‘There’s joy I haven’t felt for years!’ How an app finally got me hooked on the piano | Life and style

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Misplaced pride may have clouded my memories of learning the piano as a kid in the early 90s. I can still picture the piano itself, a knackered upright that was so old it had brass candleholders. I definitely remember my teacher, Issie, a local jazz musician. And I thought I’d done pretty well until … what, grade three? Maybe even four?

“Forgot you failed grade two!” came a recent WhatsApp message from my mother, who had excavated the marking form from a filing cabinet. That made two of us.

The examiner’s comments were so devastating I’m amazed they weren’t seared into my mind. “Many notes went seriously wrong” in one, unnamed piece; in another they were “confused … and then the music broke down”. My scales were “bewildered”. General remarks: “Fundamentals have to be dealt with without delay.”

How about a delay of 30 years?

A lifetime since my failure to practise prompted a family agreement that the piano wasn’t for me, I’m back at the keys. This time I don’t have a teacher to disappoint, but a dizzying range of apps and sites that are transforming the experience of millions of adults who otherwise might not have given the instrument a second glance.

In a marriage of cutting-edge and 300-year-old technology, the piano is riding high. The amateur reality show The Piano, which returns to Channel 4 for a second series next month with Lang Lang as a judge, has reinforced its status as an accessible instrument for all ages. And the interest that surged in lockdown shows no sign of slackening. Last summer, Casio recorded a 133% jump in piano sales in the week after Elton John wowed Glastonbury.

My own journey back to the ivories started shortly before Christmas when I bought a piano so that my son, Jake, who’s six, could start lessons with a tutor. I settled on a digital Yamaha (the headphones option seemed wise in our knocked-through living space). I had no plans to play myself; like my own parents, I felt as if learning the piano was a kids’ thing, like yoghurt pouches or phonics.

‘We’ve mastered a duet of Mary Had a Little Lamb’ … Simon Usborne with his son, Jake. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

That all changed when I noted that the piano came with a free trial for Flowkey. I’d never heard of this or any other piano learning apps, assuming that you needed a flesh-and-blood teacher to progress. Three months later, I’ve spent way more time at the piano than Jake. After hours of practice of the sort I used to avoid, I can play, to varying degrees of competence, songs by musicians as diverse as Handel and Billie Eilish. I’m hooked, and occasionally have to remind myself to let Jake take his turn. We’ve even mastered an extremely simple duet of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Flowkey, which works on a phone or tablet, is fiendishly clever, with sections for courses and songs. I start with the “introduction to the piano” course just to see how much I’ve forgotten in 30 years. Quite a bit, it turns out, although I’m relieved to feel at least a mild sense of recognition in my fingers. Soon the saints are marching in, the bells are jingling, the swan is on its lake and I’m bashing out Ode to Joy one handed like a precocious three-year-old.

What’s really smart is the way the app knows what I’m playing, by listening via my iPad’s microphone or by connecting to a digital piano via Bluetooth. So when I play the right, say, F-sharp, a green tick flashes above the note on the five lines of the stave, which also scrolls automatically across the screen as I play. I can select a section to repeat with one or both hands, and the scrolling pauses when I play a duff note or chord, allowing me to correct myself. A video runs above the scrolling stave of a real pianist’s hands in action.

I have a go at the next course but soon grow impatient and dip into the songs. There are hundreds, from “easy gems” and classics to pop hits from Elvis to Eilish, as well as K-pop, jazz, film themes and kids’ songs (I can confirm that Baby Shark is as irritating on the piano as anywhere else). Each song has been presented as up to four arrangements from beginner to pro level. I can start with a beginner arrangement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata before working my way up towards the full version. I can’t imagine the pile of sheet music I’d need to replicate that experience.

Jonas Gössling is one of the brains behind Berlin-based Flowkey, which started as a basic website 10 years ago. Gössling grew up playing piano as a child in Hanover in Germany but his skills were rusty by the time he graduated with a degree in industrial design. He turned to YouTube, which is full of piano tutorial videos, but “it was so frustrating,” he says. “I was always having to pause and rewind when I made a mistake or wanted to repeat parts of a song.”

It took years to perfect the interface and build relationships with music rights holders, but Flowkey took off when tech advances coincided with the pandemic and millions of us were suddenly confined to our homes and looking for ways to distract ourselves. Gössling says more than 10 million people have tried it and estimates 20% of subscribers are parents drawn in when their kids start lessons.

‘I spend ages trying to master Mad World’ … Flowkey in action. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The app’s most played songs are very middle-of-the-road (and therefore right up my street) and include the music from the film Amélie, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and plenty of Coldplay. I spend ages trying to master Mad World, the Gary Jules version of the Tears for Fears original. It’s full of flats and tricky fingering but soon starts to sound good (I even get some unsolicited praise from Jake).

I play mainly in 10-minute stints, while the kids have breakfast, during my lunch break, or just before bed as a cultural antidote to Love Is Blind. Apart from anything, brevity is better for my 41-year-old dad back, which hates stools. When muscle memory starts to kick in after sufficient repetition, there’s a joy that I haven’t felt for years as my fingers move about the keys without my conscious direction.

My social media algorithms are soon showering me with suggestions for other apps, including Yousician, Skoove, and Pianote. Simply Piano, the biggest of all, was first developed over a decade ago by Yuval and Yigal Kaminka, two brothers based in Tel Aviv, who were inspired after watching a nephew play tennis on an old Nintendo Wii. The app has a more computer-gamey feel than Flowkey but is also more rigorous, making you complete courses before songs are unlocked.

I try a family subscription and create a profile for Jake. By now he’s had a few weeks of traditional lessons and his colourful music books jostle for space on the piano stand with the family iPad. He does a basic exercise involving three notes, in his own time. Suddenly, he’s asked to play along to the SpongeBob SquarePants theme, in time. His eyes light up (he’s a big SpongeBob fan) but he finds it tricky to stick to the beat. The app senses this and pauses the song to go back to the practice mode. When SpongeBob returns, Jake keeps up. “That was sooo tricky!” he says, beaming.

Yuval Kaminka, who tells me subscriptions have gone up by more than half in the past year alone, says piano apps appeal to common desires, and the regret so many adults harbour about giving up as kids. “Imagine a pill you could take to just be able to play the piano; the entire world would take it because it’s something people crave, it has this romantic quality,” he says.

Other apps take the gaming approach further, with coloured shapes falling towards keys on the screen until the moment they need to be hit – a bit like Guitar Hero, the video game. The piano is also going virtual; PianoVision, an app for Meta Quest’s new VR headsets, lays the gaming action over the space above the piano, allowing the music to seem to float there. It also lays virtual alphabetical labels over a piano’s real keys, to which coloured prompts also appear to descend.

I wonder what piano teachers make of all this gamification of a venerable instrument. “I think they definitely serve a purpose,” says Rhiannon Dew, my son’s teacher, who’s in her 20s. She points out that the Musicians’ Union recommended £40.50 hourly rate for lessons puts them out of reach for most families. (Flowkey starts at £8.50 a month for an annual plan; Simply Piano starts at about £7 a month). She says apps are great for people who just want to have fun with a few songs or chords, but are no substitute for teachers for kids.

Alex Wibrew, a musician and teacher, runs MusicTeachers.co.uk, a platform for mostly piano tutors. He says much of the talk at a recent music education conference was about tech, and the spectre of artificial intelligence. “There was a lot of fear in the room from traditional music teachers but the conclusion was that the technology isn’t quite there to replicate even the education side of it,” he says. Then there’s the human side. “It can be intimidating to learn as an adult; they want somebody who can support and guide them through it. Apps will never replace that emotional connection.”

He’s no luddite, though, and says his own daughter, who’s eight, uses Simply Piano in addition to traditional lessons. There are signs that tutors are also benefiting from the piano craze; Wibrew says inquiries have gone up almost 40% in the past year while the number of teachers using his platform has doubled. Meanwhile the Music Industry Association tells me it is hearing anecdotal evidence that the keenest app users are graduating to real teachers.

I also have a go at Oktav, a slick German subscription site that presents sheet music as kind of interactive PDFs. It feels more authentic than the gamier apps, but I end up using Flowkey the most, playing songs obsessively until I can avoid mistakes. I have a bash at Paul McCartney and Erik Satie. I’m now trying to master Handel’s Sarabande, which was plucked from baroque obscurity in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and the intermediate version of Britney’s Baby One More Time.

It’s a joy to be able to make a nice sound, and I want to play more duets with Jake, but I wonder how good I’m actually getting. I stumble on an article about the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that describes the tendency of incompetent people to overestimate their abilities. One minute I can play Handel without a mistake. Next I might stumble while sight-reading Old McDonald in Jake’s beginners’ book.

I also wonder how hard my failed grade two exam was. I contact the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, who dig the 1993 syllabus out of their archives. I put the scan of a “Lullaby” from Twelve Easy Pieces on my iPad. That’s the part of the exam where “many notes went seriously wrong”. As I start trying to play it, I’m less lost than I would have been three months ago. But, without an app’s listening mode or an image of the keys I need to play, progress is painfully slow. Once I manage the first few bars, I, well, give up. As it turns out, the fundamentals still need to be dealt with. But, 30 years after my piano days seemed to be over, I am at least having fun.

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