Holiday Shopping? A Review of the Piano Wizard

12/16/2009

Music WizardMusical ability is not a strong suit of anyone in my family; I believe the last time I picked up an instrument was for a mandatory recorder recital in the third grade (“Senor Don Gato”). So it came as something of a surprise that twenty minutes after walking into the office of Music Wizard I was hammering out Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” like it was nine o’clock on a Saturday.

Music Wizard produces Piano Wizard, a keyboard and software combination that provides a gentle onramp for piano instruction. Once plugged into a computer (Windows or Mac), the system begins by first treating musical notes as a game – similar to the popular titles Rock Band and Guitar Hero – only with Piano Wizard the student is matching the correct color-coded piano key to its corresponding note. Students have control over the tempo, allowing them to slow or speed a given song depending upon their comfort levels. Once the song is over the software provides a scorecard that reports on the percentage of notes the student played correctly. My fumbling with the Billy Joel classic earned me a 93% on my second try.

From this most basic level, where the notes ascend the screen vertically in line with the keys, the software guides the student to interpret the game horizontally (as musical notes are written). At a third level the pupil sees the chords in color-coded musical notation, while the final level removes the color training wheels and has the student reading music. Glen Miller, head of sales for the four-year-old Boulder-based company, believes that easing into the language of sound “is the best way to determine if your child has a real interest in learning music.”

The basic Music Wizard comes with the keyboard (with a USB cable to attach to a computer) and software, which includes 200 songs that Miller describes as “the traditional piano teaching curriculum,” a variety spanning “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to Beethoven and Chopin. Billy Joel ballads and other popular songs are not part of the package yet due to digital rights and royalty issues, a problem the company has recently overcome by inking a deal with the music publisher Hal Leonard. Within three to four months Music Wizard will launch WizardTunes.com, an iTunes-like service that will allow students to download sheet music into the Piano Wizard for $0.99 a song, choosing from over 40,000 titles including the aforementioned Joel, Toby Keith, and the Black Eyed Peas.

In recent months the company has launched the Music Academy package, an upgrade that includes a DVD series featuring fifty piano lessons conducted by Don Beatty, Dean of Music at Southern Illinois University and President of the American Beethoven Society. Dean Beatty’s instruction is aimed at the parent encouraging the student, offering a roadmap in how to best teach the pupil phrasing, posture, dynamics and technique. Miller reports that the robust demand for Music Academy caught the company a bit off guard, as the product has gained a considerable following in the home school market.
The basic package is currently priced at $200, while the Music Academy retails for $550. In addressing the cost of the Academy package, Miller explains that the DVDs not only cover the same ground as two years of in-person lessons – the cost of which he estimates at around $5000 – but they can also be handed down to brothers, sisters and cousins. Miller is quick to point out, however, that consumers can also buy the lessons separately to space out the cost.

While it’s unlikely I’ll be asked to jam with a band anytime soon, my takeaway from sitting with the Piano Wizard for a half hour was a small taste of success followed by a groundswell of ambition. Like a video game, as soon as one song was finished I had in mind multiple strategies for how I might score higher (and play better) during the next go round. I sought to master the basic level so I could advance to the next. I found that when put in the proper context, I likely would have practiced the Piano Wizard without the need of gentle reminders. For many parents out there, the Piano Wizard just might be the gift that sparks an interest that last a lifetime.