Now that we have entered the third decade of the twenty- first century, I find myself looking back at the previous three decades and wondering: Did technology deliver on its implied promises? With advances in music technology, do piano students learn music faster, enjoy their practice more, and perform with greater confidence? 

These are important questions that should be asked on a regular basis as we evaluate the technologies that we use in our teaching.

In addition, there are related questions that teachers should ask themselves periodically: 

Am I knowledgeable about the technologies that are currently available to my profession?
Do I use the most effective technologies in my work? When using modern technologies, do I understand and employ best practices?
Do I direct my students to make effective use of technologies that they have at home? Why use technology?

Music performance is an amazing experience unlike any other human endeavor. During the acts of learning and performing music, we integrate every aspect of our person that defines our humanity:

  • intellect 
  • sense of purpose 
  • quest for beauty 
  • need to collaborate with others
  • emotional response to sound
  • deliberate, rhythmically coordinated physical movement of large and small muscle groups
  • purposeful projection of emotion and abstract ideas

—to mention just a few parameters.

It's no wonder that the act of successfully performing a piece of music can be a deeply meaningful, transformative experience! 

When learning to play the piano, many types of learning come into play: 

  • visual 
  • aural 
  • kinesthetic 
  • conceptual 
  • and more

Recognizing the many facets of the learning process and the unique learning styles of each student, the effective teacher employs a variety of instructional techniques to motivate and facilitate the educational experience. 

The spectrum of techniques can range from a carefully chosen tone of voice and vocabulary when addressing the student, to the selection of motivating literature, to choosing a progressive curriculum with an appropriate scope and sequence, to movement activities, to... 

Well, you get the point. The art of musical instrument instruction is amazingly complex and in a perfect world is uniquely tailored to each student.

Over the centuries teachers have employed a variety of tools to facilitate their instruction: pencil and paper, assignment books, metronomes, charts, various sorts of manipulable objects, award stickers, adjustable benches, and footstools. Not surprisingly, in modern times new tools have emerged: computers, cellphones, tablets, headphones, video cameras, apps, and more. 

My Personal Journey 

In the early years of my career as a piano teacher, I used all of the traditional tools mentioned above. And, I modeled my teaching on that of my musical mentors. For a few years, I largely taught pieces from the same books that had been assigned to me when I was a student.

Over time, I received instruction in piano pedagogy, started attending conferences, and learned that there are many approaches to effective teaching. As time went on, my perspective on teaching grew rapidly.

And then Came the Computer 

In 1984, my wife and I got our first personal computer. The decision was hers. As a teacher of the deaf, she wanted a tool for creating educational materials for her students.

I quickly discovered that by using a new computer protocol called MIDI, it was possible to connect a musical keyboard to the computer. That simple fact led me to the obvious conclusion that in time, computer applications would emerge that respond directly to the performance of the student.

Indeed, I was certain that I was witnessing the dawn of a new age of learning, facilitated by computerized tools. 

However, in 1984, I wasn't excited about the MIDI keyboards of the day. They were typically synthesizers and light-weight instruments that lacked touch sensitivity, and none sounded like a real piano. Then, in 1988, the Yamaha Disklavier piano appeared on the scene and spoke to me: This acoustic instrument had a MIDI- based, record-and-playback system.

I appreciated the fact that this technology-equipped piano enabled me to record my students and to show them what their playing actually sounded like— magically reproduced on the very instrument that they had just played. But more importantly, the instrument's MIDI feature enabled me to connect this acoustic piano to the computer! Going forward, I knew that there should be no musical barriers to having a high-level learning experience using computerized technologies!

Technology-Equipped Pianos

Although the Disklavier was very exciting to me, I was somewhat dismayed by the fact that the instrument (and similar, high-tech player pianos from other companies) was largely marketed as an entertainment device for people who don't play the piano. Worse, the price of this and similar instruments was well beyond what most teachers and students could afford. 

Fortunately, a new type of MIDI keyboard instrument emerged during the 1990s: the digital piano. Digital pianos typically had record-and-playback features plus much more. And, they were more affordable.

My Discovery of MIDI Accompaniments 

Over the next ten years, I explored all sorts of technologies in my studio. I used lots of computer software, ranging from business applications to music games to an
experimental app that simulated a symphony orchestra when I practiced piano concertos. In a way, I enjoyed an embarrassment of riches. 

Of all of the wonderful technologies at my fingertips, the most important for my teaching turned out to be MIDI accompaniments that were available for most of the leading piano methods.

What Is a MIDI File? 

A MIDI file is a multi-track data file that consists of musical performance data. In essence, a MIDI file is the modern equivalent of the old paper piano roll. Both a MIDI file and a piano roll contain instructions for reproducing a recorded performance.

In the case of the piano roll, the instructions drive the mechanical parts of a player piano, causing the keys and pedals to move. In the case of a MIDI file, the performance data can be turned into sound by an electronic tone generator, such as a digital piano or computer.

Widespread creation and use of MIDI accompaniments would not have been possible if the music industry had not agreed on and promoted standards. In 1983, keyboard manufacturers had agreed on a common computer language for transmitting performance data called MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface). In the early 1990s, the music industry agreed on a common file format for storing MIDI data (Standard MIDI Files) as well as a common set of 128 orchestral sounds, sound effects, and a drum kit (known as General MIDI or GM).

With these standards in place, composers, arrangers, music publishers, and keyboard manufacturers began turning out play-along MIDI accompaniments for piano methods and higher level literature. If you had a digital piano with GM, you could buy these accompaniments on a floppy disk, pop them into your piano, enable or mute tracks, set a playback tempo, loop sections, and play along.

Connecting the Performer to the Music

I found these accompaniments to be quite remarkable. To see why, let's examine the experience of an elementary level student who is assigned the task of learning an unfamiliar piece with nothing to assist but the printed score.

The challenge for the student is one of decoding a bunch of symbols on the page, using that decoded information to guide the fingers on the keyboard, and to render sound by pushing the keys. And all of this must be done accurately, in real time, or the piece will not sound as intended.

Add to this challenge the fact that the student doesn't know what the piece should sound like, has muscles that are not appropriately coordinated for this task, and has little ability for self-correction! 

In contrast, when the student has been provided with a MIDI file for the piece, the student can: 

  • hear what the piece sounds like 
  • slow the piece down in order to understand it better 
  • play one part (such as the right hand part) while the MIDI file plays the rest (thus enjoying a complete, audible experience while playing just a portion of the piece)

Gaining immediate familiarity with the piece is a game changer. But the advantages of MIDI accompaniments do not stop there. 

Musical performance is a real-time activity that must be carried out with rhythmic accuracy. This involves the simultaneous coordination of many muscles that must contract and relax at precise moments in time. In order to learn this skill, the student must internalize the sense of pulse (i.e., the beat) as well as employ a vocabulary of rhythmic patterns that take place within the beat. 

Since the time of Beethoven, we have used metronomes as a guide for establishing the beat. But a metronome, by itself, cannot communicate a musical context nor guide us with the rhythmic activity that takes place between the beats. 

MIDI accompaniments establish the beat or groove, provide models for developing a rhythmic vocabulary, and provide a context for anticipating the next moment when a muscle must contract or relax.

A Multiplicity of Musical Outcomes 

The discussion above barely scratches the surface regarding the ways in which MIDI accompaniments can benefit the learning and performance of music. Indeed, the subject deserves a dissertation. For now, I'll address the question that I posed at the beginning of the article. I have found that use of technologies involving MIDI accompaniments has: 

• inspired my students 
• led to faster learning
• assisted with the development of solid motor skills
• taught students how to start playing at any point in a piece
• promoted imaginative musical interpretations
• produced more confident public performances

Moving Beyond MIDI Accompaniments 

To be sure, many of the MIDI accompaniment files created in the 1990s were not great. Like any other product, there were excellent examples and poor examples. The concept behind them, however, was terrific.

In the early days, one of the barriers to using MIDI accompaniments was the apparent need to acquire a digital piano. Fortunately, Roland stepped up and marketed a small MIDI "boom box" called the MT (Music Tutor). There were various incarnations of this device. Basically, it had all of the GM sounds, a speaker system, and the ability to play MIDI files. It was a wonderful, portable teaching resource that was much less costly than a full-featured digital piano.

In the early 2000s, floppy disks began to disappear from the computer industry. This left publishers in a quandary as to the best way to deliver MIDI file content. And, for a time, there was no modern standard among keyboard manufacturers for how to import a MIDI file into a keyboard.

During this time, interest in the pedagogical value of MIDI files waned—at least among many of the keyboard manufacturers and music publishers.

Today, however, new opportunities have emerged as a result of the iPad and the many musical apps that have been written for it. Today, you can connect a technology-equipped piano (acoustic, digital, or hybrid) wirelessly to the iPad thus enabling a MIDI app to respond to you, the performer. 

Indeed, the ability of apps to respond to you is the new game-changer that enables us to take the MIDI concept and go beyond. Using MIDI, we can even connect the piano in our studio directly to the piano in our student's home.

Technology Hiding in Plain Sight

In the midst of all of this opportunity, there is little leadership coming from the music industry. It's as though most of the producers of the tools that we need have little understanding of their value.

Worse, many companies have taken on a mindset that suggests that advances in technology should only work within the confines of the products that they create. 

For example, there are a number of apps that can show music on the iPad screen and respond to the player. In one case, the app will recognize which brand of keyboard is connected to the iPad. If it is the keyboard of a competing manufacturer, the app will disable MIDI interactivity. In another case, the app will turn a MIDI file into readable notation on the iPad screen. However, once you disconnect the iPad from an authorized keyboard, the music will disappear from view.

Imagine the level of success that Beethoven would have had if his music was only viewable when placed on a piano made by just one manufacturer, such as Broadwood or Graf! 

The road that lies ahead has more opportunities than most of us can imagine. Realizing these opportunities, however, takes a musical village of creative teachers, forward-thinking composers and arrangers, fearless publishers and instrument makers, and cooperating software developers—all working toward the singular goal of advancing the opportunities for everyone. 

Music-making is a joy that should be experienced by all.

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