It's Here: The Bicoastal Piano Lesson

Professor, performing and recording artist Shelly Berg inaugurates a giant leap forward in distance learning for piano.
By Julia Fraser
Professor Berg, seated in Anaheim, teaches a student 3,000 miles away via the Internet.

Photo/James Steeber
USC Thornton School jazz studies professor Shelly Berg gave a groundbreaking piano lesson recently at the Anaheim Convention Center, treating a rapt audience to his technique for mining deeper emotional contexts from a work by John Coltrane.

All that was missing was his student.

The student, jazz pianist Tom McEvoy, was 3,000 miles away in New York City, sitting at an identical Yamaha Disklavier Mark IV piano and connected via the Internet to Berg in Anaheim.

The two were launching a new Yamaha Remote Lesson Internet teaching system that has wide application for musical education.

“This technology,” Berg noted, “could be particularly useful for the Thornton School because of its ability to synchronize two or more pianos through Internet2 [the nonprofit consortium that deploys advanced technologies for education] and simultaneous video conferencing. It would be an ideal medium to conduct remote master classes or private lessons with touring concert artists.”

In the past, one of the biggest challenges in implementing meaningful distance learning for piano students is that their teachers could not accurately hear, see and diagnose their performances in real time. Teachers also could not demonstrate suggested solutions. It was especially difficult to accurately replicate tempo, velocity and pedaling on grand pianos.

Piano manufacturers have been wrestling with these challenges for more than a decade, and Yamaha Corp. has made a significant step this year. The Disklavier is a sophisticated “player” or “reproducing” piano that can play back music exactly as recorded through its built-in software application. The piano also may be performed in a traditional, hands-on mode.

Berg, the McCoy/Sample Endowed Professor of Jazz Studies at the USC Thornton School of Music, and McEvoy, a recent graduate from the University of North Florida, conducted their high-tech lesson at the NAMM: International Music Products Association convention in late January.

Berg had never met McEvoy before. Yet through the remote system, they were able to establish a quick rapport. Berg listened, watched and critiqued as McEvoy played. The keys and pedals on each Disklavier instantaneously moved up and down as Berg or McEvoy played or demonstrated, while video-conferencing allowed each to communicate in real time, as though they were sitting next to each other. The velocity of every chord, scale or musical idea was reproduced with exacting precision and the pedaling was replicated with similar accuracy.

The two had a meaningful dialogue about advanced jazz improvisation concepts. Speaking to McEvoy over a video monitor, professor Berg was able to focus his new student on finding a deeper emotional context for Coltrane’s composition, “Moment’s Notice,” coaxing him to perform with more dynamic contrast.

Berg showed McEvoy how to create an improvisation with longer melodic lines rather than making its complex chord changes overtly noticeable, and perform in a more “organic” way, starting with a small motif, repeating and varying it, and ultimately expanding on those ideas to create a more expressive and interesting improvised solo.

Other faculty members at the USC Thornton School of Music are testing additional advances in music software and remote-teaching techniques, with the hope that they soon will be able to selectively offer high-quality Internet courses in music.

Speaking of his remote teaching experience, Berg said, “I was impressed with how natural it felt teaching. The response time between the two pianos was virtually instantaneous, and I adapted to communicating with Tom via the video monitor fairly quickly.”

This is not to say that the system is perfect. In Berg’s view, there is a small issue to be worked out with a feedback loop that occurs on the other end when talking and playing in quick succession.

“That makes interaction back and forth a bit cumbersome because our lessons go far beyond technical evaluation and delve into a very deep emotional realm,” he said, noting that he still prefers to work side-by-side with piano students. “But this technology is definitely going to have an impact on the future of online music instruction.”