Piano teaching

Technology in teaching

Guest post by Tommy Doyle

Like many adult pianists, I came back to piano after a long break – for me 20+ years of barely touching a keyboard. The piano itself has been largely unchanged for a long time. I know there are experiments with different materials and we have for example the 4th Harmonic Pedal on some pianos. However, on the whole the mechanics of a 50 year old piano aren’t noticeably different to a those of a new one.

However, life itself has moved on in leaps and bounds and technology with it. All of this presents amazing opportunities for teaching and learning piano.

As an example, let’s look at the availability of sheet music. I remember as a young learner, there were three main options

• Buy it

• Borrow it (friends or the library)

• Copy it (probably strictly speaking illegally)

For all 3 options, even then it wasn’t as simple as it might sound. Shops selling quality music books were few and far between. You’d need to hope they had what you wanted in stock of course or be prepared to wait for them to order it. Then came the cost (often exacerbated by the fact the piece you wanted was only available in a larger volume with other works).

Borrowing wasn’t easy either. I had no piano playing friends when I was young. I think I was the only person who played piano in my school. Sometimes my teacher would have a copy I could borrow short term, but I never liked asking (and teachers understandably were reluctant to lend). Libraries were always an option – but that would mean a trip into town so an entire afternoon spent getting hold of a piece of music (or not, depending on the library’s catalogue).

To copy of course, you needed to get hold of a physical source first to be able to photostat it. This then brings us back to the challenge of borrowing!

Fast forward 30 years and you can pretty much instantaneously get any music you want online. There are lots of public domain works available totally free of charge on sites such as imsl.org. Equally you’ll find a myriad of online retailers (including giants such as Amazon) from which you can buy whatever you are looking for (often with a choice of physical or digital copy). You can even get URText editions both printed and in digital format from Henle these days.

However, the key here is that it’s ‘online’! That then presupposes the use of some form of technology (laptop, smartphone, tablet). Now I’m not saying that all of we shall we say more ‘mature’ pianists are complete technophobes. I suppose most people now are able to place an order on Amazon. However, when it comes to searching, downloading, organising and using music in a digital format, I suspect many would soon be lost! Added to this then getting used to the idea of being able to annotate a digital score to your heart’s content without ever defacing the original can soon become a step too far. Yet, if we’re to study a piece of music in depth, then being able to scribble all over it (without ever damaging the original or needing to multiply the copies we have) is amazingly useful.

As another example, once we start to approach more advanced music, is being able to listen to a variety of interpretations of our next piece. This is an invaluable learning tool. Again, in my teens the same buy, borrow or copy options existed. However, at the time it was pretty much cost prohibitive to keep buying records (especially as it was generally necessary to buy the music which wasn’t cheap). Borrowing and copying were also largely dependent on either your local library’s selection or your friends having something – often a long shot at best.

Today, simply go to Google, type in the name of the piece you want to listen to and you’ll be presented with a whole range of viewing and listening options. This includes many free ones such as YouTube, not to mention great subscription services such as Idagio. If you want to hear Rubinstein or Horowitz play Chopin’s C Sharp Minor Waltz, you’ve to go no further than Youtube. However, again, it presupposes the use of technology in some form or other.

Go a step further and now imagine being able to watch a masterclass by Arthur Rubinstein, Sir Andras Schiff or Daniel Barenboim to name but a few. For my younger self this would have been pretty much bordering on the impossible! Today, I can do it from the sofa, re-wind, repeat, replay and take notes completely free of charge.

As a last example, what about the ability to record yourself. We all know that it’s a game changer to record yourself and listen carefully to the result. Often, as the microphone never lies, we can be surprised at the results! Back in the day, being able to make dubious quality cassette recordings using a portable cassette recorder was of course possible. At the time, it was even revolutionary. However, being able to video record yourself was far from accessible. Today, it’s as simple as point and shoot! Now, you can not only listen to what you’re playing, but pay attention to your posture, your hands, arms, elbows and shoulders.

When I first bought myself an iPad,- it wasn’t because I wanted to use it as part of my piano learning. It was simply because I wanted one (boy’s toys). Then, in a desperate attempt to prove to myself that I hand’t just bought a white elephant, I started to research the App Store to see what was there. In doing so, I discovered a whole range of amazing Apps. There are Apps for writing music down (no more drawing 5 lines with a ruler in lieu of manuscript paper and hoping I didn’t make a mistake as I added the notes afterwards). There are Apps to store an almost limitless quantity of sheet music and books. Most also offering the ability to make non- destructive annotations to them. There are Apps to refresh your music theory knowledge, Apps to replace a physical metronome – the list is almost endless.

These days, my iPad pretty much lives on the piano music stand! I use it for sheet music, for my practice diary, my practice plan, as a metronome, to record myself (video and audio). I use it to research things and get ideas from blogs and websites such as this one. Of course, I also use it for other non-piano things, but even so, I think I get my money’s worth just as a piano learning aid.

Finally, piano can be a fairly solitary hobby. Hours and hours spent practising behind closed doors. However, technology has again changed things. No matter where you live, you can now connect with like-minded piano learners online and share ideas, frustrations, progress or simply ask questions. We have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and also YouTube to name the main ones.

Of course, you need to be a little careful about listening to online advice. As they say, don’t believe everything you read. However, we’re all adults and understand the importance of cross- referencing things rather than taking them on face value. Check with your teacher if unsure about something you’ve read or watched.

Unfortunately, many adult learners are reluctant let themselves be seduced by this … remaining with what they are used to from their earlier learning years. Is it a case of trying to teach old dogs new tricks?

My dad (bless him) is a good example. Whilst not a pianist, he refuses to embrace technology. He refuses to use a SatNav, doesn’t want a smartphone or tablet (only reluctantly has a mobile). No matter how useful they might be his view is ‘I’ve managed 70 years without one ….’ Yet there are many things that would give him endless pleasure if he’d just take the plunge. For example, he’s a plane spotter. I had to laugh that when he visited me in Hong Kong and I showed him an App on my phone that allows you to track pretty much every commercial plane on the planet in real time. After that, each time he saw a distant dot in the sky, he’d ask for my phone so he could see what flight and plane it was! So clearly, he doe enjoy the technology but nothing would make him take that leap to actually get one for himself. He wouldn’t even use it if you gave it him for free! ‘I don’t need one of those things, I’ve got my binoculars!’.

It’s important to try to encourage adult learners to start benefitting from the technology that’s available. Youngsters will just do it anyway and will get tremendous advantages from it. Why should mature learners miss out? I’m not saying everybody should necessarily buy an iPad or other tablet uniquely as a piano study aid – although I wouldn’t be without mine. However, most people have a smartphone and generally access to a computer at home. This already gives plenty of opportunities to get the most from available technology and online resources. Hopefully, teachers will show their adult students what’s available and help them to use it. Ironically, it wouldn’t surprise me if teachers actually learn most of this from their younger students!

About Tommy Doyle

My name is Tommy Doyle, hailing from Manchester in the United Kingdom.  I grew up with music as an integral part of my life.  My father was the leader of the local Salvation Army Junior Band in which I played from a very young age.  A change in family circumstances saw me move into a house with a piano at around 10 years old.  I was immediately bitten by the piano bug.  My ‘new’ mum signed me up with our neighbourhood piano teacher and my learning journey started in earnest. However, life being life, after 15 or so years and 8 grades learning, I stopped and barely touched a keyboard for 20 or more years.  On re-starting my piano studies, aside rediscovering the sheer joy of playing, I was astounded at how much things have changed in terms of access to great piano learning resources.  I also noticed that lots of the ‘expert advice’ being proffered in various places was extremely limited when compared to some of the fantastic resources available.   So much so, that I decided to create a YouTube channel and Blog to share the things that I had discoveredthat I was sure would be of help to other adult learners (as well as my musings on the topic).