Group Piano and Technology at the University

By Martha Hilley


My first experience in a group-piano situation was as a graduate teaching assistant. I was handed my first class with no prior instruction in group teaching and no knowledge about equipment. I often think that if I could find those students, I would get down on my knees and beg forgiveness. It gave new meaning to the saying, “We learn by teaching—we understand by doing.”

I walked into the classroom of eight electronic keyboards and stared down at the teacher keyboard with all its buttons and movable levers. At this point, I had about one week to master the equipment before meeting my first class. When I see that “deer-in-the-headlights” look in a new teaching assistant’s eyes, I think back to my first year and can truthfully say to that assistant, “I understand—it’s going to be all right!”

The Wurlitzer Company and wonderful people like Lou Hollingsworth, Larry Rast, Dan Kobida, Leroy Esau, John Garrison, and so many others have raised many of us group-piano teachers. They cared about education and the educational benefits of their products. This is the same feeling I have found at Roland. Here is a corporation that continues to put the student first. But I am straying from my topic—the impact of technology on group-piano teaching.

It is hard to understand the impact if you don’t have some idea of how far we have come. In my first lab, we had eight student pianos and a teacher piano with master controls for grouping various students. We also had the capabilities of accessing auxiliary sound sources such as a cassette recorder or turntable unit. The individual student instruments had a dial underneath the keyboard that allowed students to switch their piano number. What a wonderful convenience—I didn’t have to always go through my teacher-control toggle switches to put students in groups. But it also didn’t take the kids long to realize that they could have a grand old time with their buddies by switching everyone on their row to the same piano number! Thank you to the manufacturers who have put the control back in the hands of the teacher!

Even with my limited experience, it didn’t take long to realize that students could benefit greatly from the group environment. From that moment on, I was hooked on this mode of instruction and the learning possibilities for my students. For the next six or eight years I marveled at the progress of my students as they went through courses of study like Steps to Musicianship by Fay Templeton Frisch and Keyboard Magic by Lawrence Rast. The Key/Note Visualizer® hit the market and it was love at first sight. To this day, I would be lost without it in my classroom.

Then came Roland! They introduced a full-sized keyboard that was touch-sensitive. They put control sliders at my fingertips with what seemed like unlimited possibilities of learning situations. I could group students who were on opposite sides of the room! And the students were in love with the sounds on their keyboards. There was actually a point where I thought I was going to have to put tape over the vibraphone button on one student’s piano. Enter Roland’s PR-100 Digital Sequencer and MT-32 Multi Timbre Sound Module. Could life get any better? Thanks to technology, it did! It seemed like no time until there was the MT-100 Sequencer. What an incredible invention! All we teachers needed was a good 40-hour day in order to fully explore the pedagogical impact this small black box was going to have on our students. Luckily, there were people with hours to spend and talent to share, and a whole new world of Quick Disks opened up to us.

Marvelous prerecorded disks with instructional materials to help in reading, improvisation, and theory—so many of the things that had been slighted because of a lack of time in the classroom. We learned to prioritize class time and use the disks to present our ideas more effectively, with musical sounds that made many of those drills more palatable to our students. Or, if you were lucky enough to have access to a keyboard with a Realtime Arranger, your students thought you were really cool when you came up with all those great backgrounds.

We all know what came next—the MT-200 Sound Module. Once again, Roland had listened to us and gave us a tool that was even easier for teachers to master. Did you forget to tell it to quantize? Don’t worry, you can do it after the fact.

More sounds, better sounds, easier recording, and 3.5-inch disk drives! Roland has also introduced many keyboards with the feel of a true keyboard action, realistic piano sounds, onboard disk drives, onboard arrangers, onboard sequencers—the capability to pop a disk into your digital keyboard and save as a Standard MIDI File—and a port on the back of my digital keyboard that goes directly to my computer without a translator box. Be still, my heart!

My current digital keyboard labs do not have the latest instruments or the latest MT-Series, but my students still benefit from the technology. I am still able to produce disks on my home equipment and share it with my students either in the piano lab or in the computer lab through MT-200s or SMF disks loaded on the computer. If my computer lab wasn’t all MacintoshTM-based, I would have Roland’s Visual Music Tutor PC-based software to help students with extra guided practice.

I can produce downloadable sound files that my students can use either in our computer lab or in their dorm rooms or apartments by calling up our class website on their own computers. If a student misses class, there are disks and MT-200s in the computer lab to work with, or Shockwave movies on the website that take the student through various class activities step-by-step, reinforcing new concepts or simply showing the student how to practice.

Do I think technology has had an impact on group piano? Do bluebonnets bloom in Central Texas in the spring? We are lucky to be a part of this technological age. It may seem overwhelming at times, but then all we have to do is remember that as music teachers, and particularly group-piano teachers, we are blessed to have Roland in our corner.

Editors Note: While the technology and products have changed some since this article was written, the needs and uses are still there. Products like the Music Tutors (currently the MT-90U) are still valuable tools in any private or classroom piano setting.

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