I've always believed I was born to play the piano, and so has everyone else who has heard me sing. This may have something to do with my training as a journalist, a profession that has banished tonal nuance in favor of a rigid insistence on accuracy. Of all the ways of translating the motions of a human hand into music, a keyboard is the most straightforward and mathematically precise. The keys bear a one-to-one correspondence to the notes, so that the infinitude of mistakes it is possible to produce on, say, a violin, is reduced to a discrete, manageable handful. In piano playing, as in writing, it's all a matter of pressing the right keys.
So I was glad to see that the people at Software Toolworks had come up with a machine that bridges the gap between music and typing: The Miracle Piano Teaching System. This is an electronic keyboard that attaches to an IBM-compatible home computer; there is also a cheaper and less sophisticated version that works with a Nintendo machine. In 40 lessons, which could be completed in as little as 40 weeks, or as long as the rest of one's life, it leads from the simple three-note progression of "Ode to Joy" to the sinuous, rippling rhythms of Handel's "Water Music." I was especially impressed to learn that the software for The Miracle was written by a 27-year-old programmer named Jon Mandel who not only didn't play the piano but, until he began work on the project, had never understood the principle of hitting more than one key at the same time. I'd often wondered about that myself. It doesn't work on a typewriter.
The Miracle, which lists for $479.95 in the PC version, does amazing things. All by itself, it can play a New Age version of "Heart and Soul" on the tube bells, or any of 128 different synthetic instruments, including the fuzz guitar, harp, banjo, vibraphone or marimba. It can record your own interpretation of "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" on as many as eight tracks and play it back in one big orchestral gush. Its 49 keys span only four octaves (a standard piano has 88 keys and just over seven octaves), but the keys are full size and "velocity sensitive," which means the harder you hit them the louder the sound they make-the difference between a real piano and, say, a doorbell. The sound is slightly on the tinny side, but for a performance you can run the output through your own amplifier and speakers. The Miracle can play "My Country 'Tis of Thee" on the kalimba, steel guitar and Moog, with a percussion track of rap-style scratching, and that would be enough to ensure popularity at any party. The only thing it can't do is sing along, which is a pity, because neither can I.
And The Miracle can teach anyone to play the piano, because it taught me. In a little more than two days, I made it halfway through lesson three, at which point I got irretrievably stuck on the tricky chord change in the second phrase of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Would I have done as well with a piano teacher by my side, rapping my knuckles and muttering curses under his breath in Hungarian? Probably. But where would I find a piano teacher to come to my office six hours a day to watch me practice?
Not that it was easy. On the contrary, between playing the piano and writing, writing is much easier. Unlike typewriter keyboards, which sensibly are designed with spaces between the letters, pianos have only the thinnest crack between keys, an invitation to sound two adjacent notes simultaneously. It also turns out that it is not enough just to play the notes in the right order: some of them are longer or shorter, and the whole procedure is governed by the inflexible tick of the electronic metronome. This is very unlike writing, in which I have been known to pause for as long as an entire afternoon between words.
At the start of a lesson, the treble clef would appear on my computer screen, the metronome would begin its countdown to the first notes of "Jingle Bells" and almost immediately I would fall a half measure behind, as I struggled to make the connections between musical notation and a particular finger on my right hand, which suddenly seemed to have at least seven of them. YOU MISPLAYED SEVERAL OF THE NOTES IN THE PIECE, the machine would respond, in its characteristic tone of smug dispassion. ALTHOUGH YOU RELEASED THE NOTES AT THE CORRECT TIME [which I took as damning with faint praise] You PRESSED THE KEYS TOO LATE. Then LET'S TRY IT AGAIN. WE'LL SLOW THE METRONOME DOWN THIS TIME. And again. The machine never grew impatient, never gave up, never even hinted that it was cursing at me under its breath in ASCII; it simply devised new exercises, sent me back to practice again, issued wildly inflated praise at the slightest signs of improvement, until at last I made it through all 15 bars of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and was rewarded with a heartfelt WHEW! YOU'RE BECOMING A MUSICIAN!
But was I? I had learned nothing about music, only how to press certain buttons in a predetermined sequence a talent that can be taught both to pigeons and the people who play the piano at bars in airports. I was the human link in an elaborate feedback loop, responding to the sight of a middle C by producing a middle C, with an accuracy that could approach but never equal the implacable perfection of the machine itself. Mandel himself admits the shortcoming of attempting to teach music by machine. "We can never be as smart as a teacher standing there," he told me. "We can't say, 'You need to put a little more feeling into that'."
All I had learned was a technique, a mechanical skill-- but, after all, isn't technique what life is mostly about? I don't expect to be Melville, but I keep on typing. I'm going back to work on "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Look for me in about 40 weeks when you pass through La Guardia. I'll be playing Handel's "Water Music."
Harder than typing: For Handel, just 40 weeks of practice