Thursday, March 12, 2009

Piano Hero Reflections

Yesterday was our first Wednesday off for Piano Hero, due to Spring Break, so I thought I'd take this time to reflect on what we've learned so far. [Just to review, there've been three events so far: Beethoven's 1st, Mendelssohn's "Italian," and Beethoven's 3rd.]

First of all, one thing I feel good about is that, though we're clearly trying to make a pop-culture connection with the play on Guitar Hero, it's not an empty connection. Not that there's anything wrong with empty connections, but a local musical organization recently advertised a March Madness concert which, unless I'm mistaken, had nothing to do with basketball, tournaments, or Cinderella stories. It's fine to take advantage of the pop-culture associations there, but it's a pretty quick bait-and-switch to use that name for the purpose of advertising a musical event. (I mean, of course, unless John Tesh is involved.)

With Piano Hero, we're honestly trying to make the point that the experience of sightreading in real time has real similarities to the experience of playing a video game. I haven't played video games much for years (I don't need to - I play the piano!), but I can remember back in the '80s sitting and playing Astrosmash for hours on end. Such a game becomes intensely satisfying and addictive when the eyes start taking in information so fast that the complex finger responses seem mostly unconscious, while the conscious part of the brain is reserved for...well, not that much in Astrosmash, aside from keeping up with score...but in Piano Hero, the conscious part of the brain gets to enjoy the music and make interpretive decisions along the way.

I can also remember, back in my Astrosmash days, the feeling of sitting down to start a game and understanding that I was putting myself on some kind of diabolical treadmill that wouldn't end until I finally got tossed off an hour or two later. And I liked that. Sitting down to start the "Eroica" last week, I had much the same feeling. We'd had very little rehearsal, I hadn't even looked at some of the pages, and yet I knew Beethoven was in charge for the next 45-50 minutes, for better and for worse. It's true that any long piece in a concert can feel that way to some degree, but it's an especially vivid feeling when there's so much uncertainty about how things will go.

A larger point here is that we in the music world tend to underemphasize this aspect of being a musician - the thrill of taking on these complex challenges of coordination. True, not every musician gets a big kick out of sightreading, but beyond that, it's quite simply fun and pleasurable to get all those fingers (there must be more than ten it sometimes seems) going at once and doing wildly complicated things. In the same way that swishing three-pointers or hitting a baseball on the nose can feel great (or so I assume, having not gotten around to doing either for some time), it can be immensely satisfying to command a musical instrument, even putting aside the beauty of the music and whatever aesthetic purposes it may or may not serve.

Here I go again with my daughter, but since (as mentioned last post) we don't push her piano practicing too hard, it's striking to see how sometimes she'll go through phases in which the piano seems to pull her right over - you can tell she just likes the feeling of putting her fingers through their paces because, out of the blue, a Kuhlau sonatina will come bounding out of the living room, with no one having suggested she needs to practice. At such times, she's not wasting any energy worrying about legato or cadencing sensitively. I know that what she's doing is not much different than if she were to pop out her Nintendo DS to pass the time. For this reason, it doesn't surprise me to know that some music teachers endorse Guitar Hero as a useful way of connecting kids with the physical joy of musicmaking.

It's also not surprising to learn that someone has designed a keyboard-based videogame called Piano Hero - well, it was called Piano Hero until the GH folks got involved (understandably, I suppose), so it's now called Synthesia. There's a free version and an inexpensive full version, although you need a MIDI keyboard of course. This amusing video gives you a quick sense of what it's like. [Amusing Side Note: In the video, the pianist is playing Schumann's "Wild Rider" from Album for the Young; just a couple of days ago, my daughter was in my office toying around with a digital piano hooked up to a Roland XV-2020, playing the "Wild Rider" with distorted electric guitar sounds - which she'd settled on after searching around a bit - and it sounded really cool that way. Another Piano/Guitar interaction.] Because the scoring is based entirely on replicating the information in the MIDI file (which you supply), it's clear that there is no value put on phrasing, dynamics, or general musicality; it's just straight note-gunning. While it could be easy to dismiss that as unmusical, again it overlooks the kind of fun (useful fun) that can be had by challenging one's technique. Obviously, etudes and metronomes have been used for this purpose for years, but you don't get the cool graphics and scoring.

Speaking of scoring, that's my favorite thing about our Piano Hero. The idea of trying to score what we're doing is crazy, because there are so many layers of complexity. If sightreading were an Olympic sport, think of all the parameters that would need to be taken into account to judge effectively. Accuracy is one thing, but there's the whole issue of learning how to avoid "obvious" wrong notes (i.e. the art of faking), and then just about everything that goes into effective musical presentation, including articulation, phrasing, dynamics, feeling for structure, etc. etc. etc. To design software that could gauge all that would be wonderfully impossible, which is why playing the piano is so much more than a video game.

Still, the fact that this "video game" involves recreating something familiar like a Beethoven symphony is another obvious connection with the Guitar Hero experience which, as I understand it, is all about recreating familiar songs through rapid-fire hand-eye coordination. Of course, as a spectator sport, Piano Hero pretty quickly runs into the same problem that other classical concerts tend to - we're not just playing 5-minute songs, so keeping the audience focused is a challenge.

Here one runs up against a big tension in the way we think about presenting music. I've had people who've come to these events say that it still feels too serious, that there should be more talking, more a prevailing sense of informality; but the truth is, once you hand it over to Beethoven, it's very hard for people to feel that they can interrupt it, so the "serious" concert atmosphere tends to set in. I've wondered if it would be "wrong" to take cuts, or even leave out a movement. For example, I love the Eroica's 2nd movement funeral march, but it probably does suffer more in the piano version than do the faster movements. Still, for good reason, it's hard to get past the idea that a musical work should be played in its entirety as envisioned by its composer.

So we're left with a hybrid pop-culture/serious concept where hopefully a listener attracted by the Guitar Hero connection won't feel baited and switched when the music takes a more sober-minded, large-scale turn (such as Beethoven's funeral march). I think the score projection helps a little with that, and hopefully next time I'll have a chance to annotate the score to provide more engagement points for the wandering mind. I did have one seasoned concertgoer say to me how much he enjoyed following the score, and it clearly gave him a sense of pride to have been able to "participate" in that way. I think he was surprised he was able to do it.

By the way
, the joy of being able to follow a score is seriously underrated as a vehicle for getting listeners to be engaged by music. When I was in high school and just developing an attraction to classical music, I bought an old Norton Scores anthology at a library book sale. (I even still remember that the book had belonged to David Joyner, a HS classmate of my older brother who, I'm sure, had bought the book for a college music appreciation class.) I can still vividly picture myself following the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and The Rite of Spring and being thrilled by the process of learning to keep up. I'm not saying every mind works this way (I have all sorts of odd tastes, I suppose) but I'm not sure there's a better way to get a relative novice to think inside a musical work.

There's one other serious point to be made out of all this, although it's too complicated to explore fully now. In summary, the serious point is: we musicians tend to take ourselves too seriously! This is a difficult point to argue in the academy where more serious perspectives will always seem...well, more serious, and thus more worthy of attention. Not that there's anything wrong with serious, but there's a reason I've listened to Koji Attwood and Lazar Berman playing a Tchaikovsky scherzo about a dozen times in the past few days, and it has everything to do with the sheer kinetic joy of seriously whacking the piano around.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

That sounds like such a good and fresh approach to music :-), giving the audience a feel of the musicians first encounter with the music.