Interview with Peter Breugelmans – Part 1

A few weeks ago we conducted an interview with Peter Breugelmans, Lichen’s organ teacher. Peter is a proficient organ and harpsichord player and teacher, distinguished in multiple contests. In the next posts here we want to talk about some of the most interesting moments of the discussion. (The interview was recorded and Peter gave us permission to talk about it on this blog, but he preferred that the recording was not put online. This should not be a problem for discussing the content.)

In the interview we revisited some questions that were addressed earlier in this blog. One of those questions was: Can computers ever take over the role of human music teachers? Or does this require things that a computer can never do?

Peter initially would say no, but adds that we can’t predict the future. Twenty-five years ago we probably weren’t able to guess today’s technological progress either.

The big problem here is the interactivity; a computer would need extreme details and a lot of possibilities to choose from to make judgments based on what the student is doing. For example if he makes a mistake it needs to be corrected. You need to find the source of the problem and based on that a solution, which is often very specific and also different depending on the context and the student: different individuals will need a different approach. There are so many subtleties that have to be taken into account and we agreed that a computer can’t do this for now.

One of these things is the emotion or feeling of music, but Peter had some interesting things to say about this: A feeling is something subjective and personal. A computer can’t know what you feel, but if you think about it, even for humans it’s difficult: a piece can “feel good” to 2 people, but you still can’t say they feel the same when they hear it. Therefore I think it’s also not necessary for a computer to do so.

Apparently Mr. Breugelmans agrees with this because he continues with explaining that there are characteristics that give music a certain emotion, some details you can change, and those details are measurable. They can be described in an objective manner (e.g. playing certain note longer, stronger… to get a different effect).

This means that in music there is the feeling, but there are also the underlying, measurable things that provoke that feeling. According to Peter (and I fully agree with this) that’s the thing to discover about music. If you can manipulate those things then you can really play with the power of music.

In the reactions to a related post we made last semester the general idea seemed to be that a computer can be helpful, but not a full substitute for a teacher. With the previous discussion in mind (if it’s possible to objectively describe all the elements of a musical piece), I wonder if you still think the same. Let us know!

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2 Responses to Interview with Peter Breugelmans – Part 1

  1. janthesuit says:

    I agree that a computer can never be a replacement for a human listener, but in teaching, I see that as a good thing. I think we mustn’t forget there already is a human listener in the equation: the student! Maybe taking out the subjective factor that is a teacher will allow for more creativity from the learning musician’s part. Also, a ‘teaching machine’ – if complex enough – could detect infinitely more parameters at the same time than a teacher could. For example: “I, the virtual music teacher, detect that you have difficulty playing speedy bits. I also detect you keep a high muscle tension in your thumb while playing. Try to relax your thumb by taking this position…” A good teacher will also be able to do this, but maybe they’re distracted by the finger placement and a bunch of other factors they have to notice. So purely technically speaking, with a disciplined student, I think that an advanced virtual teacher is better a than a human one. That being said, there is still the factor of discipline :). I remember that I found motivation to practice because every time you see your teacher, you have to show them the progress you made… With a virtual teacher, that social pressure is gone, and I think people will give up sooner, which obviously defeats the purpose of learning something.

    • You make a very good point! The student is indeed a human listener himself, and the best way to improve is to listen critically to your own playing. This is of course not evident at the beginning, so that’s why a teacher comes in handy, but we mustn’t forget that the teacher-student relationship is a dynamic one.
      In case of a human teacher, as the student becomes better and better, the focus of the teacher shifts and at some point the teacher can benefit from this relationship too.

      This is also something we talked about with Mr. Breugelmans: He told us that he learned a lot by looking at problems he encountered with his students, problems that require him to find new or better solutions. Even at his level those things can improve his playing; The interaction is very useful.

      I also like your idea that a virtual teacher can keep track of as much parameters as needed at the same time and in that way (at least for some aspects) can be even better than a human teacher.

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