March 29, 2013

App Review: Little Maestro

Little Maestro is a cute game. It may not do much, but it's cute, and sometimes that's enough.

Made by developer Ardozia (who have one of the best logos I've seen) this app lets you control a small band (er, barrel organ) playing a song on loop by exchanging the instruments involved and boosting or cutting their volume.

By swiping your hand left or right on each instrument you can swap them in or out to hear how the song changes. I only got the free version, but the song is nice even if it gets old pretty quickly. I imagine the rest of the songs are just as good. I really like the artwork on this game as well, with the hand-drawn instruments and wagon.

After reading their website, apparently there's supposed to be a plot that goes with this about a man and his barrel organ but none of that comes across in the app. The one thing that this game could actually use is some sort of plot or reward system. It hit me as reminiscent of a mini-game within a point-and-click adventure that never went beyond the basics.

Like I said, there's not a whole lot to it, but if you want a fun diversion with some nice art and a fun tune, I'd recommend it. I think it would also be good for very young children. The big wiping motion used is easy to master, although controlling the volume (moving the swells on the organ up and down) takes a bit more fine motor skill. As far as educational application it's not really useful. Beyond identifying how different instruments sound, I wouldn't really try to implement it into a lesson.

Check out the video below to see it in action (sort of)

Little Maestro App Trailer from Ardozia on Vimeo.

The Short and Sweet:
What: Little Maestro
Where: Available at the iTunes App Store
Cost: FREE!
Positives: Good concept, great artwork, nice music, good for young chilren
Negatives: Gets old quickly, no plot or reward system, no goals
Should You Download It?
If you have young kids, yes absolutely. If you're looking for something educational, probably not.

March 23, 2013

Thats a lot of music! Playing for a musical

The spring and summer are musical theater time for me. This year and last year I held three back to back jobs of music directing a middle school show, accompanying a high school show, and then music directing another show at a summer camp. That's three shows in addition to my own repertoire study, accompanying a choir, and teaching my full piano studio. It means learning a lot of music in a very short amount of time.

Each score is usually around 200 pages long and includes all of the songs as well as scene changes, dance numbers, and any incidental or underscoring that the show needs. Almost all of the time, the pianist or music director (or in many cases the pianist/music director) has to play out of a score called the "conductor score" or what is known as the "piano reduction". This score usually has the vocal lines as well as the entire orchestra part jammed into the piano. The reduction is usually written out by an arranger (although Bernstein made his own for West Side Story) and are often very difficult. They usually have giant chords, unreasonable hand-spans, lots of activity, and are really fast. And did I mention how long the scores are?

Welcome to the next four months of my piano life

As you can imagine, playing one of these scores can be a lot of work, and when you don't have a lot of time to practice them you need some tricks to learn the score quickly. These are some of the tricks that I have used in my 5+ years of playing and teaching musicals.

Make your cuts early
If you're going to make cuts in your score, to keep the songs tighter, the dances less frilly, and the scene changes shorter; make your cuts as early in the process as possible. This will make your practice time more productive and you'll be clearer with the choreographer and performers as well.

Learn the vocal line and the bass
You'll have to figure out what needs to be played. If you're working with adults or strong adolescent singers they can make their way without their notes being played. If you're working with kids though, or you're really crushed for time, learn to play the vocal line plus as much of the left hand as you can. This may mean just the single note bass line, or if you can simplify any chordal patterns in the left hand that will work even better. Often this vocal line + bass technique means that you're ignoring a line of music that is normally meant for your right hand. The act of ignoring the thing you normally watch is tricky at first, but this widening of your eyesight is helpful for all sort of score reading exercises.

What else needs to be played?
Let's say your singers are strong, or you're working on a dance number. If the singer doesn't need melodic reinforcement it allows you to play more of the harmonic and rhythmic components of the accompaniment. If there is an instrument doing something important (listening to a recording can help a lot) that should be played, but often just getting harmonies and a backbeat into a piece can really fill it out. If all of the accompaniment looks easy enough on its own I'll just play it as is. If I'm spending a lot more time than I want to be working on a particular song I'll focus only on the most important parts. I just finished played Wizard of Oz and found that a lot of the left hand was marked with a "boom-chuck" style of writing. That means a single bass note on beats one and three with higher chords on beats two and four. The right hand was playing chords with the melody note on top, but the chord notes were also included in the "chuck" part of the marked left hand. Because I didn't have enough time or patience to work the entire thing out (the music all moved crazy fast) I divided the left hand part between the hands and fleshed the chords out a little bit more. This worked for a lot of the music but not all.

Know your orchestra
What kind of orchestra do you have and what are their skill levels? If you're working with a professional orchestra and you know you'll have most of the parts covered, you can probably just play out of the piano score anyway instead of the reduction. Otherwise it's useful to go through your score and mark which parts can be covered by the people in your pit. This is especially helpful in dance numbers where the reduction score can have you jumping all over the keyboard. You have to know who has the melody line and when. That way you can avoid doubling someone's part and more importantly, doing work that you don't need to do.

Be flexible
If you go into this process planning on playing the whole score in one way, you'll be wrong. You need to be able to go from playing the melody, to dividing the left hand, to playing sound effects all within a couple of measures of each other. If you're the music director you know when to do this stuff. If you're just the pianist, the director will probably be asking you to do these things every rehearsal.

Raid the office supplies
My musical scores are cover in pencil markings. There are arrows pointing to which parts I need to play, circles around tricky passages, notes written in, repeat markings, cue lines and so much more. Paper clips are really handy for pulling together pages that you'll be skipping or particularly large cuts. Post it notes can be good for quickly moving between numbers that aren't next to each other.

Leave clear notes to yourself
Shows are long and your music will go through many iterations. Cuts will come and go, cue lines may disappear and reappear. It's good to leave really clear directions to yourself about what's going on on-stage and what to do in the music. I often make detailed cut sheets when I'm directing that I can then share with the orchestra and refer to when I get confused. Also, the clearer you make your notes, the easier they are to refer to when you revisit the show in the future.

Don't over practice
This may seem like silly advice from a piano teacher, but if you're in a situation that can change quickly then it's not the best idea to practice these reduction scores as if they were Liszt. The first time I prepared a score like this I practiced until my hands hurt and then discovered that I wasn't going to play the way I had been practicing at all. I play songs and dances from a show differently all the time. That doesn't mean that the performers can tell I'm doing it differently, but I may divide the parts slightly differently between rehearsals, play a little less melody and more rhythm, or cut a section from a scene change. The last thing you want to do though is spend an eternity on difficult scene change only to have it cut in rehearsals.

Analyze, analyze, analyze
The better your theory skills are, the better you'll do with one of these scores. By doing quick analysis on the fly you can reduce a big clumsy chord to nice manageable size in the left hand and still play the melody while you're at it. You can decide which notes are necessary and which ones can take a hike. You can also make cuts more easily by knowing which parts of a song work well together.

Playing these scores takes a lot of practice, but not in the same way that other music does. I spend a large amount of my time analyzing the music and figuring out how I can simplify it. Once I do that I don't have to spend as much time fumbling through the notes. They take work, but playing an entire show is a rewarding experience and a great chance for expert pianists to learn some new skills. Good luck!

March 20, 2013

App Review: Music Intervals by Foriero

Interval testing apps are a dime-a-dozen. You'd think then that an app named "Music Intervals" would be the cream of the crop right?

Um, no.

For an app with a name that makes it sound like the definitive answer to all the cheap games out there, Music Intervals, made by Foriero, just throws another one onto the pile.

You can probably guess from looking at the screenshot above how this game works. It's a simple interval recognition game, where two notes are shown and played and the user has to pick the correct answer below. The version I used is the free game, but from what I can tell, all that you get from the paid version is removal of the horrible (but yes, I realize necessary) advertisements. 

My biggest issue by far with this game (and you can probably guess from looking above) is the artwork and design. There is so much happening on the screen that users, especially young users, are likely to look at everything except for the notes. That ad in the top right? It changes constantly. The ad at the bottom (the er...gambling website)? That changes constantly too. 

The notes are difficult to distinguish for a couple of reasons. The fact that everything has a bubble texture makes them hard to read. The terrifying faces on each of the notes is distracting and even more frustrating is that their eyebrows can look like extra lines on the staff. The background not only has too many colors which distract from the colors we're used to on a page (those colors being black and white) but the line of the hill above also interferes with the lines on the staff, making it even more confusing. It looks like in the paid version the background is changed to a choppy ocean and all blue background but the same issues remain with clashing lines near the staff.

There are two modes to play in. Training mode is a "go at your own pace" experience where you name the intervals at whatever speed you want, although if you're too slow the game tells you the right answer (like in the picture above). The other mode is "Play" which is a sort of competition to identify them as fast as possible, either by sight or sound (I actually really like the xylophone tone used). You get a point for each right answer and go until you get one wrong or run out of the allotted 60 second time limit.The game then gives you a speed ranking, although I'm unclear whether it's actually about speed or just how many you get correct. Apparently the world record is 86.

Foriero's website also offers some other games, all of which feature the same kind of bubble artwork and notes with faces on them. There are also packs of stickers to put on the keys of the piano (the bane of my existence) which are pushed heavily in game and on the website.

The Skinny
What: Music Intervals
Where: Get it at the Apple App Store
Cost: FREE!
Positives: Works visually and audially
Negatives: Graphically very confusing, limited options
Should You Download It?
I'd skip it.

March 15, 2013

Racial and Cultural Depictions in Teaching Pieces

If you've taken piano lessons anytime within the last 50 years or so you've played a certain type of piano piece. It will have a steady beat in the left, usually with open fifths, and some sort of modal melody in the right hand. They're almost always appealing in their exoticism and are intended to sound primal and energetic. They may have an innocuous titles like "Forest Drums" or they may have more obvious titles like "Rain Dance" and "Medicine Man". What ties most piano methods together and thrusts the profession into an awkward situation is the reliance on appropriation of either culturally defined or stereotypically relegated characteristics of Native American culture.

There a number of ways to figure out which songs are "Indian", or at least draw on Native American themes. The most obvious way is through the pictures:

 Bastien, "Dance for the Buffalo", Indian Life, p5
The above picture comes from a book that I used as a child by James Bastien called Indian Life. Each song in this book has some sort of Native American theme and is often accompanied by a blurb explaining the tradition behind the title. What shocks me about the Bastien titles is not really the pictures as much as the fact that they haven't changed in decades. The artwork and sentiment have not changed significantly since the book's initial publication despite being republished a number of times since.

Artwork for these kinds of pieces has changed in some other books, although their roots are still fairly obvious:

Faber, "Rain Dance", Piano Adventures Performance Book Level 1, p34
This piece is from the books that I teach from, Nancy and Randall Faber's Piano Adventures series. The drawings are scaled back from the Bastien series and instead we have a sort of cave-drawing style. You can also see the blurb which tells us that rain dances are common across many different cultures, although the presence of a tepee in the illustration signifies that this particular piece is evoking Native American music.

In the Bastien books, many pictures depict children:

Bastien, "Indian Children", Indian Life, p16
 I think the above picture is actually relatively tasteful, although I could understand people taking issue with it. The children do not have any of the over-exaggerated facial features that we associate with offensive Native American imagery (we get plenty of that from professional sports teams), but the wardrobe and activities of the children shown match up with the romantic images that we often associate with Native American culture, especially as children. The kids are all wearing headbands, the girls are playing with dolls and the boys are shooting arrows at a tree.

Some books have completely abandoned this style of artwork:

Alfred, "Arrowhead", Alfred's Basic Piano Library Lesson Book 1, p36
This is where I start to get really interested, because the above piece is still basically a "Native American" piece, despite the generic picture and (mostly) generic title. One of the musical characteristics of the above piece, as well as "Dance for the Buffalo" and "Rain Dance" is the focus on open fifths. This means that there is an space of five notes between the two notes being played in the left hand. "Arrowhead" shows this perfectly. The open fifth plays two roles. In the case of the two "Dance" pieces at the top, it simulates a drum being played. As you can see in the video below, it is a somewhat accurate representation of actual drumming practices.

In Native American (and many indigenous) drumming traditions, there a constant quarter note pulse. What the piano music fails to include are the different volumes and attacks that can be heard in the quarter notes. If you listen to the beginning of the above video again, you can hear that certain beats are played louder than others, giving the song a steady pulse, but a shifting sense of beat. This technique can be heard in classical music in the form of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Faber, "Forest Drums", Piano Adventures Lesson Book 1, p36
Another effect of the open fifths is that they don't evoke a particular key. A lot of indigenous music is either modal or pentatonic. Modal means that it doesn't exactly conform to our notion of major or minor (although much of it sounds minor to us). Pentatonic means that it uses only a five note scale, and is typically associated with Eastern Asia and Orientalism in classical music. In "Forest Drums" above, the open fifths give us the rhythm of the drums in the opening bars, but also don't establish the piece as major or minor. Once the right hand enters in measure 5, we know that it's modal, but if there had been an F-natural in measure 1, the piece would have sounded like D-minor to us. By leaving this note out, Nancy Faber has left it more open for interpretation later in the piece.

Faber, "Young Hunter", Piano Adventures Lesson Book 1, p20
"Young Hunter" also uses modal melodies, this time without the open fifths in the left hand. Normally in A-minor, a composer will use a G-sharp to lead us back into the home note. By keeping this note as a G-natural, it makes the piece sound modal and exotic.

Native cultures are not the only ones depicted in these books. East Asian music abounds in these books, with pentatonic scales and exotic titles. There's also a sort of generic "Arabian" sounding music that exists as well.

Kevin Olson, "Desert Caravan" Helen Marlais' Lesson and Technique Book 1, p30.
These pieces usually use a spread of an augmented second (flat the second note, sharp the third) to create a scale that has traditionally depicted the Middle-East and subcontinental Asia.

I don't really disapprove of these pieces in the general sense. All of the Faber pieces above are favorites of my students, and they've all appeared on recital programs at some point. The rhythms of "Rain Dance" and "Forest Drums" speak to students much more easily than a minuet or more "classical" piece can do. The harmonies and scales are also much more interesting to my students than a piece in C-major could ever be. It's not just my students who like these pieces, I like these pieces. But I wince whenever a student tells me they want to play "that Indian piece", or when I play a piece called "Snake Charmer" that is exactly what you think it is. It's not that these pieces are bad, they just try to wrap up an entire culture, slap a few cliche musical characteristics on them and plant that into a kid's brain.

The pictures on these pieces are not really all that offensive either. What I take issue with is the coupling of the pictures and titles with the music. Students like these pieces because of the rhythms, the harmonies, and the notes. All that the titles and images do is associate the music with a culture, and make that culture smaller and smaller. Many of these musical characteristics have been absorbed into the popular music lexicon already. By making them symbols of specifically Native American, Middle-Eastern, and East Asian music they become music of an Other, which as an adult I can overcome but is a strong impression to make on a child.

I understand that this is a difficult subject. By ending the associations of the music with their origins, it could be seen as abandoning the source material. Much of the Native American music above has real roots and ties to the music is purports to represent. I have heard the argument from groups that some representation is better than no representation at all. Music, however is a gargantuan melting pot. Unless a composer is using a direct quotation in their music of a Native melody, or a Japanese song ("Sakura" is frequently used in method books) I don't see the need to label it. These books are filled with songs that aren't explicitly "Native" or "Middle-Eastern". If a student asks, I can tell them.

If you're the kind of person who writes this kind of issue off as a problem for the politically correct, put yourself in my shoes. How do you explain to your Indian student why this song doesn't sound anything like music from her family's homeland, yet that's what it claims through title, picture, and sound. Imagine if every rag and jazz tune in your child's method book was accompanied by a caricature of a black jazz player from the 1930's.

Keep the music, change the pictures. 

March 10, 2013

Squishy Keys: The Roli Seaboard

I have a frequently occurring dream where I'm playing piano, except that the keys are all spaced out oddly, or they're flat, or absurdly large, or just in some absurd configuration that makes zero sense to me. I always seem to rock at it though.

Well, a (British?) company named Roli has made at least part of my dream come true with a product called the Seaboard.

 It appears to be a keyboard/synthesizer/control surface that plays notes like a normal keyboard but also responds to touch to give feedback in the form of volume, pitch (including pitch bending) and timbre. The "keys" are all rounded and squishy to give what the developers believe will be a natural and intuitive response to the user's touch.

I think it looks pretty awesome. There's a feature on some keyboards, including my Nord, called "Aftertouch" where you can press the key down more firmly get vibrato or pitch bend, or whatever else you want, but at least on mine you have to press the key so hard that it becomes difficult to use. I'm not totally sure that they needed to make rounded, soft keys to achieve this goal and I wonder at the play-ability of the surface. It's obviously aimed toward keyboard players, but the idea of playing on what looks like a silicone surface really turns me off. I also wonder if skills that apply to the keyboard as it currently stands will be transferable to this instrument. There are certain techniques that pianists and keyboardists use to affect articulation and dynamics that this instrument likely wouldn't respond to due to a lack of hammers and key action.

It still looks really awesome though, and the application of its technology outside of the realm of keyboards is equally exciting. It basically looks like a instrument from the future with all black keys (which is fine, the "black" keys stand out simply by being raised), no buttons, and a super slim profile. My guess is that it's pretty light as well.

 I'd love to get my hands on one when it comes out, but my guess is that it will be expensive. They're doing a limited run of 88 of these (I see what you did there) which you can pre-order starting in April. There's nothing on the website about when larger shipping will start.

Here's another video where a nerdy British Mr. Rogers and another guy demo the instrument in a terrifying hexagon room. And hey, he does a glissando!

Found via Gizmodo

March 4, 2013

Drawings by Students

I love getting student-drawings, as I'm sure every teacher does. And just like other teachers I feel like the ones that I receive are far superior to everyone else's. I always encourage my students to draw pictures for me because I WILL and DO put them on my refrigerator, bulletin board, walls etc. Here are some of my favorites:

This bumblebee was actually drawn on the back of a end-of-term response form by a college student I was teaching in a group piano class.
The forms were anonymous so I don't know who made it but my memories of teaching those classes are so fond that this drawing hold a special place in my heart. These sheets were always really helpful, especially with responses like "I enjoy your sweater vests", and "You look like Adam Levine, and I think he's really cute!" So helpful!

One of my favorite high school students obviously knew where I was going to put this picture. He drew it for me on the last day I worked there:

I like it when students try to draw me. Here's one student's depiction of me in my natural environment:
Apparently despite being nearly six feet tall, my feet do not reach the ground. But look how happy I am! 

Here's another, more terrifying drawing of me from the younger brother of one of my students. 
I made the picture extra large so you can appreciate what a monster I am. I can't quite figure out if those are my arms or the piano bisecting the circle that is my midsection. Needless to say this is one of my absolute favorites. Plus on the other side of the paper it says in scrawled child handwriting (no different than my own) "Alex camera I love Tim piano". 

I've saved the best for last of course. Students like to write pieces for me, which I always encourage, but some go beyond the call of duty. A particular student of mine invented her very own musical note and excitedly told me about it at her lesson. I present to you, the blogging audience, The Fart Note: