Music teachers will get plenty of sounds, lots of programme tricks and an enormous number of creative and enjoyable opportunities from the latest range of keyboards, reports Gerald Haigh. Ten years ago, if you had an electronic keyboard in a school concert, people would drift up at the end to peer and poke at it. Now the keyboard is an established instrument, distinct both from the piano, from which it borrows the basic key layout, and the electronic organ, with which it shares a lot of technology.
The attraction of the keyboard for school use is simply that you get plenty of sounds and programming tricks for not much money.
With 10 headphone-equipped keyboards in a music room, for example, you can cover large tracts of the music national curriculum in an enjoyable and highly creative way as the pupils experiment, compose and play in a medium which sits comfortably in their own cultural world.
The manufacturers, as I confirmed on a recent visit to Casio's UK headquarters in North London, are not only pushing ahead with the technology but, importantly from the point of view of schools, are driving down prices so that for the money which would have bought a very basic instrument five years ago, you can now have something altogether more sophisticated.
The various layers of complication of Casio instruments go something like this. At Pounds 89.99 there is the CA-110 four octaves, full-sized keys, 100 rhythm patterns, 100 sounds. At Pounds 129.99 the CTK-450 has five octaves (a lot of the standard classical repertoire is playable on five octaves).
A little further on, the CTK-500, at Pounds 149.99, has the facility to "remember" a played-in accompaniment. This is a useful learning aid, because a pupil can practise and shape a tune against a pre-recorded accompaniment.
When the pianoforte was first invented, its overwhelming advantage lay in the fact that it played loudly or softly, depending on how hard you struck the keys hence the instrument's name.
This touch-sensitivity is difficult to reproduce electronically, and only the best digital pianos do the job properly. Some cheaper keyboards have a good shot at it, though, and in the Casio range touch-sensitivity starts with the CTK550 (Pounds 249.99). Any piano- playing teacher wanting to use the keyboard as a portable substitute should look at instruments at this level.
The real breakthrough lies in the way that MIDI (Musical Instruments Digital Interface), once only affordable by studios and rock bands, has been brought right down the price range the MIDI-equipped Casio CTK-650, for example, costs Pounds 349.99.
A MIDI-equipped instrument will not only talk to other instruments, so that you can play the sounds of one through the other, but will allow the instrument to connect to a computer. Thus, with suitable music software, you can compose, arrange and edit music on screen, using the sounds from the keyboard.
The combination of MIDI keyboard, computer and composing software is now well within the financial reach of all schools, and as both secondaries and primaries become increasingly aware of the possibilities, it will do wonders not only for the musical education of the pupils but for the ability of teachers to write and print tunes, songs and instrumental parts for their classes and groups. It is another example of how the computer can return previously elitist activities to popular ownership.
Casio's current offering to schools in this area consists of a very good MIDI-equipped keyboard, bundled together with appropriate interface and Cubase Lite music software for PC (total price of Pounds 450). A further reduction is in the offing, as Casio will shortly launch an even less expensive MIDI keyboard. At this sort of price, no music teacher should ever again have to sit at home spending hours writing out classroom music, or orchestral parts, by hand (heads and governors take note).
The only problem and it is a real one is that, as with all technology, teachers need time to explore it and learn what it can do for them. Opportunities for doing this are not as common as they should be.
Some further education colleges advertise introductory courses in music technology. Casio itself is sponsoring a series of one-day courses around the country which will be taught by Creative Education and accredited by Bretton Hall College.
Casio Electronics, Unit 6, 1,000 North Circular Road, London NW2 7JD Creative Education, 238 Sanderstead Road, South Croydon, Surrey CR2 0AJ.