As I hear my student playing the piano through Zoom, just for a moment, I think I am hearing Paderewski in 1912. The sound is imperfect. At moments it drops out. There are distortions of speed and rhythm. Yet, my ear, my mind is hearing music: completing and linking together the aural information that is there.
As an adolescent, and thanks to the public library, I listened to a lot of recordings made by pianists of the early 20th century. I was accustomed to musical sounds that were highly colored or even deformed by technology — the technology that allowed me to hear the sounds. Often, the music was overlaid with “noise“ or filtered so certain pitches were minimized. I listened to some sound recordings that were “transfers” of mechanical piano rolls.
In the months of the pandemic in 2020, I have given piano lessons using Zoom, Skype, WeChat, and FaceTime. With imperfect audio, my ears fill in the details. If we hear upper partials, the higher pitched components of a bass sound, we can understand that we are hearing a low note even if the lowest fundamental pitch is missing. That happens when talking on the phone; low pitches are missing. Seeing a performer changes the music we hear; visual information can alter our perception of sound. Our sense of music can be vivid, even when sounds are incomplete. In much of the music my students play, sounds combine to form units of signification — “meaning” some might say. If I speak a sentence clearly, but cover my mouth while talking, you will probably understand, in spite of the compromised sounds of the words.
Some listening environments, some modes of sound transmission please us more than others. Some challenge our patience. Every way of hearing sound, every situation is a filter. Whether listening to the scratchiest old record, or sitting in a well-engineered concert hall — certain aspects of sound are being emphasized or prolonged, other aspects are minimized. Hearing itself is an interpretation. No listening situation is accurate, or true. Sounds exist, but what we hear is always filtered, modified, skewed. Sound waves pass through air, are reflected and refracted by walls, get processed or transmitted electronically. A constant in performing music, or listening, is the need to adjust frequently, continuously, to adapt to sonic conditions. Changing seats in a concert hall changes our experience of music being played. With a new phone, we hear our friends’ voices differently. From his studio, my mastering engineer goes to his dining room to listen with a “home” audio setup, trying to hear his work as potential listeners will.
I feel guilty as I hear public school teachers in the U.S. detailing the shortcomings of online instruction. Although some students respond better than others to online piano lessons, everyone I am working with has made progress this year. In some cases, greater progress than might have occurred with my previous offline methods.
Piano teachers sometimes rely on demonstrating during lessons. Online, that may be challenging. I position myself far from a piano when teaching online. I can sing, or explain, cajole, or narrate. I do not demonstrate at a piano. Occasionally, I play in the air in front of my camera to show a finger position, or what I hope is a supple legato touch. Sitting far from an instrument, I am physically prohibited from playing; a prohibition I tried to follow before, even when sitting in the same room as a student. A lesson is a time when the student produces musical sound.
Listening online, I am hearing and responding to differences in sound, more than to particular sounds — differences of touch, duration, or pedaling. With certain specifics harder to perceive, perhaps bigger concepts become more evident. With online lessons, many details of tone or balance only can be attended to by the student. I hear myself saying, “You hear that better than I can on Zoom.” “You need to do something that will please you.”