Piano Wizards

Plenty of kids wind up press-ganged into the car, driven to a house that smells of cats and shouted at as they mangle Mozart, but it’s seldom fun. Consequently, I was intrigued when I was presented with Allegro Rainbow’s Piano Wizard. While Oregon Trail taught me a little about heading out west – naming a character BUTTS added to the hilarity when it died horribly – and Mavis Beacon was one hot babe, I’d seldom experienced a program that combined enlightenment and entertainment in a significant fashion. Playing through “Piano Man” in a DDR-style rhythm game with a full-size keyboard was fun, but then they upped the difficulty, and I recognized the strange shapes moving across the screen. It was my old enemy: Musical notation. Merciful heavens, I was learning. What manner of sorcery was this?

Chris Salter, Allegro Rainbow’s CEO, has been carrying this particular vision – fun meets learning – for quite a long time. “I have double degrees in Linguistics and Music, and a Master’s from UCLA. I’m particularly fascinated with how we learn language and how we can learn music.” During his Master’s research in Brazil, that sort of learning was his focus, and he “saw the relationship of visual anticipation and cues to learning rhythm and guitar and realized that would be a huge asset if we could incorporate that into a game.”

His post-grad career of selling voice recognition software and joysticks at trade shows led Chris to a realization. “If I could build it and show it to people, I could definitely sell it,” he says. “And that gave me the courage to start this company.” He managed to find an entrepreneurial support network and raise the funds to start the company in 2001. “We were able to raise money even in that challenging market,” Chris says, after reflecting forming a company in the middle of the dot-com recession probably wasn’t the best time to do so.

He called his company “one of those overnight sensations,” but from talking to him, it’s clear that these are the fruits of a long labor of love. And it feels like this man and this company are on the cusp of something big. Maybe it’s the business relationships he describes as we continue talking about the business side of Allegro Rainbow. “A lot of our strategic partnerships are all coming into alignment and fruition, and those are kind of the key to our ability to get very big very quickly. Because we’re just software and intellectual property. We’re not a hardware company. We don’t build pianos or keyboards. We certainly don’t have computers. We’re not really content providers or creators of content, either. We just have an amazing engine that lets virtually anyone take virtually any piece of music and play it.”

Business logic dictates that they will need people who do those things, which has been the key in developing these partnerships. “For example, Fisher-Price in the toy industry embraced it very early on; about a year and a half ago, they approached us and wanted to take it into the toy market as an educational toy.”

Apple is another key partner, he says. “With [Apple], they are huge in the education department, but one of the things we really need to show off the game is computers. And if we can help them sell more computers, they love that. … We can help them transition iPod users into Mac users.” As we spoke, he was working on a deal to demonstrate the game in 50 Apple stores. The key difference between his company and the rest is: “We are really about people who want to be musicians or want their kids to be musicians, not a niche market of musicians. That’s a much, much bigger market.”

Perhaps remembering the cranky old teachers of my youth, I asked about that much bigger market, and whether he’s run into any resistance bringing his game out into the world. “First of all,” he responds, “we have people who are in the trenches, working with kids, and they embrace it right away. Anything to get the kids excited. And if we have the time to educate them about the way we’re transitioning to musical notation, I would say two-thirds to three-quarters of those teachers and educators, at that point, they’re very excited [because they realize that] under no circumstances do we think this is a replacement for a piano teacher or a music teacher.” In fact, it makes their lives easier by doing two things: “This game teaches notes very, very well. It lets kids practice very, very well,” but he emphasizes that Piano Wizard doesn’t teach the rest of it, saying, “It does not teach phrasing, dynamics, interpretation, all the art of music has to be taught by a human being, that’s just clear to us. And the kids will reach bottlenecks anyway with their techniques, fingering and so on.”

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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.

While the idea for Piano Wizard had been percolating for a while, there was something about the When that intrigued me. After carrying an idea around for 10 years, why now? “I really thought I would get a brain tumor if I didn’t get this out of my head,” he said, laughing. “It just made too much sense. I mean, this was something that I could see would help not only myself, but millions of people, really. I have used this … this kind of bizarre study of languages and music. I kind of practiced this musical code in a sense, and I could see that this would help a lot of people.”

He describes his role as, “My role is as the producer, if you want to look at it like that. I’m the visionary who had the idea of the game design; when we had to choose between excitement and educational, we chose educational. With the 3-D worlds they have now, they can get so immersive and distracting that the music would be lost, and we didn’t want that to happen. Education is always our primary consideration, but the game has to seduce the kids into playing the notes the right length or at the right tempo. So we’ve done that with kind of that bifocal agenda. Know that the kids have to love it, or it doesn’t matter. And parents have to understand where it’s going, or it doesn’t matter. We’ve been able to straddle that.”

“I believe that if I can expose this, this can be something for generations to help, a new way for people to learn music,” he says, by way of closing. “And that our goal here is that this year, we’re going to get on the map, we’re going to get in the consciousness of the United States. There’s so much skepticism in the world about music education. Many of our memories are so painful, and there’s some doubts to overcome, and I appreciate your help. If we could just get the world to line up and play it, we’d be home free.”

In 1972, Shannon Drake was sent to prison by a military court for a crime he didn’t commit. He promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.

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