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Technology enables historic international connection for ASU students in 'remote' piano master class

Virtual piano class

Cathal Breslin, assistant professor of piano in ASU’s School of Music, Dance and Theatre and a Yamaha Performing Artist, conducted a groundbreaking four-way “remote” piano master class with participating students located in three Chinese cities — each student more than 6,500 miles away. Photo courtesy ASU

November 17, 2020

When distance learning involves overseas students studying music, a Zoom call isn’t quite good enough. So, on Oct. 22, Cathal Breslin, assistant professor of piano in Arizona State University's School of Music, Dance and Theatre and a Yamaha Performing Artist, conducted a groundbreaking four-way “remote” piano master class, with participating students located in three Chinese cities — each student more than 6,500 miles away.

Students were introduced to a remarkable application of distance learning, thanks to cutting-edge Yamaha “Remote Lesson” technology and four internet-connected Yamaha Disklavier “reproducing” pianos located on ASU’s Tempe campus and at Yamaha piano dealers in Beijing, Nanjing and Wuhan, China. This marks the first-ever connection of Disklavier pianos in four different cities.

The Yamaha Disklavier, a unique, technologically advanced reproducing piano, enables highly-nuanced performance data – i.e., the actual key strokes and subtle pedal movements made by a performing artist – to be transmitted back and forth between similarly equipped instruments over the internet, with perfectly synchronized video streaming between the locations.

The technology allowed Breslin to teach and evaluate “live” performances by three of his students: Wenyan Han, a first-year doctoral student at ASU, located in Beijing; Ziyi Lyu, a sophomore at ASU, located in Nanjing; and Ruiya Zhong, a freshman at ASU, located in Wuhan — each restricted from returning to ASU’s campus in the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

From his teaching studio at the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Breslin could see, in real-time, the depth of keys and pedals the students used, not on their piano, but the Disklavier in front of him. After the performances, Breslin offered valuable insight to each of the students over video chat while playing his Disklavier remotely to visually illustrate his points. With perfectly synchronized video streaming between the four locations, teacher and student performed back and forth for one another, as if they were sitting on the same piano bench in the same room.  

“The personal nature of piano lessons requires real-time, one-on-one instruction, and this technology allows us to virtually uphold that personal connection,” Breslin said. “Our students are excited by this technology and respond enthusiastically with Disklavier remote lessons. By enhancing the lesson experience, we’re keeping students engaged in an online learning platform.”      

For ASU, one of the top 10 universities in the U.S. for hosting international students, the goal is to bring this opportunity to more global learners.  

Disklavier technology showcases an elevated way in which students can be taught from one piano to another, regardless of where they are located — especially at a time when distance learning is essential for music students around the world. In addition to current established partnerships with Yamaha China and Yamaha Korea, new relationships with Yamaha U.K. and Ireland allow Breslin an even greater global reach.

While video streaming services such as Zoom have become immensely popular in distance learning settings, these technologies are, by their very nature, one-dimensional. In stark contrast, Disklavier Remote Lesson technology seamlessly extends the on-screen piano performance out to the piano itself at all participating locations, bringing a mesmerizing, 3D quality to the learning experience. Moreover, this technology enables prospective students located anywhere in the world to audition remotely without having to travel, providing them an enhanced appreciation for ASU’s forward-thinking music education offerings.

The four-way remote master class followed another, held on Oct. 15 between ASU and Yamaha Seoul in Korea, marking the university’s first remote lesson performed with a foreign country. Three prospective students located in Seoul and applying to ASU participated in the master class taught by Breslin. The “remote” piano master class furthers ASU’s ability to recruit while providing those students interested in applying an opportunity to participate in master classes, giving them exposure to the school, the program and Breslin himself.

The Disklavier technology has inspired Breslin to expand the use of its capabilities. In the future, he hopes to develop a degree program that utilizes Disklavier pianos located in different countries, ultimately offering students the ability to study with him and ASU remotely, without the need for travel.

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