This morning my friend Peter Giles — I don’t know his exact title, so we’ll call him the Communications Director for Yamaha Digital Music — announced a “strategic partnership” with a company called Zenph. I’ve been trying to decipher the claims that are being made about this partnership or product or whatever it is.
Peter’s post on Facebook said, “In my view, this new alliance is a game changer in the piano industry.” The phrase “game changer” is a red flag for any journalist reading the words of a communications director. What it typically means is, “This is a minor advance at best, so we’re going to trumpet it as loudly as we possibly can.”
The headline on PRWeb, on the press release to which Peter’s FB announcement links, says, “Yamaha and Zenph Form Strategic Partnership to Demonstrate Unlimited Potential of Yamaha Disklavier .” The phrase “unlimited potential” is another of those red flags. Let’s be clear: Nothing has unlimited potential, not even the entire biosphere of the planet on which we live. The best evidence we have suggests that not even the entire universe has unlimited potential, though we’re hardly in a position to know for sure. But the Disklavier in particular … it’s a reproducing piano. I believe it has an optional built-in General MIDI module. In musical terms, it has far, far less potential than the computer on which I’m writing these words.
Digging a little deeper, we find that what is actually being announced are three new software products from Zenph: Home Concert Xtreme, RePerform, and Internet MIDI. Or possibly they’re not new software products but simply Mac and Windows versions (newly ported or just updated, it’s not clear which). The fact that Home Concert Xtreme is described in the press release as “award-winning” is a clue that it’s not new.
Home Concert Xtreme is described as an “interactive learning and performing environment that provides intelligent accompaniment that actually follows the soloist — slowing down, speeding up and getting softer and louder in a musically coordinated fashion.” A piano soloist? A soloist on some other instrument? The press release glides blithely past such details, but as it turns out, we’re talking about a keyboard soloist playing a MIDI keyboard (such as the Disklavier). No audio pitch detection is employed. The synthesized accompaniment will then follow the student’s tempo and dynamics.
While this is happening, the student has to read the music from the computer screen, and that’s a can of worms. How do you write fingerings on the music displayed on a screen? Answer: You can’t. So how many piano students are going to be ready to play a piece with no written-in fingerings?
For the record, the people who make Finale, the notation publishing program, have had accompaniment software that could follow an instrumental soloist’s tempo — in the form of audio, played by a flute or saxophone, for instance — for several years. What’s new, then, is that Zenph is scaling down a well-known concept to MIDI performance in conjunction with the Disklavier. I can imagine that such a system may be useful in a few situations. Speaking as a teacher, however, I’m far more inclined to feel that the student ought to learn to keep proper time by following the recording, rather than the other way around.
RePerform is a program with which you can edit Disklavier files. Useful, I’m sure … if you already own a Disklavier. The base model Disklavier, with no frills, costs a little less than $20,000 on the street. Not a stocking-stuffer.
What really set my teeth on edge, though, was the description of Internet MIDI: “…a software program that connects two Disklaviers or other MIDI instruments over the Internet for real-time teaching and performance.” As it happens, I teach cello to private students. I can state with complete assurance that it is simply not possible to teach anyone how to play a musical instrument over the Internet, not in real time or any other time. Can’t be done.
The phrase “distance learning” is used three more times in the press release. In a nutshell, these folks are getting all excited about something that will never have any significant impact on the process of learning to play the piano. And that, we’re told, is a game changer.
But what about real-time performance over the Internet? Wouldn’t that be cool? Well, first, this system requires that the two people who are connected via the Internet both own Disklaviers. (Ka-ching.) Second, “real-time” is a chimaera in the Internet world. There might, without warning, be a two-second interruption in the data stream. Even an interruption of .2 second would make utter hash of a musical performance. For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as real-time performance over the Internet.
And what about the other instruments in the performance — you know, the non-pianos? Is Zenph planning to stream real-time audio over the Internet at the same time? It seems rather unlikely. What if the two pianists sitting at their Disklaviers, one in New York and the other in Beijing, want to play a piano-four-hands duet? How will their performance be synchronized? Who’s going to count “1-2-3-4” before they start? And what, if they were able to actually do it, would be the point of this performance, other than a few minutes of gee-whiz novelty? This software would seem, to someone who understands the technology (namely, me) to be of rather limited utility.
And that’s the news from Disklavier land today. The point I’m making, in my usual heavy-handed fashion, is that music hardware and software are sometimes heavily over-hyped. I’m happy that Peter is excited about these new products. It’s his job to be happy. But he’s between a rock and a hard place. If he’s realistic about the very modest potential of these new software products, the press release is going to make dull reading indeed. A few Disklavier owners may be breathing hard, but if Zenph sells, oh, a few dozen copies of each program, or even a few hundred, heads will roll. Not Peter’s head, of course. He’s just the messenger. I’m not trying to shoot the messenger here, I hope that’s clear. I’m just telling the truth about the latest bit of hype to pop up on my screen.