Not too long ago (say, way back in the 1990s), if you wanted to learn to play the piano, you basically had two options: you could find a teacher and take traditional lessons, or you could buy a book and try to teach yourself. With the growth of the internet and the arrival of smart mobile devices, those opportunities have expanded considerably.
Google a basic phrase such as "piano lessons" or "learn piano," and you will instantly see an array of online and app-based options. There are video lessons, virtual lessons, and step-by-step tutorials. There are apps to help you drill reading, rhythm, theory, and aural skills. The range of options seems endless (Google notes that there are "about" 75 million results for the search "learn piano").
What does this mean for piano teachers? What does it mean for students? Are there viable options for self-instruction? If so, are they a threat or a boon to established teachers? Many worry, perhaps rightly so, that these programs are taking students away from regular lessons and giving them an inferior product. The ease of access and low cost make them appear to be difficult competition.
On the other hand, these programs might have some benefit. Perhaps they expose more people to piano playing—people who would never take private lessons to begin with. More pianists in the world is ultimately a good thing for piano teachers. If there are limitations to their instruction, perhaps some of these customers would be encouraged to seek out a private teacher to make further progress.
There are valid concerns for this type of instruction—I for one, don't believe that an app can ever replace the care, wisdom, and craft of a master teacher. At the same time, there are some aspects of many of these programs that can enhance and expand upon a traditional teaching experience. Many of the apps are designed to work with traditional instruction, and teachers can set up accounts to monitor their students' progress. Some teachers find that allowing these programs to take care of some of the routine aspects of practice can free up lesson time for more creative pursuits.
Our goal in this series is to present you with information that you can use to evaluate and make informed decisions. Whether you plan to use any of these resources with your students or not, it is probably wise to know about their existence and their capabilities. This can help you understand what your students are doing with them and what others, who may or may not be potential students for you, are doing with them.
• PRICE: Varied tiers ranging from free to $14.99/month (with annual subscription). Top tier includes unlimited access to all content for teachers and all of their students.
• SYSTEMS: Only available on the iPad
• EQUIPMENT: Just a keyboard or piano. Note: no special cords or interfaces are necessary to use this app.
• OPTIONAL: Speakers
• WEBSITE: joytunes.com
• Large library of repertoire and teaching materials
• No cords or MIDI required; works with any acoustic or digital instrument
• Game-like approach
• Weekly emails chart student progress
• Records performances for easy sharing with family and friends
• Only available on iPad
• Audio will not play back through Bluetooth speakers
In the past few years, Piano Maestro has taken the piano teaching world by storm, revolutionizing the way some cutting edge teachers run their studios. Think of Piano Maestro as the musical version of Angry Birds—a fun game that students love to play over and over. At a time when many piano teachers are struggling to keep their students motivated in a screen-centered world, Piano Maestro helps bridge the worlds of practice and gaming. Whether the excitement comes from the game itself, or from the opportunity to play intriguing pieces such as Hedwig's Theme (from the Harry Potter film franchise), Piano Maestro helps deliver enthusiasm and interest to the weekly lesson.
Piano Maestro is a digital music-learning app available for the iPad, and it functions as a virtual teaching assistant. It turns learning to read music at the piano into a fun, engaging, and innovative game. For each song, the student plays music as it scrolls across the screen along with a backing track. The app "listens" to the student and instantly analyzes whether the student has played the correct notes and rhythm. The notes turn green when the app hears the note played at the correct time; notes turn red when the app detects a mistake. At the end of the challenge, the student receives a grade and earns points.
The object is to accumulate as many points as possible.
The app provides different practice options that are adjustable when reading the score. For instance, the student can choose to read one hand at a time, view the names of the notes in the note heads, stop the music when a wrong note is played, and/or slow the metronome marking. These parameters are referred to as "assists," and, if used, they will deduct points from the student's final score.
When teachers purchase the My Studio or Studio + Home subscription, their students can create accounts for free. Studio + Home ($14.99/month when an annual subscription is purchased) includes unlimited access to all materials for all of a teacher's students. The teacher downloads the app and then invites students via an email link. When a student registers, a profile is created. These profiles will appear in the teacher's app, and from there a teacher can start diving into the different repertoire and exercise options that are offered.
Piano Maestro has many different types of pieces you can choose from. It even has its own version of a piano method called Journey. If you want to use the app for other pieces, there are hundreds of other options at your fingertips. Those include arrangements of songs in a variety of categories, including holiday, folk, musicals, pop, rock, and kids, just to name a few. There is also a separate category for exercises such as five-finger patterns, arpeggios, scales, rhythm, and sight-reading. Lastly, there are various other popular methods that are available for use: Alfred's Premier Piano Course, Alfred's Basic Piano Library, Music for Little Mozarts, The Hal Leonard Student Piano Library, Piano Pronto, Tales of a Musical Journey, and a few more. New additions are added quite frequently.
After a student has chosen a piece, three different learning modes are presented: Play, Learn, and Home Challenge. The Learn mode lists various practice steps that the student should go through to master the piece.
Each step must be mastered to unlock the next practice step and move forward, and work on those steps can include use of the various "assists."
Play mode requires the piece to be played up to performance tempo without any "assists." Home Challenge is selected when a teacher wants a student to work on a piece at home.
When students click on the piece on their iPads, they can either play or learn the piece, with Learn mode providing pre-loaded practice steps to work through. I could see the Home Challenge substituting as an assignment sheet for certain students.
There are two vehicles for playing each piece. You have the choice to use the keyboard displayed on the screen (touch piano) or your own piano or keyboard (acoustic piano). I found the use of your own keyboard or piano, which the iPad listens to through its builtin microphone, to be the best way to use the program. One of the great features of Piano Maestro is its ability to work with any piano—no cables or MIDI required.
In my experience, the only time the touch (on screen) piano worked was with elementary students when the music did not require many notes. The size of the notes on the screen adjusts to meet the requirements of the piece, so anything that goes beyond a basic fivefinger position generates a keyboard with notes that are impossibly small.
Some pieces are designated by Piano Maestro as being too difficult for the use of the touch piano.
There are two functions that this app has that I found to be particularly unique and appealing. First, a score screen appears at the completion of a piece. On this screen, there is a "share the moment" tab that enables students to send a virtual postcard of the performance to a parent, grandparent, or anyone they choose. Secondly, a weekly email report is sent to the teacher for each student. Each email lists the number of sessions the student practiced, time spent, songs played, and the number of stars the student received on each song. This is a perfect way to keep track of how much time your students are practicing and how well they are doing.
I have used this app with mostly late-beginning students, and they have loved it. Time and time again, students have come into their lessons exclaiming how much they practiced with pure joy in their eyes. Parents, too, have stated how much fun their children are having with the app. I can honestly say that the excitement level elicited by this app is truly unrivaled by anything else I have tried. I have implemented it in private lessons and for at-home assignments. I have also found that it worked quite well for sight-reading exercises and has served as a great resource for supplemental material.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the app is the backing tracks that are featured. They give students a chance to see and HEAR the music in motion. In addition, the vast library of music available to teachers is incredible. I see this app and others like it as the next generation of CDs. I hope that more published methods become available on Piano Maestro, so that every teacher can incorporate the app into their mode of teaching.
One of the downsides of the app is that it is only available on the iPad. For something so motivating, Piano Maestro should think about expanding the app to other devices and operating systems. While I could imagine the program running on a laptop, that may not be the most ideal scenario. The appeal of the iPad is its portability and how easily it sits on the music rack. The speaker on the iPad does not compete with the volume of an acoustic piano, so connecting it to portable speakers is the best option to amplify the sound. Unfortunately, Bluetooth speakers do not work due to a technical limitation of the software, so connecting speakers via a headphone jack is the best option.
I have experienced some instances where the app does not hear the note correctly, but this has not happened enough to dissuade me from using the product. It can present a precarious situation with a child who is all about those points!
While I do believe some aspects of this app are revolutionary, there is no substitute for great teaching. Some may call it a gimmick, but there is value in meeting our students in their world. It can do wonders for motivation, and serve as an excellent connection between piano lessons and the screens with which our students spend so much time.
Piano Maestro is produced by JoyTunes, the creator of two additional free applications: Piano Dust Buster and Simply Piano.