By Alicia Baker, Corey Fournier, and Jim Bybee
“Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.” — Plato
Maintaining vibrant fine arts education in the face of reduced budgets is one of the many challenges faced by public schools. While evidence mounts that the development of musical skills helps encourage success in core subjects, music and other arts programs continue to be compromised by financial cuts. The Lang Lang International Music Foundation, created by world-renowned pianist and education advocate Lang Lang, knows exactly how vital an education in music is to the academic success and general well-being of children, and they’ve stepped forward to take a leading role.
“Our goal is inspiring more kids and educating them in music,” says Lukas Barwinski, Executive Director of the Lang Lang Foundation. “The problem is that music is cut from every school in America. With the children, this is where Lang Lang especially feels we have to do something with our foundation to keep the music alive.”
Recently, the Lang Lang Foundation has set out to create free group piano lesson programs in public schools throughout the United States. Thanks to successful fundraising and a partnership with Roland Corporation U.S., the first Keys of Inspiration programs were launched in the Fall of 2013 in Boston, MA at the award-winning Boston Arts Academy and Orchard Gardens K-8 School. Both schools have a rich history in music appreciation, which is a big reason why they were chosen by the foundation to be part of this important program.
Boston Arts Academy is the only public high school in Boston that is a performing arts school. Students attending receive in-depth musical training, along with a general academic education. “We have a very high graduation rate,” says Principal Gregory Holt. “94% of our graduates go off to college, so we feel that we’re pretty successful at educating them and helping them through that process of getting through high school. I think that is one of the things that really resonated with Mr. Barwinski.”
Gregory also said that the audition process for his school is academically “blind”—students don’t have an academic requirement to get in, which allows the school to be more accepting and less exclusive. After Lukas visited the school, he knew it was the right choice for the foundation’s piano program. “I looked at the school, met the children and the teachers, and I fell in love,” he relates. “I knew this is something we need to be part of.”
The Lang Lang Foundation feels that it’s important for the program to start at the elementary age level, so a K-8 school was chosen as well. “We want to infect the children with a love of piano,” says Lukas. Principal Holt investigated the K-8 schools in the area to find a placement for the additional piano lab, and decided that Orchard Gardens was the perfect choice.
“[Orchard Gardens Principal] Andrew Bott has always been a huge advocate of the arts, bringing in people like Yo-Yo Ma to offer assistance and guidance in designing art programs,” Gregory says. “He has been extremely invested in improving his school, and he is one that really sees the arts as a way of doing that. So for him, the offer of a free piano lab and piano teacher, it was a no brainer.” At Orchard Gardens, the program begins with four years of group piano lessons starting in the 4th grade. Students will then be invited to audition for the Boston Arts Academy, where they can continue the piano lessons if they’re accepted.
Roland piano labs are installed at each school, and each lab includes 14 Roland RP-301R pianos networked with the GLC-1 Lab Conferencing System. Gregory couldn’t be more thrilled with the instruments. “The kids feel like they’ve got Cadillacs,” he relates. “They’re visually beautiful, they’re all brand new, and it makes students feel very special. Walking into the lab, it’s definitely a wow factor, and the kids respond very favorably to that. They don’t feel like they’re getting left-overs; they’re getting real stuff.”
The choice of the RP-301R piano for this project was the result of discussions between Roland U.S. and Jeremy Moccia of M. Steinert & Sons, a well-known piano store in Boston and the main contact for Roland’s communication with the schools. Jeremy suggested the RP-301R model for the project: “The RP-301R came about because they needed to work within a reasonable budget, while still getting the features like the SuperNATURAL tone and the weighted keys. Those were the most important features, because the labs are focusing on how to play the piano, and tone and touch are essential to that education. Also, with the GLC-1 system, everything is connected so the teacher can communicate with students individually or broadcast to the whole class on headphones.”
Some traditional music teachers question the use of digital pianos in a classical learning environment, but Lukas refutes this notion. “I think that the digital technology is just an extension of the classical piano,” he says. The educator spotlights the huge benefit of being able to use headphones for silent practice, which enables the entire group piano project to be possible: “You can play at 12 o’clock in the night or 12 o’clock in the morning, and you’re not going to get police complaining that your neighbor cannot sleep.” He also praises the many other features that the Roland digital pianos offer, like the additional sounds besides piano, recording capabilities, and a USB port for MP3 playback, to name a few. “It’s everything, the whole package, that makes the piano versatile,” Lukas summarizes.
Jeremy shared his personal experiences with Roland pianos as well. “The good thing is that this technology is not intimidating,” he relates. “It allows so many opportunities for the student to learn. For instance, [onboard rhythms] allow the student to sit down and play as if they’re playing with a band. It takes it from that mono learning experience of just sitting at a piano to creating more rounded learning. I think it’s great.”
Gregory said his students and teachers love the Roland piano. “I think that the main thing these teachers really like is that they feel like instruction on these keyboards is real piano instruction,” he says. “Nobody feels like they’re making compromises on some cheap plastic keyboards with little organ or synth keys. And if the student ever graduates to an acoustic piano in transition, the teachers really love the fact that anything they learn on this digital piano is immediately transferrable to any other kind of piano you’re going to get.”
The schools and the Lang Lang Foundation understand the importance of students having the ability to practice at home, so they’ve set out to create a rental program with local dealers. Lukas explained that he wants the cost of the rental to be extremely low, so that any family can afford to have a piano in their home. But if the families of participating students can’t afford to rent a piano, the foundation will cover 100 percent of the rental fee. “We have this wonderful collaboration with [Roland] and we got the piano lab,” he says. “And then we have the teacher and the curriculum, and then we have the rental program, which gives [students] the opportunity to really learn the instrument.”
With a dream to keep music alive in the public schools, Roland could not be more thrilled to partner with the Lang Lang Foundation for this important initiative, and the feeling is mutual. In explaining why the foundation chose to work with Roland on this project, Lukas sums it up this way: “With Lang Lang, we are going for the best.”
The Keys of Inspiration program continues to grow, and this year Roland U.S. partnered with the Lang Lang Foundation to donate a piano lab to P.S. 046 Arthur Tappan School in Harlem, NY. With 30 brand-new F-20 Digital Pianos and a GLC-1 Lab Conferencing System, this school has begun the year with the promise of music education for all their students for many years to come.