One very useful contribution that a computer can make to the instrumental lesson or practice session is providing accompaniments. Even where the teacher is able to play a piano accompaniment, it is often preferable to be able to focus on the pupil’s performance without the distractions of accompanying.
Nowadays, much student repertoire is available with CD accompaniment. This can make practice much more enjoyable in the early stages and, at a more advanced level, pupils have much needed opportunities to become familiar with the accompaniment. All too often, though, the CD recordings are too fast for the pupil’s tempi, particularly in the early stages of learning a piece.
Until recently, MIDI was the only way of varying the speed of accompaniment without changing pitch. Many teachers who are familiar with a MIDI sequencer have been in the habit of preparing files for the use of their students. These could be played back on the pupil’s computer with a simple media player but, in order to have the flexibilty to change keys and tempi, a more sophisticated MIDI sequencer was required. There are, now, one or two simple players that are accessible to less-experienced users. VanBasco’s Karaoke Player is a great piece of software – very well featured, simple to use and free! Tempo and pitch change is available and individual tracks can be muted, so that most files can be played with, or without, the solo line. A number of educational publications are supported by midifiles, including some ABRSM materials.
Even better, it is now possible to slow down audio recordings. This can be done with one or two new CD recorders but, as yet, the hardware is expensive. Audio-processing software can also provide this facility and the “Audacity” software is an excellent free example. However, this is probably a bit intimidating for someone who just wants to play files. For simplicity, “The Amazing Slowdowner”, from Roni Music, would be a better bet. This costs about $49 and, for that modest sum, you get the facility to play and process music directly from CD.
“SmartMusic”, of which more later, is a whole computer-based accompaniment system available, on a subscription basis, from www.smartmusic.com. I was delighted to discover that SmartMusic 10 includes a load audio function, which opens wav, mp3 and aif files. It can vary tempo and pitch and allow passages to be looped.