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Can proper, effective technique be developed on an electronic instrument?


Wiggum

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Hey all,

 

This question has bothered me recently:

 

Can proper, effective playing technique be developed solely on an electronic keyboard (especially with regard to dynamics)?

 

I don't have the luxury of a weighted keyboard, although I hope to own a Yamaha S90 someday (perhaps the end of this year). I have two unweighted boards at the moment (Roland D-20 and Korg Wavestation).

 

But I'm really insecure about my dynamics (and my playing in general), and I wonder if electronic boards coupled with velocity-switched samples, etc. can accurately reflect a player's dyanmic intent.

 

One could argue that many household acoustic pianos have unregulated actions. And while most electronic instruments probably don't take advantage of 127 available key velocities (either through sample switching or DCA's/DCF's), I doubt that even the most skilled player could strike an acoustic piano key 127 different times and generate a different tone or SPL each time.

 

I don't aspire to become a concert pianist, but I would like much more control over dynamics. Too often I feel like dynamics are an accident in my playing rather than intentional.

 

Any thoughts/discussion is appreciated.

 

Wiggum

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There are two parts to the problem (or three, if you want to sub-divide:

 

1 - the mechanics of the instrument.

 

2 - the competence of the performer at a technical level

 

3 - the competence of the performer at an emotional/artistic level

 

1: Midi keybaords do not respond like a piano action, even when they have a pseudo-piano action. On the piano, the volume is a result of the moving mass of the piano hitting a string (with all associated escapement action, etc.) It is quite possible to play slow and loud, or fast and pp. On an electronic board, there is some kind of mechanism fordetermining how fast the key is moving atsome specific point or 'active' area. It is quite difficult to play quickly and quietly, as the keys are usually being pressed rapidly to get to the next note. It is possible to learn a chop that lets you find a different approach (just last night I was thinking of this very issue, and discovered that my old Alesis Quadrasynth, which I use for live gigs with my duo because it has a decent acoustic piano sound and is quick to set up, will let me play fast and soft by lifting my hands away from the keybed, so the key has to finish its travel without my finger on it - not a very accurate trick, but works for short passages.

 

2 - Player's chop: this is a matter of lots of practice, playing an electric board is very different from acoustic piano in terms of touch and the muscles used to generate the notes. Don't try to play a Roland like you do a Steinway, it just sounds kind of blatty.

 

3 - Player's emotional space: you may need to develop some maturity in your artistic expressive thinking before the nuances appear in your playing. Getting older will do this, if you keep playing, don't be discouraged as long as you keep working...

Dasher - don't ask me about those other reindeer, all I can tell you is Comet's in the sink!
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The Roland D-20 and Korg Wavestation are both springy synth actions. They will allow you partial control over their somewhat limited dynamic ranges. They won't allow you as fine a control of every point in the the velocity scale as a Yamaha P series action.

The technique is different for a weighted piano action, it requires precisely controlled arm weight dropping not just finger actions to play the dynamic range. Something like the fully weighted Yamaha P series digital piano offers much better control. Training on something weighted like the Yamaha P series should develop enough technique of dynamic control to be able to quickly adapt to a real piano action. The synth action will probably not prepare you for the transition.

Harry Likas was the Technical Editor of Mark Levine's "The Jazz Theory Book" and also helped develop "The Jazz Piano Book." Harry spends his time teaching jazz piano online and playing solo piano gigs.

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As long as one approaches the instrument using the least amount of effort, all is good. A piano that offers more resistance will make other keyboards easier to play of course, but there is really one one correct way to play - using the least amount of effort.

 

If your goal is to become a concert pianist, the best way is to practice on pianos that you will perform on. If you perform on the keyboard you practice on, the point is moot ... but you still must correctly play the instrument which means using the least amount of effort. That's it is a nutshell.

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.

 

In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.

 

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1: Midi keybaords do not respond like a piano action, even when they have a pseudo-piano action. On the piano, the volume is a result of the moving mass of the piano hitting a string (with all associated escapement action, etc.) It is quite possible to play slow and loud, or fast and pp.
Velocity is velocity - that determines whether something is loud or soft.

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.

 

In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.

 

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Thanks for the quick replies guys. Hopefully this will be a popular topic with lots of good discussion.

 

Soundsmith's point is interesting. Perhaps I need a better understanding of how an electonic keybed works. If velocity sensitivity is limited to speed, then it would indeed be difficult to play soft, fast passages. If the keybed also senses the depth that the key is pressed, perhaps that offers another opportunity for expression.

 

With the newer weighted actions, I thought the mechanisms were more than simple switches. Roland's description of their Progressive Hammer action makes it sound like it has hammer-like devices. Yamaha's Graded Hammer action appears to be similar.

 

Part of what inspired this topic is that I have encountered teachers that will not accept a student without an acoustic piano. They don't acknowledge electronic keyboards as a suitable practice medium. This may or may not be the majority opinion, but it is one that I have come across.

 

To Jazz's point, I would think that arm weight would factor into any style of playing. If you use arm weight to play a piano, I would think the same is true for an unweighted action.

 

And I would love to hear more about Dave's technique (minimal effort approach). I've seen it referenced in the forum before, and I've tried to incorporate it, but I haven't had much luck. Hopefully when I move into a house with some better isolation I can revive my acoustic piano and perhaps take some more lessons.

 

Thanks again,

 

Wiggum

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And I would love to hear more about Dave's technique (minimal effort approach). I've seen it referenced in the forum before, and I've tried to incorporate it, but I haven't had much luck. Hopefully when I move into a house with some better isoliation I can revive my acoustic piano and perhaps take some more lessons.

Here is a thread I started regarding correct piano technique which should cover just about any question you might have. I'll be in Wiesbaden for a few days, but this thread really covers everything. Give it a slow read .... but plan on studying with a real person - there is no substitute for personal guidance.

 

link to a thread regarding \'correct piano technique\'

 

This added later ... this is not my technique per se. I learned this method of playing when I was 28 or so after playing incorrectly since the age of 12 or 13. Different teachers might use different concepts to get across the same message, but the end result is the same - to play using the least amount of effort. If you read this thread you will also learn a quick test you can apply to your own playing. This in not 'my' technique - I was just fortunate to study with a teacher who had concrete ideas and who conveyed those concepts to me.

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.

 

In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.

 

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I will defer to Soundsmith, Jazz+ and Dave Horne for their expertise on the mechanics of modern weighted synth keyboards. I will also echo Daves appropriate recommendation to obtain the services of a qualified teacher, and to practice correctly what you are taught. On that note (no pun intended) proper technique consists of using not just your hands, but your entire body in harmony. Sit too close to the keyboard and your motions will be restricted; sit too far, and you will strain to reach the keys. The ideal position is one which enables you to comfortably reach the keyboard while sitting upright, yet allows you to lean forward and put your weight into the keys when needed.

 

Playing the piano should be thought of as an athletic performance in every respect. Through correct practice, you will build synapses that coordinate large and small muscle groups into seamless motions. It is through these actions that you will eventually be able to execute, flawlessly, the smooth passages at varying levels of volume and tonality that exemplify the accomplished performer, and all without pain or fatigue. The shoulder muscles are larger and more powerful than those of the wrist and fingers, so those large muscles should be the ones to initiate depression, and more importantly, release of the keys. Yet, those same muscles lack the finesse to articulate what only the fingers can do. So the goal is to develop the optimum coordination between the shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers, in order to take maximum advantage of each muscle groups abilities. This is where a qualified teacher can add the maximum value to your improvement, and thus, your enjoyment of playing.

 

I acquired an S90 in mid-2004, and have found the action to be highly responsive to proper technique. Not an exact substitute for a fine acoustic piano, but closer than I expected. I find it similar to the shallow action of a former teachers Bluthner, as opposed to the deeper feeling of a Steinway of Baldwin (both of which I prefer). Regardless todays best digital instruments will reward the accomplished (or aspiring) performer with satisfying results, and offer a satisfactory alternative to their acoustic brethren when the latter are otherwise unavailable.

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I agree with Dave. Velocity is velocity. The "escapement" of a piano key action is designed specifically to decouple the key from the hammer before the hammer strikes the key.

 

It is true that, with extremely advanced classical piano technique, there is a difference between striking firmly and striking very quickly -- the latter causes more flex in the hammer shaft and leads to higher volumes. But this is an issue only for extremely serious pianists who are practicing many hours every day and who would gag at the thought of playing anything but a real grand piano for the purpose.

 

I don't believe that good piano playing technique can be learned using an unweighted keyboard. Frankly, many upright pianos (especially ones built before 1980 or so) aren't conducive to learning good piano technique because the actions are generally too light and proper grand piano technique isn't rewarded with good dynamic response. There are exceptions, like the Yamaha Studio Grand, which is an upright with an action very carefully designed to be as much like a grand as possible. (It's still a compromise!)

 

I believe that with a good electronic keyboard with fully weighted action you can learn enough control and build enough finger strength that, when you finally do have a real grand piano to play, you should be able to adjust relatively quickly.

 

I haven't played semi-weighted keyboards enough to say much about them. I suspect that you would learn some technique and dynamics, but you wouldn't be building the muscles you need.

 

BTW, the heaviest weighted synth actions tend to be light compared with modern grand pianos, and most modern grand pianos are very light compared to old grand pianos. It used to be the case that you needed a very heavy action to achieve the desired dynamics, and piano players actually had to "work out" to build finger strength. Many players still think this is true -- that only heavy actions play well. I disagree; I believe that several developments beginning in the mid to late 70's allowed much lighter actions to achieve dynamic range of old pianos.

 

Find an inexpensive weighted keyboard. That way, if you see a piano to play somewhere, you'll have a chance of being able to play it (after a bit of warm up). If you only practice on an unweighted keyboard, most likely you won't be able to make music on that random piano.

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Thumb-under is more important for playing synth & percussive organ parts where legato vs. stacatto fingering makes a huge difference in the sound. You just can't use thumb-over and play a scale without retriggering!

 

Both techniques are valid and useful. Thumb-under is probably over-stressed by piano teachers.

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Originally posted by Wiggum:

Too often I feel like dynamics are an accident in my playing rather than intentional.

That's gotta be one of the more truthful statements I've heard in a long time. :D I know exactly what you mean. Even on the nicest grand, achieving colour and nuance within a given dynamic is a lifetime pursuit.

 

That said, you get away with murder on acoustic pianos. A lot of dynamic accidents are obscured under all those resonating strings. And for myself, it was quite difficult making the move to digital pianos. All of a sudden there was this huge separation between the music in my head and the music in my ears. Of course, you can get used to just about anything. Personally, I'm much more alienated by an incorrect bench height than I am by any keyboard. And now that I have my own digital, it's not such a big deal. Well, now i'm simply pissed off by other lesser digitals out there... :D

 

There are just as many degrees of dynamic control as there are pianists. How far you can take your own skills depends a lot on how well you listen, your imagination, and finally the instrument. (I just kind of threw that down. Don't analyse it. I'm not writing a book).

"........! Try to make It..REAL! compared to what? ! ! ! " - BOPBEEPER
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Having played both kinds of keyboard action for 35 years, and being an experienced teacher, I'd like to give some short advice on the subject:

 

My advice to all keyboard player is to practice keyboard technique on a well-regulated piano, or a *good* fully weighted keyboard. You need to adapt your technique when playing a non-weighted keyboard - but the other way around is just not praticable. That is, if you've played a synth keyboard for many years, switching to a piano-like action would require a long and painful rebuilding of your playing technique. You would find that even playing a simple scale with both hands and at a medium-fast tempo would become a difficult task.

 

Plus, the weighted keyboard permits a much deeper control of dynamics (of course, the way an electronic instrument *responds* to dynamics is another story). In my experience, and generally speaking, controlling precise dynamics on an unweighted keyboard is much harder than on a weighted one, if you have the right technique.

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Originally posted by Chip Curtis:

What is "thumb-over ?"

In that technique thread previously mentioned, someone in that thread makes use of that term.

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.

 

In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.

 

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It's simple - if you're going to be primarily a B3 player - practice on that style of keyboard. If you're primarily a pianist, or you want to have good piano chops, you've got to play the real thing. A weighted non-piano keyboard, IMO, is second-best.

 

If you're going to stick with synths that have an unweighted keyboard, then you're fine to play that. No doubt, unweighted keys allow you to do sppedy turns and runs that would be hard on a weighted keyboard.

 

Just don't expect to be able to control a piano keyboard at a high level of performance after playing solely on an unweighted controller.

Tom F.

"It is what it is."

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as far as expressive and dynamics, I think the keyboard action is only part of the story, when we are talking synths. Nord leads, Novations, etc.... can be pretty expressive in the right hands. Many people use keyboard synths just for horn stabs, pads, basslines and other non piano related sounds. I've even heard this one guy playing a KennyG type sax line on a synth, and if I wasn't watching him, I'd have a hard time believing it.
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Tom, I find the action of real pianos vary as much as weighted keyboards. In truth, if you intend to be a concert pianist, you need to play on a number of different pianos, and mostly top-drawer ones.

 

I believe that anyone who learns to play well using a weighted keyboard synth can pretty quickly adapt to a real piano.

 

Also, it really helps me adapt quickly to a new piano if I make a habit of playing as many different pianos as I can find. If you only ever play one keyboard, the first time you try any other keyboard you'll have a bit of a time adjusting.

 

Bottom line: Whatever you want to be able to play, it's best to play that instrument. Barring that, play the keyboard that's as close as you can get practically speaking. For piano, that means a weighted keyboard. For organ, it means an unweighted keyboard. For clav, semi-weighted.

 

And it's easier to learn on weighted and adapt to unweighted than the other way around. However, it's still not trivial. I played weighted keyboards almost exclusively, and then a synth (Juno 60) that had a fairly stiff keyboard. The first time I got a board with a very light touch (Super JX-10), I had a real hard time not accidentially pressing keys with my right ring finger.

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Also true of itinerant piano players, or those of us who play the piano that's there in the bar. Well, I don't any more but I used to. Any of you guys remember those days? Not so important now that we have digital pianos.

 

Playing some (most?) of those corner bar uprights is like playing center-field on a broken field, with big rocks and holes to step in, etc. Quite a challenge to keep the rhythm steady (and dynamics be dammed!)

 

I find I've mostly lost the skill. There's a piano at a bar I frequent, but I can't quite seem to get music to come out of it -- too out of tune, mostly. But there's a piano player who bangs the hell out of that beast every Wednesday and makes it sound great!

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