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Using Various Technologies to Provide Play-Along Recordings to Students

Boy with Ears & Music

Using Various Technologies to Provide Play-Along Recordings to Students

One of the things I feel very strongly about as a music teacher is developing the  student’s ear – early, and often. I’m not just referring to the ear training exercises that most of us probably employ, but also using recorded examples at every possible opportunity.

I could write an entire post on why I believe this is so critical to the student’s success, and why I think audio examples and play-along recordings should be used constantly from the very beginning. For now, I’ll assume that most of you are already on board with this idea, and perhaps just need some ideas for HOW to provide recordings to students.  

Hal Leonard MIDI diskAlfred MIDI Disks

MIDI Disks – Remember These?

MIDI files have long been a godsend to teachers and students alike.  Among many other benefits, MIDI enables us to slow down or speed up a recording for practice tempo, or to change the key.  If there is a difficult passage in the music, slowing the tempo way down helps the student to listen and analyze, and mentally process the section.  Starting with this slower tempo, they can play along and increase the speed as they are ready.  If the student has this available at home for practice, they are far more likely to improve. Who doesn’t like that?

Major music publishers and methods have provided accompanying MIDI disks as an option for years, and many are still available.  However, many of us now look at a floppy disk rather like a relic from the distant past. If we still own a floppy drive, it may be in a bulky, putty-colored, outdated computer, gathering dust in a corner of our basement. (I admit that I still occasionally use a portable floppy drive with a USB connection on the Clavinova.)

Enhanced CD’s

Music publishers are now providing enhanced CD’s, which contain both audio files and MIDI files which can be downloaded to your computer.  A typical scenario for the teacher is to load these MIDI files from the computer onto a USB memory stick and transfer them to a Clavinova or similar digital piano with MIDI capabilities. From there, the tempo and key, etc. can be tweaked and the new file saved for the student.

MIDI vs Audio – What Format Should We Provide to the Student?

Here is where a question arises. How do we provide the recording to the student? We could send them the MIDI file to begin with, but with questionable results. Do they have a MIDI-capable piano at home? Will the MIDI file “translate” to their brand and model? MIDI can be a bit unpredictable – what sounds fantastic on a high-end digital ensemble piano may not be able to be “interpreted” by another model. The results may range from a disappointing lack of realistic instrument timbres, to bizarre and unintelligible electronic squeaks, squawks and squeals.

Classroom with iPads

The reality is that converting the MIDI file to audio (either a WAV or mp3 file) is the best bet. With audio, what you hear is what you get, no MIDI voodoo involved.  We can also safely assume that while many students may not have a compatible MIDI instrument, most students have some method of playing an audio file:  a computer or laptop, a CD player, an iPad or other tablet, and iPod or mp3 player, or even a smartphone.

I have used this method of tweaking MIDI files and then converting them to audio for students thousands of times, and still do.  However, there are a lot of steps involved, from computer to USB to digital piano to USB to computer. In the end, I’m producing an audio file.  What if I could reduce a few steps? Or what if I don’t have a MIDI file for a particular piece, but I have perfectly good audio files that I’d like to slow down?

Tweaking Audio – An Amazing Solution!

Amazing Slow Downer

AHA! Here’s the answer! I found an application called Amazing Slow Downer, which has become my best friend.  I am sure there are other similar programs available, but I have found this one to be dead-simple to use and completely indispensable.  I can take ANY audio recording, and change the speed with a couple of clicks.  I can quickly select a section and make a practice loop that will repeat as many times as I like. I can create and save a custom audio file for the student in seconds.

I can also change the key with ASD (Amazing Slow Downer), with or without changing the speed – in semi-tones or even cents!  Changing the key too drastically can put instruments in ranges that are unnatural, especially voice. Of course, MIDI can’t deal with anything analog like the human voice at ALL, so anything that ASD can do is a bonus. Even though transposing up or down more than about 1 step can sound unnatural with human voice, I still find the pitch adjustment feature of ASD extremely valuable for my voice students.

I don’t want to sound as if I’m selling you this particular product – I don’t work for them, I promise!  However,  I do feel comfortable recommending it, because it is often included as a link on CD’s from Hal Leonard.  There are a few different versions:

  • Free Lite version
  • $14.95 for iPad, iPhone and iPad Touch – OR – Android or Kindle version
  • $49.95 Full version for Mac or Windows


The free Lite version has some limitations, of course. The Lite version does not SAVE the file that you’ve tweaked – it will only PLAY it. Using the app on my iPad can be useful in lessons for “on-the-fly” slow-downs. However, the main benefit to me is the ability to use ANY audio file, and SAVE the tweaked files to provide  to students, so I found the full version well worth $49.

Piano Classroom Kids with Headphones

Students might already have books with accompaniment CD’s – but now you can easily provide them with those audio files slowed down, or with practice loops.  Which brings us to the next step…

Organizing and Providing Recordings & Other Resources to Students

But…that’s another blog. If you guessed that Music Teacher’s Helper comes to the rescue here, you’re right!

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  1. Alex Flores

    Hi Debbie, Great article! I totally agree, being able to recreate live performing experience is a vital skill for them to learn and using audio recordings is a great way to do that. Amazing Slow Downer is primarily my favorite tool for helping students play through their songs. And as a finishing exercise I will often record entire full song backing tracks with everything but the vocals so as to encourage their listening to the beat and not the vocals.

  2. Robin Steinweg

    Helpful article, Deb. The ASD sounds like a tremendous tool for the studio. Thanks!

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