The modern world has gone through rapid changes in recent years. Music teachers faced real and demanding challenges during the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic and many were able to quickly adapt, invest, and learn from a far more technological reality than they were used to. Now back to the future, post-vaccine, and a reality that consists of a world where safe, in-person instruction exists with far more technologically advanced teachers. Incorporating all the experience and tools that music teachers accumulated during these challenge times is essential to guarantee a future of more opportunities and more effective instruction.
I have been advocating the use of technology during piano instruction since 2009, when I started research how to create an online piano studio. It was at this time I moved from Philadelphia, PA to Baton Rouge, LA, where I was accepted in a Doctoral of Musical Arts program at LSU and where I accepted a position teaching at Southern University. I had a wonderful piano studio in Philadelphia and strong connections with my students and their parents, so I didn’t want to leave them behind. I was able to start an online piano studio in Baton Rouge and continue teaching several of my piano students from Philadelphia.
In 2012, I created the Southern University Online Piano Studio offering several opportunities for our music program that made our department more visible nationally and internationally; among them: online lessons for perspective students, national and international live online piano auditions, online masterclasses with famous teachers, and live streaming of recitals and masterclasses.
Since 2014, I have been offering presentations about using technology while teaching piano and the pedagogy of online piano instruction at major conferences and universities, including the Music Teachers National Conference (MTNA), the National Conference of Keyboard Pedagogy (NCKP), University of Iowa, University Of Wisconsin- Madison, University of Mobile, University of Texas-Austin, University of Texas A&M College- Commerce, and many others. Initially, piano teachers thought I was “crazy” to teach piano online and instigate/question the traditional approach of piano instruction. However, when the pandemic arrived, I had enough experience and tools to help thousands of piano teachers around the world and the “crazy guy” ended up helping others achieve what became the only way of instruction.
I was offered the position of Assistant Professor of Piano at SNC starting on the Fall 2022 and accepted. I feel so blessed to have amazing support from the administration of our college, my colleagues from the music department, and the Technology Services staff (Krissy Lukens, Molly Lucarelli, Nick Plank and Donny Bouressa and all their supporting staff team) to create the SNC Online Piano Studio. I received a generous technology package that enabled me to develop the SNC Digital Fellow program and better serve my students.
The main goal of this project for the SNC Digital Fellow program was to create instructional tutorials for the group piano and piano lab classes as well as to use specific apps to improve visual communication during group piano classes. Students can watch tutorials with the instructor demonstrating and explaining the abilities of each piece/ exercise, how to properly move each hand at the piano as well as how to properly coordinate the hands. These tutorials offer a different level of visual communication, since students have access to the content with the use of multiple cameras, screen sharing, and scenes targeting specific learning goals. The tutorials also offer modeling and clear goals for our students and they enable students to practice with a better understanding of the “tools” and how to properly use them. The tutorials are available online on Moodle and on YouTube and can be watched several times. In addition, since the tutorials will be available on the YouTube they can be used as advertisement of our piano program, another an important recruiting tool.
The tutorials created for this program were presented on a weekly basis in order to reinforce and complement the information presented to our students during the classes. I recorded tutorials in three main categories:
- Repertoire pieces
These tutorials always start with a performance of the piece, offering modeling. Next, I discuss specific details regarding the abilities presented in each piece; how to properly move each hand, and consequently how to properly coordinate both hands. I usually offer specific practice steps in order to offer the tools students need to properly prepare the pieces as well.
- Technical patterns: pentachords, triads, cadences, scales, vocal warm-ups.
These tutorials are essential to piano students, since they offer the foundation of piano technique. These patterns can be found in most of the repertoire performed. I also offer the abilities presented in each pattern, how to properly move each hand, and how to coordinate both hands.
- Video feedbacks
These tutorials offer feedback to any questions the students may present or feedback on tests. I usually record them, upload them to YouTube and paste the link on student’s report, or post on Moodle.
- Play along
On these videos students have the opportunity to play certain patterns or technical exercises with the instructor virtually. This is much more fun, engaging and effective than simply practice with the metronome. Students can observe the modeling from the instructor while they are playing.
Regarding the equipment used to record the tutorials:
- 4k webcams (Depstech)
- Recording microphones for the piano (Rode)
- Wireless lapel mic (Audio technica) for the voice
- Audio interface (Zoom)
- Mac mini computer
- 50’ smart TV
- iPad and Apple pen
- Piano Shigeru Kawai with Midi output
Effective Visual Communication in Piano Lessons
It is important that teachers have different tools to address the different learning styles of individual students in order to be effective with their instruction. Some psychologists and researchers describe a person’s preferred way of thinking, processing, understanding, and remembering informational as a learning mode. We can associate learning modes in terms of senses: some learn best through seeing (visual learning), others learn best through hearing (aural learning), while others may learn best through feeling and doing (Kinesthetic learning). We can also identify a fourth category, reading-reading-writing learning, a more analytical approach, connecting the subject to a larger context and associated to language-based learning. During the unprecedented 2020-2021 pandemic educators were faced with the challenge of adapting to a new reality of teaching online. We learned many ways of communicating virtually with our students and familiarized ourselves with new technological gadgets, platforms to communicate and software that enabled us to operate during this challenging time.
One of the advantages of online instruction is the ability to engage students visually on the same screen by modeling from many different angles. The visual aspect when playing the piano is associated with the score, the keyboard and the body. In addition, since playing the piano is a task directly associated to movement, coordination, and alignment, it is essential for us to take advantage of the many angle possibilities on online instruction in order to be specific and accomplish greater results with our students. The information presented on this portion of my blog post will offer you with different ways to communicate visually with your students for synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid instruction.
Bringing your Visual Communication to the Next Level.
A virtual webcam is a software application that allows users to display their computers’ resources during a video call instead of displaying a live webcam exclusively. This can offer a more professional look and many more options of visual communication, since users can place images, videos, computer windows, screen share (tablets and cell phones) and other sources as their primary output during a video call. Among some of these popular software applications are the ManyCam (paid) and OBS Studio (free software).
I have been a major advocate for the use of OBS Studios since the beginning of the pandemic. I use this amazing user friendly free software not only as a virtual webcam for my Zoom online piano lessons, but also to record tutorials and instructional videos for my piano and pedagogy students. The OBS Open Broadcaster Software (www.obsproject.com) is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It supports all favorite streaming and video conference platforms (virtual webcam)
Users of the OBS Studio can build unlimited scenes from multiple sources including window captures, images, text, browser windows, webcams, capture cards, and more. These scenes can be switched between seamlessly via custom transitions that will definitely boost the visual communication with your students. It offers high performance, real time video/audio capturing, and mixing. In addition, it supports all favorite streaming and video conference platforms (virtual webcam).
Important Tip: I strongly recommend for all scenes an instructor builds for his/her students, that a face camera be added in order to offer a feeling of eye contact with your student.
My Top 10 Scenes
- Welcome (face cam + logo): usually used at the beginning of the lesson or during a close up conversation or explanation
- Score + top
- Right side
- Left side
- Top + pedal
- Studio + top
- Multiple cam
- Classroom Maestro + top
- iPad+ classroom maestro keyboard+ top
Besides multiple cameras, I use the application Reflector to mirror the screen of my iPad and iPhone with the score and important apps for theory and sight reading. I also use scenes with the Classroom Maestro, an intelligent electronic blackboard for classroom, and private music studio instruction software to help with the visual communication regarding the keys being played. This also assists with showing the staff and analyzing what is been played.
Important Tip: When adding a windows source into a scene make sure to have the desired window to share opened on the background of the computer, otherwise it will not be displayed as an available window to share.
For more information about how to build scenes, how record tutorial videos, and how to use the virtual camera feature in OBS, please see the YouTube playlist link with some tutorials below.
Assessment of this project
The evaluation of this project was done by an anonymous student survey on Google Forms from the students that received the tutorials as well as a peer review from two colleagues, faculty members from the music department. Students answered four questions related to their experience with the tutorials
I want to share some of the feedback from one of the questions:
How did the Piano Video Tutorials add to your learning experience?
“These videos are high-quality, mobile instructional content that I can access anytime, anywhere. This maximizes flexibility to my schedule, and also reinforces the idea of practice outside of scheduled class time.”Student 1
“The tutorials allowed me to repeatedly listen to what the song should sound like when I was practicing. They also gave me a base as to where to start learning the piece.”Student 2
“For me, I used them as a refresher for the stuff we learned in class. If I didn’t practice something right away the next day since I was focusing on another portion of the work, I could go back to the videos and get some points to think about while I practice. It’s nice to have the handout and the option of the video in case one learning style is working better that day.”Student 3
“It allowed me to be an independent learner and have good resources without having to search the building for a professor.”Student 4
Regarding the peer evaluation, I offered the playlist and a copy of this blog post to two prominent piano pedagogues and professors from prestigious institutions: Dr. Margarita Denenburg, Associate Professor of Practice in Piano Pedagogy at University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Ana Maria Orduz, Associate Professor of Piano at University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia. I asked them the following questions
- How they feel that the tutorials can be beneficial to our students learning experience?
“After watching the repertoire video I am impressed and excited about the possibilities of this project. The visual and pedagogical clarity with which the videos are presented are inspiring and will provide a wonderful learning opportunity for class piano as well as other novice adult students. One of the biggest challenges that we face teaching class piano is the variety of levels and experiences that our students bring with them to class. Each student is in a different stage of their learning and has a different learning style and pace.
I salute Dr. João Paulo Casarotti for not just teaching the basic notes and rhythm but more importantly how to physically play the piano in a healthy and comfortable way. Perhaps, that is one of the main differences between Dr. Casarotti’s tutorials and everything else available online. This videos are all encompassing.
The beauty of these tutorials is that they are versatile. We may use it as a homework assignment of a new piece, or as a review session in our class, or provide the video tutorial as a companion to a topic that was learned during the class. I can say with confidence that my own class piano students could benefit from such tutorials.
The Feedback videos are priceless! The Feedback that is provided is not about the correct notes or rhythm but it is about the physical technique of piano. How to play comfortably and freely. Teaching technique is often missing, especially in the class piano environment. In fact, I believe similar videos can benefit not only class piano but also some of the piano major students.
Finally, watching the technical video about the cadence. Extremely well presented, clear and pleasing to an eye. The narration is well paced, clear, and provides steps to apply the learned material to any keys. “Dr. Margarita Denenburg- University of Texas at Austin
” The tutorials could be helpful to any student. They are efficient, specific, clear and dynamic. Being able to see the score at the same time as the closed up hand demonstration, the movement in the arms and body, the colors of the pressed keys in the screen keyboard and the professor´s face makes it really easy to stay focused and to understand the content.
The pedagogical value of this collection is excellent, the exercises are creative and effective, the information on movement and technique is well presented and assertive, and the methodology to present theory materials is effective.
The Major Cadences:
The video presents the major cadence in a very easy way. Professor Joao shows the first chord and explains how the notes change to the next one, and describes with references how the hands move, finger by finger, from one position to the next one. The screen shows his hands from a clear visual angle, and to support the information there is a screen keyboard that colors the keys that are being pressed, also there is a staff that shows the writing of the cadence. The display of the full screen is clear and really helpful to anybody that would want to learn major chords.
An example of a repertoire piece is the Wilder Riter by Schumann.
The video starts with a full performance of the piece, then Prof. Casarotti approaches the piece in the easiest possible way, grouping chords and mapping the movements while explaining the theory behind the structure. Once the groups are explained and numbered Prof. J describes and demonstrates the choreography showing when to bounce, when to rotate and how to be precise with the articulation. This video will help teachers and students.
An example of a video feedback – Goal 2
The tone of the video is encouraging and inspiring for the students. It goes straight to offer specific information about how to move, therefore it guides students in the most efficient way. The video includes important technical information that could help not only to play the scales but also to play any repertoire.Dr. Ana Maria Orduz- University of Antioquia, Colombia
- What would be their recommendation to improvement for the next tutorials?
After watching the Wild Rider by Schumann an idea came to mind that perhaps a section or a separate accompanied video of “play along” could be added. I believe that students would internalize the learned better, instead of passively watching the would actively participate.
This is a very small suggestion that I am not sure is possible to achieve but from my experience with class piano students we have to be very concise and quick about what we want them to do or see/watch especially outside the class. The tutorial that I watched was a little over 8 minutes long. I would recommend breaking up the video into several very short concepts. I believe that you would have better success with students watching it. It would be interesting to see how long the “Feedback” video is watched for.
After reviewing several of the videos my biggest suggestion would be to have a “play along” section with narration. There might be even a link inside of the video that would ask to pause the tutorial and go to this link to practice the new concept. I think that would be a wonderful addition to the already remarkable project.Dr. Margarita Denenburg- University of Texas at Austin
“I don’t have any recommendations for the content and presentation of the tutorials. My only suggestion is to organize the playlist in a way that is easier to find the videos focused on repertoire, technique or feedback.”Dr. Ana Maria Orduz- University of Antioquia, Colombia
 Jacobson, Janine. 2015. Professional Piano Teaching, p.37.