Using a high-tech piano to teach remotely

New high-tech piano connects UO players with the world

Alexandre Dossin sat at the piano in the second-floor teaching room of the Frohnmayer Music Building, a computer monitor to his right and a video camera closely trained on him.

The highly acclaimed professor of piano at the School of Music and Dance then went to work, playing a few bars from a dauntingly complex piece, some notes gently, others forcefully. At precisely the same time, the keys on a piano at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, played those same exact notes in the same exact way Dossin was.

“Did you hear how that sounded?” Dossin asked the student seated at the piano 800 miles away and pictured on the laptop screen to his side. “Now you play it.”

Sure enough, as the student played the same section, the keys on the piano in front of Dossin moved up and down, the pedals did the same, and the notes floated into the room as if the student were there herself.

That’s what the Yamaha Disklavier, one of the newest pianos at the music school, does: melds an instrument that’s been around for centuries with cutting edge technology.

Classic Pianos in Portland loaned the piano to the school last spring after piano technician Mike Reiter casually asked about one. The school and Reiter have a strong relationship with the store and its owners, who were happy to send a Disklavier down.

Faculty members and students alike have quickly found myriad ways to put it to use.

“This is an amazing technology and makes it easy to connect with colleagues and piano students around the world,” Dossin said. “When I show the students how to operate it, they’re going, ‘Oh, wow this is really cool.’”

In addition to having remote capability, the piano can also record and “perform” what is played into it. The technology can serve as a recruiting aid, especially with international students who can play live or record their audition on a similarly equipped piano and transmit it to Eugene, where professors and instructors can evaluate the performance as if the student were in the same room.

Dossin envisions holding remote recitals with students and top pianists anywhere around the world. The only requirement is that they have a Disklavier as well.

“We could organize students at another university to watch,” Dossin said. “They could watch live and the sound would come from their piano. And vice versa: Students there could play for our students. There are endless possibilities.”

What’s remarkable is how well the piano is able to pick up subtleties. At the remote lesson, Dossin instructed the student to put pressure on one chord equal to gently dropping fingers onto the notes, and he worked with her until it sounded just that way.

“I would play a very loud chord and a then very soft chord and that would really translate well there and vice versa,” Dossin said.

Anyone at any time could listen to the recordings or even save them to a memory stick, thus potentially transforming a lesson that is typically one-on-one into a teaching opportunity that is limitless. So far, the most common use has been by students who record their pieces on it and then observe their performance.

“One student recorded a piece and noticed he needed to hang onto one note longer,” Reiter said. “He didn’t hear it. He could see it in a way that he wasn’t able to visualize it audibly.”

Or they record half of a duet and play the other half live.

Looking at the big picture, having a piano such as the Disklavier helps place the the school at the forefront of the field as technology-enabled instruments become more prevalent and expected by musicians.

The Disklavier works using solenoids — plunger-like devices — to move the keys. For recordings and remote performances, two photo cells for each key determine which key is being played and how fast that’s happening. That information is digitized and transferred or saved to the piano’s memory.

And while the piano as well as other parts of the music building have been idle during the pandemic, it could gain even more relevance as society slowly reopens yet travel remains undesirable for many in the wake of the coronavirus.

“Now more than ever, that became really important,” Dossin said. “And who knows what is the immediate future of travel.”

The remote lesson that took place in February marked a number of firsts: It was the first remote lesson in Oregon and likely in the West, Reiter said.

“It was cool to be able to do it, but to find out later there was some amount of significance to it made it even better,” Reiter said.

The idea for the remote lesson came about during a November conversation between Reiter and Rick Baldassin, his counterpart and longtime friend at BYU. BYU also has a Yamaha Disklavier, which sells for about $80,000. With a lot of help from Guy Eckelberger, the information technology director for the School of Music and Dance, Reiter and Baldassin put the pieces in place.

“We could not have done it without all that work they did behind the scenes to make the pianos work,” Dossin said. “They had to put all the things in motion.”

After Dossin’s lesson, a BYU faculty member worked with UO students in return. It won’t be a one-time thing, Dossin said.

“Once we get back to the point where I can access the school and that piano or several people can access the piano without contamination or anything like that, then we’ll definitely continue doing that,” Dossin said. “My plan is not to just do more with Utah, but to really broaden it.”

Reiter said he’s particularly impressed with the versatility of the piano, which can be use for entertainment, academics, recruiting, lessons and more.

“It’s really a unique piano,” he said. “The ability to make this a tool is limited only by our imagination.”

—By Jim Murez, University Communications