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In Tune With Technology

By France Griggs Sloat

Cathy Kalla doesn’t play piano. She plays clarinet. Yet with a little brain work and the press of a button, she can hear the lilting notes of a choral piece she just wrote played out on the piano—without ever touching the keys.

In this case, a computer program in the Brew Piano Lab on the second floor of Edgecliff Hall converts the notes Kalla wrote on her personal computer screen, which resembles sheet music, into four piano voices. The result, broadcast from two ceiling-level speakers, is an astonishing, lovely collection of piano chords and notes that ends all too quickly.

“It’s really nice I can hear it back, because I just wouldn’t be able to play it,” says Kalla, a sophomore who’s minoring in music.

Professor Kaleel Skeirik says the computerization of the music lab two years ago greatly improved the way he teaches and how his students learn. The pace is quicker and the learning is deeper because students can hear their work played back immediately. Sitting at Baldwin electric pianos—each equipped with an Apple Macintosh computer, music software and a special musical interface that lets the pianos and computers interact—students can compose music on their screens, hear it played through headphones or speakers and make corrections right away.

The lessons also can be displayed by Skeirik on an overhead screen, allowing students to learn from each others’ mistakes as he analyzes their work.

“It’s a win-win,” says Skeirik. “I take less time correcting the draft, and the student immediately hears the music. He learns more within the time frame of the class, and more material is covered more deeply.”

Of course, with every high-tech improvement come challenges. Skeirik has learned the lab works only when it’s maintained, and a system as complex as this requires maintenance by everyone. When the system is down, it’s back to the old days, he says, when he goes back to teaching one-on-one with each student at his own keyboard while the others listen along.

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