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Samuel Zhu at his piano teacher's studio in White Rock, B.C. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Samuel Zhu at his piano teacher's studio in White Rock, B.C. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The Royal Conservatory of Music goes online to connect with students Add to ...

Listening to a virtuoso performer – say, Lang Lang – I’m often struck by a terrifying thought: What if his parents hadn’t put him in piano lessons? Would he be a frustrated office clerk somewhere right now instead of touring the world with his magical hands? Conversely, I have, during particularly soul-destroying public-transit experiences, looked around at my fellow squished-in commuters and wondered: Is there someone on this train right now who, instead of heading to their barista shift, could have been the next Midori – if only her mother had signed her up for violin class? Maybe it’s my tendency to overanalyze, or my failure, after a couple of bad experiences, to find a piano teacher for my six-year-old (who I’m sure just might be a prodigy), but these thoughts are occurring to me lately with some frequency.

Peter Simon can provide far less fantastical – and more convincing – arguments regarding the benefits of a music education. He is the president of the Royal Conservatory of Music, one of the largest such institutions in the world with some 500,000 students across North America. So, yes, extolling the virtues of music lessons is his job. But spend five minutes with the man and you will feel confident that this world view is not simply about a paycheque. Simon is a passionate and eloquent advocate for music education – not just because it helps kids conquer math or science, improve their vocabulary or attention span, or because it could possibly turn into a career – but for the love of the music. In the middle of a workday, he takes great pleasure in sitting at the piano and playing – some Bach, during my visit – which carries his mind to a whole other place. (Okay, chances are you do not have a 1911 seven-foot Steinway grand that used to belong to Lady Eaton in your office, but still.)

“You get to a kind of another realm, an ennobling realm. A glorious kind of a realm that you can’t reach anywhere else. And it gives you the space for thought where you’re really contemplating. You can think about these issues – the nature of your life,” he explained during a lengthy interview on a frigid Friday afternoon in Toronto, where the RCM is based. “That’s exactly what happens to me.”

This venerable institution has been teaching kids how to play the piano (and more) since 1886. It offers a globally recognized and timeless system for music instruction and evaluation. But in this era of disruption and shifting pedagogical landscape, even the Royal Conservatory must shake things up to ensure its continued relevance, and growth.

Leading up to Canada’s sesquicentennial, Simon is spearheading a large, two-year-plus initiative that will bring new learning tools to RCM students and teachers – beginning with an interactive video campaign, now under way, to help launch an updated set of piano instruction books out this spring. A number of events are planned around that video campaign and beyond, culminating in a huge sesquicentennial celebration in June, 2017, at Koerner Hall in Toronto and other locations across Canada – which will include the presentation of an RCM-commissioned Song for Canada. At the same time, the Conservatory is about to launch itself into the digital space in a significant way, with platforms that will see tried-and-true old-school methods harmonize with new technology – and appeal to kids, and parents, where they now live: online.

Every seven years, the RCM issues a refreshed set of lesson books. This spring, it is launching the fifth edition of its Celebration Series with an expanded repertoire that still includes the foundational works (Beethoven’s Für Elise is a constant – in fact, I heard someone practising it down the hall on my way into Simon’s office), but also introduces composers and compositions that are new to the repertoire – Chilly Gonzales is one addition this time around. Also new this year: Each book includes online access to recordings of each of the pieces by concert pianists (the first printing also includes a CD). That way kids can listen to the music and aspire to replicate the performance, the same way they might hear a song they love on iTunes and walk over to the piano and try to play it.

The new repertoire is being anticipated with some online fanfare – a video competition where students were encouraged to submit a video of themselves performing one of the pieces in the new series released in a sneak preview, with winners announced weekly in each level since early this year.

The initiative kicks up a notch later this month with a new phase called the Video Challenge, where students can record any of more than 300 pieces in the books and upload them to YouTube or Vimeo. An RCM selection panel will choose the first five renditions of each piece that would earn a mark of at least 80 per cent if it were played at an exam, and then the public gets to vote for a favourite video.

Next year the challenge will be expanded to other acoustic instruments covered by the RCM curriculum, as well as voice.

Beyond the videos, there is real innovation to come in the digital space, with online platforms that will support the music education that happens in the studio. A new app, in development, will allow students to, say, spend five minutes a day on ear training using their smartphone. Or do their sight reading. There’s an app being designed for parents of very young infants to aid in their development; the first in a series of digital products for parents of children up to age five, to be launched in a few years.

These will not only make a solid music education more accessible but allow the Conservatory to tap into the love affair young people have with the online experience.

Another huge outreach initiative is the creation of a virtual historic registry for RCM alumni – which number more than five million; 1.2 million of them from the last decade. A few of them – Simon won’t name names – will play at a major launch event at Koerner Hall this May.

While the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Diana Krall and Paul Shaffer have been through the Conservatory, Simon is not just interested in celebrity alumni for this event, and in general. “What we want to show is that there are carpenters, lawyers, athletes, that have gone through the system and love playing the piano.”

Kevin Thompson’s ocean-view studio in White Rock, B.C., has walls papered with old, yellowed sheet music, a loveseat-chair combo covered in Bach upholstery, two pianos (one grand, one upright) – and five video cameras. There are also two high-quality microphones: one gathering room sound; the other placed up against the lifted Steinway lid to capture the best piano sound. Thompson has been videotaping his students since 2005. It helps them learn, he explains, and they have a record for the rest of their lives.

“Kids love to be videoed. Kids today – they’re into that. And when they work hard on a piece for a couple months, the reward is to have a video of their piece,” says Thompson, who has set up a website where students and parents can log in and download their own videos. He also advocates using video to help them practise. “It’s not that you have to do anything fancy or anything; it’s a way you can help your students be better performers. I tell my students to videotape themselves at home. Watch it then delete it.”

It seems to be working. Of the 10 RCM Video Countdown winners announced so far, two have been Thompson’s students.

“I practised that piece a lot of times,” explains his student Samuel Zhu, who was just shy of his eighth birthday in December when he submitted a video of him performing Climb Up on an Elephant, which won the competition for Level 1 entries. His mother, Lisa Li, regularly videotapes him practising at home on her iPad or Smartphone.

“When he watches the video, it’s easier for him to know [what to do with] the fingers,” she says.

Samuel, who has been taking lessons since he was six, also composes music. He’s not sure what he wants to be when he grows up, but piano teacher is now on the list. His mother says Thompson is not just a great music instructor, but also someone Samuel feels he can go to with his problems. For example, the Grade 3 student suffers from eczema, which can be a strain. Recognizing this, Thompson has been encouraging Samuel, and gave him a piece by Bartok – who suffered from extreme eczema as a child.

“Here’s a composer; he had what you’ve got, Samuel,” Thompson told him.

Thompson says Samuel is a really hard worker, with a great imagination and enthusiasm – and says the RCM Video Countdown has been great for him. And more generally he thinks the initiative is a positive step toward getting more teachers to use video as a tool. “It gets kids being videotaped and watching themselves and listening to themselves. It’s a performing art.”

As a teacher on the ground, at the edge of Canada thousands of kilometres from Peter Simon’s downtown Toronto office, Thompson echoes the RCM president’s beliefs – not just about engaging with new technology to improve the learning experience, but about the basics: what a music education can mean for his students.

“I want them to take a skill with them when they leave my studio that they’ll bring into adulthood. Even if it’s just sitting down when they’re stressed-out to play the piano for 10 or 15 minutes some pieces that they’ve enjoyed. Or they enjoy music in some other capacities at university or through their churches or through anything like that. I want them to leave here with a positive attitude about music and a love for music.”

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