How Do You Use the New Technology in Group Teaching?

By Mayron Cole
(This article appeared in “KEYBOARD COMPANION”, Summer 1993)

I have been a piano teacher for many enjoyable years. For the first few years, I taught my students in the traditional one-on-one style using an acoustic piano. My students did well be any standard; but after several years of teaching in this manner, I wanted more for them. I made a mental list of things that I wanted to see improved: I wanted all of my students to become better sight readers, better "counters," better independent thinkers, better ensemble musicians, and better relaxed performers. I could no longer justify isolating my students in private piano lessons and then wondering why they could not accompany well when working with other musicians. I wanted my students to use their music to serve the community! Plus, at that same time, I was tired of the long hours of teaching into the night, the low income, and the ridiculous excuses from some students about why an assignment had not been completed. Things needed to change!

Coincidentally, my desire to change my teaching format occurred at the same time that electronic keyboards with headphones were first sold. I immediately bought six of the earliest electronic keyboards and began transforming my traditional piano studio into a technology piano studio. From the very first, I had no difficulty persuading students to take piano in a class. Taking a music lesson with their friends was a good selling point, and most people are comfortable with learning in a group environment. In a short time, the students, their parents, and I began to see marked improvements! The piano class students were preparing their music much better and enjoying their lessons far more than when they had been taught individually. The number of missed lessons dramatically decreased. I began to receive phone calls from parents telling me wonderful stories about their children practicing so much at home that they had to be asked to quit for a few moments each night so that the family could have some quiet time together. Disinterested students suddenly began interacting with the other students -- and with me! It was obvious: students enjoyed learning music and playing music with other students! And technology had made this opportunity available for my students.

Now, many years later, I am still using technology in my studio, and I continue to add electronic equipment that I think will enhance my teaching. One of my favorite technological teaching aids is the digital sequencer. When a piano class arrives, we warm up by playing as an ensemble some of the previously assigned music. Almost all the music that I have written has been sequenced with beautiful orchestral accompaniments. Because the sequencer is digital, the tempo of teach piece can be slowed or accelerated to any desired speed without changing the pitch. Therefore, the most elementary compositions can become technique drills that are fun by simply changing the tempo on the sequencer. And, a class must count perfectly in order to play with the sequencer! "Let's play that piece one more time!" is a familiar exclamation in my studio as students call out their favorite review pieces.

By using technology, learning to play the piano has been advanced from an isolated activity to a group activity. The piano class is now a piano orchestra, and the teacher is now a conductor. The teacher teaches in exactly the same way that a conductor of an ordestra teaches notes, rhythm phrasing, dynamics, and interpretation. The students also greatly benefit from the interactions within the ensemble!

When I assign new music, I verbally work through the difficult portions with the students as we learn together as a class. Questions are asked and answered, and I make sure that all of the notes are understood. Then, it is time for the students to work on their own. The students put on their headphones and slowly practice "hands separately" with the sequencer since the left-hand and the right-hand parts have been sequenced on separate tracts. This leaves me free to walk about the class, monitoring and coaching where needed. I check hand positions, fingering, phrasing, articulation, etc. A built-in metronome in the sequencer helps the students to play with a steady beat. I can also isolate a difficult portion of a new piece and have the sequencer play that portion over-and-over until all of the students understand it. For reasons that I do not fully understand, students do not seem to object to repetitious drilling with a sequencer. They seem to be mesmerized by the electronics. After the new piece has been "worked," the students are anxious to try it "hands together" while the sequencer plays an orchestral accompaniment. The students always enjoy hearing the completed piece.

Recently, some of my classes have become proficient at sequencing their own music. I assign an SATB composition that all the students must learn. Then, the students draw for parts. One-at-a-time, each student records his or her part onto the sequencer disk. After all of the parts are recorded, we play back the completed piece with different orchestral sounds assigned to each part since the sequencer has many built-in sounds. With a push of a button, each of the orchestral sounds can be changed to four different orchestral sounds. The mixtures are almost endless.

Keyboards in studios can be connected to one main sequencer. An inexpensive MIDI keyboard can be used since it will be accessing its sounds from the main sequencer. When the students play in ensemble, each keyboard can be assigned a different instrument's sound. Creatively mixing the instrument sounds produces some fantastic ensemble playing.

Many years have gone by since I began group piano teaching using technology. I have realized all of the goals that I wanted to reach and that I wanted my students to reach. I have discovered that group piano teaching requires much more mental and physical energy than my traditional piano teaching required, but the results have been worth the additional effort many times over! Technology has allowed my studio to grow academically and financially!

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