I Tried to Become a Musician Using Apps and a Light-Up Piano

This story is part of a series on how we learn—from augmented reality to music-training devices.

Alex Zhang is shredding on the piano. He sits at a shiny black Steinway grand and rocks back and forth as his fingers fly across the keys, a flurry of blurred digits that leap from one end of the keyboard to the other. The piece he’s playing, “Paganini Jazz” by Turkish composer Fazil Say, is a sonic stir-fry of rapid crescendos, octave changes, and snappy jazz stylings. From my perspective, someone with no musical training whatsoever, it looks and sounds like magic.

Zhang is a spiky-haired 15-year-old (“I’m turning 16 this October!”) dressed in a black shirt and blazer. His performance is the culmination of the youth honors recital finals at the annual convention of the Music Teachers’ Association of California, held at the Santa Clara Hyatt this past June.

He closes the piece with a rousing flourish and, as the audience applauds, he stands and bows. After watching the virtuosic performances of Zhang and his fellow young musicians, I can’t help but lean back and think, “I bet I could do that.”

Rock and Roll Fantasy

How we learn to play music has stayed pretty much the same for most of human history: You get an instrument, pay someone to teach you to play it, and practice endlessly. It’s a tried-and-true combination of memorization, muscle memory, and applied theory. It takes serious time and commitment to get good, which is what makes the prospect so daunting.

But the promise of the digital revolution was that we would be able to do everything faster, better, easier. If I can watch any movie anywhere I go or have the world’s dumbest pillow delivered to my house in mere hours, then I should be able to fast-track my creative whims as well. Thankfully, technology is here to help.

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Digital technology has made music production relatively affordable and accessible. Programs like GarageBand on Mac and iOS platforms replicate a traditional recording studio. Apps like Yousician and devices like the ONE Smart Piano Light aim to facilitate foundational music learning through gamified lessons. But how much more effective are these techniques than face-to-face lessons from a human teacher?

Andrew Cooperstock, one half of the piano/violin duo Opus Two, has been a professional piano teacher for over 30 years. He embraces technology enough to use an iPad to read sheet music while he plays, but his educational approach is still mostly conventional.

“I don’t think you can really learn to play a musical instrument just by using an app or watching a video or reading a book about it,” Cooperstock says. “I think you need a teacher who can guide you.”

Now, I am no musician. I don’t know how to read music, distinguish between major and minor scales, or pronounce “arpeggio.” I don’t clap along during concerts because I always wind up being out of sync. Creating or even learning how to play music never seemed viable for me. But it’s always something I thought would be cool. Which is why I’ve decided to offer myself up as a musically challenged guinea pig.

My goal is simple: to become as proficient at playing music as I can, as quickly as I can, without the help of a teacher, and with the help of technology. I allot myself a month. By the end, I will have to produce some tangible results. It’s a crash course on the democratization of music.

In the lobby of the Hyatt, I catch up with Zhang, the teenage maestro, after his MTAC recital. He tells me he’s been playing piano since he was 5, works regularly with a professional teacher, and practices at least two hours a day. I tell him about my plan to learn to play music via apps and flashing keyboards. He seems skeptical.

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