Review: Piano Maestro from JoyTunes

If I wasn’t a piano teacher I definitely wouldn’t have an Ipad. I would probably be quite rude about them: they are not user friendly for viewing web pages, writing emails or filling out online forms. They are easy to drop. They attract sticky fingers. But despite these rather damning traits, they are an absolute God send for teaching. The way they captivate children’s attention is pretty amazing: the most menial and humdrum tasks get a lavish, sparkly makeover as soon as they transfer to the Ipad screen. Students who groan when you ask them to repeat this bit, or check this note or whatever diligently obey when the Ipad asks. Because it’s much more exciting than you, obviously.

The menial tasks in question are note reading (and I mean ‘analogue’ note reading, by using flash cards or something similar – not an app like Flashnote Derby) sight reading and rhythm work. Cue ‘Piano Maestro‘. It’s an iOS exclusive (sorry, everyone else) app developed by JoyTunes, whose mission is to revolutionise the way that we learn to play and practise musical instruments using gaming technology. JoyTunes apps work wirelessly with your musical instrument, listening to your playing and responding with feedback.

The concept of PianoMaestro is simple, but really effective. The app provides the student with music to play, either progressing through the ‘journey’ or selecting particular songs or method books. It is possible to choose a pace, and then the metronome counts you in. The constantly moving staff on the screen is like a ream of ribbon, and as the musical notes pass through the blue line they are to be played in time with the beat and the background music. Once they pass, they disappear, encouraging the student to look ahead, keep going, and maintain the pulse of the music.

The ‘journey’ begins with short tunes comprising of just middle C. As the student progresses through the exercises, new chapters are unlocked. The student cannot move forward in the journey until the exercises are completed to a certain standard (or if they complete a ‘bonus’ piece to a high standard).Β Students can also complement the use of their method books by selecting their pieces on PianoMaestro, which is really popular with my students because they see it as light relief! There are also popular chart songs, arrangements of well known classical pieces, religious songs and technical exercises.

In the ‘play’ mode, students can control the tempo, can select one or both hands to use, have note names on show, and to use a ‘hold on’ function that pauses the music if you hit a wrong note.Β In addition to it’s ‘play’ mode, it also has a ‘learn’ mode. This is a really clever fusion between virtual teacher and game. The piece is broken into 12 stages, like how a teacher would break up a piece into little sections. The early stages separate the hands and use a slow tempo with the addition of the ‘hold on’ function, which eventually progress to playing the whole piece hands together and slowly. However, the latter stages are only unlocked once the earlier ones are completed successfully. The student should then be ready to play the same piece in ‘play’ mode.

What’s so good about it?

Firstly, it has it’s own mascot with a big chin and a wiggly dance. For some reason this guy has all my students in stitches, which has to be a plus. It has some nice detail that my students notice and enjoy. The more accurate the playing, the more the pot at the end of the staff fills up. If everything continues to go well, the sun rises behind the music and gold stars pour from the staff.

It has a lot more going for it than just looking pretty, though. This app has been pretty much responsible for some of my more reluctant students to do a u-turn in their effective use of counting. It has also given students confidence in their sight reading abilities. Students have seen positive results with the ‘learn’ mode and have – from their own accord – used the same kind of strategy with their own pieces, and approaching new pieces in a similar way. Outside of lessons, it encourages effective and well managed practise (and as a teacher, you can set your students homework providing they have an Ipad at home).

What’s not so good about it?

Now for the one gripe. As long as you press down the correct note, at the correct time, you receive points. These points go towards your final score. However, it does not take into account how longΒ you keep a note held down for. So if you strike it, at the correct point in time, but then immediately let go and essentially ‘rest’, you still receive the points. Unfortunately i’ve noticed a few of my students doing this. Because the music is always moving forward, I anticipate that this might be something to do with having to immediately look forward and plan the next notes. Therefore, the ‘accuracy’ meter can technically allow for pretty messy playing. I was trying to explain to one of my students today (who just started doing this out of the blue) that she still needed to hold the note down for the correct value. I think that she thought because she had a high score, everything about her playing was very good. I didn’t want to contradict her three gold stars. This is a bit of a flaw.

To summarise

Use PianoMaestro as a tool to help sight reading, set homework goals, and to give students a contextual sense of musical pulse. However, be careful that they do not form bad habits. Keep an eye on touch, articulation, and dynamics as PianoMaestro does not assess these aspects.

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