Internet-capable pianos may change the way students learn to play

Minneapolis Star TribuneApril 6, 2014 

BIZ CPT-DIGITAL-PIANO 3 MS

Osip Nikiforov, a prizewinning piano student, plays a Yamaha Disklavier piano at the home of his teacher, Stella Sick, March 13, 2014, in Maple Grove, Minn.

ELIZABETH FLORES — MCT

In what may be a revolution in experiencing music, 19-year-old Russian pianist Osip Nikiforov is recording Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 1, without capturing any of its sound.

Instead, a sensor-equipped piano is recording the “data” of his performance, the mechanical movements when keys and foot pedals are pressed. Playing a piano generates thousands of data points. And when turned into digital ones and zeros, that data can be stored, transmitted on the Internet and even precisely replayed by another similarly equipped piano.

Nikiforov plays a Yamaha Disklavier owned by Stella Sick, a music professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.

“These pianos are fantastic teaching tools,” Nikiforov said. “You can correct things based on just listening to yourself. While you could do that with any recording, this one is even closer and more precise.”

Sick says Nikiforov could use the piano to audition for another music school, saving travel and other costs. To promote Disklaviers, which cost $40,000 to $240,000, Yamaha has simplified Internet submission of recorded auditions. Last year, the company created a cloud storage website that allowed Disklavier performances to be shared among 18 U.S. universities and 28 private audition sites.

George Litterst, a Massachusetts pianist and Yamaha consultant, said the network is expected to grow this year to 50 universities and 40 to 50 audition sites.

Reverse-engineering

Nikiforov is already a beneficiary of Internet auditions. At age 13, he sent a recording from a similar Disklavier in Moscow to audition for an international music competition based in Minnesota. He won third place, and the experience brought him there to study.

Sick, also born in Russia, has a music doctorate from the University of Minnesota. But her teaching career has been altered by the technology.

“In addition to performing, I liked getting under the piano with the Yamaha technical guys to find out what they were doing, and they explained things to me,” she said. She also discovered that by listening to the Disklavier’s precise playback and watching the accompanying video of the player’s movements, she could help students correct their mistakes.

Sick calls it “reverse-engineering the performance,” a technical term that might make some liberal arts fans cringe. But she shrugs it off. “My friends are both technicians and musicians, so I live in both worlds.”

As a result, Sick is a part-time consultant for Yamaha, and recently helped demonstrate the Disklavier for the music department staff at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., which is wrestling with a decision on whether to use it as a way to audition prospective music students.

Although Disklaviers first became available in the United States in 1987, when they recorded piano data on floppy disks, they are getting another look from university music teachers now that they are Internet-capable and require only modest Internet speeds of 2 million to 4 million bits per second for both uploads and downloads.

Precise sensors

The Disklavier is a conventional piano that has been wired with extremely precise sensors to measure the movement of its mechanical parts. For example, when a piano key is struck, it causes a hammer to strike a piano string. A Yamaha sensor can measure and record the velocity of that hammer at 1,023 different increments, and store the result as computer data. When that data is used to reproduce that hammer speed on another Disklavier, the sound produced is virtually identical to that of the original piano.

And, aside from the classroom teaching benefits, universities wonder if remote auditions will bring them a more diverse group of students.

“Diversity of applicants is what schools ask us about,” Litterst said. “The more competitive schools want students auditioning from Asia and Europe. The music department chair at Wayne State College in Nebraska recently listened to a remote audition from a high school junior who lives in the Aleutian Islands (in Alaska).”

The rising popularity of Internet-enabled pianos makes it likely that Yamaha will face increased competition. For example, Massachusetts-based Steinway offers pianos with digital playback capability.

“It’s clear that this is a concept whose time has come,” Litterst said.

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