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Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Robert Finley




e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noteworthy artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.




The October 1998 artist/educator:

Robert Finley, Pianist, Teacher, Performer, MIDI Sequencer and Engineer, Boston, MA USA

Robert Finley was born in Hull in the north east of England. After high school and musical education in London, he won a scholarship to Trinity College of Music, where he studied piano and composition on Saturdays. In 1968, he went to the University of Sussex near Brighton to study for a BSc degree in Electronics. He continued musical studies with various concert pianists including Norma Fisher and Albert Ferber, and played in the masterclasses of Vlado Perlemuter at Dartington, Louis Kentner, and Jorge Bolet in Edinburgh, Scotland and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Mr. Finley was awarded the ARCM diploma with honours from the Royal College of Music in 1976.

Mr. Finley emigrated to the USA in 1980. He lives near Boston Massachusetts and works for GTE designing telecommunication systems. He uses his spare time to prepare for piano recitals, play chamber music, prepare MIDI sequences and occasionally teach the piano. He has given many recitals in the UK, USA, Israel and Argentina, and has played on local radio and television. Robert's repertoire includes concertos by Mozart, Schumann, Shostakovitch, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff which he has played with various orchestras. He has also recorded two CDs for QRS Music Rolls Inc., due to be released very soon.

Sound for the Netscape WAV/MIDI plug-inThe background music is:
Hungarian Rhapsody No.12
by Franz Liszt
(MIDI sequence by Robert Finley)

PEP: What attracted you to classical music and piano?
I have always been surrounded by music on both sides of my family. My mother used to play to me when I was a baby. I used to sit under the piano and stuff knives and forks into it when she wasn't looking! (Editor's note: Kids - Mr. Finley is a professional. Don't try this at home!) My father used to sing in light opera, my grandfather was good pianist, and my uncle played the saxophone in a jazz band. I always get great pleasure from playing the piano.

PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?

Jorge Bolet was one of the best teachers I ever had, even though I only studied with him a few times in masterclasses. I learned more from him in a few hours than over several years from other teachers. I was really inspired by the beautiful singing tone he obtained from the piano, his interesting ideas about the architecture of a piece, and how to develop melodic lines and make all phrases contrast. It's very sad he is no longer with us.

PEP: What do you enjoy most about making and teaching music?

The thing I enjoy most about making music is that I am giving a lot of other people pleasure and enriching their lives. I feel a great accomplishment when I can teach someone how to make something artistic and pleasant to listen to, and to allow them to enjoy music as much as I do.

PEP: Do you use any of the piano “methods” in your teaching? If so, why do you prefer that one over others.

I have only used the Thompson course for children and adults so I have nothing to compare it with. I found it quite a good introduction to playing the piano. The children's course had pictures and stories which maintained the child's interest and I thought that was a good idea.

PEP: What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?

All of my students have been complete beginners so I am not aware of what the common problems are. I can only speak about where some of my students have had difficulty. They sometimes use wrong fingering which makes the playing more difficult. I also believe that students need more slow practice, and also with the right hand and left hand separately to sort out certain difficult passages.

PEP: What kinds of things would you tell students of the piano and their teachers to try to avoid?

Although acquiring a good technique is extremely important, I would not place too much emphasis on it and spend hour upon hour of playing finger exercises, scales and arpeggios. It is important to do some of this, but I think that useful technical work can also be achieved when a piece of music is studied. Whatever is being played, from a simple scale to a Chopin Etude, it is very important to play that as musically as possible.

PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano? What advice would you give to teachers of piano or music generally?

I think they should listen to a wide range of different kinds of music such as vocal and choral music, chamber music and symphonic works, as well as piano music. They should have a good knowledge of the composers, who they were, what they looked like, what life was like during their life times. I think it also important to take an interest in other forms of art such as dance and painting. A good musician should be well-rounded.

PEP: Can you compare and contrast your piano training in the U.K. vs. that in the U.S.? Are there any special advantages and disadvantages of each?

Most of my training was in the UK so I don't have much experience elsewhere to compare it with. People often talk about the "French school" of pianism or the "Russian" school. I am not aware of any significant differences between the teaching methods in the UK, USA, Russia, France or anywhere else. The objectives are the same.

In the UK, Canada and other British Commonwealth countries, piano students take grade examinations 1 through 8 run by the Associated Board of Music Schools, or by the various academies of music in England. This helps to standardize achievement in musical education. I don't believe there is anything like this in the USA.

PEP: As with many other teachers, you have a dual career. What dual career aspects do you enjoy most and how do you handle any associated frustrations?

It is difficult sometimes finding time to practice especially after coming home late from work and when I have to prepare for a recital. I always manage to practice though. People ask me how I find the time. I tell them that no matter how busy one is with other things, if one really enjoys music it will be possible to find the time.

Although my real love is music and I can hardly wait to get home and play the piano or make MIDI sequences, I sometimes get satisfaction from my engineering work. It is the satisfaction of designing a communication system that will be of use to others, seeing that project through to completion and use.

With music the satisfaction comes from making people happy by making them feel good, and by entertaining them.

PEP: What does it take to be a "successful" musician or music educator?

I could write many pages on this subject. To be a successful musician you have to have a good understanding of the music you are performing. You should play works that you really enjoy and which are appealing to audiences. You have to be able to make your instrument sing. You must be able to create the atmosphere of happiness, sadness, excitement, and humor to suit the piece you are playing. I think one's personality, stage manner and appearance are also important.

In order to be a good teacher you have to be able to get along well with other people, provide encouragement, be able to express your views clearly, and maintain the interest of your students. You also have to really enjoy teaching and be enthusiastic about what you are doing.

PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?

The world is very competitive, especially in sports and with music. Competition is good because it promotes high standards. It is not good when a person is rejected on a single performance because they are not feeling well that day.

I once remember seeing a girl playing an unaccompanied Bach cello suite during the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Suddenly there was a tremendous "twang" and snapping sound and the cello disintegrated leaving a pile of wood on the stage. The judges just stared ahead without any expression of dismay or humor, and the poor girl left the stage and was disqualified. I thought this was quite amusing but very unfair.

Competitions can be an important stepping stone for some people to a career. Few people who win international competitions (such as the Van Cliburn, Leeds or Tchaikovsky) have the staying power to make a good career though. You may hear of that pianist for a year or so and then nothing more.

PEP: What were your best and worst: teaching experiences, performing experiences?

My best experiences were to hear that my performance was so musical and moving that I made people in the audience cry or it was so humorous that they laughed. That is a great compliment for a musician. My worst performing experiences were when people in the audience talk and make distracting noises or click cameras. Members of the audience should have respect for the performers. Fortunately it is only a small minority of
people who do this.

My best teaching experiences were when a student had practiced a piece I had given him and played it with great musicianship. There is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than to hear a student playing musically. I haven't had any bad teaching experiences, although I have had some very amusing ones such as a little girl who stopped in the middle of a piece and told me "My mummy bought me a parakeet yesterday. Would you like to see it?"

PEP: What kinds of things can parents and teachers do to maintain the interest of children in piano and good music in the face of all the distractions modern society provides?

Parents should take their children to concerts to see people playing live and to give them an idea what is involved in music making. They should be friendly with other children who are learning an instrument and should listen to each other and play together. They should go to see ballets and symphony concerts for schools such as those by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Keith Lockhart.

Since so many children are proficient at using a computer, they should use this for musical research and education. Making music with a computer and MIDI sequencing would be an excellent way to maintain a child's interest in music. Music  should always be fun and not some chore.

PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist(s) and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?

My favorite pianists include Alfred Brendel and Alicia de Larrocha. I feel that Alfred Brendel is one of the best interpreters of Schubert's piano works. The piano ceases to be a percussive instrument whenever I hear his performances. In Liszt, he generates a tremendous feeling of excitement in some of the more dramatic works.

Whenever Alicia de Larrocha is in Boston, I never miss hearing her play Spanish music by Granados and Albeniz. Her performances of  the "Iberia Suite" by Albeniz leave the audience spell bound. Whenever I hear this it brings back memories of the enjoyable times I had while I was on vacation in Spain and the Balearic Isles.

PEP: You have written many of the best classical MIDI music sequences, many of which we have heard here on PEP. What attracts you to the computer for musical expression? What would you like to see changed or improved about the process of MIDI sequencing?

I am fascinated at the way I can generate a complete symphony orchestra to accompany myself and create the illusion that I am  playing in a live concert. It offers almost unlimited opportunities for experimentation. I think of it as yet another way of making music. With the benefit of the internet, I can share these experiments with people all over the world.

There are many web pages and archives that have thousands of MIDI sequences. Some are extremely good and some are atrocious. Some people seem to believe that by merely scanning a musical score into a computer produces music. Usually every single note, whether melody or accompaniment, is at the same volume. There are no changes in tempo, numerous wrong notes, no expression, and everything is played mechanically. In my opinion this is not music. It is a complete waste of time.

I feel that anyone attempting to sequence some music should really know that music inside out. They should notice the phrasing, melodic lines, harmony, style and mood of the piece and should try and recreate this, even though it is difficult within the limitations of MIDI and present day synthesizers. This is the real challenge.

Some of the best sequences use real time recording, i.e. playing on the electric keyboard as on a real piano, and then editing the results to improve the effect. There are also some wonderful orchestral sequences that use all the possible resources and effects to make the music interesting and satisfying to listen to.

Maybe some day I will write a book about MIDI orchestration and develop a course to be used at schools and colleges if there is sufficient interest.

PEP: How did you find your way into MIDI sequencing from a background in classical piano?

A friend of mine showed me his Yamaha Clavinova piano and MIDI software and, after I saw what it was capable of doing, I went out the next day and bought one. I was fascinated how it was possible to record onto a computer's hard drive, how wrong notes could be corrected, how the tempo could be increased or decreased without altering the pitch.

My first experiments were playing the solo part of a concerto and then accompanying myself on another track. This was great fun. I spent about a year preparing piano sequences, and then I found out about synthesizers that contain samples of the sounds of orchestral instruments. I bought one of them (Roland JV1080) and then began sequencing concertos, chamber music and symphonic music.

PEP: What differences and similarities do you find between performing on a computer and a piano?

When you perform using electronic music it is possible to edit the performance so that one can perfect it as much as possible. Although correcting wrong notes and adjusting tempo and expression may be thought by some as "cheating," one can use one's musicianship and imagination to make a MIDI sequence sound as good as possible.

When one plays the piano it is not possible to do this. The performance has to be correct the first time. It usually is more spontaneous.

A real piano is far more responsive and the keyboard is more even than on an electronic piano. Sometimes a note played on an electronic keyboard a note will sound suddenly too loud or too soft, and I have to edit the note velocities to make the sound more even.

I would never give a recital on an electronic piano. There is nothing available to beat the sound of a Steinway concert grand, and I don't feel there ever will be. Maybe I am too conservative.

I regard MIDI sequencing as more experimental, challenging, and lots of fun.

PEP: Many teachers of piano have computer teaching labs in their studios with MIDI hardware. How can piano teachers best use their labs to expose their students to computer music and composing?

Computer music and MIDI can provide music teachers with an invaluable tool for teaching harmony, counterpoint and orchestration. If a good quality synthesizer is available and a computer with MIDI sequencing software such as Cakewalk, it is possible to play a sequence of orchestral music and mute some of the tracks so that different instruments or groups within the orchestra can be heard. This can be very useful in learning the repertoire and understanding about harmony and orchestration.

MIDI sequences can also be used for accompanying singers and instrumentalists. The solo part of a sequence can be muted and an instrumentalist can play along with the accompaniment. The tempo of the accompaniment can be increased or decreased without altering the pitch, or it can be easily transposed to any key to suit a singer, for example.

A MIDI sequence can be transmitted across the internet from a student to a teacher for review. Students in different schools around the world can listen to each other's performance and can take part in joint projects where they add lines of melody or accompaniment to a piece of music. Midi allows things to be done that are not possible with analog recordings. The possibilities are almost unlimited.

PEP: For our readers who might want to do classical MIDI sequencing, what tips would you give them for starting out?

I would say that they should get the best synthesizer possible since the quality of the musical reproduction depends on this.

They should also listen to some of the best piano, orchestral and concerto sequences to get an idea what is possible. Before contemplating sequencing a piece of music, it is very important to be very familiar with the music and to know how it should sound.

There are some books available (recommended on my web page, which provide an excellent introduction to the art of MIDI sequencing. These describe the technicalities of MIDI, survey the equipment available, and explain the various ways of connecting MIDI instruments and synthesizers to computers.

PEP: We receive a great deal of e-mail from parents asking how they can start their kids using a MIDI keyboard and computer. What kinds of hardware and software would you recommend to parents for children to use in starting to learn MIDI sequencing and composing?

As a minimum, they should have a general MIDI compatible electric keyboard for putting in the notes, a computer running a midi sequencing/editing program such as Cakewalk 3.0 Professional or Midisoft Studio (there are others that are good) and a good quality synthesizer or wavetable sound card (which has digitized samples of instruments). The computer processor does not have to be very high speed. A 386, 486 or a 133 MHz Pentium will do.

The Cakewalk and Midisoft programs are available for less than $100. Some versions have lots of bells and whistles such as digitized audio which are not really necessary except for advanced work. The important thing is for the program to display the staff with the MIDI notes, an event list showing the time of each note, pitch, duration, velocity, patch, controller etc. It should be easy to edit the values, i.e. type in different values. It should also be easy to put in a range of expression controllers. Cakewalk allows you to draw the shape of these controllers for making crescendos and diminuendos.

A good quality synthesizer (such as a Roland JV1080) costs around $1200 and a sound card (such as Soundblaster 64) is less than $100. If they can afford it, I would recommend the synthesizer, as that has far superior sound plus special effects such as reverb, chorus and pan. The synthesizer or sound card should have not less than 64 voice polyphony so that it can handle many tracks of instruments simultaneously without cutting some out.

PEP: Do you believe that computer software and hardware can replace or substitute for a quality private teacher in piano training? If so, how is that best brought about? If not, what is the proper role of a home computer and MIDI keyboard in piano training?

I don't believe computer software can ever replace a music teacher. The reason is that music is very subjective and emotional, and a computer cannot determine whether a piece of music is being played in the style of Chopin, or Scarlatti, for example. A computer can't offer opinions on rubato, melodic line, harmony. The most it can do is teach someone to play the correct notes and check for errors. There are some piano teaching programs available that might be a good supplementary aid for teaching, but I certainly wouldn't substitute that for a human teacher.

The proper role for an electronic keyboard and computer is to make recordings so that the student can get an idea how it sounds, for experimental purposes such as trying out different sound patches, to provide an accompaniment for a singer or another instrument, for playing duets with oneself (i.e. dubbing sound onto another track) and for learning about music.

PEP: Pretend this is your personal soapbox. What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?

I would say that music is a wonderful experience. It is tremendous fun, and everyone should have the opportunity to learn to play an instrument. Sometimes people tell me that they studied piano when they were younger but gave it up, and they regret that now. That is a pity, but one is never too old to learn to play or to take it up again.

It can be discouraging when the progress in learning a piece of music is not as rapid as one would like. I would not be put off by this but would think of the challenge and the big rewards in enjoyment of the student and listener that will come soon.

For Mr. Finley's latest MIDI sequences, great tips on MIDI sequencing, links, references and lots more, visit his Web site at You can ask questions of Mr. Finley by e-mail to:

Page created: 9/29/98
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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