Living in the age of technology, almost everything we do has taken on a technological form. From heating our food, to washing our clothes, from learning how to dance to speaking a foreign language, everything we do is now available at our fingertips, in our own time, and almost anywhere. Naturally, with these developments, the piano application has also taken on a life of its own. With features such as animated notes, and interactive visualisations, to MIDI capability where every note can be analysed, scrutinised and improved, all through the seamless use of technology. How to play piano in the age of the internet is certainly much more different to how it was centuries gone, in fact even as recently as decades past.
As a piano teacher, I can tell you that teaching piano begins with learning, playing, knowing, and loving the piano and the music it can produce. Equally, teaching piano begins with learning about, playing with, knowing, and loving people. This means accepting methods or tools which we personally might have an aversion to.
A piano teacher doesn’t necessarily need to be a concert pianist, but they must have some good ideas about how to become one, how to master the instrument and the music. Then, the teacher must appreciate and enjoy the challenges involved with sharing these ideas in ways which help others understand and grow toward learning to play and love the instrument and its music.
“I don’t want to be a concert pianist…” or “I don’t expect my child to be a concert pianist…” are the two most common prefaces to discussions I’ve had with prospective piano students, usually followed by, “I just want to learn how to play.”
Well, the moment a person takes action towards learning how to play the piano, they step onto the same path that every pianist has walked, concert pianist and non-concert pianist alike. It’s a long, winding path, with countless byways and detours along the way. No two people follow the exact same path and everybody starts at a different place on the path, bringing their own set of experiences, character traits, abilities, and additionally the tools such as the apps which have become part of their journey.
This perspective is an incredibly important one for both the piano teacher and the student. It allows the teacher to approach lessons with the understanding that though every student needs the same basic knowledge and skill development, not every student will respond the same and, even more, every student needs to follow their own musical desires and learn at their own pace, and their own style. Indeed the pace and progression of learning will be different for every single person as will how each one learns.
Ultimately, the products of this understanding are of utmost importance to piano teachers and their students: patience and persistence. Patience and persistence are at the heart of teaching piano and of learning piano. Both are necessary for success at every level, with every detail, big and small.
The desire for perfection surrounds us in our modern society. “Getting it right” and “being perfect” are inculcated in children from the moment they enter the formal school system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.
Many piano students carry this need to be perfect with them when they come to the piano and can easily grow frustrated with their playing if it is not note-perfect. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable – because we are all human and we make mistakes. And by making mistakes, we learn. People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is achievable and positive.
It’s important for all aspiring pianists to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for excellence (within their own capabilities), for expression, musical colour, vibrancy and a sense of “ownership” in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on their part. If you’ve been to any concerts and have heard many pianists, amongst them, possibly even some of the finest on the international piano circuit, you’d have heard memory lapses, smeared scales, muffed chords, but you would have also heard a wealth of exciting, memorable and truly amazing performances. You might have also heard note-perfect performances which lack personality, with no discernible connection between audience and performer, feel over-thought, or were just plain dull.
Just remember, sometimes, the beauty is in the attempt. Everyday is another opportunity to grow. No matter what level you’re at, these tips are key to any good pianist’s repertoire, with or without technology:
- Know your pieces well (the result of careful, thoughtful practising). This is also good insurance against performance anxiety.
- Think about the special character of each of your pieces. What images or stories does the music suggest? “Tell the story” of the music to your audience using dynamics, articulation, clearly defined phrasing, and a vibrant sound
- Play with confidence and poise (this makes your audience feel confidence too). If performing before an audience, even if only at home to family and friends, don’t scurry shyly to the piano and never pre-empt your performance with negative comments such as, “I played this so much better at home”, etc.
- Before you play, take a few moments to prepare yourself. Don’t rush into the opening bars of the piece. Instead hear the music in your head, imagine your hands playing the notes. Remind yourself what the piece is about, for you, and think about how you wish to communicate this with your audience.
- Banish negative self-talk while you are playing and remain focused on the music. If you feel your concentration slipping, take a deep breath in and exhale slowly to pull your focus back to the music.
- Gain pleasure from your music and enjoy playing it, to yourself and to others. Music was written to be shared!
People go to concerts to be transported away from the every day. They enjoy the emotions which music inspires in them, and the sense of communication between performer, the music and listener. Be amazing – at home when you’re practising, in front of others when you’re performing, but above all, enjoy your music, no matter how you learned it!
So, how does this all relate to using a great piano app? After all, aren’t piano lessons with a teacher and using an app which teaches you how to play piano mutually exclusive depending on your learning style? What if they didn’t have to be? What if, each one complemented the other and instead supplemented gaps in understanding a musical piece or a lack of motivation for the pianist? I’ll explain to you why I’ve found modern technology, particularly mobile piano apps, a godsend to me as a piano teacher.
Why The Tablet?
I’ve had a tablet now for a number of years and, like most tablet converts, I can’t think how I’d ever teach, or for that matter live, without it!
It has literally revolutionised the way I do most things: store files and music, research, read papers and magazines, watch movies, get my news – pretty much everything! I’d highly recommend all piano teachers consider investing in one – it’s definitely money well spent.
Which Type Should I Get?
When I first started teaching, I bought a second-hand iPad 2 64GB WiFi only. The iPad 2 is fine for music use although they are getting a bit old and slow now, and the iPad 3, 4 and 5 are great if you’re happy to spend the extra cash in order to get a higher-resolution screen. Don’t buy an iPad 1: it’s heavier, bigger and has a much lower resolution screen. If you’re wondering about capacity (16GB, 32GB, etc.), basically, the bigger the better and 16GB won’t really cut it, especially if you want to store a large number of songs as a go-to during lessons. Go for an absolute minimum 32GB, preferably 64GB+. If you decide to go with an Android device, it’s worthwhile getting a larger memory card and powerful RAM to boot.
I myself now have a 128GB iPad Air 2 which is smaller, thinner, significantly faster and has a bigger capacity than any of the others. If you’re financially able to get the latest model and the highest capacity, I’d highly recommend it.
Looking For Tablet Features?
The choice between WiFi or 3G/4G is totally dependent on how you plan to use it. If you are regularly on the road and want access to the internet (and perhaps also your files via Dropbox) while away from home, consider getting the 3G version. This will give you access to the internet anywhere, but you’ll have to pay for a SIM card and a data plan, just as you would on a mobile phone. This might be worthwhile for teachers who travel to students’ houses.
I have always bought the WiFi-only models as I only teach from home or school, and as long as I’m prepared, I can upload files and do my internet work at home using WiFi before I do any teaching or take the tablet to school. So far, this has worked well and I’m happy to be saving the extra access fees of a new SIM and data plan (and the cost of a more expensive tablet up-front!).
What Apps Would You Recommend For Piano Teachers?
Once you’ve got yourself a tablet device, you’re going to need to download some apps! There are also a number of free apps in-built into the operating system, including sound and video recorders, calendars, email, word processors, etc., but to maximise the value of your teaching (and your tablet device), you’ll want to invest in some of the brilliant apps that are now available.
Here are my top picks for the best iPad (and Android) apps for piano teachers and music students.
Forscore – This is one of the best music-viewing apps I’ve found: it allows you to store and view sheet music. It pretty much holds as much music as your tablet has capacity. Files need to be in PDF format and are easily loaded via Dropbox or iTunes. You can annotate and save changes, re-order pages, print wirelessly and page turns are easy. The ability to store, read and print sheet music is one of the key reasons I bought an iPad. Previously, I was lugging folders and books of music between school and home. Now I only need to take the iPad! It’s brilliant! Get a Bluetooth page-turn pedal and you can even perform with your iPad! Forscore also allows you to add scores by photographing them with the in-built camera.
iAnnotate – This one isn’t specifically music-based, but is the best app I’ve found for reading and annotating non-musical PDFs (eg. work notes, files, documents, eBooks, etc.). The annotation options are endless and it’s all saveable and exportable. Great bookmarking features make access a breeze. Also works with music files, but the page-turning in ForScore is far superior.
Tempo – This is my preferred metronome/beat keeping app. Although there are plenty of free ones available, this one is infinitely customisable. It plays every conceivable irregular meter or unusual subdivision of normal meters (including 2+2+3 for example) and you can save metronome and beat patterns for quick access. One thing I really like is that it allows you to hear the difference between swung triplets verses semiquavers at the click of a button – great for explaining aspects of rhythm theory in practical detail. Also for iPhone/Android.
Rhythm Lab – This is my new favourite rhythm tapping practice app. As part of my students’ weekly lessons, I used to write-up rhythms on a whiteboard for them to clap; now I do it all on the iPad with this app. It has heaps of built-in rhythm patterns in all sorts of meters and students can tap right on the screen and get instant feedback. It even has example rhythms from some of the big classical composers built-in!
Flashnote Derby – I love this app for younger students. It’s a note-naming game conducted like a horse race complete with sounds and images! Now also available for Android.
Piano Notes Pro – Like Flashnote Derby but for adults and teens. If you want students to be able to play the note “G” on the piano as well as just recognise it on the stave, this is a good app. You choose the clef, range, accidents, number of notes to quiz, etc. and the student has to play the notes on the piano on the screen. Highly customisable and easy to use. Can also be used with MIDI input so that you can play the notes that come up on the screen. Furthermore, you can test students’ chord/inversion reading with this app.
MusicFlashClass – This is actually an iPhone app, but it’s the best available for quizzing notes on the stave. It’s highly customisable and you can put it in various modes including one where students just have to specify the letter name of the note (“A”) or play it on the on-screen piano – great for making the connection between rote note learning and actual piano playing. This is a great one for older students to download to their phones so that they can practice a bit of note recognition everyday (I recommend my teen students do it on the bus/train to or from school).
While not specifically an app, the best new software for Sight Reading has to be Sight Reading Academy which is a website that you can access from any device and it provides students with daily new sight reading exercises and training to help them look ahead, improve memory, etc. It’s a breakthrough achievement and beats any other app, book or training that I’ve found.
MTA SightReadPlus– This app is great because it provides you with a note to play on the stave and then listens as you play it on your instrument (great for brass, string, winds, etc., too). Only allows Hands Separate reading, but still a great app. Can be tuned to your instrument so works even if your student’s piano is older and down-tuned.
AuralBook – The first aural training app that actually listens to a student’s singing and critiques them according to their pitch and rhythm. The voices and sounds are a little clunky but this is a huge improvement on anything else.
Auralia Interval Recognition and Auralia Interval Singing (iPhone) – These Australian-based apps are the best I’ve found for teaching and practising intervals. Like AuralBook, they will listen to your singing and provide immediate feedback on your understanding.
Tenuto – Good aural training app for recognising chords, intervals, etc. Also shows you how everything looks on the keyboard. Easy to use, good functionality. Also try Right Note – a great app for beginning to learn about intervals, pitch and melody.
If you’re looking for simple drum/bass/rhythm section backing tracks that you can create yourself, look no further than iReal Pro. Works on iPad and iPhone, this app converts a chord chart into a rhythm section. Great for pop, jazz and rock playing. There are thousands of downloadable charts for most of the famous tunes from the 1930s onwards and they are all free.
Chromatik – This is a free app for exploring pop music with your students. It brings up a score on screen and then links to the YouTube video of the song so that students can play along to the recording on YouTube. Pages turn automatically and you can read lead sheets or full scores. Great fun for when students have to learn a song and want to try it out with the original band!
The best new app for piano teachers released in the last few years has to be OnlinePianist. This app is basically a completely interactive library of songs, chords, animated notes that both look and feel vibrant. Students can customise their playing style as it creates a video-game like experience for them. It has over a dozen features including learning songs hands separately, metronome, two types of animation, tempo adjustment, a sustain indicator, transpose, and built in lessons. Best of all, it’s free for teachers and their students. I can’t recommend this app highly enough – it’s without-doubt one of the best apps for piano students on the market. Oh, and did I say it was free? What have you got to lose?! It’s available on Desktop, iOS and Android devices and has arguably the largest library of piano tutorials anywhere on the internet!
Music Blog Tools
A really great service to help piano teachers start and build their own blog is First Site Guide. They do everything from setup your page, to providing resources to help you run and grow your presence online.
Scale Backing Tracks/Improvising Tracks
Musiclock – If you’re interested in making scale practice fun try this one. It has the grooviest set of backing tracks that you can use for scales and general improvising.
If you have students preparing to play concertos, then there are two great apps you can use. Firstly, there is a new app by a company called Play Mozart which features high-quality orchestral recordings with on-screen score. This link will take you to an example Mozart Concerto movement that you can explore. You set the tempo and the music (and orchestra) will play and scroll as you progress. It’s a great option for students who want to get a feel for working with a real orchestra as the sound quality of the orchestral parts is excellent.
Also in this category is Home Concert Xtreme which is more versatile in that it allows any MIDI score to be loaded and it has a clever system of following the performer’s tempo, but doesn’t have the same quality level of the sounds it produces, given they are MIDI-based. Apps like this are well worth the investment for students working on concertos, even if they never actually play with a real orchestra.
Practicia – This is a new app that was released after years of development and testing and will likely revolutionise your students’ approach to practice. It keeps track of all the practice your students are doing, it replaces the old practice diary/assignment book, it allows you to hear what they are doing at home and provide feedback, you can gamify their practice by adding online awards and badges and the list goes on. Definitely one worth checking out.
AnyTune – An app that takes any recording from your library or dropbox and allows you to slow it down or speed it up without changing the pitch. Also has easy looping, editing, etc.
Flashcards* – There are hundreds of flashcard apps out there, but this is the one I use with my students.
Music Teacher’s Helper – This is a complete scheduling and billing (plus more) app and online software. They offer a free 30-day no obligation trial, making it easy to “test drive” and figure out if it’s a good fit for managing your studio. Every account also comes with a free music studio website.
While there are now a few options for hand-written notation on the iPad, the best is Touch Notation by Kawai. Another option is NotateMe which is great if you want to download the in-app purchase that can scan-in scores, but otherwise I’d stick with Touch Notation for quick day-to-day use. If you want to play your piece into the iPad with MIDI, then check out Notion.
This is a good selection of tools worth checking out. I believe with these tools, piano lessons and students motivation, productivity, engagement, improvement, progression, and mastery will greatly benefit, as will the time, effort and resources spent by piano teachers. I strongly advise you to embrace it with both hands.
Is this a passing trend or is this the way of the future?
It’s not surprising that the offers for online education are growing and expanding – and the changes are taking place so quickly that sometimes we forget that what seems normal today, a few years ago was considered impossible. Not long ago, it was inconceivable to replace a real teacher by a computer software to learn, for example, a foreign language. No one would even consider an online choice. Consumer behaviour has changed so drastically that today, Rosetta Stone, one of the top choices for learning foreign languages, has a valuation of over 280 million dollars. Universities, including the prestigious Harvard and MIT, are evolving and taking courses online has become more and more common. According to studies conducted by Babson and sponsored by Pearson and Kaplan University only 2% of students used to take at least one online course in 2002, in the fall of 2010 this number had increased to 30%, and projections using a statistical regression analysis establish that by the year 2016 at least 50% of students will be taking an online course in the USA.
The market is changing. There is no question about it. But how much will it change? Are we prepared for what is coming next?
There’s a website claiming that in a few years, self-learning any piano directly from the computer – perhaps without a teacher – will be as common as learning languages online. OnlinePianist, which I describe as the Rosetta Stone of the piano lesson sector, is revolutionising the way people learn how to play the piano with their interactive Virtual Keyboard Piano Player.
Launched in 2010, OnlinePianist already has users in over 100 countries around the world.
Online piano apps have at least one clear advantage. It is way cheaper to learn without a human teacher. Josh Tuckman, sales representative of Steinway and Sons, the world’s leading piano brand, which is used by more than 98% of the world’s concert pianists says, “1 hour class of average private lesson in NYC ranges from $50 to $250 depending on the teacher.” Taking into consideration that students usually take one hour of lessons per week this is equivalent to an expense of $2,400 to $12,000 per year. Learning how to complement piano applications as a teacher is key to moving forward. Otherwise we’ll be left behind.
In contrast, the price of OnlinePianist’s complete premium account is under $50, which includes a full year of interactive lessons, blog posts, sheet music discounts, and reliable customer support, as well as access to an online community where students can ask questions and submit suggestions which are answered and more than often used to develop the application. Students also have the ability to request their favourite songs to be made into tutorials.
However, are online lessons in general as good as a face-to-face encounter with a private teacher? According to Babson’s 2011 studies, online education is considered as good or superior to face-to-face education by more than 84.6% of US students. A troubling statistic and one piano teachers must figure out how to alter this perception.
In the case of OnlinePianist, hundreds of success stories published on their AppStore (and Google Play Store) prove that their method can teach first-time players, as well as those who have been playing for years, how to play piano and master their favourite songs. The course’s uniqueness lies not just in its fun, interactive learning format, which lets students see, listen, and even interact with thousands of songs and over a dozen features, but also in the continuous desire to tailor their product to their users, a process of constant improvement. Recently, they were looking at introducing live sound recognition and MIDI compatibility. Their users really do drive their product in a way none of their competitors follow.
Contrary to conventional piano teaching methods, rather than asking students to memorize keys to press and rules to follow, students learn not just how to play their favorite songs but also how to play through visual memory; a method in which even sufferers of autism and dyslexia have come to appreciate, as traditional sheet music has on many occasions been a roadblock to their learning. The app presents lessons from first-time players to advanced levels and breaks down lessons into mini-lessons and features examples from all musical genres, from classical to rock. Josh Tuckman, from Steinway & Sons, says “To teach adults is not the same as to teach kids and you need different methods.” Thus I can attest that OnlinePianist is a great solution.
Furthermore, Google Trend’s search query volume statistics shows that the piano online education market at least doubled its size from 2006 as related search queries to learning piano have doubled and tripled their traffic (“how to play the piano”, “piano tutorials”, etc). However, will learning how to play the piano online become as common as learning a language on the computer? I think so. It’s the future and we are only getting started.
In conclusion, learning how to play piano will continue to evolve as humanity progresses in its understanding of the human mind, body and with the development of technology. The question we as piano teachers face is whether we use it to improve our teaching or neglect it to the point we make ourselves redundant. Perceptions must change from both piano teachers and piano students. Instead of substitution we should look at supplementation. The piano app it seems is here to stay. Piano teachers too must ensure they stay along for this wonderful, at times unpredictable, ride.
What do you think? Is it safe to predict that private teachers will be replaced by online piano courses in the next few years? Is learning how to play the piano online without a teacher really possible? Are the two complementary of each other? Tell us in the comments!
Thanks for the great overview of digital supplementary resources. While I don’t think that we will be replacing the experience of one on one piano instruction with these tools any time soon, your article really well illustrates some great ideas for starting in piano, self study, supplementing lessons or fine tuning various aspects of your personal practice.