In Experiential Learning, Faculty and Staff, Students

Piano performance majors Brooke Ballard and Amberlee Woodhouse discuss their experience with BYU’s new Yamaha Disklavier piano

Well before COVID-19 brought remote learning options to the forefront of discussions in the music community, the BYU School of Music was already experimenting with modern developments in long-distance piano technology.

BYU piano professor Scott Holden works with a student from the University of Oregon. (Megan Morrison)

“I’m sitting here in Utah listening to music being played in Oregon by a student from Costa Rica,” remarked Scott Holden during a February masterclass exchange in which Holden worked with students at the University of Oregon, and UO professor Alexandre Dossin worked with BYU piano students.

Yamaha Disklavier technology  — often paired with video conferencing — connects two pianos, allowing teachers, students, collaborators or even audience members to hear the way a piece is performed in another location. The Disklavier transmits the pressure and duration applied to a key or pedal on one piano to the other in real time, allowing for aural accuracy far beyond anything conveyed through video or phone alone. 

“I came away from the masterclass excited to see how technological advances are affecting musicians,” said BYU piano student Brooke Ballard, who worked with Dossin on Haydn’s Sonata in E Minor, First Movement. “Usually when people think of technological advances, they think of them being applied to science or another field of that sort, but this masterclass proved that the arts can use and benefit from technology just as much as anyone else can. It’s thrilling to see how new technology can and is affecting me in my everyday routine and my career.”

While this was not BYU’s first remote masterclass conducted via Yamaha Disklavier, the event served to celebrate an important step for the School of Music. After renting the technology on several occasions — most recently for a 2018 masterclass with classical concert pianist Frederic Chiu — BYU purchased a new Disklavier Enspire Grand Piano, making distance learning opportunities a staple of a piano education for future students in the School of Music.  

The Yamaha Disklavier transmits the pressure and duration applied to a key or pedal on one piano to another in real time. (Megan Morrison)

“This Disklavier means we can get a wider and quicker circulation of ideas and thoughts from around the world, which will expand musicians’ creativity,” said Ballard. “We know that people exponentially grow with the free exchange of ideas — with this new technology, students, professors and the piano community will increase in knowledge and understanding, which will take their music to a whole new level.”

Aside from a few technical hiccups, BYU piano performance major Amberlee Woodhouse found the remote masterclass experience to be remarkably close to in-person instruction. 

“The feeling was very similar, which I was surprised by,” said Woodhouse, who played an arrangement of “Aquarium” from “The Carnival of the Animals.” “Usually when you do a remote lesson, there are some difficulties with them hearing you play clearly through the audio, or with you hearing them when they try to demonstrate technique. Because of the technology on our pianos, he could actually see and hear what I was playing on a live instrument.”

“I really enjoyed getting the perspective and ideas of another professor, and it was very convenient for both him and me because we could exchange thoughts without having to travel to one another,” added Ballard. “I liked being able to play on the ‘same’ piano as Dr. Dossin because I could hear the precise sound he wanted on the exact same piano I played on. I could thus imitate his playing very closely.”

Woodhouse is primarily interested in teaching after graduation and benefits from the wide exposure to different teaching methods that she receives through masterclasses.

Scott Holden demonstrates technique during the masterclass. (Megan Morrison)

“I think it’s really helpful to learn from people who have different backgrounds and people who have studied music outside of Utah,” said Woodhouse. “They often have different ways to teach you or help you get a certain sound than what you usually experience here at BYU, so it’s really helpful to take guest lessons for that new perspective and approach to technique.”

As the School of Music further incorporates the Disklavier into the BYU piano experience, Woodhouse foresees game-changing opportunities ahead for both the student and professional music communities.

“The more we get used to this technology and as it becomes available to more people, we can build up a network of musical learning outside of just BYU,” said Woodhouse. “It will become so much easier to collaborate with people around the world, in lessons and even in rehearsals — you could possibly have chamber music rehearsals where you’re playing the piano accompaniment for a string quartet across the country.”

Ballard is grateful for the masterclasses she has attended in the piano performance major — both as a participant and as an observer — and looks forward to future opportunities to learn from the personal and professional experiences of other musicians, wherever they may be.

“Before coming to BYU, I never fully understood how I could learn from watching others being taught, but through masterclasses, I have seen where I struggle and how I can improve,” she said. “I learn from others’ ideas and try to understand how they have become such great musicians, and then I take that information and apply it to weak spots in my playing. Watching a masterclass to me is almost like having the professor indirectly teach me how I can become a better musician.”

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