Rick Hellman
KU News Service

High tech connects scattered piano majors to campus, instructors

Thu, 05/14/2020


LAWRENCE – When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the University of Kansas campus in March, the piano teachers in the School of Music turned to a technological solution that they say has been a low-cost “lifeline” for students stranded in various places across the country.

Students have been able to press the keys of their portable electronic keyboards at home and have their keystrokes reflected simultaneously on a grand piano on campus, where their instructors can listen and offer immediate feedback, just as they would under normal circumstances.

According to Scott McBride Smith, the Cordelia Brown Murphy Professor of Piano Pedagogy, the repurposed “Pianos Without Borders” program combines the best of old and new technology to provide an interactive lesson that is as close to the real thing as possible.

With grants from the Band of Angels Foundation and Yamaha Corporation, McBride Smith founded Pianos Without Borders in 2015. Its purpose is to offer piano lessons to interested pre-college students who do not normally have access to an instrument or teacher. Instruction takes place over the internet, with teachers in Murphy Hall on campus and students as close as Kansas City, Kansas, and as far away as China. 

But McBride Smith says it’s not as simple as offering a lesson via a Zoom or Skype audio-video linkup.

Using software designed in 2016 by School of Music graduate Paul Adams, the remote student’s keyboard connects via the internet to a hybrid electro-acoustic piano (in this case, one of a series of Yamaha Disklaviers), which reproduces every nuance of the student’s playing – not only the note produced by each keystroke but subtle qualities like the force of the player’s “attack” that distinguish good from great playing.

Yamaha pioneered hybrid (i.e., electronically activated) acoustic pianos with the Disklavier in the 1980s, but other manufacturers now produce them, too. Think of them as old-fashioned player pianos, but driven by digital signals instead of a button-covered roll.

Pianos Without Borders set up connected keyboards permanently in grade schools in Kansas City and Dodge City for interested students to have virtual lessons with KU teachers. But when the pandemic hit, McBride and his colleagues moved quickly to adapt the system for their current crop of scattered college students.

“We have been able to adapt the software to be used with inexpensive keyboards,” said McBride Smith. “It provides a high-quality piano lesson combining the best of new and old technologies. Both Dean Robert Walzel and I are excited about the possibilities to use this model to develop innovative online teaching tools that will expand the reach and recognition of KU music programs around the world.”

The current expansion of the program has also been made possible by advances in so-called “weighted” keyboard technology that makes even low-cost (starting around $400) devices act more like the real thing.

Adams said his software uses peer-to-peer file-sharing technology to avoid any lag time between when a student presses down the piano key at home and when the Disklavier key is electronically pressed on campus, in front of the teacher.

According to master’s degree student Guobi Malcolm Liu, the system isn’t quite like the real thing, “but so far it has been going pretty well, far better than our expectations.”

“For instrumental lessons,” Liu said, “it is really hard to hear the sound through Zoom, Skype or FaceTime, as they are designed for talking, rather than instrumental playing. The sound is fuzzy, and it is almost impossible to talk about detailed interpretations, especially for stuff like tone quality. With this technology, the sound is very, very real and vivid, and this helps us a lot.”

While the program has been a lifeline for many of this year’s 50-plus piano majors, McBride Smith and Walzel believe it has a permanent place, even when things return to more normalcy on campus.

“As we start looking at reopening the university, there's going to be some time where social distancing is necessary, and that's going to be hard to do for some piano lessons in the School of Music,” McBride Smith said. “Many students take piano lessons in groups, and that's even more difficult to keep six feet apart. So this tool has the potential to solve a lot of our problems with social distancing in piano lessons without sacrificing quality. Nobody knows exactly how this is all going to work, but this remarkable technology is part of our planning moving forward, not only as we start to reopen the university, but thinking into the future, where piano teaching with technology becomes part of the new norm.”

Video: Professor Scott McBride Smith uses an adapted version of the "Pianos Without Borders" software and technology, including a Yamaha Disklavier, to work with one of his students remotely. Credit: Courtesy Scott McBride Smith

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