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The Art of Piano Pedagogy:
21st Century & Beyond

Q&A Interview with Ben Laude, Head of tonebase piano

3/12/2021 • Reading Time: 11min

Ben Laude

Performing in Piano Evenings with David Dubal, Fall 2018

About Benjamin Laude

Benjamin Laude is a concert pianist, music educator, and producer based in Los Angeles. His playing has been praised by the New York Times as “superb in pace, tone, and eloquence.” After earning his doctorate in piano from the Juilliard School, Laude co-founded and served as artistic director for the concert-lecture series Piano Evenings with David Dubal.

 

In 2019 he was named Head of Piano for the online music education platform tonebase, for which he has produced hundreds of lesson videos and features with dozens of world class pianists, interviewing the likes of Garrick Ohlsson, Simone Dinnerstein, and the late Leon Fleisher.

Ben Laude portrait

Q&A Interview

Ben Laude during piano lesson

From a tonebase shoot, Spring 2019

Let's start with the basics for those of us who aren't pianists or are pianists unfamiliar with the platform. tonebase piano is?

Although I would caution against it, you can think of Tonebase as the Netflix of conservatories – that is, a subscription streaming platform with a wide library of high quality music education videos. I'd caution against it, because Netflix, of course, is not an educational platform. Tonebase Piano, and its original pilot platform Tonebase Guitar, offer more than just "info-tainment" on classical music subjects. There is a treasure trove of practical insights on intermediate and advanced repertoire pieces and technique from renowned concert pianists and conservatory professors, and the platform itself features tools and resources to structure a user's learning. If Netflix has viewers, Tonebase has students. In this way, we are closer to Masterclass.com, although their brand is celebrity-driven and spans dozens of subject areas, whereas Tonebase focuses on one subject area at a time and is building a thorough curriculum for students to use as a longer term training resource.

The content is fabulous and so is the videography. I can imagine editing at such a high level takes many hours. How did you balance that work with your performance career? Did the work involved in producing videos enrich your life at the instrument, & how so?

Luckily I am not the only employee at Tonebase. I am part of a wonderful team of editors, web developers, and marketers, many of whom are classical musicians themselves, and it is through our collective effort that we've been able to produce and release an upwards of 200 videos in a single year.

Ben Laude performing

Performing in Piano Evenings with David Dubal, Fall 2018

Having said that, there have been times when I personally took on editing responsibilities – in part because I just really enjoy it, in part because we're a small team with ambitious release goals and I've had to wear many hats as "Head of Piano." While I thought at first that I would have to turn down performance opportunities in favor of my Tonebase responsibilities, I have found so far that the two can coexist and even complement each other. For example, after spending the better part of a day editing or reviewing footage from lessons – a process that involves multiple repeated viewings of teaching and performance video clips in high definition – I'll find myself craving the keyboard in the evening and early morning. The ideas I learned from preparing one of Garrick Ohlsson or Simone Dinnerstein's lessons stay in my head, and I realize them in practice. Tonebase artists are my surrogate teachers. Since being hired at tonebase in the spring of 2019, I've managed to perform multiple concertos and give an all-Beethoven solo recital. Furthermore, with a "real job," these performance activities technically fall in the category of a hobby. I must say, I prefer the life of an amateur pianist. The pressure is off, and – by definition – you can perform for the love of the music.

In our most recent conversation, you mentioned the repetition of soundbites involved in editing. This reminds me of the repetition involved in piano practicing. The end result of both processes is an artistic product. And both processes involve going constantly back and forth from focusing on the tiniest details to creating an overarching narrative.

There is a certain similarity there, in repetition of short segments in constructing a larger whole. In particular, when we repeat a musical phrase multiple times in search of convincing phrasing, this is very much like the repetition involved in video editing, when I'm searching for the right flow of a scene. But the differences might be more interesting: the repetition involved in practicing is more often meant to internalize the musical-physical aspects of a piece and gain fluency in its execution, whereas the repetition in video edition is largely an external process of evaluating a drafted scene from the perspective of a viewer and applying adjustments accordingly to meet a vision or ideal.

You mentioned the platform now has a new studio in Hollywood, which is exciting. Do you see tonebase, & perhaps the art of piano playing in general, integrating into mainstream culture & entertainment anytime soon? I'm curious if you see that happening from an educational, rather than solely performative, point of view.

"Art" and "commerce" are typically held as polar opposites, and there are interesting historical and sociological reasons for this. It's not as if capital-A Art, as we know it and experience it (in museums, theaters, and concert halls) existed since the dawn of time and only later did commercial entertainment arise to offer an alternative experience to consuming culture. In fact, they emerged in tandem as complementary opposites, during the exponential rise of capitalist industries in the 19th centuries. Art institutions and the entertainment industry in a sense needed each other, and in America at least they have long been directly in cahoots: it's the capitalists, after all, who patronized the museums and concert halls (see: Andrew Carnegie). Fast forward to the digital age, and you see this classic dichotomy breaking down. Concert attendance may have already been on the decline pre-Covid, but the same is true of sporting events and other popular culture experiences in the "physical world" (as Silicon Valley likes to describe it). It would be cliche at this point to list the ways in which digital media has revolutionized cultural consumption, but one development that stands out to me (and, finally, responds to your question more directly) is the decline of a coherent "mainstream." Popular culture is no longer a monolith (if it ever was), but increasingly a set of digital platforms hosting an infinite variety of multimedia content. Along the way, the cultural practices formerly known as "Art" have been added back to the mix. You could see this as Art finally succumbing to Commerce, or you can see it as the whole cultural landscape transforming to the point that we need new concepts to even make sense of it. As with most complex historical developments, it's a blessing and a curse. For Tonebase, and classical musicians more generally, it's a big opportunity: what our aging institutions have needed for a long time is a way to put audiences and performers on more equal footing. There have been a million and one gimmicks to try to "break down the barrier" between the two, but we've known the answer for a long time: education, yes, but more important participation. If audiences of art also practice the art form, there's no more barrier – it's all one unified cultural community. Think again of sports: does anyone talk about a "divide" between crowds and players? No, because most of the people in the crowd have played the sport themselves, and can therefore engage with the sporting event without being alienated by the secret knowledge and practices of the performers (athletes). In short, Hollywood won't be the savior of classical art music, but the larger technological shift they're both subject to offers all kinds of formerly elite, sealed off artistic practices the chance to proliferate in ways never before possible.

Ben Laude

Performing in Piano Evenings with David Dubal, Fall 2018

Each episode is filmed at a different location: I can imagine the travel involved as well as the flexibility necessary. You did mention that tonebase contracts a local crew for every episode. How is adapting to all these variables similar or different than adapting as a performer to various concert halls? How have you taken on the role as "director"?

I was never a jet-setting concert pianist, so I can't compare the two directly from experience. I will say that, from talking to my friends who tour the world giving concerts, Tonebase "production tours" are far less lonely. I'm alway engaged in direct collaboration with a small group of people, and every production is different, so there's no depressing return to a hotel room after performing Tchaikovsky Concerto for the umpteenth time, wondering what it all adds up to. 

 

But I also wouldn't paint my job so glamorously either. It's a grind, as well, and even though I'm blessed to be doing something creative and unique that suits my strengths, there are plenty of mundane, tedious, redundant elements as well. For starters, I might be a producer and director, but I'm also a coffee boy and stenographer. I take the crew's lunch order and keep spreadsheets coordinating all the technical and financial details of the production. Tonebase is still a start-up, and I do just as many tedious, clerical responsibilities as I have creative ones. Concert pianists have managers for a good reason: so they can spend their time practicing instead of coordinating their concerts! On the other hand, let's not romanticize the life of a concert pianist too much either – learning or resurrecting a Concerto involves plenty of tedium, and pianists have to take their own lunch orders too.

Scene from a tonebase master class with Leon Fleisher, filmed in February 2020

tonebase features artists that discuss music at the highest professional level. What does tonebase offer for “beginning” pianists, or those looking to start to learn the piano for the very first time?

 

In short, we are moving in that direction. Tonebase's broader mission is to "democratize access to high level music education, so anyone anywhere can learn from the best." This mission doesn't exclude beginners, but it does bring up an interesting point: "the best" (meaning, the most esteemed professors and concert artists) are almost never the best at teaching beginners. I actually have to be cautious not to pitch the idea teaching fundamentals to certain artists, at the risk of insulting them. (I won't name names, but the associate of a certain esteemed Bach interpreter dismissed the idea of producing lessons on the Inventions – and the Inventions are hard, far beyond the capabilities of most first-year beginners. Imagine if I'd asked if they could teach scales...) This is all by way of saying that Tonebase's first order of business was finding said "best" to teach what they know, i.e. more specialized technical and interpretive ideas, and catering our library towards more experienced amateurs, serious students, as well as their teachers. As the platform continues to evolve, we are gradually moving in the direction of beginner pedagogy, and in 2021 we will be launching new features and releasing new contents aimed more and more at beginners. It's a complex project, one that involves tracking down "the best'' pedagogues in fundamentals and musicianship, carefully planning lessons with them, and building digital tools to aid in the beginner's learning path. We're still in the early stages, but I'm excited to have enlisted an accomplished crew of educators and scholars to work with our team to create a truly effective and thorough training resource for pianists of all backgrounds.

Ben Laude with Garrick Ohlsson

Interviewing Garrick Ohlsson, Summer 2019

How do you see technology playing a role in the future of music education, especially now, when most everything is online? 

I see the pandemic as accelerating by at least a decade an inevitable development, which is the digitizing of education. This is a sensitive issue. As the son of a university administrator and professor on the one hand, and an elementary school teacher on the other – and having been a private and classroom music teacher for more than a decade myself – I'm aware of the irreplaceable benefits of in-person education. Since launching our platform, Tonebase collected feedback from critics concerned that we are devaluing in-person lessons. I think we've largely quelled these concerns, and teachers have made up a plurality of our user base since the beginning. We certainly don't market Tonebase as a replacement for private teachers, but quite the opposite: as a resource for teachers and students alike to enhance their pedagogy and learning experiences. Although it's hard to track, we're most likely contributing to an increase in piano lesson sign-ups. And this is part of our intent: we're as much in the business of increasing interest and participation in the world of classical piano as we are providing direct educational content. Ideally, the "physical world" and "digital world" experiences should play a reciprocal role in providing unprecedented educational and musical experiences for those lucky enough to be alive in the 21st Century. It's utopian of me, I realize, and things may very well go south (Hollywood has taught us on many occasions to be wary of an impending technological apocalypse). But we should be hopeful, and realize we have some agency in building a world in which technology and traditional human interests are reconciled. In a post-Covid world, it will be more challenging than ever. But, since when were pianists afraid of challenges?

Who is your favorite legendary pianist & why?
 

"Favorites" come and go with the weather, but the legendary pianist that has had the biggest influence on me is undoubtedly Gould. Although it took me a while to understand and embrace his aesthetic (my teens and early 20s were dedicated more to worshipping Horowitz and the pieces he trafficked), over the past decade I experienced a Bach awakening that Gould was more or less directly responsible for. For the last two years of my doctorate it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the only recording I listened to was Gould's 1981 Goldberg Variations, which in turn was the only piece I practiced or performed during the same time. I've branched out since then, but what so fascinated me in Gould's performance, and ultimately in his mature aesthetic (post concert retirement), was his effort to unify large scale works through structural-interpretive acts. The later Goldbergs were notorious for this unification-strategy, in which Gould calculated the tempi and accentuation patterns of specific Variations in accordance with a single, continuous. As much as the extreme results bother some listeners (Variation 1 taken out of context is rather appalling, I admit), the fierce determination to create a single organic whole out of the arias and 30 intervening variations inspired me on a visceral level. It was far more than an eccentric intellectual exercise. It's audible: you can actually follow the pulse from start to finish, and the results are hypnotic. The more I listened to Gould and read about him after that, the more I heard this quest for organicism. It's been quite revealing to see how few of my teachers and fellow pianists respect Gould – they see him merely as a self-indulgent provocateur. He certainly was that, but he also had this other vision, one that was motivated by a selfless aesthetic ideal, one that harmonized with a broader technological and social vision as well. While there were plenty of contradictions in the vision, I admire the enterprise and think more of us pianists should study it and try to understand it. He got a lot more right than he got wrong, and he took far more risks than your typical "legendary pianist" would ever dream of. Once you remove some of his more idiosyncratic, and esoteric, ideas, a rather simple and beautiful vision remains, one whose legacy I would like to help uphold: that music is about freedom, and it ain't such a bad idea to try to extend the liberating experiences music offers to our social lives.

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About Maryam Raya

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Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.

Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.