The elephant in the music room

This is a rant that I wrote some fifteen years ago, so some of the technological references are somewhat dated. But the rest still applies.


Stop the ivories trade!

Many young people who begin piano studies or who just fool around on it never get beyond C major (or A minor) – the white notes.

Up to now, few music teachers have thought to lay the blame for this wastage of potential on the design of the keyboard, as if such a massive waste of effort and talent were par for the course.

How many educators have considered that a musical instrument, if it is to win adepts, must learn to compete with electronic games and other such expertly tested and targeted claims on the attention of the young?

The central concept in successful games design is the reward to difficulty ratio, a variable which should be carefully gauged at all levels.

Too easy and it becomes boring. Too hard and the player turns elsewhere.

In the case of the piano the solution has always been “carefully graded pieces”. But such fixed syllabi however attractively presented, ignore the main demand of the young: kids want to play their own stuff.

What’s so hard about the piano?

To answer this question let’s ask another. What’s so easy about a Nintendo games console? Why does Johnny spend all his pocket money in the arcade when he should be doing his practice?

And yet look at Johnny: in a short time he has developed amazing speed and reflexes on his instrument. Such a shame the only music that comes out are those pre-programmed chiptunes.

Now imagine we want to make him lose heart and go off his game. We could fix a bug in the game program so that when he hits the button that is supposed to deliver a swinging left hook to floor his opponent, his opponent hits him instead.

To avoid having Johnny adapt his strategy, we make it random. Just one time in a hundred to begin with.

But the rate doesn’t really matter. As soon as he’s aware of the problem, Johnny knows there is something wrong. He can’t fight on equal terms and he will lose points through no fault of his own.

This is serious: it means that there is no justice out there! So criterion number one for games designers: a consistent result for each action.

This has nothing to do with the piano, I hear you say. Each time I hit a B, I get a B. But I ask you, is that what you heard in your head, a B? If so, you are one of the lucky 3 percent who have perfect pitch. Go back to your piano and read no further. This is for the rest of you, the vast majority who have relative pitch and are in no sense less musically gifted – and can recognise a melody without knowing what key it’s in.

Lets give you a simple problem as an illustration. Go to the piano and starting from any note play the beginning of Yesterday. Just the melody.

Those of you who have only learnt the white notes (level one) will have a five in seven chance of getting it right.

Those of you who like to explore the other notes as well (level two) will find four different ways of getting the melody (which is your reward), namely white to white, black to black, white to black (jumping a white) and black to white (jumping a white).

But if you think any of these formulas will always get you Yesterday you are about to get annoyed. Their success rates, in the order given are: 5/7, 3/5, 2/7, and 2/5. You can only be 100% sure that moving to the left will get you a lower sound.

Level three is another cup of tea. By now we are acquainted with the degrees of the major scale and can guess that Yesterday begins on the second. So all we have to do is decide on a key, give it a name and count one tone up from it to start.

But wouldn’t it be nice to play music without that hassle? To play it the way we sing in the shower – without worrying what key we are in? And to have all the possibilities of the piano (and more – read on) on a genuinely gremlin-free keyboard?

The 6-6 keyboard


The Jankó keyboard is designed to meet the criterion 1 MOVE 1 interval, (thus rewarding the well placed finger with the expected sound) and has other advantages as well.

There are twelve times fewer chord shapes to learn, twelve times fewer scales to learn – if at all – and the stretch of the hand is reduced by 14% – without sacrificing roominess.

By permitting a single hand-form for each chord-type regardless of keynote, it provides the simplicity of the guitar.

Scale practice

One of the reasons the classical keyboard demands thousands of hours of mind-numbing scale practice is the problem of thumb undertuck. Prescribed fingerings for each scale have to be mastered in order to place the thumb in the correct place to avoid stumbles.

This can only be instilled by years of work.

The priority given to scales is the cause of a good deal of the friction between student and teacher and is one of the main reasons for the high dropout rate from piano lessons, not to mention lost childhoods.

The 6-6 keyboard offers complete freedom in the placement of the thumb undertuck. This is because every note can be played by either one of two or three keys arranged in rising receding rows so that the top key is easily reached by the fingers, while the lower one is convenient for the thumb.

This means that no matter what scale you are in, there are no bad habits to avoid! Which in turn means that you can practice exactly how and what you want and no “harm” can come of it. This releases teachers and students to explore less mechanical topics.

Like getting down to playing some music!

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
This entry was posted in Intuitive Instruments, Music Education, Scale Practice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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