Instrument lessons are usually geared towards helping students to play
as well as possible, with the goal of performing solo or with a band or
ensemble, right? While that may be true, the piano is like the workhorse
of the music world, and many of its uses are about making the piano work
for you, rather than laboring to play like a virtuoso.
And now, even better, Berkleemusic.com is also working for students by
offering its first online performance class, "Berklee Keyboard Method"
which allows students to record themselves playing assignments and receive
feedback, all from the comfort of their homes.
All students have to do is practice, and the course is designed to make
that as fun as possible, according to instructor Paul Schmeling. A master
pianist, interpreter, improviser, and arranger, who is the former chair
of the piano department at Berklee College of Music, and author of Instant
Keyboard and Berklee Keyboard Method, Schmeling believes it's important
to make learning enjoyable by helping students to play right away.
Both books teach students enough basic chords and techniques to play
the songs in the lessons, which have a recognizable style such as jazz
or funk, rather than focusing on repetitive exercises or seeking to establish
an exhaustive knowledge of the instrument. "I think it motivates
students to be able to play something that sounds more or less like real
music as quickly as possible," he says. "I think with youngsters
it certainly would be true, and even with adults, if they're playing stuff
that just sounds like exercises for what seems like an inordinately long
time, it can be kind of boring."
This approach is particularly well-suited for Schmeling's online course
because his students generally don't even know how to play the piano going
in, let alone have designs on being able to play well enough to perform
as more than an ensemble player. Students are expected to have a basic
musical understanding, but this often takes the form of experience with
another instrument. "The whole goal is a kind of functional keyboard
or piano to be used as a tool for learning," he says. "Maybe
it helps you to learn your harmonies better or maybe to work out a song
you're trying to write or arrange."
The piano or keyboard is a particularly useful instrument for this application,
according to Schmeling. All Berklee College of Music songwriting majors,
whether they are studying film scoring or jazz arrangement, are required
to take a basic keyboard theory class. Because the piano is such a visual
instrument, students can easily learn to play well enough to use it as
a songwriting tool. "It has lots of those kinds of applications that
really no other instrument does," Schmeling says. "Most people
don't pick up the violin to learn how to write songs."
Schmeling also teaches his students to read lead sheets, those short
hand musical notations that give musicians a song's melody and basic harmonies.
He tries to help students understand the different textures that can be
applied to any song, depending on the possible interpretations of its
Keyboard isn't the only practical tool that Schmeling makes available
to students. He also teaches the online course, "Music Theory 101,"
which offers a foundation in basic music theory with a focus on simple
ear training techniques that help students identify what they've learned
in the music they hear around them. Most students also have some musical
background, such as the ability to play an instrument by ear. The course
makes them more musically literate by familiarizing them with concepts
like intervals, scales and cords. They also learn to use musical notation
software to complete assignments. From there, students can apply the theories
to practical applications. For example, if they hear a rhythm they like
in a song, they can write it down using rhythm dictation and play it later
or work it into a song they are writing.
In the end, it all goes back to Schmeling's central goal of helping students
become adept at the tools they need to accomplish their musical goals.
This means making students feel good about what they're learning, playing
and writing. "No matter what their agendas are, people have to play
something that sounds pretty good and have it motivate them to do more
and practice more."
Oh right, they still have to practice. There's no tool for getting out
of that one, yet.