Today we’re talking with composer David Asher Brown, who is also the man behind PianoCub.com, a website that can help anybody to start learning piano online. David’s work as a composer is wonderful and varied, and well worth a listen – but as you’ll be hearing, that’s just one clue as to the fascinating variety of projects and interests David has explored during his musical career so far.
We’ll give our usual disclaimer that although David’s the man behind Piano Cub, this conversation runs much broader than piano, and certainly has something to interest any type of musician.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The two big experiences that truly tested David’s commitment to a life in music, and what helped him through.
- How long it took him as a piano player to learn to play church organ when he was called in last minute for a gig in France.
- How David’s website Piano Cub tackles possibly the biggest challenge in online learning, keeping the student motivated and engaged.
This conversation is packed with wisdom and insights from an experienced composer and innovative music educator, so there’s sure to be something that will add value to your own musical life.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, David. Thank you for joining us today.
David: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Christopher: So I’m familiar with you through your work at PianoCub, and you’ve also recently started publishing some really fantastic interviews with musicians and music makers, but I wanted to know more about your own story, before you became a composer, before you started PianoCub, before you started interviewing interesting musicians. What was that journey like for you? Who were you as a musical child? If it was indeed a childhood thing for you?
David: It was indeed a childhood thing for me. I started piano lessons I think around age six. But I’ve always been interested in a lot of different things. So while I was always very interested in music, for instance, I was also very interested in politics and history. I really am just actually passionate I think about learning. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop. It’s when I have free time, it’s what I love to do the most is learn about things that I don’t know. And the most unfamiliar something is to me, the more exciting it is. Because there’s so much more for me to get to learn.
Christopher: Terrific. So did you begin with instrument lessons? Or what did that early experience look like for you?
David: Well, my father is a retired engineer by trade. But he was also an amateur pianist. There’s so much baggage now in that word, “amateur”. But really in the root, it means for love of something. So it doesn’t mean he was a bad pianist at all, it just means it wasn’t his profession. He wasn’t making money out of it. So that being said, we had a pianist, sorry, we had a piano rather at home, and as a kid I just loved to explore and see what different sounds would come out of it. And I’m not sure what the next step was, but at some point at a young age I started getting piano lessons.
And that was actually an on-off experience for me. Which I don’t actually think about that very much anymore cause it’s been so long. But , you know, looking back, I must have quit at least two times and then come back to it. And it’s just been something that … When I stopped it, at some point I realized that it was something that I had to go back to, cause I was missing something. And I did that all the way through middle school and high school. And music has always been a part of my life in some way or another. But I didn’t think that I was going to be a professional musician for a very long time. And when I was in school, I was a history major. I probably changed majors a few times as well. And the thing that I noticed was that I just kept taking more and more music classes, and that no matter what my major was, I ended up taking more classes in my minor fields which was music. And at some point I just had to come to terms with it. And accept that was really what I wanted to do, was to study music.
And of course, that also comes with a lot of baggage, because navigating a career in music in the 20th and 21st centuries is pretty tricky. So I really wasn’t sure what that path would look like, and what I thought it would look like is very different from what it actually has been for me so far.
Christopher: Hmm. So take us back then. First to maybe your teenage years and learning piano.
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher: And then maybe to that university time and what you were thinking a music career might look like.
David: Yeah, I played in high school. I was in some different ensembles. Like I was in my school jazz ensemble. I must have been in several never-performing amateur bands with friends. But it was just a good time that we had.
We never really actually got out and … You know, to do very much. Until maybe the end of high school, I started actually getting some work with some friends. And that was more in … I think it was mostly like jazz gigs. Even though I really wouldn’t consider myself a jazz pianist because I’ve had more exposure to what we would call the Classical world than anything else. And also I would say been more tied to composing than piano. I enjoy working on piano and enjoyed seeing how far I can get in that level, but I think my craft is more in composition than in piano.
Christopher: And was that clear to you back in those teenage years? Or maybe towards the end of high school, that composing was something you were drawn to?
David: I think it was always, yeah. For as long as I can remember playing piano, I was also composing. At a very young age I wasn’t literally composing, because I wasn’t actually writing anything down. But I was still coming up with my own things with the piano. And as I got a little bit older, maybe in middle school, is when I started learning how to notate properly and writing things down so that either I could play it in the future, or at a certain level, could start writing for other people to play things and on instruments that I don’t play. And I think I’ve always been doing that. It’s something that I’m really passionate about.
Christopher: I won’t dwell too long in those early years, cause there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about later on. But I would like to understand what encouraged you to consider composing? Which might sound like an odd question, but for me at least in the UK system of a child learning an instrument, you learned how to read music and you learned technically how to write it. And you probably did some exercises where you had to write down a melody. But really composing was generally seen as out of reach, and most instrument teaching didn’t include improvising or songwriting or anything creative really.
Christopher: And that was my experience of doing kind of Classical instrument lessons. Were your lessons different? Did they encourage that creative spark? Or was there something else that made you think, oh yeah, I could write sounds and music, I could come up with something myself?
David: I wonder if I must have been a pretty difficult piano student as a kid. Because I think I probably had… I had an excellent piano teacher, who I think wanted me to do all of those things that you just mentioned. And I probably veered off so many times to try to do my own thing, that at some point you just had to steer into the curve. And he was also really understanding as a musician and as an educator, and he was really interested also in helping me explore those things. He was interested in composing himself, so he really helped to foster that.
But I do think maybe that there’s a difference in the United States with maybe the strictness of how we approach lessons. And I think you were mentioning… The way you were saying it made me to sound like maybe in the UK, maybe that’s even to a fault the amount of discipline. And I would say maybe in the United States it’s to a fault on the other side of it. In one case maybe there’s not enough freedom for expression. And then in the United States … I would say, it really depends on the teacher of course anywhere. But in general, maybe there’s not enough respect for just making sure to learn some fundamentals before going on.
One think that can be really tricky… As a teacher also, I know a lot of people really want to get to a further step than the step they’re ready for. And people are surprised how discouraging that can be, when you try something that is just a little bit too far out of reach when you skipped too many steps. Sometimes it feels like … It just feels like impossible when you’re trying to do something that you’re not ready for.
And yeah, if I could go back in time, I think I might have actually done the opposite of what I did in some ways. I might have spent more time as a child learning some more literature, technique than I actually did.
Christopher: Hmm, interesting. Well, it certainly doesn’t seem to have held you back, taking the path you did. So let’s move on to your time at university when you gradually acknowledged that maybe music was your major after all. You mentioned that you know, having a career in music turned out not to be maybe what you were expecting. What did you have in mind at that point? And how did things actually go?
David: When I first started thinking about the idea of music as a career, I thought what a lot of people still think in the Classical music world. And it’s a model that unfortunately doesn’t really exist too much anymore. And that was academia. The idea of becoming a college professor and… I should say, it does certainly exist. But it doesn’t exist the way that it used to. Now the vast majority of those positions have been replaced by adjunct positions. And the pay is low, a lot of the benefits are gone. You know, a lot of the attractive things about that… For instance, sabbatical … Not too many places offer sabbatical anymore. And certainly not to an adjunct, which is the majority of the positions anymore.
So it became clear to me after going through so much school and seeing what that path looked like that the struggle really was never that attractive to me. The idea of the struggling musician, the struggling artist. I really want to make music and if I can do something with music and also make a living for myself, then I feel like that’s the best case scenario.
And the other part of it is academia can be very isolating. And I think a lot of it is kind of esoteric and it forces you maybe to live in this bubble. Whereas, if you are teaching at younger ages or you’re teaching to amateurs, teaching to high school, or if you’re a church musician, or engaged with a community choir, you get to engage with a lot more people, in what I think is a much more fulfilling way than what I would have done, which would have been more sitting at a desk writing pieces and then presenting those pieces to other composers.
Christopher: So what did composing turn out to look like for you when you came to the end of college and it was suddenly time to do something to earn a living? What did you do?
David: What I realized was that in order to be a musician the way that I’m a musician, I had to not pigeonhole myself into one thing. Which is an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s a disadvantage because I’m not the most incredible baroque keyboardist or … I don’t have a niche feel that I can focus all of my energy and all of my output into that field. But I can do a pretty decent job at many different things. And so I’ve pieced together a career by being able to conduct when someone needs a conductor. Being able to put arrangements together. To practice music entrepreneurship. And compose things when people need something to be composed.
So it’s been pretty fulfilling actually. I get to work with a lot of different people. And for me, there’s something about the idea of if I just sat at home composing and arranging all day, while that’s something that I love, and there are a lot of people who can do that. For me at some point, I need to start engaging with people. And on the other hand, if I were engaging in people all day the way that say, a full-time conductor would, at some point I would need to go and sit and compose and have some time for myself. So I guess the key word is balance.
Christopher: Hmm. Balance and also I think variety, as you touched on there. That’s something that really comes through. I’ve really enjoyed listening to your compositions on SoundCloud, and you have some good videos on YouTube, too.
David: Thank you.
Christopher: We’ll put links to in the show notes. And that really comes across, you know? You have a very broad skill set as a composer, and it results in this really incredible catalog. I believe-
David: Thank you.
Christopher: To touch on that point about not just sitting at home, I believe it led to some travel for you as well beyond the U.S. Is that right?
David: Yeah. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. I think the first time I traveled internationally for music was … In my undergraduate actually I applied for … It was a program through the college, and if you get a grant … And I had a grant to go study music in Prague. And I ended up also with a professor who is Czech. Totally coincidentally, I had actually been planning on that grant for a long time. And then I got transferred to this college and I got connected to this professor. And he had helped me out quite a bit with that. And that was just such an incredible experience because I loved to travel and I love music. But to travel as a musician is quite different from either of those two on their own.
You get to engage with people that you may not have a common language with in a musical way. That’s a special experience, and to be able to share with someone like that, I was just hooked. And a little later I was accompanying for some vocal students during my Masters, and I was playing piano. And there was a professor there and some of his students I accompanied named William Lewis, who is just a giant in the opera world. And he sang at the Met for decades. And he had a summer program, like an opera program, that he would run in France. And one day I had a voice message from him and he said, “Uh, David, we have a problem with … We have a pianist from Taiwan who’s having an issue with a visa. Can you come with us to France next week?” And I checked this voice message you know five times to make sure I was understanding everything correctly. And that was it. And he wanted me to go and spend … I ended up spending the whole summer in France. And this led to a lot of other experiences and I ended up working a lot in Austria and all sorts of amazing places.
But this particular summer was so incredible. It turned out it wasn’t a pianist who needed to be replaced, but it was an organist. And I said, you know, “I don’t play organ. I don’t really know anything about that.” And he said, “Oh, it’s basically the same thing.” And I said, “I don’t think it is.” I was very lucky, cause I had a friend who’s an expert organist, and right before I left he gave me this big crash course in organ and everything I could expect to need to know. And we also talked about the fact that I was gonna be going from town to town, village to village, and I was gonna be using some baroque organs, some organs from different time periods. And some of them hadn’t been touched in a long time. And so he talked to me about all the different buttons, what they might say in French as opposed to English. And it was stressful at times, but just absolutely wonderful. And I got to go to places I would have never gone to … Even if I go to France as a tourist, I would never go to some of the villages that we went to.
After each concert we would go to, we would typically expect the Mayor to come out with a bottle of that town’s wine and then invite us to his home for a picnic. That’s what I did for a summer. It was wonderful.
Christopher: Wow, that sounds phenomenal. And must have set the bar pretty high for your expectations after that?
David: Yeah, it was hard to beat.
Christopher: And so I’m not sure how this fits into that trajectory, but one of the projects that really jumped out at me when learning more about you and your career as a composer, was your creating of the Yiddish Music Collective, where I believe it’s kind of a restoration and arrangement and performing project. Is that right? Could you tell us more about that?
David: Yeah. Yeah, sure. This is another one of those lifetime learning things. And it was exciting to me because I knew that there was this music out there, but I didn’t really know where to find it. And I didn’t know much about it, and so … As a kid, I had grown up hearing some what I thought were lullabies in Yiddish. I didn’t really grow up around Yiddish language too much other than this. Then I found out much later in life that they weren’t actually originally lullabies, they were arias from Yiddish operettas.
And I was so interested to find where these things were, and I looked all over the place. I found arrangements of things. I couldn’t find any original music, and I just wondered what had happened to all of this stuff. And finally, very long story, but I had spoken to so many people, and one thing led to another. And somebody had mentioned that at UCLA in their special collections, someone had given them a box of materials that were related to Yiddish Operas. And I had tried to get in touch with them and find out what it was. And at the time, I was working, I was doing opera work in Austria. And I sent them an email. I said can you look under this person’s name? Can you see if there are any boxes there? And they sent me a typewritten manifesto, it must have been from at least the 60’s or earlier. And it had the contents of I think 40 boxes of original sets of operas in Yiddish. This is really the last remaining collection of all of this music.
And recently I was friends with someone who had pieced together from arrangements … They reconstructed an entire opera. And they spent, I don’t know, a couple of years putting this thing together. And I called her and I said, “Well, I have some either exciting news or really bad news, depending on how you take this. But I found the original entire opera.” It’s all, you know … Of course, later I found out that there are a handful of mostly elderly people who’ve known all along that this whole collection existed. But they just thought it was so obvious that they didn’t need to say anything. So for me at least, it was a discovery. And I was just excited with the idea with sharing this repertoire and sharing that with other people.
I’m very interested in language learning and having worked in Austria, I spent a lot of time learning German. Which is very close to Yiddish. And when I came back to Los Angeles, I connected with the Yiddish professor at UCLA and I started doing some private lessons to start learning Yiddish. And that way I could understand how to read and how to comprehend a lot of this music that we were performing.
Christopher: Fascinating. And I’d love to know musically what does Yiddish opera sound like? Is it kind of in the Klezmer tradition? Is it in the German opera style? Presumably a lot of these manuscripts you are finding don’t exist in recorded form.
David: Yeah, you’re right. There are recordings of … I don’t know what to call them. But I guess if … They’re taken out of context of the opera, and they’re performed like show tunes I guess. For an audience in the 50’s, maybe that’s around where it stops, because shortly after World War II that whole audience for that goes away very quickly. And there still are a lot of people that speak Yiddish, but they’re mostly very religious people and they’re not interested in secular things like Yiddish opera or secular Yiddish music.
It’s really out of a Vaudeville tradition. If I had to compare it to something, it might be closest to Offenbach. If you think of like the Can-Can or maybe Gilbert and Sullivan. But certainly there are Klezmer traditions woven into that. So there’s a standard kind of orchestra, but a lot of the musical language might sound closer to Klezmer music than to anything else.
Christopher: Wow, wonderful. And so at the Yiddish Music Collective, what are you doing that led on from this discovery?
David: I’ll tell you one of the things that I’m working on right now. So there is a colleague of mine and he has a grant. And what he did was he went to Holocaust survivors and he asked them to talk about pieces of music that they remembered from their childhood and how that was important to them and some of the backstory of that. And then my job was to listen to these interviews and first of all find out what it was that they were talking about. Because often these … If you’re a Holocaust survivor today, they’re almost all … They were children at the time, so a lot of them don’t remember the names of pieces. Often they don’t remember even the words, because they haven’t heard these things in so long.
So they might hum a tune and then if I’m lucky enough, it’s something that I’m familiar enough with that I could identify. And if not, I can go ask somebody else to help me with it. And once we found out what it was, then my next step was I created an arrangement for an orchestra that I conduct along with the choir and some soloists. And in two weeks we’re going to be doing a concert and we’re going to have those survivors in the audience, so they’re going to get to hear this music that they remember fondly from their childhood. And it’s gonna be exciting to share that with them and see what that means to them.
Christopher: Wow, wonderful. And we’ll definitely have a link in the show notes to the website dedicated to this project for people that want to know more about these concerts and these releases.
So coming back to your work as a composer, I know that a lot of people listening probably haven’t had the chance to talk to a composer. Particularly not one who writes orchestral arrangements and maybe is well-versed in Classical music, and some have that have, but others not. So I’d love to just unpack a little what that looks like for you as a composer in this day and age with that Classical background and the catalog that includes arrangements for all kinds of combinations of instruments. Both Western and beyond. Tell us … Maybe you can take an example of one of your pieces or one of your works and explain where it came from and what that process looked like?
David: Yeah. It’s … Composing’s still a bit of a mystery to me. I know it’s something that a lot of people have spoken about. Compositional processes and where that comes from. For me, it’s always been easy enough to compose the basic elements of music. To compose melody and harmony, that part I think has always seemed very natural. Development of a piece takes a lot of … It’s a much more difficult challenge. But I think actually the thing that is the most challenging is figuring out why you’re going to compose a piece. This might seem strange, but there’s just so much music out there. There are millennia of music with all sorts of different styles and all sorts of different meaning. Some amazing minds have written wonderful music. And so as a composer when you start a new piece, I have to ask myself at least why am I writing this?
And I’m going to ask somebody to listen to this. I’m gonna ask an audience to listen to this piece of music. Why am I worthy of their time? I don’t want to just churn something out that they could find that sounds like something else already. And I don’t wanna do a worse job of something that someone else has already done a great job of. So I struggle with this every single time I write a piece. I always have to think about what it is that I’m doing. And I try to imagine myself in the position of the audience member.
I find as a composer, I’m transitioning a lot more. I’m constantly trying to reinvent myself and find new things to do. And now in my whole musical life, I’m getting more and more into the digital space and into social media and that whole world. Almost all the music that I’ve ever written is for acoustic instruments. It’s for orchestras … Even non-Western, non-traditional instruments, I love writing for those kinds of things. But it’s still for a real concert hall, for a real concert venue.
Recently I’m starting to do some digital things, and it’s kind of new to me. So I’m starting to learn a lot more about software. And a piece that I’m doing maybe almost as an exercise, but a very short piece right now as I’m learning.
My wife and I recently a few months ago are expecting our first child in August-
Christopher: Oh wow, congratulations-
David: It’s really exciting. Thank you. And so I thought it would be fun to see if I could create a piece made entirely out of my future baby’s heartbeat. Just a recording that I have from the ultrasound. And so that’s been really fun to see how I can take this and manipulate it in so many different ways that I can now have virtual instruments. Where I can play notes with my baby’s heartbeat. And so I’m kind of piecing it all together now. It’s just an exciting process.
I just never want to do the same thing twice. So I’m always thinking a lot before I start a new piece.
Christopher: And it’s clear that you are dedicated to your work as a composer, despite not wanting to do the same thing twice. Was it always obvious to you, you know, once you got out of your music degree and you started this work, was it clear, okay, music is going to be my life?
David: Well … So I did a doctorate in music, and by the time I finished that, to be honest I was pretty burned out. I was working in music, in a functional way, in a practical way. I was doing arrangements for people that needed arrangements. And I was conducting for people who wanted to conduct. But what I wasn’t doing for a few years was writing for the sake of writing. And it was actually quite a journey to get back to that. And another part of this that I think contributed to this a lot, in my very last summer before completing my doctorate, I basically had to write my dissertation over a summer because I was on a scholarship, and my scholarship was gonna run out. And at the same summer, I was working on an opera, and it was a kind of job where I was playing piano for rehearsals for some ridiculous amount of time, like seven hours a day or something like this.
At the same time, or maybe just before the summer and … If I could have done this all over again, I would have said I can’t do this job. Because I had just found out a couple of weeks before that I had an autoimmune arthritis. Psoriatic arthritis. And it was a totally new thing for me. I had never had pain in my hands before or anything like that. And it had nothing to do with playing the piano, it was autoimmune, so this was something that was congenital and just wasn’t coming out until age 30 or whatever it was. And it was a really physically and emotionally painful summer, because I was playing piano all day long. And I just couldn’t play anymore the way that I used to play. I would spend the rest of the day with ice packs on my hands.
And to make it a little bit worse, the people that I was working for were very … I would say they weren’t very understanding of the situation.
David: So it was … I was frustrated because I couldn’t play the way that I knew that used to be able to play. And they were frustrated with me because they weren’t getting what they needed me to do. And I did ask at one point if I could just get out of it, and they were not having it. So I kind of played through that summer, and then after that, I stopped playing piano completely for about four years. I should say, I mean, I could go to the piano and plunk something out for a few minutes at a time, but I couldn’t actually practice anything. I couldn’t play anything for more than ten minutes at a time, because then at that point my hands were just hurting so much.
And maybe a few months ago, I started taking these injections, which are to treat the autoimmune condition. And most of my arthritis is gone now, and I’ve been able to go back to the piano after four years or so. And I’ve realized how much I missed it. How I can go back to the piano if I’m exhausted, or if I’ve had a frustrating day. Whatever it is, or if I’m happy, whatever it is, I can share that with my musical instrument. So I’m really excited to have that be part of my life again.
Christopher: Amazing. That sounds like an almost Biblical test of whether you were truly committed to music. Wow.
David: Yeah. It was … I was just mentally and physically exhausted. And it was the combination of that and also having gone through so many years of school and finishing my doctorate by that point. I actually … I think I had somewhat of an emotional crisis at that point, because I remember I had listened to so much music to study for … And in the United States, you know, if you have a doctorate of music, you have to do these qualifying examinations. And the types of questions that you can be asked are just extremely specific and cover so many different areas. And I had listened to so much music, in addition to all the music that I write and the music that I play, that I completely stopped listening to music after … Soon as I finished my doctorate, I completely stopped. And I could only listen to podcasts or like the news for months.
And then the first thing that I could start listening to again was The Beach Boys. And then I kind of slid back into something a little bit more serious, and I started listening to Brahms, and then eventually … I guess in hindsight these are all B’s. But my favorite composer is Bach. And finally when I reconnected with Bach, I felt like I could listen to music again. But it was several months of not being able to listen to anything.
Christopher: Gosh, that’s quite a detour. Quite an interruption to what was otherwise sounding like a very nice, smooth trajectory for you know … So once you got back to Bach, were you a hundred percent charging ahead, “music is my life”? Or where did you take it from there?
David: Like I said, I was still working in music this whole time. So I was still connected to music, but in terms of writing and playing piano again, no. It was a very gradual, long journey to get back to where I was before then. And I also had to rediscover why it was that I was interested in music. Because being in school for so long, there was always a reason for everything. There were assignments. There were deadlines. There were people who were gonna hold me accountable. And there were also a lot of times, because you were gonna enter into competitions, or whatever it may be, that you have to write music that maybe isn’t the type of music that got you really interested in music in the first place. Sometimes it’s more esoteric than the music that you’re really interested in. And I had to really think about what is it I love about music anyhow? I didn’t have deadlines and things like this growing up. But I still loved music. And so I had to just rediscover that for myself.
Christopher: And was it purely immersing yourself more in listening and playing and composing that allowed you to do that? Was there anything that particularly helped you in that process? I’m imagining that there must be people who can relate and feel like you know, they’re still listening to this podcast, but maybe they’re not a hundred percent immersed in music like they used to be. And maybe they’d just been looking for that way to reawaken that enthusiasm or passion.
David: Yeah. There wasn’t any kind of watershed moment, aside from like I mentioned the injections that I was doing to help me play piano again. But one thing that I’ve learned as an adult that I wish I knew when I was younger, is that you can accomplish a tremendous amount if you commit to doing a little bit on a daily basis. And I got through most of my language education by doing 30 minutes a day. But I never missed a day. And a lot of … I guess I surprised myself with what you can do, because a lot of what we tend to do … For instance, you know, if you want to all of a sudden you decide you want to get fit and you’re gonna go to the gym, a lot of people make the mistake of going to the gym and doing something that’s unsustainable. So I’ve never gone to the gym before, today I’m gonna go to the gym for two hours.
Well, you’re not gonna probably go to the gym for two hours every single day. You’ll have much more success if you can commit to going to the gym three times a week for 30 minutes a week and start from there. And so I think one of my strengths now that wasn’t a strength when I was younger, is I’m able to commit to doing little things consistently. And to make sure that I understand that this is not … I’m not gonna finish a goal today necessarily. But I do have a long-term plan, and I will finish that goal. And I just have to make sure to get my chunk of it done today. I don’t have to finish the whole thing.
Christopher: That’s a really valuable mindset for people to adopt I think. You know, it’s something we certainly recommend at Musical U is ingraining that musical habit. And even if it’s only 15 minutes a day, you’ll do a lot better with 15 minutes a day than a single one hour session once a week. And as you say-
Christopher: It adds up over time.
David: Yeah. And it’s becoming part of your lifestyle. It’s just “okay, now is the time of the day where I get to do 15 minutes of this thing that I’m going to love and get something out of”.
Christopher: Yeah, and that habit can certainly carry you through those times when enthusiasm would otherwise wane and you might let it slide for a week or two. When you’ve got that consistency to keep up, it can definitely kind of power you through those lulls.
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher: So I’d love to come back to something you touched on there, which was that you’ve been transitioning from more acoustic instruments and traditional composing to experimental and computer music as it were. And I think that’s really interesting because on paper, you are a very well-qualified, well-established composer and music doctorate in the Classical mold. But you are also the creator of PianoCub, a website that purports to teach beginner piano entirely online. And those two can seem in juxtaposition. So I’d love to unpack a bit, what’s your perspective or philosophy on the traditional approach to learning piano? Or say or learning music in general versus this kind of wild, untapped, un-understood potential we’re faced with in the modern age?
David: I think they’re both great. I think any way that you can learn a musical instrument is a great idea. And for a lot of people, that means a traditional lesson. And there are a lot of benefits to that. The one-on-one time that you get, the attention that you get, are just invaluable. For a lot of people, you don’t have that option. And for a lot of people doing something else might work better. Cause there are lot of people that don’t have regular schedules where they can make sure to have the same weekly lesson every time, every week. And as a private teacher, I certainly have students like that who it seems like we barely met, because every single week there was a different reason we had to cancel for something.
For some people it’s easier for them because of their schedules to be around at 2AM with their headphones on and their keyboard and doing things on their own schedule for whatever works for them. And you know, I guess my advice to people would be to find what makes some sense for you, and seek that out on your own.
You know, thinking about my own journey, I took Spanish for four years of high school. And I left high school not being able to speak Spanish. And a little bit of time on my own practicing language, doing German on my own every day, using things … Online resources. That at the time didn’t exist for music. So things like Rosetta Stone Online, Pimsler, which was an audio thing that I could listen to in the car, Mangos was a great company. I used these resources, and I was able to learn much more German than I ever learned of Spanish in four years.
And I don’t know, maybe that’s not the same for everybody. But for me, that was a better way to learn. And you know, to be honest, I think amongst musicians, there’s some economic insecurities. There always will be and about the future as technology is changing. If you’re a private teacher, this can be scary because you’re thinking, well, is this something that’s gonna put me out of business? But I don’t think so, because in my language learning journey, I’ve now at my age, I’ve put a lot of money into German language resources and lessons and that kind of thing. But I wouldn’t have done any of that if I hadn’t gotten started with my foot in the door by learning things online and learning things with CDs. Now I’m a consumer of German media, and I wouldn’t have been before. And I think we as musicians we just have to embrace changes in technology and appreciate new resources that we have that we didn’t have before.
Christopher: This is such an interesting topic. It’s come up on the podcast a few times, and at Musical U we don’t teach the instrument technique, you know? We don’t say we’ll teach you how to play piano. We’re really very much about the inner skills and that you can apply them on piano. But we’re not gonna tell you how to play a C major scale, for example.
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher: But we do constantly have people coming to us and saying you know, I want to learn X. Should I get a teacher or learn online? And so it’s always top of mind for me what is the right answer to that question. And I love that you boiled it down to “whatever way you want to learn an instrument, that’s the main thing”. Absolutely, we’re on the same page there. But do you see any of the downsides to the traditional in-person lessons? Say a once-a-week lesson with a teacher, whether that’s for a child or for an adult?
David: Well, certainly I think for children, you should have a teacher. That’s the best thing. And if you don’t have a teacher, there has to be some adult with them throughout the learning process. I don’t recommend children sitting with headphones only and not getting any other kind of interaction with that. For adults, sure. You know, I mean, the obvious downside is the cost. The time scheduling. One thing that really surprised me as a private teacher that I never thought of … I have worked with a lot of older students who had told me they wanted to take lessons for decades. People in their 70’s or 80’s. And I would ask them why didn’t you take lessons? And I was so surprised when the answer that I heard from a lot of people was that they were embarrassed. This answer totally confused me. I couldn’t figure out, what would you be embarrassed about? But then they explained, well, you know, the idea of being an adult, and I’m good at other things that I do, but now I want to be a beginner. And I have to have somebody who’s an expert in this watch me play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, feels kind of embarrassing.
And I was so surprised. That was something that I never even considered before. And so now when I have PianoCub, there’s an outlet for people who can do that and not have to … If that’s something that they were struggling with, they don’t have to worry about that at all. In fact, they could put headphones on and they don’t have to worry about anybody even hearing what they’re doing. And you know, as a private teacher, the best thing that you could ever hear, which I got to hear every once in awhile when I still do, and I really love it, is when someone says “you made my dreams come true”.
When I use PianoCub, I get that email more than I would have just because I’m able to reach out to more people. So you know, that just makes me feel great that people are able to get that out of this product.
Christopher: Wonderful. I think that’s such a fascinating point, and a really important one that there can be that self-conscious barrier to trying a new skill as an adult. And she’ll be mad at me for saying it, but my Mum is learning piano. She’s not quite retired, she should be, but she’s not quite there. And she’s taken up piano, which is the first music learning for her. And I’ve just seen that-
Christopher: That visceral thing of she’s very self-conscious … Very conscious that it’s a new skill. It’s something she’s not good at. And she’s used to being good at the things she does. And so like you say, to have an expert watch you … And even if that’s the arrangement, and their the teacher and you’re the student, it is hard. It’s definitely hard for an adult I think to get past that. And when we were developing our singing app SingTrue, we were really focused on that, because the voice maybe even more so than playing an instrument. It’s something that people are very wary of experimenting with if they haven’t learned to sing-
Christopher: And so it was really an opportunity to say, just use the app, you know? It’s just you in a room. No one’s listening except the microphone on you phone. Give it a try.
Christopher: And that’s proved really effective. And so I can a hundred percent see how that kind of self-serve, do it on your own approach can provide access to something that otherwise would feel totally inaccessible to adults.
David: Yeah. I mean, what you just said about vocalists is so true. As instrumentalists, we often take things very personally. If something is wrong with the way that we’re playing, we really also take that upon ourselves as well. But for vocalists, where they themselves are their instruments, that can become … I have seen so many times, people have breakdowns … And you know, as an accompanist playing for lessons, it was inevitable that just about everybody you ever accompanied, at some point in their voice lesson, is going to start breaking down crying.
Because that criticism is directed directly at them. It’s hard not to take certain things very personally. Especially if you’re accompanying vocalist at the college level and above, where it’s not just for fun there, that’s their career. And that’s what they’ve poured their whole life into.
Christopher: Yeah, well, I think what’s wonderful is that if you can experience that beginner learning process divorced from that judgment and protected from a human hearing you and having an opinion about you, I think that’s a really great opportunity. So-
Christopher: I asked about the downsides or risks of in-person lessons. I would be remiss if I didn’t do the reverse and ask you about how online learning works. We just mentioned one really big advantage. But supposing you’re the adult beginner and you come to PianoCub … And maybe before we dive into this, I should ask you to just explain a little bit more about PianoCub and how it works?
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher: But what I’d love to know is, how do you know you’re getting it right? If it’s just you in the room and there’s no human to hear you and have an opinion, do you know when you’re playing the right notes or not?
David: Yeah, great question. So to your first part, PianoCub is simply a place that you go online and it’s a subscription-based service where you can learn how to play piano. So there are video tutorials, and PDFs, and it walks you through step-by-step. Including how to read music and things like that. You’re right, so this is the biggest downside to online learning, is there’s not somebody sitting over your shoulder telling you when something is right or wrong. I actually invite all of our users to feel free to send video recordings of themselves and we’ll actually give them feedback.
Most people don’t do that, but you know, if you’re not doing that, then yeah, you actually have to be your own judge. You have to be the one that knows well, am I keeping my fingers curved like they talked about in the video? Am I … And so we try to put a lot of reminders in videos and you watch things go by slowly. And the notes are highlighted so they’re lighting up as you’re playing along and, you know … But the … I guess one of the mechanisms in there with any kind of lesson is if you are doing something wrong, probably by the time you get to the next lesson, you’re probably gonna realize that there’s something that you missed. And you might want to go back.
One of the nice things about this is you can just replay the same lesson as many times as you want, if you need to. Whereas as a private teacher, I think … Occasionally actually people would ask to record things and actually sometimes record a whole lesson and they would go back and play that again. So you get to go back if you need to.
Christopher: That’s great. And I think there is definitely kind of hidden benefit in that. Something we’ve mentioned a few times on the podcast is how instrumentalists can fall into the trap of not even hearing themselves play practically. And particularly on piano, where you hit the button, and the right note comes out, compared to something fretless, where you have to get the intonation right. Or compared to your voice, where you really are a hundred percent responsible for the pitch. The piano, as long as your fingers are moving in the right pattern, the right notes are gonna come out. And that does lead to this trap of I’m playing a bit like a robot. My teacher will tell me if I make a mistake. And so I’ll just kind of do it as if it’s a physical thing only. So I think there’s actually a real beauty and benefit to being forced to be your own listener. And with reminders to keep you mindful as you mentioned you have in your videos that can actually be a really good think, I think.
David: Sure, that’s a great point. Bach used to say … People remarked at how well he played the organ. He would say something to the effect of, “I don’t know what the big deal. I’m just putting the right fingers on the right buttons at the right time.” But for most of us mortals, there’s a lot more to it than that. And assuming that we don’t have the ear that Bach had, or even if we have that potential, Bach also started somewhere. And developing that listening skill is important.
Christopher: So what prompted you to put such enormous effort and work so hard on what has become PianoCub? Where did that come from? Who were you trying to help with this project?
David: I had had a lot of people come to me as students, and there were certain needs that they had that weren’t being met with traditional lessons. And a lot of times, people would come back to me and they would say I found this thing online. What do you think about this website? And they would ask for a certain online resources before I did this. Now, PianoCub’s been out for two years, but I started putting everything together long before that. And at the time when I started, there wasn’t much available online that was too helpful. There were things out there, but they were … It was kind of like the blind leading the blind a little bit.
So I wanted something that had high quality. Both in terms of the educational components, which I felt like I had that to the table, and then the visual components, I’m very fortunate cause my wife is a photographer. And she knows about camera equipment and lighting. These are things that I didn’t know anything about, and I don’t think most musicians do. And so she taught me a lot about how to do all of these things and how to make the lessons look as good as they can possibly look. And I have a lot of help from some really fantastic people. For instance, we have graphics that are designed on there. Things that illustrate how note reading works and things like that. Those are skill sets that I don’t have. But we’ve just got a great team of people who are I think the best at what they do, putting these things together.
So you know, this was… For me, this was filling a void of something that needed to be filled. And at the time it was a void that people were gonna go out on their own looking for something online. There wasn’t that kind of resource out there.
Christopher: Fantastic. And as you said, you’re two years in now. Who have you seen using PianoCub?
David: When I first started, and you know, even talking to other entrepreneurs, non-musical entrepreneurs, it seemed like everybody thought well the obvious group of people that want music lessons are kids. Cause that’s often … In the United States, that’s who we see taking piano lessons. But that’s not … I’d say it’s rarely the type of people that I see using this product. It’s pretty much adults and people who for very many different reasons want to add music to their lives. Want to do that. You know, a lot of these people started, and they stopped, and they want to come back. And they want to find something that works a little better for them. A lot of these people, it’s something they’ve wanted to do for a long time that never done it.
Most of them are working jobs that have nothing to do with music at all. Or they might be retired. And this is part of their lifetime learning, and they get to learn a new skill that they’ve always wanted to have.
Christopher: Terrific. One of the elephants in the room when it comes to discussing online learning is that course completion rates can be kind of atrocious. If you look at a site like Udemy for example, you hear figures quoted like five to ten percent of people who buy a course ever finish it. And that can be quite frustrating and demotivating for someone like yourself or me who run an online-
Christopher: Education provider. And it’s really been a focus for us at Musical U to make sure that we don’t just focus on the training material. We really spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the overall training system and that process of someone coming in and learning what they want to learn so that they have a lot more success than the typical online course can provide. What have you seen from your students in terms of motivation and engagement? And is there anything you can do to help facilitate them kind of following through on what they come to you to learn?
David: Yeah. Well, that’s a great question. One of the reasons that the process of PianoCub started so much earlier than the actual website is because I was concerned about what you are talking about. So what I did is I created a series of videos before the website existed and learning materials. And I sent them out and I asked people to just try this out for a month or two months. And I had a questionnaire for them, and I made it very clear I really don’t want you to tell me “you did a great job with this”. I just want you to tell me what you think could be better. Where did you find the challenge? What was your learning experience like? And were there things you were confused about? Was it too fast-paced? Too slow-paced? And that really helped shape how I think about the course experience from the user’s point of view.
I think my advantage… I feel like I’ve talked about this so much today, but the language learning thing was an advantage for me, because that gave me the experience of what our users experience. It’s something similar to where I was learning something just like music that I didn’t know anything about, or knew very little about. And I got to see how those systems were working. And when I was looking around at the handful of materials that did exist online before, they didn’t have that level that the Rosetta Stones had for the language learning. And I felt when I was doing those language programs like I could just keep going all the time and I never had any struggles continuing with those.
Christopher: That is such a powerful part of it. I was talking just last week with one of our members, a guy called Doug. And he was making that specific point. He was saying, “You know what really sets it apart is its a progression of difficulty. And I can turn up and do my training each day and I’m not gonna suddenly be confronted by something that’s super impossible. And I’m not gonna show up on day one and find that it’s all too difficult for me. It always feels like it is just stretching me a little bit.” And I can totally see how at PianoCub that’s critical for helping the student have continual success and stay engaged and keep learning.
David: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s great that you got that feedback from a member, too.
Christopher: It’s encouraging. It means we’re getting something right, anyway.
David: Yeah, exactly.
Christopher: As you would know there’s always more work to do. And I believe you’re continuing to build out the training material at PianoCub. Is that right?
David: Oh yeah. In fact, I would say my greatest challenge is with all the other projects going on, just making sure to churn out the amount of material that we need to continue to grow that library of lessons.
Christopher: And tell us a little bit about what that library looks like right now. What would somebody be learning when they come to PianoCub?
David: So there are four levels of walking through … So like Level One is a set of lessons that go from the very, very beginning. So you’re looking at the piano for the first time, you don’t know anything about note reading or anything like that. And then at the end of each level, there’s kind of a challenge or there’s an achievement piece, rather, that kind of culminates with everything that you’ve learned in that whole series of lessons. And then after that, what we’ve recently started doing, now that we’re getting those four introductory levels completed, are a series called Masterworks Sessions. So these are pieces … They’re not arrangements. They’re actually really well-known pieces of literature. So for instance, we just put up the Bach C major Prelude from the first Well-tempered Clavier.
You know, in the future, we’re working on things like … We have a Chopin Prelude in the work. Or we might have a piece by Solti. Mozart. So this is kind of the Masterworks section that we’re working on right now.
Christopher: Very cool. Well, it has been such a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you today, David, and learn more about your life as a composer and your background as a musician. And to understand a bit more about what you’ve got going on at PianoCub, certainly for anyone listening who’s been wanting to get into learning piano. Whether it’s your first instrument, or a secondary instrument. Definitely do head to PianoCub.com and take a look and we’ll have links to that and everything else we’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode.
Thank you again, David, for joining us today.
David: Thank you so much, Christopher. It’s been a real pleasure.