The Piano Education Page - Ten Years On
by John M.
hen we started The Piano Education Page in 1995, the Internet was a very different "place." There were well under a million World Wide Web pages (cf. over 40 billion now). "Spam" and computer viruses were almost unheard of. Large corporations were only beginning to discover the potential of the Internet. Most Web sites were completely free of advertising. About the only people who had ever even heard of "the Internet" were computer "geeks", some scientists and university professors, and a few people with personal connections to those groups.
Although most Internet sites then were educational in focus, the Internet was, by no means, the essential research tool that it has become. In fact, in 1995, you could just about count every significant piano-related site on the fingers of your hands (or, perhaps, letter them A-G) and correspond every significant piano education site with the number of times you've stretched two octaves! This article tells something of the story behind The Piano Education Page - why we started it, how it developed into what you see today, what drives us to do it, and how we run it. I hope that this will answer some of the many inquiries we have gotten over the years about the site and, perhaps, serve as a fitting recognition for PEP's tenth anniversary as a resource for students, teachers and pianists all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this article, thank those who make The Piano Education Page possible or just talk, send us an e-mail!
A piano teacher friend, Nancy Ostromencki, and I began perusing the infant Web for piano education sites in early 1995 - with little success. The very few sites we found that were relevant to piano had almost no directly useful general piano education information. During this same period, I was writing a set of piano studio documents for Nancy's teaching studio here in Rio Rancho, NM USA. With counsel from her, I wrote an extensive Studio Manual and Resource Guide for her students and their parents, to supply the kinds of information that we had been unable to find on the Internet.
It occurred to me that, with removal of information specific to Nancy's studio and addition of Internet-specific topics like links to other sites, the Studio Manual and Resource Guide could form the basis for a useful piano education web site. I went to work on this, writing the site directly in HTML code and, slightly later, with the help of the Internet Publisher add-in for WordPerfect 6, which had just become available. With the assistance of an interested parent of one of Nancy's students, who had unused web site space on the University of New Mexico's server, we found a host for the site's files. The Piano Education Page (PEP) premiered on August 3, 1995, with about 25 pages of written material and custom graphics that I had created for the site. Within two weeks of its appearance, PEP was chosen as the NCSA/GNN "Pick of the Week", one of the first and most prestigious of web site awards at that time. With this award, and several others that followed fairly quickly, visitors and recognition for the site increased rapidly. The site continues to win awards, which number over 50 now. A partial listing of these can be found on our Recognition and Reviews page.
From its inception, we intended PEP to have "something for everybody." The initial version had Tips for Parents and Students, a specially written set of Just for Kids pages, a Teaching Studio page for piano teachers, a Competition Calendar, all kinds of information on Learning to Play the Piano, and a Musical Reference Shelf, among others. We also began involving other noteworthy piano educators and pianists in the site from that first version of PEP, with our very first Artist/Educator Interview of Professor William Leland. Dr. Leland's contributed interview set both the pattern and the standard for the extensive participation of piano educators all over the world that has characterized PEP since.
Nancy and I were careful to make sure that PEP could not only be read, but that people could interact with us by asking questions from any page on the site, simply by clicking on the e-mail links present on every page. This not only allowed us to answer specific questions, but also suggested, directly or indirectly, many of the topics for articles and tips we added to the site. Members of PEP's staff have answered more than 30,000 e-mail questions over the last ten years.
We continue to answer questions on a daily basis. Whether it's an oil platform worker off the coast of Nigeria wanting help with piano lessons, a U.S. serviceman in Kosovo or Iraq using a digital keyboard to play in spare time, a young girl from India seeking help with getting her mother to pay for lessons, a piano professor in Ulan Bator, Mongolia wanting information about training in the U.S., a performer in Moscow asking for help setting up a tour in the U.S., a Portuguese-speaking piano student in Brazil, writing in Spanish from The Piano Education Page en Español, asking for help finding piano method materials en Español, university students in the U.S. asking for our take on various aspects of piano pedagogy, or any one of thousands of other visitors from the U.S. and abroad who have written us with comments and requests, we have tried to provide information, help, counsel and encouragement for all who write us. Of course, we occasionally get requests to do homework assignments, supply pirated copies of copyrighted music and software, give free piano lessons by e-mail or fulfill other requests that we can't honor legally or morally. Sometimes, the e-mail question or comment is downright funny; we try to be gentle in answering such questions. We value and enjoy receiving the overwhelming majority of our e-mail, which is almost always complimentary to some degree.
Some of the greatest compliments we have been paid have come from other site owners. PEP has been linked in various forms by over 20,000 other pages on the Web. We have been told repeatedly by owners of other piano education sites how PEP inspired and influenced them in putting together their own sites.
Sometimes, this "emulation" has gone too far. Over the last ten years, we have insisted that more than fifty other sites on the Internet, usually commercial, remove material copied verbatim from PEP without permission or attribution. Certain of our pages get copied more than others, so we have learned to search for their content on the Web with some regularity. We monitor unauthorized reproduction to protect the value of PEP as a non-profit educational resource.
The large quantity of e-mail we received spurred us to expand the site regularly and dramatically. In PEP's first six years, we followed a policy of biweekly upgrades that resulted in a near explosive growth in size of the site from 25 pages to over 600 pages. In the last four years, we have continued with monthly upgrades, with the site now around 1000 pages in length and growing with every upgrade.
The lifeblood of an educational Internet site is regular upgrades of the sort we have done continuously for the last ten years. In addition, about every eighteen months, I have completely rewritten the site from beginning to end. The rewrites allow me to update the appearance of the site with new graphics and layout, add new features and rewrite existing articles to improve language and update information. Each "opus number" in PEP's copyright notice signifies a complete site rewrite. Thus, we are now in the eighth major version of the site. I have tried to keep PEP reasonably up-to-date with current technology, though not usually on the forefront, as forefront technology usually means forefront problems for visitors in viewing the site. This conservative approach means that we have had less than 25 reports of problems viewing PEP in the ten years of its existence; the great majority of these were easily resolved.
It takes a large amount of work to maintain and upgrade PEP regularly, given its size and scope. A typical monthly upgrade, embodying one or two new articles or reviews, involves a great deal of behind-the-scenes effort. New articles require correspondence with authors, and editing and formatting of the articles once received, usually in several iterations. Beyond the new material, an upgrade requires: changing all the music on the four pages that use it, in accordance with the current Listening Focus, adding 10 or so links to the site (after personally examining all the linked sites), notifying the site owners of their new links on PEP, checking all the existing 1300 or so external links on the site and correcting changed ones (using search engines) or removing dead ones, updating four to ten articles with new information, changing the monthly tips on the Just for Kids page, compiling a list of all the upgrades for our Premiering page, updating the home page with all the Featured Updates, updating the Table of Contents and Score, and various and sundry other maintenance tasks. In addition to these standard items, each month I must make the arrangements for reviews and interviews, write interview questions, answer 30-50 e-mails, develop article topics, write the articles or find qualified authors for them, and on and on.
Just as we have continually added new pages to the existing parts of PEP, we have also incorporated many new features on the site. One of the first additions was a section, now quite large, of Learning Materials Reviews. In these reviews, volunteer piano educators and teachers subject software, books, music and learning materials to an extensive evaluation, usually in their teaching studios, according to specific procedures and criteria. In all, we have reviewed more than 60 piano learning aids of all sorts. Because our reviews are performed by unpaid piano educators in educational settings, our visitors get unbiased, candid and detailed analyses of the materials reviewed on PEP.
Also in the first year of PEP's existence, we added piano music to PEP's home page. Later, this expanded into our Listening Focus theme feature, in which we examine a specific genre, composer, or work in background music on our home page, Just for Kids page, Audition Room page, and Listening List and Composer Resource page. We use Listening Focus to introduce people to music they may not have heard, give people a taste of the standard teaching repertoire, and help impart some appreciation for the ideas which motivate and tie music together. The theme and music for Listening Focus change with each regular upgrade of the site. The Audition Room and Listening List and Composer Resource pages have become very popular in their own rights as places to download pre-auditioned piano music in MIDI format.
Perhaps the most important new feature added to PEP in the recent past has been the PEP Forums. Started in 2003, the Forums provide yet another means for people to interact with us, exchange tips and offer their own expertise and opinions to other visitors to PEP. It has forums for teachers, parents and students, as well as forums where people can talk directly to the PEP staff or offer views on topics chosen by the staff. The Board is posted to virtually every day, both by members of PEP's staff and visitors. As with our e-mail, the Board postings have inspired several articles for PEP. The discussions among the over 300 members were lively and interesting. Several of the most active Board participants donate their time to serve as forum moderators.
Any discussion of PEP's growth would be incomplete without mention of an aspect of its growth that most English-speaking visitors don't know much about. Although PEP is an English language site, it is read all over the world. This worldwide audience includes many bilingual visitors. Over the years, the multi-lingual nature of the audience has led to several proposals to translate PEP into different foreign languages. We have rejected, with thanks and regrets, some of those proposals, because we have no one on staff who reads those languages. However, thanks to the hard work of Alicia Ahrens in old Mexico, a sizable part of the content of PEP has been translated into idiomatic Spanish. The result can be seen in The Piano Education Page en Español. As with all our other contributors, her hard work was donated to the site. Of course, formatting the translations for the Web, creating custom graphics and maintaining the sites, once established, requires additional time beyond the time required for translation, but we think our non-English-speaking visitors are worth the effort.
PEP is unusual among piano sites in having a mix of piano educators and technology buffs on its staff. Because of this we are able to provide some unique pages to our visitors, available nowhere else. For example, our Miracle Piano System FAQ provides problem-solving help for the many people who have this popular, but now out of production, learning system. The Miracle FAQ is the only one on the Web of its kind. Our article on Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio, inspired by a discussion on PEP's Forums, is another unique example of the melding of art and science that PEP constitutes. Of course, all of our articles are original to PEP, so, in that larger sense also, PEP's articles are unique.
As the site grew so rapidly in size, we realized that we needed a powerful set of search tools so that people could quickly find the information they need in the way that works best for them. To that end, PEP provides a standard keyword search page, powered by Google, to search PEP or the Web. We also have a complete Table of Contents, which lists every page on the site by hyperlinked title, organized by site structure. Our Score, a listing of pages divided into content categories is useful for those visitors who just want to find all the information of a given type (e.g. starting points for kids) or for a given visitor group (parents or piano teachers). I hope that providing different types of search tools on the site makes it easier for people to find what they need in the way that works best for them.
In addition to providing a good set of search tools, we have also worked hard, particularly in the last three years or so, to give our visitors as much help with using the site as we can. Our site Help! page has links to various documents that we have prepared to answer common questions quickly (FAQ's), provide an insider's tour of the site (Getting the Most from The Piano Education Page), or supply us with basic information needed by us to help solve problems for visitors (help request forms of various sorts). To give a somewhat different and slightly humorous take on help, we also have made available the PEP Top Ten Lists. Patterned after Dave Letterman's top ten lists, these give short answers to common problems and issues. They're certainly not as funny as Dave's, but more help in learning and teaching piano! Our help documents complement the site search tools to provide yet another means for finding quick answers on the site.
We started PEP, and it remains, as a non-commercial, family-safe source of unbiased piano education information for teachers, parents, students and pianists alike. Although we routinely receive proposals to advertise on PEP, we have kept ads completely off the site for the first fifteen years of PEP's existence. Similarly, we do not participate in "link exchanges" where we get paid every time someone follows a link on our site. Our visitors can be assured that the links we provide them are sources of useful information, not product advertisements. We have not solicited monetary donations.
Instead, we ask pianists and educators to donate their experience and expertise to the site, just as those of us on PEP's staff donate our time. Since we founded PEP, more than 50 talented educators and performers from all over the world have contributed their time and expertise, just as we have donated our time and money to the site. The server space from which PEP operates is donated and maintained by one of our public-spirited visitors. This continuing flow of good will from educators and visitors alike has allowed us to keep PEP free of advertisements and other money-making schemes, when almost all other sites have become commercialized in one sense or another. All of us in the piano education community owe these selfless contributors to PEP a debt of gratitude. Our Credits page lists all those who have donated articles and reviews for PEP.
In keeping with our non-commercial, family-safe, educational focus, we have made sure that PEP is safe for anyone of any age to read. We protect our visitors' privacy by not selling e-mail addresses or tracking their individual movements through the site. Our Site Policies document is available to anyone who wants to know how we handle these and lots of other aspects of the running of the site.
We have guarded our copyrights vigorously to protect the value of PEP as a free educational resource. However, from the inception of PEP, we have intended that the site be used in educational settings. To that end, we have granted permission for royalty-free copying of parts of PEP for use in education nearly 1000 times. These grants range from use by a single individual, to use in college piano pedagogy classes, to reproduction in studio newsletters, to use in workshops for piano teachers, just to name a few. While we place certain limitations on royalty-free copying and distribution of the site, and visitors must request permission to copy parts of PEP, as detailed in our page Reprinting from The Piano Education Page, the liberality with which we have granted free, educational-use reproduction of PEP has spread its influence well beyond just those who read it on the Internet.
Although we have never tracked an individual visitor's movements around the site, we know from e-mail that PEP's visitors come from all over the world. There are few countries in the world that we have not heard from. More recently, by analysis of the server logs, which track visitor numbers in the aggregate, we have learned a number of interesting things about PEP's visitors. On an "average" day in 2005, PEP logged about 45,000 "hits" from about 3000 different visitors. The "average" visitor reads about a dozen pages on PEP per visit, though a few view more than a hundred. For those select few, we can only say, "We're impressed!" The current visit numbers are a far cry from the first couple of weeks of PEP's availability on the web, when 25 "hits" was a good day!
From its simple beginnings, PEP has depended not only on my work, but that of pianists and educators all over the world who donate their time and expertise to the site. PEP simply would not be the same without their selfless dedication. The site will continue to grow in lots of different ways in the future. It will depend just as much on help from others willing to donate their time in return for a sense of helping others and the ability to reach a large audience on PEP. If you are a teacher or performer or person interested in piano and you have something you want to say to others with like interests, we would like your help. There are so many ways in which people can help in accordance with their wishes and special knowledge that they are too numerous to sketch here. We are willing to entertain just about any piano education-related idea. You can find out more about authoring for PEP on our page, Information for Piano Education Page Authors. If you're an educator or pianist and would like to be a part of PEP, send me an e-mail and let me know!
When Nancy and I started The Piano Education Page, we had no idea it would grow as large and as fast as it has (and will). Practically everything that has happened with the site has been a pleasant and gratifying surprise. Of all the things that have surprised me about the site, perhaps the biggest has been that so many dedicated teachers and educators have been willing to give their time and energy to it, completely unpaid, in so many important ways. My thanks go out to all of them. It has been ten years of hard work for me and others, but a "labor of love" for all of us. I'd also like to say thanks to our visitors for the inspiration, support and even the occasional laughs they have given us. We hope you'll all continue to visit (and learn from) the site and inspire us. Perhaps the most fitting close I can give this perspective is to say: "Go practice!" - but come back and find out what we've added to The Piano Education Page, too!