This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. For the complete interview, you can access here.
Kristine Dizon: Hello, my name is Kristine Dizon and I'm the CEO and founder of The Modern Artist Project. Today, I'm with Alberto Acquilino, a Ph.D. researcher in computational acoustics and performance science at McGill University working on innovative technologies for music education.
He is a Tomlinson scholar and Global Leaders Program alumnus. Alberto holds three masters in music performance and mechanical engineering from universities in Italy and France. Thank you, Alberto, for joining us today.
Alberto Acquilino: Thanks for the invite, Kristine. So glad to be here.
KD: So I know I have talked about your research and your education, would it be possible to talk more about what led you on this path?
AA: Yeah, I took two different educational paths. One more physics, and mechanical engineering. I just started playing the trumpet. That is my passion to play music. I have played the trumpet since I was a kid and then I continued up to the professional level. So after my master's in engineering, I decided, why don't I merge this knowledge to, try to start a Ph.D. and actually help musicians and music students and music teachers
Through dedicated technology to be more effective and enjoy their passion for music because this is amazing. All of us know how beautiful it is. And I feel like technology has a huge potential to help that.
KD: No, that's really amazing. I mean, with all the different types of apps that are available for students for ear training, you know, even music history, music theory, the possibilities are endless today, especially with the speed of technology that we're at.
So I know you're doing your research on this and I know we've talked a little bit about what you do. Would it be possible for you to explain to our audience what you're currently doing in regard to your research?
AA: Yeah, you're right after the digital revolution, there are so many different software and apps available for free or just for subscriptions for available from music students and music teachers. And so what I'm doing what I'm focusing on, I feel like some of the apps that are commercially available, they try to kind of substitute music teacher, they try to learn by yourself for music students, which is a good approach sometimes.
You want to learn a song for the, I don't know your brother's wedding and then you just learn this song and that's it. This is the task. But music is much more than that. All of us know and so what I see also, according to studies and literature reviews on the field, the role of the teacher is not only teaching you the right notes how to play the notes, and how to play in the tempo.
It’s really diverse and I feel like it's impossible also for effective instructions to avoid heritage leaders. And so that's why I'm devising technologies that can support the teacher to extend their pedagogical potential. And this is what I'm working on. So just to include technologies for them.
KD: I think that's really great because of the fact that when we think about the music teacher, it's not just about being able to provide the information, but also being able to provide emotional support, right? Because to learn music can be sometimes really tiring or it can be also really time-consuming and being able to connect with another person as a mentor is really important.
So I think it's great that the argument you talk about, is this idea of creating technologies that help support teachers. I think it's really excellent. Could you talk more about what you're currently working on right now?
AA: Yeah, sure. There are those that are techno, you get the point. So the teacher has each of us as different. So the teacher has to use all their experiences to formulate an individual for each student, depending on the desired tasks, they deserve their goals, what they want to achieve, and also their age.
So they need to be much more flexible and the technology is still struggling to do that and probably shouldn't go that way because empathy and emotional support comes from human relationship. So what I'm working on is just to have a different exercise to target for each student to learn to be more effective and learning techniques.
So we all know about the tuner and metronome. Those are very old tools but still, they are among the most used ones in classrooms. Because why? Because they are giving a sort of visualization or in the case of the metronome, our realization of technical concepts that are not so easy to understand for music students. So for example, the tuner gives you how much your your pitch differs from the expected one that you decide the priority, and the metronome gives you a generalization of ethics of what you want. But there are other technical skills to be addressed. Each musician has to develop these personal toolboxes of technical skills so that when they perform, what exits from the instrument does not behave differently from their musical ideas. So that you can be much more expressive in what you musically want to express to your audience.
So for example, there are valuable aspects I'm focusing on teaching musical instruments such as barbed strings, wind instruments, and voice. So for example, attack clarity is one of them. How short do you achieve a steady state tone? I'm working on timber, on the quality of the resonance, and how rich the sound is. I'm working on relative tuning exercises.
So because of course tuning, the tuner is really important because you want to be consistent in tuning across dynamics, across different intervals and registers. But as soon as you play with others, it doesn't count anymore, you need to be flexible to adapt to the intonation of the others. This is not easy for a beginner because you need to develop a different skill, which is why you play to listen to the pitch of the others and adapt your pitch to that.
And this is a new skill and I feel like technology nowadays…they have all the potential to do that. And then I'm also focusing on fingering. So how to like associating with real beginners sometimes under brass musicians? So as most people know just with the same position, we can play different notes based on the harmonic series.
So for beginners, it's not easy to hit just to hit the right note. And so this kind of technology can be adjusted by the music teacher, depending on the level of the musician. And so that they can learn proper fingering and associate good tones with which position to play and then play them.
KD: This is really fascinating and I think it's gonna be very useful, especially in the classroom. So, for example, with the idea of tuning, you can adjust it. I'm just visualizing it right now. Alberto, in a way that even if it's a little off, right from what the comfort of what that person has, that they would actually be in a position where they can adapt to that tuning.
So I can imagine if you have a recording and adapting the pitch or the frequency in such a way that it forces the person or obliges them to be able to play at that tuning. That flexibility is really important, I feel.
AA: This can be done like unison is an instrument or also of course, the same note played in different harmonic contexts can have a different pitch. So you need to work a lot also not only on the technology side but also on the interface because then you really want to have something that students actually use and to use technology, this has to be perceived as useful but also has to be perceived as easy to use because you cannot give music students an interface that is too complex because they won't use it. So there is a lot of work to do that. But it's easy. I like working in collaboration with music teachers because it's an iterative process where you develop something you give to students to teachers and then you collect feedback and then you change.
So they feel part of the process. And also you're getting receiving valuable feedback from people with an experience that it's not possible otherwise to know all of that.
KD: And I think that's really great too because when we think about this idea of being open to feedback and being able to innovate and create things that people can use, I think that's really great in the sense that, having people who deal with this every day, music teachers who are constantly working towards trying to better education and being able to understand what you have to offer. It not only has the value of being able to make a great contribution but also to realize how can we make this user-friendly, which is very entrepreneurial. Alberto.
AA: You have to put everything into perspective and accept your limits because this is very interdisciplinary. So especially you want to work with good people that are experts. That's why also I left Europe to come here for my Ph.D. in Montreal Canada because there are research centers that are really state of the art that are on the edge. I feel like the environment here is really productive, and I also have to collaborate with European Universities all over the world in Asia and Australia. And ... this, I feel like you can have the means to have an impact in the music education world. And it can be entrepreneurial, it can be research, you have everything there and discussing with people. It's a good way to learn and to have more impact on what you're doing.
KD: And I think that's something important for people to know, right? The reason why I really wanted to have you on the show, Alberto, is because of the fact that you came from so many different paths, right? You know the musical one, the engineer one, being able to tie those things, your passions together in being able to create something that has the potential to make a great impact in music education and the learning of music in general for students a lot of time, sometimes I feel that when we think about beginners because you talk about beginner's and even the intermediate level students that those people who are learning music sometimes get overlooked. So is that part of the reason why you wanted to focus on creating a technology for this group?
AA: So there are different reasons. So one of them is like there is also a perception from music teachers just of technology that they kind of want to fight with technology because sometimes technology just proposes itself to substitute teachers while it's pretty obvious that they cannot. And so there is sometimes you feel like this struggle between these old approaches of music teachers to the master-apprentice model, you come to the lesson and I teach you and it's only in person, we don’t use anything about technology because it's of course, and I understand that point really much on the other side, I feel like nowadays this model requires a lot of time and for beginners, they can struggle because they don't see fast results. This is due to multiple reasons. But what I feel it's like because it takes time to learn.
With the trumpet, you can just play a single tune. You can take up to two years but that's because you don't have a visualization also on what you're doing. When I was in kindergarten, I was learning to write. So how does it work? It works. Like there is a teacher on the whiteboard on the blackboard that it's okay.
This is the letter A and then you have to write all the letter A’s on the paper, what they are doing now, it's both that but also they give you some clothes that you actually you build, you touch. So they are introducing multi-sensory experiences and those are demonstrated to be more effective in the learning process. This speeds it up.
So you can actually draw the letter, you can build it, you can touch it, you can smell it. And this is something that is not very present in music. And also Another thing and another comparison that is pretty common, it's about learning a musical instrument to learning a sport. So you have to learn a complex coordination of muscular movements to achieve the results.
But if you play tennis, for example, there are so many variables involved, that the ball can arrive from multiple directions. You have so many mass calls that participate in hitting the ball and then you have to to to send the ball into the opponent's court. So similar things are with music to have a good attack to have a good quality of sound.
But for beginners, this is not easy to perceive because this is oral perception. And if you don't have experience on how good the sounds could be, how sharp the attack can be. You're just missing something. So you learn something during the lesson. But then when you're alone and practice at home, you don't know which direction, or where to go. So what they want to do is develop these technologies that give you another sensory experience.
So like a visualization of what you have to achieve so that you can be more effective and go in a better direction. If this can be flexibly modified by the teacher, you can build a path, you can see the learning curve be much more effective, and learn faster. So this is more or less all the concept that I would like to introduce in technologies for music teachers and for music education.
KD: I love it because of the fact that it goes back to the argument you talked about, this idea of this traditional way of teaching, there's nothing wrong with that, in regards to, people who feel comfortable in that setting, who feel comfortable in that approach. But at the same time, when you think about the direction of our culture, our society, the fact of this awareness that you have in regards to meeting and need because when it comes to multisensory learning, it’s something that you want to make an impact. It's not even just about the approach anymore. If you love music enough, you will find ways to reach out to different communities which I feel like you're doing with the project.
Being able to say, people who maybe are more kinesthetic learners, have the possibility to use this as a tool. People who are more visual now have the ability to learn music in a different way. And I feel like in the sense that with our society, this is a direction that we should be going, being open-minded, not only open-minded but also with an open heart to be able to accept new things.
And I know for a fact that sometimes with new technologies and new things, a lot of people get nervous, right? If they don't fully understand the purpose, I know I'm preaching to the choir here. Right. If they don't understand its function, they're just gonna dismiss it and be like, “Well, no, thanks”, type of thing. So I think this i really cool, Alberto,
AA: This also depends on the type of feedback you give because some of the technologies out there, just provide us scores or just this is wrong and this is correct while music is an art and, to be expressive, you can break the rules and this doesn't mean that you're wrong. Also, having some technologies that where you're playing, they are checking if you're playing the right notes into in on time and gives like a red mark.
When you're missing a note, I don't think this is the most pathologically the best feedback you can give. So what they are trying to focus on is just giving a visualization of the physical concept. So for example, in the attack, I just tell you how many nearly seconds you take to achieve steady state notes so that you can train to be consistent.
But this also involves reflection because you need to understand what you're playing. That's okay. You're taking this time, but then it's up to you and also to the discussion that you have with your teacher, how to solve the problem, and how to be more consistent across the register and dynamics. And on the philosopher that we had together Kristine, it's like if you don't reflect on your experiences, you don't learn from them. So I think that technologies should point and lead the students to a point of reflection so that they can think about how they can be better, how they can achieve by themselves without having someone some technology called to tell them what to do.
KD: And I think this is really great and it also reminds me of language apps, right? You know, for example, we have Duo lingo, different types of technologies like Quizlet, and Kahoot, and the idea of Gamification. Now, when we think about the Gamification of a language, it's great, you win points like what you said, if it's green, then you're doing good, right?
The moment it turns red, then you're not so good. But how does that illustrate expressivity? You know, with what you mentioned, the idea of breaking, I love the fact that you said the idea of breaking rules and that doesn't mean that you're wrong that, and I think the thing is with a lot of the things that you mentioned, with music, we can go towards that direction.
I think we already have with the different technologies that are currently out there. But how can we actually break the barrier of demonstrating that level of expressivity? And it goes back to what you mentioned, there's no replacement for the physical music teacher.
AA: I feel like we need to make a distinction, there is music and there is a technique that needs that is needed to actually do music. And this is where technology can take place, to give feedback. As you said, it is extremely helpful to have some insight into the rules of grammar, to know the words. If you know the words, then you can express them. But so this is a cool thing to learn the technique of the language. But of course, speaking a language is a totally different thing. So Duolingo can help you to learn the basic skills, but then you need to go to a teacher and also to go out there and speak the language, It’s not about the rules, it's not about the words.
Language is about the ideas that you exchange, and the experiences that you share while dialoguing with someone. And I feel like it's similar to music because music does not have playing tunes, music is not playing on time, music is not playing with a good attack or a good sound. Music is about the expression, the expressivity that you have with the audience that can change depending on so many variables.
And this is the artistic part and this is also the part where you are looking for an artist. But you still need to develop these toolboxes of technical skills to be able to express your ideas. If you have in mind a musical phrase and you don't know how to produce it, this is constraining yourself, and your ideas. So I feel like, there's all these other expressions that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. So of course, you need to develop techniques to be able to express your ideas.
AA: I was saying that you know, we always need to remember the technique. The technique is at the service of the music. So okay, I can support you there but just remain clear. This is not music, this is not the artistic part. This is a way to be more expressive and express yourself. So that's why for my judgments and score, this is not a valuable way to give feedback because it's up to you.
You could need just a little bit of technique. It depends on you to express what you need to express and then it's limitless. You can work very hard on the technique. If you want to express much more complex musical ideas that requires no musical ideas that require much more complex technique. So imagine having a sort of Duolingo for musicians, for me to learn musical skills.
But that the path the educational path can be adjusted by the music teacher. Maybe you are very good with the Staccato, but your legato is not very good, and your Indonesian intonation is not, while, my legato and intonation Indonesian are very good, and I'm really bad at Staccato.
So our teacher can give me staccato exercises for me and change the path for you. Depending on how are we done and depending on our needs. So you can be more effective and work on what you really need to work on so that you can unlock multiple uh way of ways of expression.
KD: Yeah, and this is really great, being able to recognize like the different aspects of making those distinctions of the strengths and weaknesses of an individual, how to recognize strengths and how to bring the weaknesses up, in the sense of having those balance to one another. So that way, it allows people to develop the confidence, not even just the skills Alberto, but the confidence and tenacity to just do it, and I feel like a lot of the time with what you've mentioned earlier, with today's society, with the culture, the technology that has been coming out, we become less patient, we want things happening right away. We wanted to be boom, I want to be this player tomorrow. Whereas, you know, we have to take a step back with the example you provided when we were little, we had to learn how to write.
We had to watch, we had to copy, we had to develop the physical motor skills in able to accomplish those things, which is similar in music. And I think that's really a great distinction. Alberto, thank you. Now, the question I have for you, going back to your background with all of the different passions that you have.
And I'm so lucky to have you as a friend and to know you as a friend, in that regard, what types of advice would you give to people today who are trying to find that path, with all the technology that we have?
AA: So first of all, I mean, assigned a good teacher. This is I think one of the best suggestions and I feel like going to live concerts, is not what technology can give you. And the more I study this, the more I feel like the constraints, it's not more about technique, but it's more about musical ideas. So the more you're exposed to beautiful performances and diverse performances, the more you train your ways to expose yourself to different kinds of music, the more you cultivate different ways of expression and you can be more effective. Then after that, I would just try with curiosity with the little technique that you have and that you are improving to find ways to get motivated to play and try away to celebrate every little accomplishment in the technique and especially in the music that you have, you don't play just for you.
You play also for others and find a little way to celebrate with others. What you accomplish. I feel like this is really important if this is what keeps moving in music education or death. And this is also where the technology can take place. Because kids like Duolingo. They like this fact because they celebrate every little step.
So it's like a scaffolding to master your instrument, to master the music that you have in your head. But sometimes, especially for music, sometimes you give a lesson, an exercise to an eight-year-old kid with a trombone play and not as long as you could for eight seconds. And for them, this is extenuating.
It's really hard because of course, they are little there. They need to develop their breath. So when they go home and they play this exercise, maybe the sound is ugly, but this is not the task. So maybe they sound like they need to keep long for eight seconds. The only feedback they have is from their parents who are probably annoyed by that. So it's like negative feedback of someone singing or shut up or don't do that, but they need that.
So if you have also a technology, a very simple and stupid technology that can accomplish that, this is really cool and it would be great if you could find ways to celebrate also in the music path. So in little performances, you play for others, and I feel like this is also important for the community.
KD: And community is really important, in this light because a lot of time, when we look at, post-COVID we're coming back to normalcy, I guess you can say some sort of normalcy, right? The idea actually of what it means to reconnect with people again.
Yes, we can play. We've played for ourselves, during the lockdowns and trying to find, with what you mentioned, small reasons and I feel like those small reasons are so important, not only just for students as you mentioned, but I think for everyone to feel, some sort of joy, to feel some sort of gratification, it is a lot of work and dedication involved in being able to master these skills, these small skills that develop into this big thing that we call music. And I think that's such a gift, the direction of your career, it's really fascinating to know that you've done music and engineering and they seem such different things. What would you suggest for young professionals who are graduating college, maybe conservatory or even graduate school.
To be able to shape a career that's meaningful for them. Because it seems like with what you've done, it's like you've come to full circle, right, in regards to the things that you've been able to accomplish. The things that you've been able to do for your communities.
AA: Yes. So it really depends on what each of us likes. So I like all this knowledge that this is the way for me to put everything together and to give meaning to what I'm doing. So for musicians, to graduate musicians. I'm not the best person to give advice on that, but because I have so much into this, but I'm not really much only field but what they say also what you were as a researcher here in a music research department, I feel like in these days, there are a lot of studies are coming up demonstrating with numbers objectively. What's the impact of art and what's the impact of music education in the community? So I feel like this is a precious resource to access and to finally demonstrate what is the value of the community. Also money-wise, they can leverage based on these resources to make their work, to be more recognized and to be sustained by the government through different policies.
I feel like what you were saying before is that when you play with others, when it comes to giving meaning to your life, after this pandemic, I feel like music education and making music together have a lot of analogies with how the community works. Because when you play with others, you need to dialogue, you need to understand what, when it’s your team, when it's your musical theme and this is the moment for you to go on and express your ideas and then there is the team that is expressed by another. And so you need to go down in volume and listen to others. So, this kind of expressing ideas and listening and exchanging and sometimes what happens in music ensembles, it happens that you have a musical phrase that I need to continue and I need to listen to you to continue in a coherent way.
And this is also the evolution of the communities and all music education and being able to express it to an audience in an effective way, has a huge impact on society. Also, the role of music is not only to perform beautiful concerts, it's just to do more as a person. And being a better person, thanks to music, but without that being necessarily your job.
So this is a huge opportunity for music educators, music teachers, and musicians to be able to express it and express the value that it has on the community. We need the dialogue, especially in this period. I feel like a lot of social associations, are falling apart because they lack this dialogue and being able to continue persistently to teach that this is e invaluable.
KD: I think this is really great advice, Alberto, really genuine in the sense that when we think about the dialogue, because sometimes we have difficulties communicating, being able to find ways to connect with people in a meaningful way that, makes it so that they are seen and that they are heard and the idea of music actually taking that place or not even just music, we could look at all the disciplinary arts, right? So for example, with acting with visual art, with digital media and things like that, I think that's something that's really going to resonate a lot with our audience. So I think we're going to leave it on that note. Alberto, I want to thank you for joining us today and for sharing your experience and thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing the amazing things that you continue to do for our community.
AA: Thank you very much, Fantastico. Yeah, open to discussing The Modern Artist Project.
Kristine Dizon is a multi-faceted performer, teacher, writer, author, linguist, and entrepreneur. She is Founder & CEO of the Music & Language Learning Center, The Modern Artist Project and co-founder of the Gran Canaria International Clarinet Festival and American Single Reed Summit. She is an artist for Uebel Clarinets and Silverstein Works. Learn more at www.kristinedizon.com.