Piano Wizards

Shannon Drake | 22 Aug 2006 12:00
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"They need a teacher," he says. "We can give them highly motivated, highly practiced kids who are eager to go to the next level and get the higher scores on the game and want to know how to do that. As the kids learn a few songs, they recognize the songs, and the music drives them to learn more than the game does."

They aren't waiting for the school districts to catch on, either. They're using the game as part of a guided curriculum in a program called Piano Wizard Academy, using college kids to help teach young children to play piano.

I asked to know more about the Academy, and Chris sent me to Southern Illinois University Professor Don Beattie. They go back a long way. Chris was one of his first students and they kept up over the years. Eventually, Chris showed him the program he'd developed, and Professor Beattie found it to be "a marvelous medium for people to play piano." The veteran piano instructor brought it into the classroom and found things were different right away.

The kids went right to it, for one thing. Professor Beattie told me that he and his wife don't usually teach children as young as 3, as they don't usually have the hand coordination and strength to really play piano, but they went right to Piano Wizard. More importantly, the program worked. I asked for his opinion on why, and he gave me two reasons.

"First, the game promotes music literacy," he said, telling me that many students learn how to play piano, but rely on playing by ear rather than from sheet music. Piano Wizard teaches its students to read music, but eases them into it with a system of "music first, study second." "It's a terrific practice tool, because it never really seems like you're practicing. If you center on the joy of the experience, you'll get where you want to go." Piano Wizard, he says, "meets [students] where they are, and takes them where they want to be."

The biggest remaining question I have is why the system works so well. Having played it myself and watched other people play it, it definitely grabs attention, and it is a lot of fun to play. But why does it help kids learn so well? "You can really atomize the musical process into extremely simple, achievable tasks, and then expand that as their coordination and abilities increase, and they increase pretty quickly," he says. "You see the kids hitting that tempo button, speeding the game up, almost immediately. They want more stimulation rather than less. They want to go faster, they want to get them all, and sometimes we have to back them off because music is quite challenging. As great a tool as it is, there's music out there that's very challenging, and there's music out there that's very tough to go through."

The game also speaks their language. "This is a videogame world," he says. "Kids are very multimedia, their nervous systems are extremely high stimulus." The videogame aspect is what gets them and pulls them in, and then they have the same revelation I did. "We've had kids literally say, 'Hey, I can learn to play piano with this,'" I have to interrupt him to tell him I said exactly the same thing, then let him continue. "At first, it's just hand-eye coordination for them. It's a game. I've got to get that turtle. I've got to get that rocket. That's all they're really thinking. Then, the music starts to speak to them, and pretty soon, they're real excited."

Piano Wizard's simple elegance, and the "it's just a game" aspect, obscures a deep and powerful engine. "It looks very kiddy and limited, even," Chris says, echoing a concern of mine. Color-coded keys with turtles and rockets in videogame form don't seem to convey the seriousness generally associated with piano study. "My motivation was to learn how to read music. I started with that end in mind. I started with all the complexity of musical notation, the 12-tone chromatic scale, and that's why every single part of that scale has a different color. It's not just starting with the white keys and 'Oh, what do I do about the black keys?' I started with the full chromatic scale in mind. And that being said, it allows us to plug in literally any music. It's deceptive in its simplicity. That simplicity unlocks great, great potential. We have just begun to explore that." Further explorations include a version for guitar (already under development), and possibly a similar system focusing on percussion.

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