Piano vs. Keyboards – what’s the difference?

What’s the Difference – from teaching, learning, and Musician’s perspective? Some semi-random thoughts.

  1. There’s nothing like playing a well-maintained concert grand. NOTHING.
  2. But few people have access to a concert grand, much less a well-maintained one.
  3. The new Roland V-Piano is supposed to come close, though. At roughly $6,000 it’s a lot cheaper than a quality grand, but you’re going to have to invest in some amps and speakers.
  4. Keyboards/Synths give me capabilities that a piano doesn’t – different sounds, etc.
  5. I play a Piano and a Keyboard differently – even when the keyboard has a great action (like my Roland RD-700 sx).
  6. I’d suggest learning the Piano, and integrating the “keyboard” part of it as a part of the process. To play keys you need to learn how to work your buttons, how to change what you play depending on the sound you’re using, and how to improvise a part while looking at a chord chart.
  7. Best way to learn how to change your touch? CLASSICAL PIANO music! (especially Classical, Baroque, and Romantic eras).
  8. To Comp (i.e. accompany) you need to know your chords and scales. Those are the tools that let you combine bits and pieces into something interesting that fits the song.
  9. This is true regardless of the style – rock, jazz, pop, urban, country, world…….
  10. You still have to practice – every day is best.

Using technology to teach piano

First, my setup:

1) I teach on a digital piano (not a great one, but it’s what I have available in the music store where I teach)

2) I have a 10-year old Mac (Powermac Tower – 266 MHz PPC processor running MacOS 9.2.2) that has 2 midi interfaces.

3) I also have a small sound module (a very old Emu SOundEngine that sounds pretty cheesy, but works)

4) Software includes Band in a box, Finale (from 1994), Opcode EZVision, and Opcode’s Studio Vision

What do I do with it, in lessons?

1) Record the student using MIDI into EZVision, which is faster to setup than Studio Vision. They can hear themselves. Sometimes I’ll bring teh parents  in as well. I’ll also transfer the midi file down to my “real” studio, convert the midi into audio, and email the resulting MP3 to the parents as a surprise.

2) Use iTunes (version 1!) to play some jazz or classical piano tracks. One of the students was learning a piece (titled something like Sugar Rag) – so I played a “real” ragtime for them – a recording of a Scott Joplin piano roll. IT started a conversation about what they were hearing, and what each hand was doing….. and how they could do that with enough practice.

3) I’ve also been using the setup to create new music for some of my other activities, when I have some downtime. This is the advantage of standard midi files – they can be exported on the old Mac, and pulled up into Traktion for further editing on my new Mac… or even a Windows machine.

4) I’ll also create a quickie drum track, have EZVIsion loop it, and use that as a fancy metronome for the student to paly to. If we’re feeling adentureous, I’ll crank up Band-in-a-Box and have it do an even fancier drum track.

There are a few ideas. Got any others?

My, how technology has changed Music Appreciation

At the risk of sounding like an old geezer…… this came to mind as I taught my last Music App class of the semester.

My first Music App classes were taught using LPs – the CD had only just been introduced, and of course new tech takes FOREVER to weasel its way into educational settings. Finding particular passages was a royal pain, and seriously interrupted the flow of the class. Cassettes were more portable, but didn’t sound nearly as good (we had a bad cassettee deck).

Fast forward (ahem) several years. Today I used video from YouTube, video I’d stashed on a server, a CD that I’d collated myself froma variety of sources to use in teaching, and my iTunes library from the computer down the hall – audio streamed over the network – all to demonstrate jazz.

This makes for much less downtime in class – but demands far more prep time outside of class.

A Music Career? This is a career?

Thoughts on the morning before heading down to Georgia Southwestern to perform a recital with Rebecca Lanning:

I’ve been playing piano for 40 years – professionally for over half that (Nope, I ain’t as old as that makes me sound). I find it interesting that even though I have a Masters Degree in Piano Performance, I’ve been paid to play “Classical” less than a dozen times over that period.

Rock-n-roll, jazz, country, wedding….. tons of times. Classical, not so much.

This may indeed be a comment on my skillset or level of playing – I decided early on that I didn’t want Classical to be my entire lifr, and that is required if you are going to make a living at it (I didn’t want to live in NY or Chicago either).

It also may be a comment on what I’m good at – being a musical chameleon. I’ve done Classical, yes – but also jazz, rock, country, misc. wedding stuff, pop – and performed on piano and multi-keyboards of various ilks – and been on about a dozen recordings (including one that was nominated for a Grammy). I’ve even produced two albums with my band at church (tom&co).

And I teach – both privately and in a college.

So I guess it is a career – at times seriously aggravating, at times seriously wonderful. Two weeks ago I was playing in Storm Lake, Iowa with the Joey Stuckey band playing pop/rock originals – tonight in Americus, Georgia accompanying a phenomenal Mezzo-Soprano in every style from Lieder to 20th C. to TinPanAlley.

It ain’t boring!

Is it important for a teacher to perform?

If you want to be able to teach beyond a certain level, yes.

You can’t walk a student through a process that you haven’t gone through yourself.

If you’ve never had the frustration of hitting a wall with a piece, or had a bad case of nerves before a performance, or had equipment go down in the middle of a set, or had to deal with lights in your eyes and still try to play – you can’t help a student deal with those issues.


Here I am onstage with the Joey Stuckey Band in Eatonton, where we recently performed at their new arts center (a very nice facility).That’s Joey’s Roland RS-9 keyboard I’m playing.


Having the ability to play not only classical (I accompany the Macon State Choir, and will be accompanying Rebecca Lanning, a soprano, in in recital at Georgia Southwestern in November) but also church stuff, jazz, and rock gives me a perspective on performing that I can share with my students – and gives me a flexibility to teach not only in a traditional classical vein, but also pop/rock/jazz improv, and even keyboard programming.

Putting music “out there”


This is my latest thing to try – putting my music “out there” in the marketplace. Now, I’m nowhere near “signing a label contract” – nor am I interested in that. For that matter, a label wouldn’t be interested in what I do anyway, so it all works out!

I’ve put tracks from the two tom&co albums into snocap – so anyone can purchase and download tracks from both albums.

Seasons has been available since 2003 at cdbaby. I placed Brethren – our first album from 1999 – on cdbaby in the fall of 07, but didn’t want to make it available digitally because two of the tunes are covers. The amount of paperwork to keep track of when selling covers online is more trouble than its worth fro may particular project. However, using Snocap means I can pick and choose which tracks are available, which is nice.

So this is yet another experiment in using technology in music. It has the added benefit of being able to tell the tale to my music classes, and makes things interesting.

You can never tell what I’ll put up in my Snocap store. As of this writing it’s only tom&co stuff, but there will be different things down the road.

Why have a website?

This might sound like a stupid entry for a blog, but I had a conversation with a piano teacher who was wondering just what use a website is for a piano teacher. After all, the reasoning went, we’re teaching PIANO – not technology.

That type of thinking misses the point. Technology isn’t a reason to exist, or a career, or a hobby (at least in this instance) – it is a tool. A tool primarily for communication.

So here are some (admittedly quick and off-the-top-of-my-head) benefits of a website for a piano teacher:

  1. Marketing – use it as an online brochure. “Hey, I exist, and I teach piano in (your locale here).” You do have to do some search engine stuff – or you can pay an outfit to do that for you (I wouldn’t)…. or you can just put it on your business card. The card acts as an intro, and then the site gives more detailed information.
  2. Studio policies – put your studio policies online (mine are here. They aren’t very formal, but they are functional.)
  3. Take payments for piano lessons online – using Paypal. It’s decently inexpensive, and CAN make it easier for your parents. Yes, there’s a charge (the expense runs about 3% – but that’s tax deductible if your are running your studio like a business.) See my payment page here for an example.
  4. Sniff out cool online music training sites and share them with your students – ear-training, music quizzes, etc. are ALL available online.
  5. Share music with your students. I have a version of Chopsticks I use that does NOT use standard notation. It’s great for new kids who don’t read yet.

Uses for a website

This might sound like a stupid entry for a blog, but I had a conversation with a piano teacher who was wondering just what use a website is for a piano teacher. After all, the reasoning went, we’re teaching PIANO – not technology.

That type of thinking misses the point. Technology isn’t a reason to exist, or a career, or a hobby (at least in this instance) – it is a tool. A tool primarily for communication.

So here are some (admittedly quick and off-the-top-of-my-head) benefits of a website for a piano teacher:

  1. Marketing – use it as an online brochure. “Hey, I exist, and I teach piano in (your locale here).” You do have to do some search engine stuff – or you can pay an outfit to do that for you (I wouldn’t)…. or you can just put it on your business card. The card acts as an intro, and then the site gives more detailed information.
  2. Studio policies – put your studio policies online (mine are here. They aren’t very formal, but they are functional.)
  3. Take payments for piano lessons online – using Paypal. It’s decently inexpensive, and CAN make it easier for your parents. Yes, there’s a charge (the expense runs about 3% – but that’s tax deductible if your are running your studio like a business.) See my payment page here for an example.
  4. Sniff out cool online music training sites and share them with your students – ear-training, music quizzes, etc. are ALL available online.
  5. Share music with your students. I have a version of Chopsticks I use that does NOT use standard notation. It’s great for new kids who don’t read yet.

Is it a lesson… or a rehearsal?

A bit of background:
As a singer I performed with the Chattanooga Boys Choir for 7 years (directed by Stephen J Ortlip) , the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Singers for 4 years (directed by Glenn Draper), was an instrumental grad assistant for Carolina Alive (directed by Richard Conant), and have performed with numerous other groups (vocal, pop, rock bands, big bands, etc etc etc ad nauseum).

Oh, and I played tuba in high school band (almost majored in it, in fact, but decided I could make more money as a pianist. I was right.)

I’ve had 4 piano teachers, each of whom taught in dramatically different ways. One of those teachers – let’s call him Mr. Smith – was terrible at teaching, though an excellent pianist. The other three were excellent teachers.

So? The point is that I’ve had significant experience in performing groups where you “rehearse”, you don’t practice. So what’s the difference, and what in chocolate milk’s name does this have to do with teaching piano?

==========

“Lesson”, all too often, brings forth images of the poor pitiful student playing away at the keyboard, while the teacher hangs over them unapprovingly with a pointy stick, ready to jab the student at any mistake. The student pounds away at piece after piece after piece, while the teacher gives constant feedback: “This was wrong, this was wrong….”.

While extreme, I think many teachers think of a piano lesson in this galaxy (if not neighborhood!) – where the student is there to soak up fountains of learning poured forth by the almighty teacher. In some situations this would work, but I posit that a different approach can work a world of wonders: Treat the lesson like a rehearsal.

So, what’s the difference between a lesson and rehearsal? In a lesson, you are one to one, and often it has the aforementioned floodgates of knowledge – sponge type of dynamic. A rehearsal, though, has much more give and take. There is often a focus on a particular passage, rather than a runthrough – accompanied by practicing techniques to overcome limitations and mis-playings.

For example, in your typical choir rehearsal with a good director, the choir may not do a complete runthrough of a piece for several rehearsals – instead focusing on particular passages that have or may prove problematical. The director can demonstrate why this place is a problem, how to fix it – or even several ways to fix it – and then ask the choir to transfer the learning to another piece. (i.e. when you see a passage with the same issues somewhere else, apply the same solution)

How to apply in the piano lesson context? When is student is going through a piece (and has practiced it, and it’s a decently intelligent day!), try rehearsing the piece in bits. Don’t just do a runthrough – take the piece a chunk at a time and look at the problems, come up with solutions, and (THIS IS IMPORTANT) practice the solutions right there.

Take a problem spot, and slice-n-dice it vertically or horizontally. Work on a chunk. Make a duet out of it so the student’s brain has some bandwidth open up. Focus and widen on the problem spot. (Future posts on planned describing these techniques in more detail. Keep an eye out!)

The student can see some immediate results, PLUS they learn how to practice, which is a double bonus for any teacher.

So don’t just teach a lesson. Run a rehearsal.

What part of the body is playing the Piano?

I think its a common misconception that the fingers play the piano. We speak of our fingers getting tangled up, the fingering is wrong in this passage.

In actual fact, though, the fingers aren’t what’s playing the piano. The BRAIN is.

{yes, I’m being a bit overblown here. Hang on for a minute.}

Think about it – if I’m having trouble fingering a particular passage, it generally isn’t because my fingers CAN’T play it correctly. It’s actually because my brain hasn’t been given enough time to get the fingers in place in time. If I slow the tempo down enough, I can play it.

So what?

This fact should change your approach to practicing. Practicing is NOT about repetition, getting through a piece, etc. It’s really about training your brain. Troublesome spots (consistently troublesome, not the “brain blip” kind where you mess up because you were distracted) are an indication that your brain hasn’t been adequately trained to play that particular passage. This should cause you to stop and think about what you need to do to get the training “upstairs”.

….. which will be the sucject of the next post.