As music educators I wonder if we don't do enough to inform the industry about our needs. One example I would like to discuss involves keyboards. In my search for frank opinions on this topic, I recently posed the following questions to the discussion group.

  • Have you found what you consider to be the ideal MIDI keyboard for your needs? If so, what model is it and what features make it ideal for your needs?
  • Are the MIDI keyboards you have seen lacking in some definable way?
  • Do you think keyboard manufacturers are responsive to the needs of music educators?
  • If you could design a perfect keyboard for your needs, what would it be like? Describe it in detail.

I received 14 thoughtful responses to my query. Based on those responses and my own experiences I have developed a description of the perfect keyboard for use in a music education lab with a computer and MIDI keyboard at every workstation and a group education controller to manage all the audio in the lab. First let's begin with what I wish to teach.

Class Piano Applications

I wish to teach basic keyboard skills in a group setting. I want my students to have solo and ensemble experiences using a variety of timbres.

MIDI Software Applications

I wish to teach music fundamentals, notation, sequencing, and even a little sound design. I wish my students to be able to compose original music and burn their own CDs.

My Perfect Keyboard

The perfect keyboard for my needs is a simple controller keyboard with the addition of a good-quality General MIDI (GM) sound set. I really like the idea of having the names of the GM sounds printed right on the face of the keyboard. I would also have the names of the drums in the GM drum map printed right above the keys to help students when sequencing.

When the keyboard powers up, I want the piano sound to be the default and all other settings of the keyboard should reset. That will help keep my stress level down when students start playing with all the settings.

The students will use headphones. I don't need or want on-board speakers because I am using a group education controller device in the lab to manage the audio outputs of each keyboard and computer.

When the computers are in use, students will turn the volume sliders all the way down on their MIDI keyboards. This is a really simple solution to the Local Control On/Off dilemma I often hear about. The students will hear the sounds generated by the software synthesizers available on the computer. The MIDI keyboard then becomes a controller only.

When using software instruments instead of the sounds found inside the MIDI keyboard, you can create digital audio files using computer software much more quickly. Students can compose, bounce the audio to disk, and burn their own CDs in a very motivating and efficient educational environment. Today's software synthesizers have amazing sound quality. I use Reason by Propellerhead Software, Garritan Personal Orchestra, and the Symphony Orchestra Jam Pack by Apple, but I am also impressed by the free bank of General MIDI sounds found in the QuickTime Musical Instruments by Apple. A great selection of quality software synths are available for Macintosh and Windows.

Because I want the students to be able to create expressive music, I want a keyboard with both sustain and volume control pedals. Separate pitch bend and modulation wheels are also needed.

A lot of keyboards have features designed for live performance apart from a computer. These days, however, even live performers are increasingly bringing laptop computers to their gigs. In any case, on-board sequencers, sound design, and multiple banks of sounds are redundant in a lab setting that has computers.

I DON'T NEED a sequencer built into my keyboard because I am using computer software for all my sequencing needs. Software sequencers are easier to use and much more powerful than the sequencers built into keyboards.

I DON'T NEED sound design options built into my keyboard. Again, computer software does this task better and is much easier to learn. Sound design is a great thing to teach but given the superior interface available on the computer when compared to the tiny screen on a keyboard, software is the better mode for this instruction. If you teach sound design to high school students using computer software, you can focus on the concepts rather than the arcane, proprietary details of paging through the interface on a keyboard.

I DON'T NEED multiple banks of sounds on my keyboard. A single bank of good quality GM sounds will do nicely. I will use software synthesizers for all my composition needs. I would feel differently if these keyboards were to be used in live performance but that is not the case here. These are keyboards designed for use in a music education lab setting.

My Perfect Keyboard Feature Set

  • Powers up with piano selected
  • Resets all settings upon restart
  • Sustain and Volume Control Pedals
  • Separate Pitch Bend and Modulation Wheels
  • Conforms to the General MIDI II standard
  • GM sound bank listing printed on keyboard
  • GM drum names printed above the keys
  • No on-board speakers
  • No on-board sequencer
  • No on-board sound design
  • No extra sound banks

I would think a basic 5-octave controller with GM II sound set, sustain and volume pedals, and a few buttons should be possible for under $250. Here is a little drawing I put together to help me visualize my perfect keyboard for music education.


It may be that the education market isn't big enough for manufacturers to dedicate a model to such basic needs but we won't know unless the industry hears from us. If you have any thoughts you wish to share on this issue, become a member of TI:ME and post your ideas to or contact me at



by Steven Estrella
Shearspire, Inc

Steven Estrella earned a Ph.D. in music education from Temple University, a Master of Arts degree in music composition from Claremont Graduate School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Music and Psychology from Eckerd College. For ten years, Dr. Estrella served as Assistant Professor of Music Education and Director of Computer/Media Services for Temple UniversityOs Boyer College of Music. He is an active member of the National Advisory Board for the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) having served as Vice-President and currently serving as Web committee chair.

Dr. Estrella owns and operates Shearspire, Inc. and, providing Web and media development services to clients in education and business. He has completed large interactive media projects for clients such as the Berklee College of Music, the International Music Products Association, the International Association of Electronic Keyboard Manufacturers, Addison-Wesley Publishing, and McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Dr. Estrella is the author of two textbooks, The Web Wizard's Guide to Javascript, and The Web Wizard's Guide to Dynamic HTML, both published by Addison-Wesley. His current professional passion involves creating amusing and highly-interactive media to teach practical skills and concepts in music and other disciplines.

For more information about Dr. Estrella and his work, see the following sites.

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