How different would my career have been if I had owned a digital piano as a child? I asked myself that question today as I taught a group piano lesson and watched the kids enthusiastically pushing buttons to find sounds that fit their songs. Their fingers flitted over the controls with an expertise that comes from life-long exposure to electronics and I found myself marveling at their effortless creativity. I listened as one my 10-year-olds played a beautiful piece of music that he composed and recorded, with drums, in perfect rhythm. I will never forget the joy and sense of accomplishment in his proud smile.
Moments like these continually reinforce the “risky” decision I made a few years ago when I “went out on a limb” with a dream and a few dollars and purchased five, top of the line, Roland digital pianos. Studio 88 was born. I wasn’t sure it would work but I had been so impressed by the progress group piano students were showing in these “maverick” piano classes all over the US. I wanted to give my students the chance to learn practical musicianship in a way that only ensemble playing can teach – and after spending some time with a well-respected group piano teacher, (Thank you, Serena Mackey!) I was ready to break the “traditional” mold of private piano lessons and push my studio in a new direction.
Breaking with tradition isn’t for the weak of heart. Traditions are meant to be kept, right? Would “top 40” composers like Beethoven and Mozart break tradition if they had a full orchestra at their fingertips? What if they had access to the kinds of instruments today’s students do? (I picture it happening like it did in that late-80s movie… Beethoven, or “Beeeth-oven” as Bill and Ted called him, is brought into our time through a time machine. He wanders into a mall and stumbles upon a music store full of digital keyboards and he cannot resist playing all of them! He is completely taken by the experience. Before he leaves, he creates an entire orchestra with the sounds on the keyboards! …and, more importantly, he is smiling! There aren’t many pictures of Beethoven smiling.)
I know. It’s just a silly movie (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and a made-up story, but it bears considering.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love my 9 foot grand piano. I DO! …but, do I use it when I am inspired to record something or when I want to compose a piece? No. I use my Roland digital piano.
Let’s face it. My 9 foot grand piano is great for playing the classics. It has a warmth and depth that thrills me every time I play it, but there are things that I do – and I know other musicians do – that cannot be taught on a traditional piano. Yes, I really said that. You cannot teach someone how to create a ‘soundtrack’ without the use of other instruments. You cannot inspire creativity on a piano the way you can when you have 1000 different instrument sounds at your fingertips.
The best way to illustrate the power of ensemble playing is to relay an experience I recently had when I showed one of my students how to layer sounds and ‘create’ music under their written piece. It was as if a new world had opened up – scary and amazing at the same time. Wide-eyed, he asked, “How do you know where to start? How do you play a string pad under a piano solo? You mean I can have other sounds playing with me while I play the piano part?” I used this opportunity to show him applied music theory – demonstrating how to layer the instruments and orchestrate a background that would complement what he was playing. His reaction was memorable, “That’s COOL! I want THAT sound and that sound… and then I wanna add drums to it, and… wait. I can make my own cd?! Are you kidding me?! Awesome!” One piano. Pure excitement.
When I received my degree in piano performance, I knew that I had been trained properly and given the opportunity to become a concert pianist. After having played countless shows, opera rehearsals, show choirs, Broadway rehearsals, and competitions, however, I came to realize that there was more to music than just playing my repertoire on a concert grand. Yes, I had an excellent sense of sight reading, rhythm, theory and technique, but how much better would my performances have been had I been thinking about the other instruments I was playing with from the beginning? How much more quickly would I have developed my sense of musical creativity had I been able to record myself or create my own backing tracks? What other opportunities to perform would I have been given? I know these answers.
I know it’s hard to accept change, but it is happening all around us. We are not still playing harpsichords because Christofori invented the piano. (“Can you imagine what our musical world would have sounded like had Beethoven never tried the pianoforte?”) We are not calling people on the phone like we used to, we are texting. We are not riding in carriages pulled by horses because Henry Ford was relentless in his pursuit of the perfect automobile. …and we’re not teaching our children mathematics with a slide rule now that calculators are everywhere.
As much as we may not like it, our children have grown up using computers. Most of them haven’t heard a RECORD or a CASSETTE. They don’t even know what an 8-TRACK tape is! Our students remember the first Nintendo they were given (back when video games had controllers). Then came the Wii, the iPod, the iPhone, tablet PCs, something called a “cloud” and more! Just wait. It won’t be long before our kids are asking “What’s a cd?” Brace yourselves. It’s coming.