Steinway Living Room Series - Nellie Seng | Steinway Gallery Singapore
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Technology is ubiquitous. Thus, it is hardly surprising that it has had a profound influence on the art of music in the twentieth century. How advances in technology are capable of completely transforming the learning experiences as well as approaches taken to music education. One such example lies in the innovation of autoplay pianos where musicians are now granted the ability to re-listen to pieces that have been performed, honing and perfecting their skills.  

1. Given the technological advancement today, we have access to performances on YouTube. How has that affected students’ ability when it comes to learning music? In terms of visual noise, sense of hearing, musicality and preference between classical or autoplay pianos.

In these modern times, we literally do have the ‘world at our fingertips’!

Information, entertainment and communication etc, are all important elements of life that are now so accessible. The world is literally without boundaries, even language is not an issue with the help of all the various translation apps and platforms. It is sad to say that things have gotten almost too easy that it has become ‘mission impossible’ to focus.

A parent recently said to me, “kids no longer listen to music, they watch music”. That simple statement resonated very strongly with me. Teachers are often heard complaining that students are not listening.

Hearing this statement made me ask, WHY are people no longer listening? Before the 1980s or even 90s, music was (almost) a purely auditory experience. It was not until the popularization of the DVD that music became a multi-sensorial experience, involving both audio and visual. Let’s think about it, competition applications now require participants to send in a video. The reason behind this requirement is legitimate, with visual confirmation, we know that it the participant that is performing. But why are visuals so important and how did they become so important?

A Marriage Between Advanced Technology and Artistry.

“Practice has to be about the sound, not about visual excitement.” Dr. Nellie Seng

2. But why are visuals so important and how did they become so important when it comes to learning music?

I believe that indeed, sight is the first sense that gets invoked. The most apt phrase, in this case, would be in the culinary sense, that ‘we eat with our eyes first’.

Our eyes are the windows to the world, it allows the brain to formulate a complete picture through a series of learned responses. Hence in the world of performance, the actions of a performer can suggest what something should sound like!

Will the bigger the action, the more musical one appears to the audience? Or the lift of an eyebrow, a smile or a grimace is suggestive or indicative of a mood or even a moment of technical difficulty. But action is consequential, as it always is. The action, the execution of a music note, or a phrase should be in relationship or contextual to the sound desired. Ultimately, did the action match the sound? That is the question.

With all the YouTube videos that students watch (with all good intentions in the name of learning) they imitate actions, without due consideration that everyone is an individual and physically different. The bottom line is that the actions are not understood and that the focus of music has been rerouted to the visual.

3. In what way have you tried to overcome these challenges?

In order to mitigate this, I had a black screen placed in front of the piano, shielding the performing student visually from the audience.

Students on the audience side felt that they needed to focus more and ultimately, the performance was more ‘bland’. From the performer side, upon hearing the comment, they realized that they had to focus more on the sound production in a more targeted manner, rather than simply playing in a ‘physically emotional’ fashion. This is where autoplay pianos come in handy, shifting the focal point of the experience to the audio aspects of music. No doubt, enhanced sound production is more likely to generate a positive and favourable piano performance review. 

4. In that case, how would the SPIRIO record and playback function help students in developing their ears and imagination for music? 

I think that one of the most important features of SPIRIO autoplay piano is that it allows the student to be the audience in an acoustic setting. Without any editing, the student can listen from the audience’s point of view and consider a crucial element of music that otherwise, cannot be experienced as a performer — sound projection.

In fact, there is a visual aspect to SPIRIO|r ’s playback that will enable students to understand the multiple layers of music. Here, the visuals provide tangibility and a form of measurement as well.

This is one of the most difficult “lesson” for teachers to explain and have a student understand. Any studio recording played back, even a live recording, loses a certain element that is best summed up as “je ne sais quo”.


 5. Inevitably, technology has changed the way we consume music. Nevertheless, we do not want technology to change the organics of how we understand music. Please share your thoughts with us and help us understand how much more value we can get out of a traditional piano integrated with modern technology.

Ultimately, Steinway’s SPIRIO|r autoplay and recording function fuses the best of both worlds. It is a piece of modern technology that still allows a traditional piano to be ‘itself’. That is still of utmost importance! But with the enhanced technology, it allows us to ‘see’ what sometimes our ears can’t hear. And of course, I do not really mean that the ear can’t hear, but that it brings the ear back to focus, after all the derailment that it has gone through in modern times.

Dr. Nellie Seng

Head of Studies Keyboard & Senior Lecturer,  Nanyang Academy Fine Art

As a young teen, Nellie Seng won grants and scholarships from the National Arts Council and other organisations in Singapore to embark on her early musical journey at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, England. There, she studied with Murray McLachlan.  Named as the Audi Junior Musician of the Year in 1995,

Nellie concertised widely around Europe, including solo recitals in Steinway Hall, London, Blenheim Palace, Oxford and Cannes, France. After graduating from high school, Nellie was awarded the prestigious Shell-NAC Scholarship to pursue her tertiary education at The Juilliard School, New York. Under the tutelage of Oxana Yablonskaya and Jerome Lowenthal, she earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Music Performance.

Nellie joined NAFA as a principal study lecturer after completing her doctoral studies. As a pedagogue, she strongly believes in nurturing a sense of historical awareness alongside a strong technical foundation for students to excel in their musical endeavours. Before joining NAFA, Nellie lectured in the College of Staten Island and City College of New York. Besides solo performances, she is also an avid chamber musician. She believes that interaction and collaboration between musicians to be an ongoing learning process.