Instruction Tapes for Piano and Synthesiser
Are instruction tapes an expensive gimmick or a vital aid to achieving a better playing technique? Jay Chapman has been giving them a listen and reports his findings.
If classical piano tuition does nothing for you and you're too ashamed of your technique to ask anyone else, instruction tapes may be the answer.
The tapes under review here come in two sets: the first is 'Rock Piano' as taught by American pianist John Jarvis, while the second is 'Synthesizer Workshop', accompanied by the voice of synth player T Lavitz. Both courses are part of a whole collection of musical instrument instruction tapes produced by the Hot Licks company in New York and distributed in the UK by Labtek International.
I should point out that playing keyboard instruments is one of my main interests; so I've considered the usefulness of both courses in much the same context as you would. When I got hold of them for review it was in the hope that they would improve both the technical aspects of my playing and its musical content.
Reviews of this type nearly always suffer from the fact that the items under review are only available to the reviewer for a very short time, and in the case of instructional material such as the Hot Licks tapes - which should normally be used over a period of months - a short test period could only result in a shallow appraisal lacking in any real conviction. However, I'm pleased to be able to say that I have been using these two sets of tapes for my own personal tuition over the past few months, so whatever else they might be, my findings are not jeopardised by lack of reviewing time.
Both sets consist of six tapes and cost £49.95 per set, but luckily, you don't have to buy a complete set in one go, as each one-hour tape is available individually at £7.95. This represents conspicuously good value since a piano teacher could easily set you back that amount in exchange for just one hour of tutoring, and believe me, there's more material on each tape than anyone could comfortably cope with in anything less than a day or two.
Each tape comes with a single sheet of paper, the content of which relates to the aural lesson contained on the cassette. The lessons themselves are intended to obviate the need for written support material, but given the nature of the subject matter involved, I feel Hot Licks would do well to improve the documentation of future releases.
One great advantage of these tapes is that the teachers are well respected and currently active musicians. And since they are active in the same (or at least similar) areas of music to you and I, it's probably fair to say that what they have to teach us - and the style with which they do it - is likely to be of more immediate interest than the lecturing of the local piano teacher.
As a bonus (!), each tape has a sprinkling of anecdotes interspersed with the serious business of tuition, and as well as providing some form of light relief between periods of study, these also serve to give a limited insight into the world of the professional session musician.
One of the real problems facing producers of aural instruction material is finding a tutor who not only knows his stuff but can put it across in a clear and easy-to-understand manner, and doesn't get dull during six hours of listening.
In John Jarvis, I think Hot Licks have found a real gem. He starts off a little nervously - primarily, I suspect, through unfamiliarity with the medium - but soon gets into his stride and from there on in never really looks back. His personal style of teaching is pleasant and he really does have some useful ideas and techniques to pass on.
It's my view that the absolute beginner should at least do some basic work (learning note names and their position on the keyboard, getting to grips with what constitutes a major scale, going through major, minor and seventh chords) before starting into a course of tapes such as these. Thus, Jarvis kicks things off at too low a level for my liking, instructing pupils in major scales - work that would be much better dealt with via a beginner's book and an hour or two spent with a keyboard-playing friend.
This introductory section over, however, Jarvis sets off on a well-structured tour of what you need to know to progress further. Subjects dealt with include rhythm, bass, chords and melody (all on the first tape!) and the approach employed is so simple and methodical that your playing really should improve every day - provided you practice what he preaches, of course.
Highlights for me during the six hours included the use of 'blue notes', technical exercises for soloing, ear training, a complete examination of chords and their use, and the way Jarvis breaks down some superb riffs and solos to give a complete guide as to how they're achieved.
As testament to his keyboard-playing prowess, John Jarvis mentions at one point that Art Garfunkel would only decide the key of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' just before he sang it at a concert, depending on how his voice was standing up to the strain.
Could you play the intro to 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' in C# at a moment's notice? Jarvis can.
T Lavitz' tapes are also full of useful stuff, though perhaps listening to the Jarvis set first wasn't such a good idea: they set a standard that was hard to follow.
You'll probably need more in the way of perseverance to get through the synthesiser collection, partly due to Lavitz' unfortunate sense of humour and partly due to the fact that he has a tendency to digress at length during his, er, lengthy digressions. But, if you can cut through the verbiage and - by comparison with the rock piano tapes - a certain lack of structure, you'll find the effort worthwhile.
The sections on improvisation and the use of scales and modes are particularly useful, and the tape on pitch-bending (though half a tape would probably have covered it just as well) is also worth ploughing through.
In conclusion, I feel confident in recommending both the 'Rock Piano' and 'Synthesizer Workshop' courses. If you're prepared to listen carefully to what's coming out of the tape machine and - above all - to practice the skills that are being passed on, your playing technique will almost certainly reap some sort of benefit. As I said before, the fact that playing is covered from a rock musician's angle means that the techniques used relate directly to what so many people want to learn. And somehow, practising isn't nearly so stuffy and confined when you're being taught by someone whose musical interests aren't a million miles away from your own.
By the way, further Hot Licks tapes are currently being planned, including one that'll go by the name of 'Chops Builder' - take ten points off your street (Avenue? -Ed) credibility if you don't comprehend the significance of that. If it matches the quality of the tapes reviewed here, it should be well worth tracking down.
RRPs are given in the text. Further information on the range of Hot Licks instruction tapes can be had from Labtek International, (Contact Details).
Review by Jay Chapman
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