Technology is key to piano lessons for select KCK students

Miguel Gonzales, 12, a sixth-grader at Eisenhower Middle School, played the piano while receiving lessons from Paul Adams, who was on the University of Kansas campus. The pianos were linked, allowing Miguel and Adams to perform on the keys at the same time without having to be in the same place.
Miguel Gonzales, 12, a sixth-grader at Eisenhower Middle School, played the piano while receiving lessons from Paul Adams, who was on the University of Kansas campus. The pianos were linked, allowing Miguel and Adams to perform on the keys at the same time without having to be in the same place. jledford@kcstar.com

In a small music studio set in the corner of an office on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Paul Adams prepared to give a piano lesson.

About 40 miles away at Eisenhower Middle School in Kansas City, Kan., sixth-grade student Miguel Gonzales scooted the piano bench he was sitting on up to the school’s shiny black baby grand and waited for Adams’ instructions.

On a computer monitor to Miguel’s left, Adams’ face popped up via Skype and his voice boomed clearly through small speakers. “Hi, Miguel, ready for your lesson?”

The two are among nine student/instructor pairs who’ve been working together for four weeks through a first-of-its-kind partnership involving the Kansas City, Kan., School District and KU Pianos Without Borders.

With help from a charity called the Band of Angels, the latest in piano technology is allowing these Eisenhower students a chance for private lessons.

Band of Angels collects used instruments — often just attracting dust in an attic somewhere — for schoolchildren who can’t afford to rent them. This time, however, the charity raised money and bought Eisenhower a Disklavier piano. The $20,000 Yamaha instrument incorporates fiber-optic sensing systems, high-performance solenoids and state-of-the-art computer technology.

Eisenhower Middle School partnered with KU music education students to give students in Kansas City, Kansas distance learning lessons using a hi-tech disklavier piano.

“I’ve seen it in action and I know it works,” said Mike Myers, owner of Myers Music and a member of Band of Angels. Myers Music is one of the leading providers of school instrument rentals in the area. “It is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time.”

A student music teacher in Lawrence taps a key on his piano, and that key on the middle school baby grand piano strikes a string. It’s music, and distance learning at a whole new level.

“As far as we know this program is the first time the Disklavier has been used for remote lessons in a partnership between a college and elementary or middle school students,” said Dan Rodowicz, who manages keyboard division sales for Yamaha Corp. of America. “We’d love to see many more using this technology. You’re no longer constricted to time, space and distance. You could teach anyone from here to Russia.”

It also helps fulfill the Band of Angels’ mission, to make music education more accessible for children living in an underserved community.

Students in the Eisenhower school community have little access to piano lessons, said Aimee DeSotel, the school’s band and orchestra teacher. For some it’s because there isn’t money at home to afford private lessons. And on top of that, “there really are not many piano teachers in this area,” DeSotel said.

“I really don’t think my parents could afford piano lessons,” said Miguel, who plays violin in the school orchestra. “I love music. I think it is a very great gift that I got this opportunity.”

The benefits, music educators say, are far-reaching and lifelong.

“There’s lots of research that ties access to music education to increased math and reading scores for students,” said Christopher Woodside, assistant executive director of the National Association of Music Educators.

In 2007, a University of Kansas study of middle and elementary school music programs revealed that schools with good music programs scored substantially higher on English and math standardized tests than schools with lesser programs, regardless of socioeconomic disparities among the schools.

The study, by Christopher Johnson, a KU professor of music education and music therapy, made a connection between the concentration required in music training and the concentration needed to perform well on a standardized test.

The Eisenhower and University of Kansas collaboration is broader still. In this partnership college music students like Adams get practice teaching children.

Then there’s this: Isabel Keleti, who is on the faculty at KU and also teaching piano to Eisenhower students, has been able to familiarize herself with the Disklavier piano technology. Keleti said that in a technology-driven age she expects the idea of distance music lesson programs to spread.

“It’s just so cool,” said Teneill Childers, 12, a seventh-grader who also is getting remote piano lessons at Eisenhower. “I was nervous at first. But then you just kind of get the hang of it.”

On the school piano in Eisenhower’s small auditorium, Miguel begins to play. That’s when the magic happens. Simultaneously the keys on Adams’ piano at KU move, playing exactly what Miguel played.

“Good,” Miguel hears Adams say. “Put your fingers on these keys,” Miguel hears. Adams presses the keys on his end, and the keys on Miguel’s piano move. The 12-year-old placed his fingers on top of them.

“This is staccato,” Adams says while pressing the keys on his piano to make a sound sharp and snappy. “Touch the keys like they are hot,” he tells his student. Miguel does exactly that.

Eisenhower had some 40 students write essays about why they like music to compete for the distance piano lessons. Eisenhower music teachers selected the winners. Time would only allow the school to offer nine 30-minute lessons after school on Thursday evenings, though KU had many more student teachers wanting to give lessons.

“We were looking for a lot of students,” said Scott McBride-Smith, a KU professor of piano pedagogy. “Music Teachers National Association student chapter at KU was looking for projects that would allow them to give back to the community. This seemed like a good way to give back. Jaw-dropping.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc