Practicing the piano can be a very solitary experience. Students studying other instruments can find themselves playing in musical groups with other musicians very early on in their studies however it is not uncommon for piano players to play their instrument for a much longer period of time before they have the opportunity to play with other musicians.
Part of the reason for this is that many school bands and orchestras do not have a piano and while a school orchestra may have several violins or flutes, if they do include a piano, they may only include one piano player. Practicing the piano with books that include “play-along” tracks can help piano students benefit from a similar type of experience enjoyed by other musicians much earlier in the learning process.
The benefits of playing music with background accompaniments
An important part of learning any instrument is to listen to music. Tutor books that have background accompaniment disks offer students the opportunity to get to know how a piece of music should sound before beginning work on it and if they are in the habit of listening to each piece of music they play it can help them get to know the music at a much deeper level and therefore learn it more quickly. Many tutor books are available with either midi disks or CDs of pre-recorded background accompaniments specially written for each piece of music in the book.
Enhancing students appreciation of “musical style”
One of the problems students encounter during their first few years of study is that they may be prone to playing each piece of music they practice in the same way. Students in the early years of studying may get into the routine of playing pieces of music written in different styles in such a way that they end up sounding very much the same and their performances do not sound like the style in which they were originally intended. This is due to the fact that at this stage of learning the student does not have a well-developed sense of musical style and they may be unaware of the different ways a piece of music may be interpreted. A good teacher will, of course, encourage the student to play the music with the correct “interpretation” however this process can be helped enormously by playing along with background accompaniment music composed specifically for each piece of music they play in different styles. The accompaniments help “bring the music to life” and students may gain a great deal of enjoyment from playing along with them. It is one thing for the teacher to explain that this piece of music should be played slowly in a relaxed way or this piece should be played strongly with a solid beat but it is entirely a different thing altogether when the student can hear for themselves the thump of a big bass drum and dancing flutes as he plays along with a piece of music in a marching band style or the calming soft strings and delicate harp as he plays a soothing lullaby. Students who play along with background accompaniments develop an appreciation of musical styles much earlier than those who do not and this in turn manifests itself in a heightened ability to produce authentic sounding interpretations of the music they play after a much shorter period of time.
Playing along with background accompaniment tracks can help the student more easily learn rhythms that may be difficult for them to figure out by reading the notes on the page alone and can assist with helping students develop a good sense of rhythm and beat and help them develop a feel for the pulse of a piece of music.
Encouraging piano students to play their music to a higher standard
When practicing music at home it is often difficult for students to know if they are playing a piece of music correctly and many days may go by where they may play a passage of music incorrectly before having the opportunity to have the errors corrected by their teacher in their next lesson. By working with background accompaniment disks during their practice students are in a much better position to be able to work out for themselves if they are playing a passage of music incorrectly. If they can play it successfully with the background accompaniment then this shows that they must be playing the music correctly. If they try to play along with the background accompaniment and they find that their playing is not in time with the accompaniment then this alerts them to the fact that there may be something in the music that they are not playing correctly. Armed with this knowledge many students will be able to correct errors by themselves during their practice that they would otherwise not have been able to correct. This also leads to a higher degree of self-sufficiency by the student in their learning which is extremely beneficial for progress and confidence.
Helping the student develop an appreciation for when the music has been correctly mastered
Playing with the background accompaniment music also may act as a good measure of how well the piece of music has been learned. A common problem with inexperienced music students during their practice is that they often believe that a piece of music has been practiced to a high enough standard before it has. Students often believe that they can play a piece of music to the final required standard before in fact they have managed to play it correctly. Practicing with background accompaniment music provides a way for the student to easily test for themselves if their music has been mastered correctly. If they can play with the background music then there is a good chance that they are playing correctly, if they cannot successfully perform their music all the way through with the background music then it clearly shows that there is more work to be done on the piece. This may prompt students to look at certain passages of music more carefully than they otherwise would have done during their practice.
The incorrect use of background accompaniment music
It is important that playing with background accompaniments is approached in the correct way. Students should not attempt to play along with the background music as a way of “learning how to play the notes”. Students may become frustrated if they try to play along with background music before they have mastered a piece of music to a sufficient level. Background music is best used as a way of “checking if the practice that has already been completed is going well”. Students should learn to play a passage of music first in the normal way and practice with the background music towards the end of their practice time on that particular piece of music. Traditionally a metronome has been used to assist pupils play their music with the correct rhythm and to ensure the flow of the music remains uninterrupted during a performance however many students find practicing with a metronome demotivating. Practicing with background accompaniment music achieves the same goals as using a metronome but can actually act as a great motivator for the student. In addition to this some background accompaniments will actually slow down and speed up as part of the performance and staying with the music during these passages is great experience for the student and encourages them to listen to the music more carefully as they play. Beginner students also often miss dynamic markings in a piece of music that tell them to play soft or loud or to get louder or quieter during a passage of music. When students play with a background accompaniment these changes are far more obvious. Playing along with the background music can help remind the student to include the dynamics in their performance when practicing on their own at home.
Making hands separate practice more fun
Many piano students do not spend enough time practicing their music one hand at a time. It is often not as much fun to practice the left hand part on its own as it is to play hands together as the left hand part on its own may not be terribly interesting for the student. Hands separate practice may be done while playing with background music and can help make this important area of practice much more interesting.
What kind of background accompaniment disks are available?
Background music was first made available for students tutor books on midi disks in the early 1990s but it could originally only be played on high end keyboards or digital pianos that had a floppy disk drive built into them and so many students were not able to take advantage of studying in this way. With advances in computer technology these accompaniments can now be played on any modern computer and so a digital piano is no longer required to be able to benefit from using them. More recently software has become available that makes using midi files very easy. Zenph software produces a midi file player called “Home Concert Xtreme” which makes it very easy for students to use background midi disks on a computer during their practice. The software has been very well designed to make adjusting the volume and temp of the music very simply to achieve. The music may be played back in a number of different ways allowing the student to play back the piano part with the accompaniment or the accompaniment part on its own. The software also displays a score for the piano part making it possible to play along with some midi files even if the student does not have the book. CD background accompaniment disks are also now available for some tutor books. These recordings often use real live instruments and the quality of these disks can be superb and can help give the feeling of playing with a real live orchestra. The only downside of this is that the music may not be slowed down for practice. Students will gain a depth and knowledge of musical style when playing with these disks that may have taken them much longer to acquire otherwise.
Using background accompaniment disks in lessons
Background accompaniment disks may also be used as a teaching tool in lessons. This opens up exciting new ways for teachers and students to discover new music together. Conversations can he held about the different instruments that are playing along in each piece of music and the teacher can help build a higher sense of musical awareness in the student by asking questions about the music they are playing such as;
- What was different in the music when the first section was repeated?
- What instrument is playing the melody?
- What kind of mood does this piece of music have?
- What happened to the music in bar 10 (i.e. it slowed down, got faster, louder, quicker etc.)
Preparing to play with other musicians
Practicing music with background accompaniments can help prepare piano students to play in bands, orchestras or other types of musical group. Because piano players spend the majority of their time working alone they don’t always develop the same musical skills that other instrumentalist take for granted. For example, flute players are used to playing in a band and have a lot of experience “resting” in the music, following the music when they are not playing, and coming back into the music at the right time. If a flute player gets “lost” in the music they will develop the skill of finding where they are in the music and joining back in when they are able to do so. Piano players often do not develop this skill to the same degree so early in their learning. When a piano player joins a musical group if he loses his place in the music he may not be able to catch up and join in again. If he gets lost he may need to wait until the music stops before he can join back in again. This can lead to students being less confident when playing in groups with other musicians. One fun activity that teachers can do with their piano students is to have them play along with the background music and have them “stop playing” in the middle of the music. After completing an activity to distract the students attention away from the music the teacher then asks the student to see if he can “join back in” when they can find where they are in the music. This skill is beneficial for the student in many ways and once this skill has been mastered it can help the student approach group music making with more confidence. Try it – it’s fun!
A fully immersive experience
Playing along with other musicians is a much more fully immersive experience than playing alone and can help the student develop a much deeper understanding of the music they are playing. You can think of the piano as a black and white instrument perfectly capable of displaying every subtle shade of grey in between. Playing along with other instruments adds vibrant colors to the performance. Working with background accompaniments can assist the teacher provide this valuable experience for students.
Extension activities using background accompaniment music
As an extension activity for more advanced student’s background accompaniments in midi file format may be displayed as a full score in a music notation program such as Sibelius First. Students can study the different musical parts in the score and gain a greater understanding of how each part contributes to the overall sound of the music. Working together with the teacher students may learn how the essential building blocks of music are used in the score. This is valuable experience for any student who may eventually be interested in composing their own music.
Background accompaniment disks for your piano tutor books are a great investment
Midi background accompaniment disks are often sold separately from the tutor books they go with and may cost more than the actual tutor books themselves, however, the benefits from working in this way are substantial and I would encourage any student to make the investment – it will be well worth while and will pay for itself many times over in the valuable contribution it will make to your learning.
Musicians of all abilities can use background accompaniment music
Background accompaniment disks are available for all levels of piano players from beginners up to professional players. Classical musicians can use background accompaniment disks to practice playing a concerto along with an orchestra and Jazz musicians can use them to jam along with a big band. Whatever level of musician you are, using background accompaniment music will help make playing music a richer and more rewarding experience. The Legends Piano Studio offers piano lessons to students anywhere in the world by Skype. Find out more about <a href="about/skype-lessons/learn-more" target="_self" title="Internet Piano Lessons">internet piano lessons</a> offered by The Legends Piano Studio.