Clair de lune from Scratch: YouTube Piano Lessons for Beginners
Piano pedagogy has taken a fascinating life online, most notably within the video juggernaut YouTube. While the vast majority of video lessons appear to range from homemade "how to's" for a few phrases from popular songs to samples for subscription lesson sites or DVD packages, one thing is clear: there is a huge demand for video instructions on how to play the piano.
Can an absolute beginner use videos to learn to play a classical masterpiece with real music notation? That's the question we'd like to explore in this experimental new video lesson series, "Clair de lune from Scratch", where pianist Hugh Sung teaches Claude Debussy's masterpiece a measure at a time, combining cutting edge technologies with traditional piano pedagogy:
i can't think of many teachers better than good ol' experience, and certainly this past week's Visual Recital workshop at the Hamilton School proved to be a gold mine of learning on all fronts!
The session began with an initial visit with a group of the school's 4th - 6th graders. Cellist Susan Babini and pianist Michael Mizrahi had been introducing the group to the first movement of the Sonata in F major, Op. 99 by Johannes Brahms. Realizing that we were going to have limited class time with the kids, i chose to "pre-empt" the design of the visualizations by selecting a general theme and creating the visual backgrounds ahead of time. I wanted to present ideas that would be as contextually familiar to the West Philadelphia students as possible, so Bonnie Slobodien and i brainstormed the idea of "Two Views of the Schuylkill River" (wow, you know you're from Philadelphia if you can not only pronounce that word correctly - "Skoo-Kill" - but also spell it from memory!!) The basic idea was to show contrasting elements in the music, such as:
The Schuylkill River is the main body of water that runs through Philadelphia, featuring a major highway on one end and a lovely park on the other. Initially i was going to stick with just a riverside highway scene and a blank riverside park trail background, with the idea that the students would be encouraged to draw things that move fast on the highway (cars, trucks, motorcycles and whatnot), and contrasting things that you would find in a peaceful riverside park (trees, flowers, clouds, ducks, boats, etc.) Analyzing the Brahms made me realize that almost 8 minutes of music comprised the first movement, and that there was plenty of opportunity to feature other contrasting sections. I eventually came up with the following added backgrounds:
the Fast scene, featuring the Schuylkill Expressway
the Slow scene, featuring Kelly Drive (the scenic route next to the river)
a busy street scene, representing a part of town that lies next to the river and under some big highway overpasses - this was going to be the "busy" theme
Boathouse row, a picturesque series of crew houses used by local universities and crew clubs right along the river - this would be the "peaceful" theme
The Art Museum - this would represent the "majestic: grand" theme
The Ben Franklin Bridge at night - this would represent the "majestic: exciting" theme, with the students primarily drawing fireworks for this scene
We had two back to back classes to work with, for a total of about 60 students. Given the time restraints, we kept the art medium simple: crayon pencils on white paper, to be cut out and pasted with glue sticks onto black construction paper backgrounds.
What an amazing output of creativity! Giving the students empty scenes to work with, they all vied to produce several items for EVERY one of them!
Note to self: i thought that pasting the cut out pictures on black paper would make it easier to isolate the images for transparent backgrounds, but it turns out to be actually more tedious. Time can be saved by eliminating the cutout/gluestick actions, and the scanned images can be "lassoed" manually, copied and pasted onto transparent backgrounds, and saved as PNG image file formats.
Unlike the Mad Cow visual recital workshop in Colorado, i at least had about a week to scan in the images and place them into the scenery. Well, a jam-packed week so it turned out, what with the Greenfield Competition finals, all the rehearsals in preparation for that, and Karate graduations for the kids and me...it was a challenge to find the time to get this all done (which led to late, late night programming sessions...which then led to - kaff kaff - this yucky cold i came down with...)
Primary programs used for creating the visual backgrounds:
ArtRage 2, a fantastic program that can realistically simulate paint, markers, crayons, pencil, and a host of other physical media - works exceptionally well with Tablet PC's
Inkscape, the open source vector drawing program. I really fell in love with the simplicity of use with this one - i had been a longtime CorelDraw user back in the old days, so this was like working in old familiar territory. The "technical drawings", such as the Ben Franklin bridge, the highway and the yellow dividers, and anything else that required symmetry or precision was best crafted with Inkscape.
Primary programs used for cropping, cleaning, and in some cases making animations with the students' pictures:
Macromedia Fireworks - i'm sure i could use GIMP to extract the scanned images and paste them onto transparent backgrounds, but i just work faster in Fireworks...
Macromedia Flash - several kids came up with pictures that were almost identical (sunshine, flags, etc.), so i took advantage of some simple Flash layering and alpha fades to make animated blends between the pictures and exporting them as animated GIF's
Initially, i was only going to have static backgrounds with all of the image "actors" moving in automated loops within each scene. The only trigger points would be to advance to the next scene. Fortunately, i was able to get some great help from the developer of Liquid Media to create an "unlimited ammo" trigger system. Using the X-Keys USB 12-port switch interface, i was able to incorporate 3 pedals - one to advance the scene, and two others to be used by the musicians to trigger events within specific scenes. For example, in the Fast highway scene, there was an active background of the highway zipping along and cars traveling over it. If the cellist stepped on her pedal, a series of special cars would drive by at a faster speed. If the pianist stepped on his pedal, helicopters would fly by the sky overhead.
Here are some pictures from Monday's VR workshop:
Mr. Guy Cannon's music classroom setup at the Hamilton School:
Susie giving a cello lesson to a curious student:
Michael surrounded by eager pianists:
Our indefatigable director of Education and Outreach from Astral, Bonnie Slobodien, encouraging the students to "respect our friends by listening quietly" - well, that lasted for a few seconds at least...
The main man himself, Mr. Guy Cannon - a cooler music teacher i have yet to meet!
Michael and Susie prep the students for the world premiere of "Brahms on the Schuylkill River":
Michael demonstrates how the cars can be triggered to zip by on the highway scene:
Student balloons float over the Art museum and Susie's head:
Susie and Michael performing during the Boathouse Row scene:
One concern that Bonnie and the musicians had was having the visuals overwhelm the students' reception of the music. I think we came up with some great activities to balance the excitement of having one's own artwork animated to live music and the need to encourage stronger listening skills:
I came up with the "Ta-DA" game on the spot, where the students were challenged to recognize and count the number of times the "Ta-DA" theme was played - ie, the 16th note to tied quarter notes motif that runs throughout the theme (highlighted in yellow):
When the theme fragment returns at the beginning of the development section, the "Ta-DA's" turn into "Oh-NO's!", highlighting the change to minor and its resulting shift in mood:
The Ta-DA's come back at the end as "Hoo-Ray" (or something to that effect), reflecting the heroic final statement of the motif in the last few measures - we thought of the association with something proud, noble, and majestic - like fireworks!
Interesting to point out how a rhythmic fragment can change somewhat, turning from 16ths -> half notes into 8ths and quarters.
Another listening game involved everyone closing their eyes and the musicians playing a random section of the movement. The students would have to guess which scene the music was associated with, then open their eyes to see if their guesses matched what was on the screen. It was quite remarkable to see how quickly they matched the musical associations we established with their artwork!
The most fun was having two students at a time come up and press the pedals to trigger the action themselves in synchronization with the musical motifs. This worked so well that i'm going to try to design future Visual Workshops with more pedals so that larger groups of students can get involved in activating the visual triggers in conjunction with the elements they hear in the music.
(Another note to self: kids remember everything they draw. I mean, EVERYTHING - i fit in almost all the pictures, but had to contend with a handful of disappointed faces when i didn't have time to scan in this turtle or that car or that balloon...next time, put EVERYTHING into the Visual Recital!!)
I had several video cameras running, but no hands to actually push the "record" button - what with all the activity and excitement, i just didn't get a chance to lay down a lot of video or audio. What i need in the future is a team of interns to help me set up the documentary equipment...well, i'll go through the few minutes that i did manage to record and see if i can pull together a short clip. If not, i'll make sure that i plan the videotaping at the next Visual Recital workshop in Greenport, NY more carefully.
whew...quite a long-winded blog post today! Lots of exciting ideas, lots of stuff learned - i'm already excited about the next project!
If you haven't seen this yet, then you really must spend some time over at Dr. Chris Foley's Collaborative Piano blog and his excellent new series of articles titled "31 Days to Better Practicing". Dr. Foley is a master pedagogue with the gift of breaking down materials into bite-sized components, and this series is no exception. Reading through the suggestions ranging from setting a regular practice schedule and warmup exercise ideas, to establishing short, medium and long-term practical goals for your music is sure to inspire you to more constructive and artistically infused practice sessions (and let's face it - at some level EVERYONE hates to practice, especially yours truly!)
Some of my personal favorites (so far) from the series-in-progress include:
Practice Links - A nice collection of tips, tricks and articles from several authors with topics ranging from 'why we need to practice scales' to '5 quick and easy memory tricks', among others.
More Practice Links" - Chris has collected a number of great essays and articles on practicing from various online resources here. Be sure to check out his link for finding interesting piano repertoire via Pianopedia!
5 Things to Remember About Fingerings - effective fingering strategies is a personal passion of mine, and Chris does a great job of outlining the reasons for taking this step seriously right from the beginning.
Keep up the great work, Chris! A definite "must-read" for musicians at every level!
A few blog posts ago, i wrote about two music teacher referral services - GetLessonsNow.com and ClickForLessons.com - based on the comments of another person on a different blog.
In response, I received the following comment from one of the co-founders of GetLessonsNow.com:
I am one of the Co-Founders of GetLessonsNow.com and just wanted to let you know that I have responded to the concerns about our service raised on the Music Teachers Helper blog. As a bottom line to this I want to inform everyone that we no longer create the Google Local listings that were the focus of the complaint.
by: Brian Gilman (contact) - 31 May '07 - 11:14
..to which, i responded:
Hello Brian - thanks so much for taking the time to explain the positive change in your website's policies! I'll make a note in the blog article above to read your comment for clarification.
by: Hugh (contact) - 31 May '07 - 12:10
Today, i received the following comment from the CEO of ClickForLessons.com:
My name is Steven Cox, CEO of Click For, Inc. We own Click For Lessons. The information posted on your blog and on the cited source is 100% wrong. We do not list a users name/address with our phone number. We do not 'highjack' a user's profile data to display a users address. We do not circumvent an instructor's ability to market themselves in any way. It's our policy to encourage our instructors to utilize their own efforts and other services to find new customers.
For legal reasons, we ask that you correct your site and please check your references before posting these types of comments in the future. While we know of your personal relationship with the founder of PrivateLessons and thus have a personal interest in seeing negative comments posted about a PrivateLessons competitor, we ask that you refrain from unproven and unfounded comments regarding our business.
by: Steven Cox, CEO
First off, i applaud GetLessonsNow.com for their quick response to customer concerns and friendly manner of communication and clarification. Great service begets great business.
I apologize if i misrepresented the policies and practices of ClickForLessons.com - having no direct knowledge of their services myself, the blog i wrote was based solely on hearsay. Having said that, the manner in which this comment was posted virtually guarantees that if i ever return to private teaching, GetLessonsNow.com will be getting top consideration for my business, rather than ClickForLessons.com.
For the record, i have no personal interest or benefit in posting unwarranted negative comments about a PrivateLessons.com competitor. Rather, i'd love to see more of these types of services flourish as long as they provide a good product at a reasonable price with great customer service.
Who would've thought that the music lesson listing business would get lucrative enough to attract sharks?
According to a commenter on the Music Teachers Helper blog, (a fascinating site, btw - i want to take some time to explore their music studio management program!), two sites - ClickforLessons.com and relative newcomer GetLessonsNow.com ***- seem to be engaged in deceptive Google ad practices, where they list the names and addresses of their client teachers but substitute their own website phone numbers, making for a real runaround for the teachers and bad business siphoning from the potential pool of students.
It should be noted that from the Music Teachers Helper article, PrivateLessons.com holds the top spot by quite a wide margin with regard to Google searches for music lessons. Given that they've been in business since 1996, their longevity speaks volumes about the loyalty they seem to garner from their client teachers and students.
If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that good business practices will win out in the long term. It's also quite encouraging to see that the private music pedagogy business is thriving so well!
***Note: Brian Gilman, co-founder of GetLessonsNow.com, has posted a comment below stating that his website no longer creates the Google Local Listings that were the source of the complaints. Many thanks for that clarification and positive policy change!
Seems that one of my articles got 'accidentally' dropped into the middle of a discussion regarding the listing of "who are the most famous teachers of our time" on the PianoStreet forums...if only i could be so flattered! LOL
It's an interesting discussion in any case, well worth following up on - particularly the merits (or demerits) of grad school for music majors...
I just received an email from California Music Academy, a music school billing itself as "one of Southern California's largest music schools", requesting a link exchange. According to their website, they offer piano, guitar, and vocal lessons in private settings, and for very reasonable tuition rates (their family discounts seem particularly attractive). It appears that introductory lessons are free - a terrific idea for folks who are new to music lessons and want to get their feet wet. Their website also has a really nice list of links to terrific music education (and general education) resources, everything from musical organizations to theory instruction sites, educational games and homework help - the links list alone is a tremendous resource!
I applaud California Music Academy's work in providing what appears to be a terrific curriculum of music pedagogy! They seem to have a really impressive roster of teachers and a well-rounded approach to classical, jazz and popular music lessons - my only pet peeve is that their website design leaves something to be desired, especially when it comes to the auto-play YouTube videos (um...is a Billy Joel video of him singing "Piano Man" in a smoky booze-filled bar really appropriate for a site that's supposed to be a resource to parents and kids?) Hopefully they'll take my advice and at least have the videos set to "mute" on first load (i made that same mistake myself with my first embedded videos, which prompted some immediate responses from readers begging me to shut the volume off!)
If you run a music program, i'd love to hear from you and set up a link exchange! I'm a firm believer in the fact that there can't be too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to music education! Just be sure to set your videos on mute, please...
Worse than a pronated grip chin-up routine, Schubert's fiendish "Erlkönig" provides a tortured muscle-flailing workout like no other:
Think of it: 4 minutes of spastic, non-stop, high-speed, highly coordinated repetitions...my arms feel like falling off barely a third of the way through! What i'd give to be able to play this on a nice, light 19th century Pleyel instead of our modern Steinway elephants...
My old teacher, Jorge Bolet, was the quintessential master of pianistic cheating. Hand over substitutions, clever fingering, subtle note omissions - his point was as long as it sounded good, who cares how you get the results? Here's my humble approach at cheating the fearsome Erlkönig:
The red lines indicate where the left hand leaps up to give my right arm some relief - both hands simultaneously finger out the octave orgies with 3-2-1's.
Interestingly, a YouTube video of Fischer-Dieskau's pianist (whom i suspect to be the famed Gerald Moore, but i could be wrong...) reveals an even cleverer cheat - look carefully at the pianist's hands at the very beginning of the video:
Here's what this cheat looks like on paper:
Essentially what's happening is that the pianist is taking the first note of every right hand triplet (wherever possible) as a single note with the left hand (omitting the top octave note of the right hand). Hey, sounds good to me - and sure is a LOT easier than being slavishly faithful to the masochistic muscle shredding score!
Making Art Music Mobile: Visual Recital at a Public School
I just finished putting the video together for my performance of Poulenc's "The Story of Babar" for my sons' elementary school. I'd love to get feedback on the quality of the digital piano setup, using Pianoteq's Piano Simulator (running off of my old Toshiba M205 Tablet PC, my very first tablet pc!) Since i needed the M-Audio Fast Track Pro to interface the MIDI cables and JBL speakers, i was stuck using my Samson C-01U USB microphone for a mono recording of the show, but i'm still rather pleased at the overall quality of the digital piano performance.
The picture above links to a Quicktime version of the video. To see it as a Windows WMV file, click here.
As i've stated before, i'm hoping that with this digital setup that i'll be able to offer performance options in non-traditional venues. With piano simulator technologies like the one Pianoteq offers, digital music setups can feel so much more artistically satisfying!
Some time ago one of the parents in our local PTA heard that i was a musician and invited me to play two back-to-back shows at my kids' elementary school. We're one of the fortunate school districts around that still has a music program of sorts, but i still thought it would be a good idea to invest in a digital piano setup rather than rely on the old upright at the school.
Well, a digital piano with all the computers, racks, speakers and whatnot certainly adds to the bulk of stuff i now have to carry around for the Visual Recital show!
Here are some shots of the stage setup - i must say, it makes a big difference having a stage with curtains - i think the rear projection screen looks much nicer this way. Another benefit to a curtained setup is the fact that i can keep the lights behind the curtain turned off - that in turn means i don't have to put the additional tarp frame together to focus the projector beam.
And here's a picture of my digital piano setup:
I wanted to use the Pianoteq simulator running on my old Toshiba Tablet PC, but i couldn't figure out how to get the MIDI cables set up properly to port the sound to the speakers. For the first morning show, i had to resort to using the Ivory samples with the Muse Receptor.
What a joy to see my two youngest boys, Eric and Timmy, beaming as they came into the assembly room with their classmates! I couldn't resist coming down from the stage to give them both hugs! Unfortunately, the school is very restrictive on publishing unauthorized pictures of the students' faces, so i can't post them here...
The Ivory samples worked reasonably well, albeit they felt a bit muddy and limited in their expressive range. The kids really had a good time with my presentation of Poulenc's "The Story of Babar", and were kind enough to clap after EVERY little musical segment!
After the first show, a throng of students came up to the stage to pepper me with questions. The older students wanted to know how i put the visuals together. The younger kids had questions about Babar's mother, the old lady, what happened next to Babar and his friends...fascinating how they focused so much on the story elements and wanted to learn more about the characters themselves!
I had a little time after the first show to fiddle around with the Pianoteq setup. I was using an open source VST host program called Cantabile. Basically this program enables you to load and play virtual instrument plugins, such as Pianoteq. I was using my M-Audio Fast Track Pro USB audio interface to route the MIDI signal out of the Roland RD700SX keyboard into the computer, then out to the quarter inch audio ports to the self-powered JBL Eon G2 speakers.
The MIDI indicator lights were blinking on both the Fast Track Pro and the Cantabile software interface, but still no sound. Turns out i needed to assign the ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) to the Fast Track Pro's drivers. Here's how to do that step by step within Cantabile:
1. Go to 'Tools' in the menu bar
2. Select 'Options'
3. Click on the 'Audio Driver' tab
4. Within the 'Driver' frame, click the drop down menu and select 'ASIO - M-Audio USB ASIO' (or whatever other ASIO your particular USB MIDI interface uses)
I used the Pianoteq simulator for the afternoon show. I kept the polyphony count lower to be on the safe side with the Toshiba's slower CPU (1.5 Ghz) and meager RAM capacity (only 256 MB) - i have to say, it held up remarkably well! There were a few crackles here and there when the polyphony got dense and loud, but i don't know if it was on account of the JBL speakers or Pianoteq choking on the CPU (i suspect the speakers...i don't like the way they sound). The Pianoteq simulator definitely gave me more colors to play with over the Ivory samples, and somehow came out clearer over the muddy JBL speakers than my sampled Bosendorfer...
My back is still pretty sore from all the heavy lifting and assembly/take down of all the equipment. (Funny how the janitor asked me if i needed help AFTER i put everything together myself...sigh)
Well, at least i've demonstrated that the Visual Recital is now fully portable, musically and visually speaking, which was the whole goal of my "Frankensteining the Perfect Digital Piano" blog series. I'll be looking to partner with schools and outreach organizations to bring this show to other venues that have little or no exposure to Art Music in hopes of exciting a new, young audience. As soon as i'm able, i'll post a video clip from the second show (featuring the Pianoteq simulator).
Speaking with two different violin students on two different occasions, yet getting virtually a verbatim response from both, has me wondering how large of a classical/art music populace they represent in their views. I asked what they thought the reasons were for classical music students to be so reluctant to adopt technologies like Tablet PC's or other forms of digital score readers, given their advantages of storage capacity, hands-free page turning capabilities, and digital inking. They both wistfully remarked about the romance of having the feel of paper (i've heard this remark from so many other musicians as well!), as well as the joy of being able to see their physical collection of music scores. One student pointed out how much nicer it is to receive handwritten letters over emails as an example of the romance of paper. This romance seems to supersede the inherent limitations of paper - having to remember to bring your parts, the clumsy practice of turning pages by hand during performance (one major reason the Shostakovich Violin Sonata doesn't get performed more often, btw), the limits on physical storage and portability of one's paper library, etc.
This leaves me to wonder at the typical music conservatory student's pedagogical exposure to technology - aside from the marvels of acoustic science and artistic engineering built into every musical instrument (even vocalists having benefited from the incredible advances in medical sciences) and perhaps a metronome or a tuner, it's almost shocking to realize how little exposure they have to the digital tools that can directly enhance their art. Unless they are composers working with programs like Finale or Sibelius, or are perhaps proactive in getting "behind the scenes" with recording techniques, what is being done to show our art music students the amazing benefits of today's technologies? Moving away from the physical limitations of music information (scores, pedagogy, and performance practices) and learning to study, think and create digitally?
Master class of the future at Darlington Arts Center
I'm backtracking a bit - quite a lot of blogging fell by the wayside as i prepared for the Visual Recital at Darlington Arts Center this past Saturday, so blame the pvc pipe gremlins...
Last week i had the pleasure of giving a master class for four piano students at Darlington. Master classes have the odious reputation for being little more than private lessons displayed in public, so i always try to keep the audience in mind when doing these. In a similar fashion to sommeliers presenting a wine-tasting class or a good chef describing the fine points of a particular dish, i think master classes should be opportunities not only for the participating student to get some improvement tips, but more importantly for everyone attending to develop a finer appreciation for what makes great art music so enjoyable.
Along with the requisite goofy facial expressions, i used my Tablet PC and projector to display the score for everyone to follow along with my digital ink annotations. A point of tech courtesy i picked up from teaching a master class at the Masterworks Festival over the summer: one student vehemently objected to my displaying the score while she played, complaining that she didn't want everyone to follow along and see what mistakes she made - particularly if they were going to see me circling wrong notes and the like! Although i was a little miffed at the time, i really think she had a valid point. Nowadays, I keep the display turned off during the initial performance, then turn it back on only when i'm ready to present my ideas.
One fun feature i used was the zoom capabilities to highlight a few select measures at a time. The older audience members sitting in the back of the room really appreciated being able to see the score so clearly that way!
Another feature i used was a second tablet pc recording the audio of the class via my Samson C01U USB microphone. Most master classes are presented with no follow up or feedback, giving the student little to reflect on other than whatever handwritten notes may (or may not) have been scribbled onto their score at the time. I try to present an mp3 audio file of the session for each student, along with an annotated copy of the score showing what i marked up for them. If i had more time, i would offer bookmarked mp3's, where the track numbers would correspond to number labels in the score for quick access to various spots discussed in the music (not this time, unfortunately, but hopefully in a future master class i'll be able to offer that feature...)
I try to stay away from discussing pedantic pedagogical details with the student in these settings and instead try to focus on issues that any audience member can learn to discern. For example, one fun activity involves me demonstrating a passage two different ways and asking the student - and everyone else - if they can hear the difference, and to describe what that difference is. Much like tasting two glasses of wine side by side, hearing how one phrase presents itself and returns, evoking a color change, can be a revealing experience on multiples levels for both student and listener alike. Sharpening the ears to distinguish various types of articulation, hearing the effect a particular fingering can have to make a passage even more effective - the fun really is in the listening and comparing, getting the student and the audience to articulate in their own words what they are hearing. Once they hear the possibilities, then most times they in turn can immediately incorporate that into their own playing.
Many thanks to Darlington Arts Center, the participating pianists, and the wonderful audience! Anyone asleep yet?
Share the Music - Donate your New and Used Musical Instruments
Just received this email from our local High School and wanted to pass this along to my readers:
Eastern High School is collecting donations of new and used musical instruments in support of their Share the Music project. Share the Music is a charitable program that collects musical instruments and distributes them to schools for use by students who otherwise could not afford them.
Share the Music was created by Austin Kase, a senior at Eastern, and is sponsored by the Eastern High School Tri-M Music Honor Society, advised by Mrs. Gail Posey.
Share the Music is asking for your support by donating any new or used instruments that you may have that are no longer wanted. Anyone interested in donating may contact Austin Kase (856-772-2181), Katherine Corson (856-767-0474), or Kristen Lockwood (856-772-2356), or, if preferred, may contact Austin Kase at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for visiting this site! I hope you'll find this to be a friendly place to learn about and discuss the fascinating technologies available for the Classical Musician. A great place to get started is with the ongoing "Getting Started" series. Remember, the worst questions are the ones you never ask, so feel free to email me!