- Written by Matt Parish
- Published: 30 August 2013
Trade shows in recent years have been buried in an avalanche of new digital technology – apps for iPads and other tablets, upgraded audio interfaces built for access to diverse recording platforms, effects pedals with constantly updated and downloadable effects, and more. Like a lot of software, a calling card of these advances is their open-ended nature – once a consumer makes their purchase, they’re often wired into an endless array of updates and new features for the foreseeable future.
In a way, it’s been a broad consumer cultural shift. The integration of powerful new software has changed the way many sectors of the industry have done business, from recording software to live sound and lighting and even at-home guitar rig design. But one segment that’s been poised to take advantage of this shift for years is electric keyboards, specifically those designed in tandem with educational programs.
It’s all about options, according to Roland key accounts manager Ellen Gonzales. “We, as a consumer nation, have changed the way that we consume things,” she says. “We’re not just looking for things that we can buy to use today. We want something that can grow with us. Just think of iPads – people buy them and then constantly upgrade and add to them. I do think that’s a trend that won’t go away and it’s wise to play into that mentality.”
For retailers, this added value that’s increasingly inherent in electronic keyboards can open up worlds of possibilities. From improved in-store lesson experiences to completely improved personal education programs on increasingly portable hardware, there are always new ways to get into the action.
HOME LEARNING SYSTEMS
Recent advances like a more universal acceptance of USB and MIDI, recording functions, and iPad compatibility have led to a wide variety of instruments with sophisticated educational features made by most major manufacturers in the game. Casio’s continued pursuit of a great, affordable keyboard with lots of educational features expanded last year with their introduction of new Privia models, as well as their “LK” series of lighted keyboards.
Casio’s marketing general manager Mike Martin, feels that the key is staying on top of technology. “Unlike other music companies, Casio is also in the consumer electronics business,” he says. “Our company has always been forward thinking and has adapted quickly to new technology.” Something like recording, which used to require separate hardware and a certain level of know-how, is now simple. “Without cables, wires, or computer interfaces you can make a recording with an ordinary USB thumb drive.”
Meanwhile, Gonzales says that products like Roland’s successful HPi (Home Piano Interactive) line of electronic pianos have continued to evolve. “We’re really taking that original concept and updating it for 21st century learners,” she says. Users can manipulate all sorts of audio files by changing pitch, speed, and even remove lead parts from existing recordings.
The HPi series use Roland’s DigiScore technology, which is a digitized notation tool that appears on the piano’s video screen. The tool notates new compositions as students perform them, as well as offering notation of existing songs on the instrument’s own drives. The software also offers “visual lessons,” which Gonzales calls an “instant assessment tool” and can rate student performances based on missed notes, rhythms, and more.
“This generation has grown up with computer games and all, so they’re trained to strive for the next level and the highest score,” she says. “A lot of the programs inside the instrument are geared toward teaching them while tapping into that ‘gaming drive’ that this generation has. We used to call it ‘practice!’”
Roland has developed several apps available as free downloads to supplement these programs, including tools focused on flashcards, recoding, rhythmic games, notepads, and ear training. In many ways, it’s these types of small updates that could shape the future of digital keyboards. Gonzales says it’s simply a matter of support.
“You’re getting more than just an instrument now – you’re getting ongoing support which will always be growing and changing. It will feed you changing, evolving tools as time goes on and it keeps your instrument new and fresh.”
Yamaha has continued a decades-long run of innovation in the keyboard segment, including their own proprietary education system – the Yamaha Education Suite (Y.E.S.) – that’s included on everything from their portable PSR-E models to the new DGX-650 digital piano. Yamaha product manager Nate Tschetter says education is key in the company’s product development. “Education plays a big role – it’s a part of every instrument we have,” he says. The system works as an assessment tool and a versatile accompaniment program. Additionally, the company has a partnership with Hal Leonard Corporation to apply the playblack lesson functions to popular music by artists like Coldplay, Adelle, or Elton John.
“The dealer tie-in with that almost works the other way around,” notes Tschetter. “We realized that our dealers mostly all carry these Hal Leonard books, and we have probably a 15-year history of creating MIDI file accompaniments using our XG protocol that our instruments have, so why don’t we put the two together? We have a great relationship with Hal Leonard – if we make accompaniment for these books that can tie in this learning component, we can have a really powerful way for people to teach themselves the songs they need to play.”
Tschetter also points to Yamaha’s EZ-220 as a key model in the company’s push for educational instruments. The model can be pared with an iPad app that displays a piece of music and turn the page at appropriate times by “listening” to the performance using a technology called “InfoSound.”
The company has also developed two portable keyboard sets (the PSR-E243 and PSR-E343) that tie into an app dubbed “My Music Recorder,” designed for parents to record their kids’ performances. “It’ll record video and MIDI files at the same time, so you can use it for playback and to share with friends and relatives,” says Tschetter. “They can give them little virtual stamps and things, so when you practice every day, you can accumulate these little stamps.”
Kawai pianos also points to a partnership with a publishing company – in this case Alfred Music – to bolster its onboard play-a-long libraries. Tom Love (senior director of online marketing and electronics) says the two companies have worked together for 10 years. “The value of this to a student is that they have a flawless example of the song they are practicing to listen to,” he says. “They can slow it down, practice along with it, and even turn off the left-or right-hand part. Upper digital models also have built-in finger exercises – scales, arpeggios, chord, and Hanon exercises – with which they can do the same.”
Love says the majority of Kawai’s digital models feature USB audio capabilities, including the ability to play and record in both WAV and MP3 formats.
DISTANCE LEARNING CAPABILITIES
Distance learning has picked up steam in every sector, from wired-in college lectures down to free online course material. As always, Yamaha’s remote lesson capabilities on their digitally enhanced Disklavier models are a standard bearer, but other interesting developments continue to sprout up.
One notable player is PianoDisc, the modern “player piano” system that has made waves with its technology for translating digital files from iPods, iPads, YouTube, and various other media, into a real-time performance on a piano.
But the next level is surfacing now, and it involves a reversal of that formula – where students can upload performance files over the Internet via the company’s remote learning network and YouTube channel. PianoDisc expects a new sort of community, set to involve pianists, educators, and fans who can all share performances and feedback with one another. Pianist Jarrod Radnich has sung the system’s praises. “This system allows me to see exactly how the musician is handling the dampers on the strings, timings, velocities, and durations, and I can review the performance any time it is convenient for me to do so,” he says.
SCHOOL EDUCATIONAL SYSTEMS
Korg has installed lab systems and educational tools in over 1,200 schools across the country. Korg’s Tiffany Stalker, senior manager of their educational division, says that a solid relationship with school programs is of utmost importance. “As an education division of a piano and keyboard manufacturer, of course our main focus is on getting the best keyboard and piano technology in schools,” she says. “This exposure to students is a great way to build brand loyalty and hopefully a customer for life, but we have a great responsibility to make sure these students have the technology and quality they need to be successful musicians.”
Stalker says the company’s progression of products – from the new Korg Kross to its flagship keyboard, the Kronos X – is designed so students can grow with them. “Students have the ability to learn at their level,” she says. “Korg has made an effort to create technologies that will attract customers for life.”
At Roland, Gonzales says that she’s finding an increased dependence on tablets at schools, which in turn affects the types of products manufacturers and retailers need to focus on to hold their attention: “A lot of the schools are becoming all-Apple schools. The Core Curriculum standards are changing and the districts are having to incorporate technology. Textbooks aren’t as common – they’re getting an iPad with the text on it. So for the music department to be able to also take advantage of the technology, it’s wonderful.”
Beyond simply keyboards, many of these companies are also developing ever-more advanced music lab systems, some taking direct advantage of the growing technology in those schools. The new Korg microLAB, introduced just this summer, is a perfect example. “This is a new lab concept that really speaks to schools who never thought they’d be able to afford any kind of music technology,” says Stalker. “It takes advantage of any existing computer or iPad lab the school might already have and enables it to also be used as a turn-key, portable music lab for a fraction of the cost of a traditional music lab.” The system comes as a package, which includes 31 compact Korg microKEY keyboard controllers (either 37 or 25-key models, depending on the lab chosen). These can then plug into a computer or iPad. The package also includes headphones and different curriculum options for any K-12 or college music program.
Of course, there are also a variety of new and improved traditional lab programs. Korg’s GEC3 is built for class-size flexibility and includes curriculums for many age groups. Kawai offers a digital lab system, the KLCS, which allows a teacher to conduct a class of up to 48 student instruments, pairing them or isolating them in countless configurations. Roland’s lab system, the GLC-1, allows up to 48 instruments as well, and is currently in use in a variety of applications, including at the USC Thornton School of Music’s percussion labs.
IN-STORE DIGITAL LESSONS
Of course, it’s a given that in-store lessons have been and will probably always be an unmatched way to build community and loyalty to the retail shops that host them, but a few innovations unique to the keyboard market are always worth special consideration.
Yamaha’s “Keyboard Encounters” program celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and continues to roll with popular group piano classes for ages 10-adult throughout the country, and the educational software they have written for the Clavinova and portable keyboards is always being updated.
Charles Anderson, the program’s director, says that Keyboard Encounters is not only adding new accompaniment styles, but is also beginning to utilize its more portable models of keyboards. “In the last year, we’ve decided to expand the program out to portable keyboards, especially in the DGX series,” he says. “That has opened up a lot of doors to people teaching in non-traditional places like community centers, smaller dealers and charter schools. This is very new for us.”
The Keyboard Encounters program has six modules or books. Depending on the group, the program could last a year and a half to two years, after which students progress to private instruction. The student software includes all the accompaniments for songs and exercises, while the software that is provided to the teachers includes music appreciation, music history, ensemble playing, theory, and improvisation.
Anderson says the program goes a long way toward building a solid customer base for retailers. “When we look at market development, the dealers who understand that Keyboard Encounters is a process that leads to sustainable growth, they’ll do well no matter what’s happening in the market,” says Anderson. “The students will keep coming in and learning, developing loyalty to the store.”
All advances aside, most educators and students alike agree that an authentic, traditional feel is integral to any musical education experience. “Any exposure to actual keys is always a benefit in teaching,” says Stalker. “There really is only so much you can do with an app and a small screen – no matter how cool or well thought out.” Stalker points to the Korg microKEY’s ability to pair with the iPad to create a tactile experience.
Casio’s Privia models, which weigh in at a portable 25 pounds, have always boasted accurate weighted feel on all of the keys, as well as improved audio processing to react to pressure on each key realistically. Similarly, both Yamaha and Kawai place great importance on “true” piano feel. “We focus intently on developing tone and touch that emulate our acoustic pianos as closely as humanly and technically possible,” says Kawai’s Tom Love. “If it doesn’t deliver the proper feel and sound, then it doesn’t matter what new technical frill adorns a digital piano.”
Gonzales touts the surprise many educators will experience at modern keyboards as a major selling point. “A lot of teachers haven’t played a digital piano in many years and still have this idea that every digital instrument is this electronic machine with no weighted keys that doesn’t feel authentic,” she says. “It’s great to see them when they first sit down to play the pianos and realize that the action is in many ways superior to a lot of acoustic pianos. If not at least as good.
“The most rewarding thing for me, since I work with educators all the time, is seeing educators realize how far we’ve come.”