Teaching Piano in a Classroom Made Easy

The time-honored method of teaching piano, with the student and teacher sitting at the piano, on the same piano bench, has worked for hundreds of years.

But when you try to teach piano to a whole classroom of students, each on their own electric piano, it's an entirely different situation, with its own unique challenges.

Consider the simple task of telling (and showing) the students, “Play these notes,” immediately brings the challenges to mind.

You could draw keyboard diagrams on the white-board, showing the notes to be played, but that's a real pain, and time-consuming!

You could turn your own piano keyboard around, facing the students, but the angle isn't good for them seeing the keys, and what they see is a mirror-image, making it confusing!

You could play a piano at the front of the classroom, but your body is blocking what they need to see, and you have to lose eye-contact with your students to do so.

You could have them gather around the piano up front, but that requires a small group of students, and they are no longer sitting at their piano to try it out.

You could have a video camera above and behind you, monitored on a screen up front (as in the picture below), which would solve the basic problem, but (to me) that is a technically complex thing to do, that I personally don't know how to do.

And though it shows the keys pressed, it's not that easy to make out just which keys are being pressed.

If you are computer-savvy, you could transmit what you play, to your computer over a MIDI interface, and have it displayed on your computer software's keyboard diagram, and project what's on your computer screen on a white-board using a computer projector. A live music keyboard display on your VST host (as in the screenshot below), might work well for this.

That does the job of showing which keys you're pressing, but it doesn't show them the relationship between the notes you're playing, and notes on the grand staff, in any particular key-signature.

Since using a computer, with its screen projected can solve your problem, why not show it all: the keys pressed, and the musical notes on the grand staff (in the context of the key-signature) those keys represent?

With a MIDI keyboard, playing through the KeyMusician Keyboard application, you can do it all! This article shows you how.

How We Do It

We use a computer, running the KeyMusician Keyboard application, and connect a MIDI keyboard, Synthesizer, or Electric Piano to it, using a MIDI interface. It is connected as a MIDI Input Device. The computer's screen is either projected (as you would do with a PowerPoint presentation), or is displayed on a big-screen TV. We also use an audio-player for playing audio files for the students to play along with.

Since the computer is likely generating the music (at least from the audio-player), its sound needs an amplifier. The sound of a musical instrument should inspire the player. Don't short yourself on this.

Here is a picture of the computer screen, with the various things labeled:

The KeyMusician Keyboard's display of the grand staff (with the treble and bass clefs), includes a keyboard diagram, showing key-presses. The keyboard diagram is oriented vertically, showing the relationship between the keyboard keys, and the notes on the grand staff. It is drawn to scale, and is in the context of the key-signature. Note that the G-sharp note has a sharp-sign to the left of the note, corresponding to the black-key played.

The “Sustain” button is highlighted whenever the sustain-pedal is pressed, so you can show your pedal usage to the students, whenever necessary.

There is a Chords Window, to enable naming a particular chord, on which the application shows you the notes of that chord.

The “Virtual MIDI Piano Keyboard” is a separate application that shows the notes played, in a horizontal orientation, the way the students would see it on their individual keyboards.

There is also an audio-player on the screen, used for playing audio files the students are to play along with.

The computer screen is either projected, or shown on a big-screen TV (which was what I used when I did this). I'm using Linux here, but Windows or Mac OS X could also be used.

Making It Easy For The Students To See

Although you can use the normal high-resolution screen of the computer to be projected (or show on the big-screen TV), and re-size the window to fit the screen, there's a better way to do it.

Instead, reduce the screen resolution so that the KMK main window fills the screen vertically. That way, the letters on the screen will be larger, and the lines of the drawing will be thicker, and thus, easier to see from the back row. We have learned this in filming training videos and demos. Compare these two screen images, and notice the difference.

High-Resolution Screen, With KMK Window Re-Sized

Screen Resolution Reduced, To Best-Fit The Main KMK Window (Lower-Res)

Notice that the letters on the second screen-shot, are larger, and easier to see, than those of the first screen-shot. Not a lot of difference, but every little bit helps.

Configuring The KeyMusician Keyboard Application

The main thing we need, is to connect the external MIDI keyboard as a MIDI Input Device. This is done in the “F1 Help/Setup” pane, as in the screen-shot below.

Here, the “MIDI Thru Input” device selected (near the middle of the screen) is the “LPK25” device. Also, if the KeyMusician Keyboard is to be used to show the notes of the different types of chords (using the Chords window), Standard chords should be selected, as shown below (and also above):

It's also a good idea to use a configuration-file such as “MusicLab-1.kmk”, which uses sustained chords, and all of the Function-Key Performance-Panes use MIDI channel 1. That means you seldom have to change the MIDI channel on your MIDI keyboard, no matter which performance pane you switch-to.

If the MIDI channel of your keyboard doesn't match the performance pane's MIDI channel, nothing will come through the MIDI interface.

What You Can Do With It

Now, everything you play on your external MIDI keyboard, will play music through your computer, and every note you play will be shown as both music keyboard key-presses, and notes on the grand staff – including any necessary flat, sharp, or natural signs.

Only the round part of the note (the note-head) is displayed, which tells you the pitch. The note letter is shown in the column to the right of the note. Music keyboard presses are also shown horizontally in the window at the lower right.

So you can press keys on your MIDI keyboard, saying, “Play these notes,” and as you hold those notes, the students can play those same notes on their keyboards.

You can change instrument-sounds instantly, just by pressing a function key

Any sustain-pedal actions you do, will also show up to the lower right of the main KMK window. If you move the volume control on your keyboard, the VOLUME slider in the KMK main window will move accordingly. Likewise, if you manipulate the Pitch-Bend, or Modulation wheels, the PITCH-BEND and ASSIGNABLE sliders will move as well.

You can play music on the audio-player, and improvise music along with it. In teaching students to play-along with an audio file, making up their own supporting melodies, it's a good idea to have no more than 3 students doing it at the same time, because it will confuse the student – both those playing, and those listening. And with multiple students improvising, it's best if they use contrasting instrument sounds.

The only way to have all of them improvising at once, is if they use earphones (muting the speakers of their instrument), with one of the ear-pieces off their ears, so they can also hear the music played on the audio player.

The screen-shot below shows improvising a melody using the Cello instrument-sound, along with the music playing on the audio-player.

Teaching Chords

You can certainly play the notes of any chord on your MIDI keyboard, and have the students play those same, displayed notes (including any black-keys). You can also demonstrate inversions of chords.

You can demonstrate playing arpeggios, even showing how you use the sustain-pedal, to play the arpeggio, and how you briefly release the sustain-pedal when changing chords.

You can also play chords on the numeric keypad of the computer keyboard, specifying what chord you want, and let it show the notes needed to play the chord, as in the screen-shot below:

Playing a D-minor-7th slash G chord

To do this, select the “Chords” tab (near the top right of the window), and set the horizontal keyboard key-press component to 'listen' to the same MIDI channel as used for the “Chords” performance pane (2, in this case). If you also want to add notes from your external MIDI keyboard, you will need to change its MIDI channel to match, as well.

Be aware that some of the chord attribute buttons ('aug', '9', '6', and 'sus') have multiple uses, allowing you to specify flatted-5th, flatted-9th, add-9th, 11th, 13th, sus2, and sus4 chords.

Another reason for using the numeric keypad to specify chords, is that the types of accidentals used in the note display, are intelligently chosen based on the chord itself. Accidentals (black-keys) played on the MIDI keyboard, on the other hand, are chosen based only on the key-signature used.

Teaching Piano in a Key-Signature Independent Way

Synthesizers and MIDI keyboards have long been able to play a piece learned in one key-signature, in a different key-signature, using their Transpose function.

This feature hasn't been useful in learning music, because it doesn't show you the notes you're playing in the key-signature you're transposing to.

HOWEVER, the KeyMusician Keyboard DOES show you the notes you're playing in that other key-signature, and shows them in the context of that key-signature.

That means, all you have to do, is set the key-signature to match what's in the music you're trying to play, and then play notes so that the note-heads in the music display, match the note-heads in the sheet music. Yet you're actually playing everything using just the white keys, except for (relatively rare) accidentals (notes not in the key-signature).

Think of the music keyboard as a graphical representation of the (diatonic) musical scale we use in our music, where the white keys having black keys between them, are whole steps, and those without black keys between them, are half steps.

To understand how this is possible, examine the screen-shot below, where an “A-flat major 7th slash B-flat” chord is being played, in the key of A-flat major (as specified by the “Transpose” button). Transposing is where notes are changed to be a number ('-4' = 4 down, in this case) of semi-tones up, or down, in pitch.

Look carefully at the horizontal keyboard display, finding the 3 black-key presses that are easy to overlook.

In the music display (grand staff) above, there are two columns of note-names. The right column corresponds to the keyboard keys (notice that only white keys are pressed). The left column of note names, corresponds to the note-names in the key-signature we're playing in (as selected by the “Transpose” button, near the upper right of the KMK window).

So if you play the 'middle-C' white key on your MIDI keyboard, (a 'C') in the right-column of note names, you are actually playing A-flat in the left column of note names. Middle-C, has become middle-A-flat.

Notice the actual music-keyboard keys played in the lower-right window, which includes black keys. You set the key-signature, and it makes the white-key/black-key decisions for you.

All you have to do, is set the key-signature to match the music, then play keys that 'match the dots' in the sheet music, as in the picture below:

Here, playing the C key on the MIDI keyboard, matches the note-head (an E-flat) in the written music, after having matched the key-signature displayed, with what's in the written music.

This is something new, that was not possible before, in teaching music.

If the fingering is the same in every key-signature, much less exercise-practice is required. More time playing music, and less time 'doing homework'.

And if you learn a piece of music this way, you can play it on ANY synthesizer or MIDI keyboard, using its transpose function.

It's also easier to improvise music, if part of your brain doesn't have to be dedicated to how to play notes in a particular key-signature. I know this from experience.

Just something to think about...


The KeyMusician Keyboard, along with modern technology, allows music teachers to do things in teaching that would otherwise be awkward, or time-consuming – especially in a classroom setting.

It even allows teaching piano in a key-signature independent fashion, eliminating the need for key-signature scale-practice exercises altogether, which can get students playing quicker, and with fewer dropping-out.

So, all you music teachers out there, expand your possibilities! The future is here today.

If you found this article on a search, and don't already have the KeyMusician Keyboard, find out more about the instrument, and obtain it, by clicking the following link:


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