluable platform for teaching students to truly listen. Then, sitting at our grand pianos, we can ask, "What can you tell me about this tone you are producing as you play?"

It can be a bit of a shock to discover that students do not know what tone is on the piano, much less how to produce one. Their listening space is bombarded with a plethora of sounds. The pure, authentic piano sound in an elementary piano piece pales in comparison to their everyday world of sound.

Orchestrating piano music helps students learn about the intricacies of melodic and harmonic interaction along with the critical function of rhythm. The ease of recording and availability of superior sounds permit our students to orchestrate their Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, and Contemporary pieces. And why not? Debussy and Ravel are among many who often orchestrated their own piano works as well as the music of other composers.

The University of Central Oklahoma piano faculty currently incorporates digital recording into their curriculum. Piano students are required to orchestrate one piece from their repertoire every semester. Faculty member Dr. Chindarat Charoenwongse-Shaw remarked that during the first semester this policy was in place, the faculty saw a rise in the level of musicality of student performances.

A sound combination

In their infancy, portable keyboards contained electronically produced toy-like sounds. State-of-the-art digitally sampled sounds in modern keyboards can provide a meaningful ensemble experience for our students. A combination of digital pianos, portable keyboards, or synthesizers can create a stimulating collaborative venue for pianists. A wide array of sounds brings forth a wide array of music genres: Baroque, Romantic, Classical, Contemporary, Dance, New Age, original compositions, arrangements, orchestral reductions, lead sheets, and so on. More importantly, a digital keyboard ensemble offers our piano students opportunity for musical growth in many areas. Students learn

  • to count—really count; 
  • to collectively keep a steady beat; 
  • the power of shaping a musical phrase; 
  • to keep playing regardless of missed and incorrect notes;
  • to play while others are playing conflicting rhythms and melodies;
  • the bigger picture of form and structure; and  
  • collaborative and accompanying skills.

In addition, students

  • experience a wealth of instrumental and choral literature; 
  • experience more sophisticated music than their current solo skill level allows; 
  • learn music from all time periods; and
  • enjoy making music with their piano-playing peers.

There is a wealth of orchestral literature that most pianists have never experienced or even heard. Our choral and instrumental brothers and sisters have a familiarity with great symphonic repertoire that is enviable. 

If we are to "meet students where they are—not where we want them to be, but where they really are," as Frances Clark once challenged us, then we should embrace a diverse pedagogy that is inclusive, broad, and perhaps more complete. Rather than reject non-piano sounds, we can accept all sounds. By adding open sound tolerance, investigation, and discovery to our pedagogical arsenal, we can send forth the Judys and Kingstons from our studios as better pianists, better musicians, and excellent listeners.

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