Program provides new perspective on piano lessons

February 05, 1993|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

It's just a typical piano lesson for Katie Abel.

Donning headphones at an elaborate computer workstation, the 10-year-old tries to beat the computer in pitch and rhythm exercises before synthesizing orchestration to a piano solo recording using interactive music theory software.

And this is just the early intermediate level.

Katie is a student at Piano Perspectives, an innovative music program based in the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City. It is designed to do more than teach piano.

Mixing high-tech with traditional piano lessons in a group setting, the 6-month-old program is tailored to help children and adults learn an array of music skills while having fun.

"Look what they're excited about -- reading notes," said instructor Ann Honig of three giggling 10-year-olds pleased with their scores in a game of "Rhythmaticity."

She and co-founder Tina Smith offer weekly 90-minute sessions of group piano instruction followed by computer exercises in a music lab that helps students refine skills learned at the piano.

"Traditionally, kids take years of piano, but may have no usable skills," said Ms. Smith, a Columbia resident who has taught piano for 19 years. "They may play by ear but haven't learned musical terms.

"I say to parents, 'Why is it that, with piano, you say that they don't have to come away with anything -- it's the experience. Would you say that with orthodontics? After spending all that money, would you say, 'It's the experience'? No. You want them to come away with something. You want them to have straight teeth.

"We also reassure parents who don't have anything positive to say about music instruction. Here, even after only two or three years, students will leave with feeling positive about themselves and have real music skills."

The 60 children and teens and 12 adults are divided by ability, age and -- for the younger students -- gender. A maximum of five students are allotted per group.

Sessions begin in the piano room dominated by a baby grand surrounded with four smaller digital pianos.

The digitals, with sound resembling a piano, are connected to a module that works like a synthesizer, enabling students to play piano notes that come out sounding like an oboe or violin.

"It lets them experience ensemble playing," said Ms. Honig, who taught piano for 23 years before moving to Columbia in 1990.

But only the teachers regulate the controls. "We don't want them in here manipulating the sound equipment," she said. "We want them to learn to play the piano."

Students are also asked to critique one another. "You get to hear tips from kids, and sometimes it's better to get tips from kids your own age," said Courtney Norman, 12, of Ellicott City, a six-year veteran of private piano instruction.

After 45 minutes, the group moves next door to the multi-stationed "MIDI-LAB."

MIDI is a universal computer language that allows different manufacturers' equipment to work together.

Students may work separately or together at honing skills in note-reading and rhythm or learning about composition and arranging.

"There's an image that we're up against," Ms. Smith said. "There's a fear that computers will take us away from what's important in playing piano. But we see the computers as tools to do the things that the piano can't do."

Many of the computer scores are reviewed monthly, allowing students the opportunity to work on skill and speed.

"You can see when they absolutely understand it," Ms. Honig said. "But that's not the end in itself. They need to play the piano correctly. But there is no artistry if it's technically messy or musically incorrect."

Piano Perspectives evolved from private piano instruction to a fully integrated program last fall. In the spring of 1991, after attending a Mayron Cole music workshop that advocates small-group piano classes, the instructors decided to integrate a MIDI lab using Cole's approach.

Feeling their way through a labyrinth of equipment and software, they soon discovered that not even the manufacturers were able to help them set up an integrated system. Ms. Smith then turned to husband, Chris, a systems engineer who dabbles in music and sound.

"MIDI lab is his design," she said. "Chris designed the lab and how the equipment would be laid out and used constructively. He also figured out how to access the sound module to the digital pianos."

A self-taught expert, Mr. Smith now teaches a MIDI theory workshop at the Arts Center.

In April, Piano Perspectives will sponsor a workshop through the Arts Center for local educators that will feature Mayron Cole and a representative from a music software company.

"We need a support group," said Ms. Smith. "We feel like we're pioneers. We think there might be some doing this kind of program to a degree. But as far as we know, no one is."

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