Remote Piano Lessons, in Real Time
© New York Times
By COLIN CAMPBELL
Published: March 11, 2004
AT 12, Lucas Porter already has the distinction of being one of the few musicians to have played the challenging third movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight'' Sonata on two pianos at the same time.
Yet while Lucas, a soft-spoken boy from the village of Port Williams, Nova Scotia, is a piano prodigy, his feat is due more to technological advances than to his own skill. It came about through a new program called MusicPath, designed to link musicians in rural areas over the Internet with expert instructors.
Every two weeks, when Lucas plays a piano at Acadia University, a short drive from his home, his teacher, Marc Durand, sits listening 700 miles away at a second shiny black grand piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. With a built-in computer and tiny solenoid pistons, the piano springs to life there as though being played by a ghost imitating every keystroke and pedal movement that Lucas makes.
Mr. Durand watches and listens to his young charge on a large video screen as he plays and talks to him through a headset, giving him tips and at times humming, even growling, along with the music.
"Be aware a little more, here, of the harmony," he tells Lucas while replaying a few measures. "And then here," adding a few more gentle notes. "And then PAFF!" he exclaims, hammering out a powerful chord. He coaxes the clean-cut boy in khakis to play a little more as the wild-haired Beethoven would.
Lucas listens dutifully, in turn watching his teacher on a monitor beside his sheet music. They interact as if they were two people alone in the same room.
"We worked hard to make sure the audio and video end up in the same place at the same time," said Karen Wilder, the manager of the MusicPath project, speaking from Acadia. "You see his hands move here, and you hear the sound in Toronto."
Increasingly, music schools have been using videoconferencing as a way of connecting with students over great distances, but few have successfully done it over the Internet in something close to real time. Transmitting the audio and video data can involve delays that throw the musicians, the video and the audio off beat.
What is more, musicians are a demanding group with extremely sensitive high-resolution ears, said Wieslaw Woszczyk, an audio engineer who founded the graduate program in sound recording at McGill University in Montreal and has experimented with online music lessons. Their tolerance for delays and low-quality sound is so low that they find the average videoconferencing system untenable, he said.
To skirt some of those problems, the MusicPath system uses a government-financed broadband network to speed the data. And the digital acoustic pianos used by Lucas and others, called Yamaha Disklaviers, give the musicians the actual live sound of hammers hitting keys instead of sound through a speaker.
The Manhattan School of Music, the first conservatory to have a videoconferencing program, has also had success with online music lessons, connecting with musicians as far away as Germany and teaching young students in underserved public schools around New York.
Working closely with the National Arts Center in Ottawa, it has set up several master-level classes using high-speed connections, with instructors in Ottawa teaching students on various instruments in New York and vice versa.
"The reality is, there are just so many students who need this access," said Christianne Orto, director of the school's recording and videoconferencing program. "It really is starting to take hold."
The systems are not yet perfect, though. It can take up to 400 milliseconds, or almost half a second, for a note that Lucas plays to reach the ear of his instructor. While that delay is not enough to disrupt a conversation, it would be noticeable if two musicians were to play a duet. The notes simply would not match.
"Some musicians might say a one-millisecond delay is critical," Mr. Woszczyk said.
Last fall, a program that linked a student on string bass at Northern Michigan University with an instructor at the University of Michigan was put on hold partly because of such videoconferencing delays, said Donald R. Grant, the head of the music program at Northern Michigan.
Nevertheless, the technology has the potential to help musicians in rural areas like northern Michigan, he said. "It's something we'll continue to explore because of our geographic location," he added. "It's better than nothing, but it does have its limitations."
Other musicians, among them Mr. Durand, concede that nothing will fully replace a teacher who sits next to a student. It is a bit like teaching dance, he said, in that sometimes a teacher needs to touch the student to move his hands or shoulders.
In Montreal, Mr. Woszczyk and other researchers are experimenting with ways to improve the videoconferencing experience, putting sensors in the floor to recreate the vibrations music makes, using life-size digital video images, and relying on multichannel audio to imitate the exact sound in any given room.
Over the last two years, they have connected students playing the violin and various horn instruments in Montreal with teachers at the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa. In some experiments, they have reduced delays to as little as 50 milliseconds, little enough even to set up cross-country jam sessions.
While the lessons are experimental rather than part of a regular program, they have shown that the technology has a future, especially with the growth of broadband systems, Mr. Woszczyk said.
"The beautiful thing about it," he added, "is that a lot more people could be taught by great teachers - and great teachers could be connected to more great students."