UPlay Piano

Screenshot from UPlay Piano

A Unique & Interactive Web-Based Piano Curriculum for Children

"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” A seemingly infinite choice of genres and styles corroborates this prescient quote by Plato. Yet, the number of children who might have the benefit of understanding this observation is in jeopardy. Recent studies show that participation in the performing arts by middle school-aged students has been in decline since 1991. According to a report commissioned by Child Trends, “Participation [in the performing arts] drops significantly among older students, with only 37 percent of tenth-graders and 39 percent of twelfth-graders participating in 2011.”[6] Partly because of this decline in youth participation, piano stores are increasingly closing across the US as children choose to participate in other activities.[7]

The Benefits of Music

This decline in performing arts participation has been a cause of concern for some as the benefits of engagement, particularly with music, are well documented. During the early 1990s, researchers Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw demonstrated that listening to specific Mozart piano sonatas boosted spatial reasoning skills.[8] Similarly, a decade later E. Glenn Schellenberg found small increases in the IQs of six-year-olds who were provided piano and voice lessons.[9] Many other studies have produced similar results.

Bridging Technology and Classical Piano

“In 2004, I walked into my first undergraduate class, watched as my professor tested out a few dry erase markers, quickly wrote her name on the whiteboard, and then began handing out the syllabus,” comments Lindsey Wright, D.M.A., inventor and founder of UPlay Piano. Four years later, Wright sat down in her first graduate class, opened up her MacBook Pro and took notes as her professor lectured from a PowerPoint slideshow.

Lindsey Wright, co-founder, UPlay Piano

Wright realized that in four short years the conduits with which to deliver and receive academic instruction had substantially evolved. Instructors were adapting their teaching methods to the experiences and expectations of their students. Why not extend this to music, she thought?

While working concurrently as a group piano instructor for a music store, Wright decided to develop a PowerPoint curriculum to supplement the instruction her piano class was receiving. Over the following month she noticed her students picking up key concepts at a much quicker pace. In the face of declining youth interest in music participation, Wright had found a potential solution.

“Because children use computers, iPhones, and tablets, there was a noticeable opportunity for us to reach them at their level. We decided to create our own web-based, educational piano software that would engage students who are accustomed to living in a digital generation,” Wright explains.

UPlay Piano

Wright helped develop UPlay Piano, a new web-based piano curriculum. A critical component of the software is the use of stories. Research informed her that a stimulating lesson framed in an entertaining story could enhance learning. “Online storybooks have multiple benefits,” Wright explains. “Students may not always remember what you say, but they might remember if they can see it or try it. The visual, aural, and interactive components of online stories can help a child make sense of what they are learning, and ultimately, improve their ability to retain that information.”

Each of UPlay Piano’s 30 chapters will include five modules: an animated story, a demonstration, an interactive “play” element that challenges users with musical games, a practice session, and a final test for reinforcement. Wright wanted the practice and final test sections to be interactive. “Students need to be able to practice and they can only do that on a piano,” she explains. So using funds from TVC’s Engine funding program, Wright, along with the UPlay team at the U’s School of Music commissioned the Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) program at the U to develop software that would recognize and interact with MIDI keyboards (electronic pianos). Students can now use the MIDI keyboard of their choice and the online program will recognize it.

MIDI keyboard

Wright believes that these elements, while crucial for student engagement, are only maximized when instructors or parents are involved. As such, the software will also contain a powerful backend database for administrators that will track student progress. These progress reports will show student names, usernames, grades, levels, when they last logged on, how many activities they’ve completed, and the amount of time it took each student to complete each lesson.

Results

As part of her doctoral dissertation, Wright compared the progress of elementary-aged students who were using UPlay as part of the U’s Piano Outreach Program with students who were also in the program, but not using the software. Over the course of three weeks, she noticed a remarkable difference in student comprehension and retention. “These observations were made after using a drafted version of UPlay,” explains Wright. “Imagine the affect it will have when UPlay is complete! Students were excited to discuss the stories they had read, and were eager to share what they had learned. The experience was both exciting and revealing.”

Commercialization Plans

UPlay Piano will be subscription-based through an app or available online. The company is hoping to engage piano teachers who will recommend the product as a supplement to their lessons and as a way to encourage children to play piano. The company will also sell the product to schools while the funding for the MIDI keyboards that are used will likely come from grants.

Direct competitors at the moment are few and Wright’s next milestones before a formal launch is the complete development of 30 lessons and the development of a more comprehensive database tracking function for instructors. Utilizing the beta version of UPlay, the UPlay team has already observed that instruction designed at the “student’s level” has the power to engage. This is exciting news for the aspiring musician in all of us.

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[6] “Participation in School Music or Other Performing Arts,” Child Trends, accessed September 14, 2015, http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=participation-in-school-music-or-other-performing-arts.

[7] “Piano stores closing across US as kids snub lessons for other activities,” The Guardian, January 2, 2015, accessed September 14, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jan/02/piano-stores-closing-kids-snub-lessons-compete-technology.

[8] Frances H. Rauscher, Gordon L. Shaw and Catherine N. Ky, “Music and Spatial Task Performance,” Nature 365, no. 6447 (October 1993): 611.

[9] Glenn Schellenberg, “Music Lessons Enhance IQ,” Psychological Science 15, no. 8 (August 2004): 511-514.