Becoming a better pianist by looking at MIDI data

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Over the weekend, I published a new free arrangement (you can get it here). I also recorded the arrangement here at the house on my keyboard using Ivory II piano samples. Let me know how you think Ivory sounds. Here it is if you have not already heard it. (Click here if you don’t see the video below.)

BTW, this is a new version of the video from the weekend where I corrected a sound issue that was causing distortion. If you heard that distortion in the first video, I’m sorry about that.

There is no real substitute for pianists listening to themselves. If you can learn to really listen to yourself, you will get better. One of the great benefits of recording is that it forces you to listen to yourself critically.

But pianists as a rule don’t listen to themselves or at least not in a critical way. It is not a pleasant thing to do and it takes time. As a result of not listening, they adopt bad habits and never hear them.

So, I encourage you to start actively recording yourself and listening to yourself critically. And while I am about to show you something cool, it is not a replacement for listening critically.

There are real advantages to MIDI recording and one of them is that it makes it easy to visually look at what you are doing musically. For example, I use Logic Pro and it allows me to see things like this:

midi1.jpg

This is a representation of my recording of “Hiding in Thee.” Every note is represented by those tiny boxes. I can see the duration of each note and probably more importantly, the dynamics of each note (how hard I struck the key). Soft notes are represented by the blues and as you get louder, you see greens, then yellows, then oranges. The loudest notes are the reds.

From a big picture, I can easily see that this song starts soft, builds slightly in one section, builds slightly louder in the next section, climaxes in the next section and then ends quiet. Very simple, right?

I also notice that I am playing top heavy on this. The higher notes are louder than lower notes. That is appropriate because the melody is in those higher notes.

On an unrelated note, you can also easily see the bass line (the movement between C1 and C2). Notice how I use that smooth up and down bass root movement several times.

But the thing I want you to notice is that this graph also tells me very quickly that I am doing something wrong. I am way overplaying some notes in the bass line. Almost all pianists have that problem. Notes just stick out unnaturally here and there. Here is the chart again with arrows pointing to those notes.

midi2.jpg

The truth is that I manufactured this example by increasing the volume of those 5 notes in Logic Pro after I recorded. I just wanted to make it easy to show you what to look for and and I sort of exaggerated the difference in dynamics on those notes. But what this example would tell me is that I have a unconscious habit of unnaturally accenting a bass note in a certain situation. I would have to analyze a bit further to see what the trigger is.

The danger of MIDI recording is that you can fix these problems in the software without ever having to fix the bad habit on the piano. I could knock down the volume of those five notes in twenty seconds. And I have to admit that I did adjust the volume on a few notes in this piece after recording but before generating the audio file. It was either that or rerecord the piece, and since this is just a quick non-professional recording, I cheated.

So MIDI can be a trap. If you end up manipulating your song after you record it, you are cheating yourself out of the opportunity to fix yourself. But on the other hand, it is a very handy tool. You can fix small problems if you need to and can use it to analyze yourself and catch flaws your ear is missing.