Music App Review: “Piano Maestro” by JoyTunes Embracing Technology and Sparking Motivation
by Robert Fisher, Catoctin School of Music
Ask any seasoned music teacher what they view as one of the most critical elements for success in music lesson and the words “motivation” and “practice” will move to the top of the list. As the old saying goes, “the teacher opens the door, but the student must walk through it”. In a time where attention spans are seemingly shrinking, the arts are often pitted against other “entertainment” or activities such as video games, and any print media (be it books, magazines and yes, print music) is viewed as “old fashioned.” It is no wonder that many students, especially those in Gen Z, find it challenging to establish practice habits and routines using what some may even view as “archaic” tools of the trade. Whether we like it or not, we live in a time where a whole new generation of students is growing up with no concept of a pre-digital, pre-connected, hard copy driven world and most have had access to an overabundance of connected tech and touchscreens from birth. Though some may still opt to defy the trend of using digital media, content and tools in lessons, for a growing majority of students, a blend of using digital learning and tools is often how these students have grown to operate and learn in the classroom setting and beyond.
Thankfully, for Piano instructors, there is an amazing app called “Piano Maestro”, by the famed developers at “JoyTunes”, who developed one of the first and most popular self-teaching piano apps, SimplyPiano. With SimplyPiano easily ranking as one of the top “self-teaching” piano apps available on both Apple and Android devices, Piano Maestro was an obvious and natural expansion of the concept of using digital applications to aid in the training on piano. Geared more for use with a Piano instructor, Piano Maestro has risen in popularity as one of the top piano training apps on the Apple app store.
What is Piano Maestro?
Piano Maestro is a piano-education app designed for use with students and their piano instructors. Developed by Israel-based company, JoyTunes, this app has risen to the highest rankings in the App store for its innovative use of the iPad’s hardware features (microphone/speakers) along with the use of a real piano to interact with music in the app. Founded in 2011 in Tel Aviv, Israel, JoyTunes launched with apps like Simply Piano, and eventually expanded their offerings to include teacher-centered apps such as Piano Maestro and Piano DustBuster. The Piano Maestro app offers students the ability to read music live on a screen, which scrolls along with background accompaniment music tracks. Students play music, in time and the app utilizes the onboard iPad microphone (or direct MIDI cable input options are available) to detect different note pitches played and gives an overall assessment score at the end of each song. Students are rated on note and rhythm accuracy and awarded points for accuracy. Students can earn “stars” (points) through practice modes (called “Learn”) and performance modes (called “Play”). The more stars/points earned, the higher students rank and with each new level students are given nicknames to celebrate their achievements (think “Rookie” turns into “Maestro” and so on). On occasion, Piano Maestro holds month-long competitions and those students who achieve the highest rankings (3 stars) on select songs are automatically entered into a randomized drawing for prizes (including Amazon gift cards!). Talk about a little motivation to practice!
What makes Piano Maestro different than other music apps on the market?
Piano Maestro, unlike other apps touted as ways to “learn” piano, is truly innovative in its approach to using technology to read and learn music. Though any student could theoretically use the Piano Maestro app to begin “self-teaching” basic note placement and reading, this app was originally designed with the Piano teacher in mind. For students to gain the full benefit and make the most progress in learning, students should use this app in combination with guidance from a teacher at lessons. JoyTunes actually limits what content/material is available for “free” for students signing up and though parents do have the option to pay for a full “home” subscription to give access to their child, the primary and recommended way of gaining full access to all that Piano Maestro has to offer is through a Piano instructor who subscribes to a full Studio version of this app.
Piano Maestro has thousands of songs available for study, spanning a wide selection of levels, genres and styles (Classical, Pop, Rock, Movie, Video Game, International, Christian Worship). What is surprising is to the wide variety of popular and recently popular modern tunes. JoyTunes regularly partners with major labels and studios to offer renditions of songs your students may know from streaming services, movies, videos games and more. One of the joys of using this app is seeing students beam with excitement seeing their favorite singers and song titles offered in the expanding song “Library”. This list is regularly refreshed with new tunes and at the time of writing, is currently being expanded with songs from famous Disney movies.
For teachers, JoyTunes has partnered with several Method book publishers (including Alfred, Hal Leonard, Martha Mier, and more) to offer digital method companion “books” that may be used alongside print book copies of music. Students can use these digital renditions of songs found in their print books to either learn or “test” note and rhythm accuracy and some method books songs even have background accompaniment to add another dimension to learning method material. Not all levels and books in these method series are included, but it is encouraging to see the current offerings/levels. Hopefully, JoyTunes will be able to acquire the license and ability to offer even more comprehensive method companions in the future.
In addition to methods, there is a decent selection of basic beginning classical literature, including exercise books (Hanon, Czerny, Berens) and a full set of basic technical exercises including Major and Minor scales, chords and arpeggios. Piano Maestro also has a selection of “Sightreading” drills and exercises which offers students yet another way to challenge and practice these skills using a fun and engaging digital equivalent to traditional “flash cards”. In addition, every exercise and song is graded according to difficulty, often with multiple variations of the same work ranging from easy, medium and hard. All exercises, methods and songs can be modified using built-in tools to help with practice including pause, rewind, metronome speed changes, hand-specific practice and note name review. Overall, the ability to turn basic warm-ups and practice drills into a “game” makes it easy to see why so many students (and teachers) enjoy integrating this app into lessons and home assignment practice. The ability to turn rote and routine drills into a fun and interactive game-like experience certainly highlights the power of integrating digital technology as a positive tool for learning.
As a teacher, Piano Maestro allows you to offer its full feature to your entire studio for free (if you pay for a teacher subscription). This allows you to offer the same features and library of music to all your students under a single subscription and the price stays the same no matter the size of your studio! This is an incredible value added with the ability to integrate digital music/practice technology into lessons and if you opt to pay for a Studio +Home subscriptions, your students can continue the learning at home on their own personal devices. Better yet, all student profiles connected to our teacher account can be monitored by you and the app even provides teachers with the ability to save “Home Challenge” (homework) assignments to individual or cross-studio accounts while also tracking and charting practice time for each student! No more wondering if a student is practicing or not! In the app, when playing a song successfully (earning 3 stars!) in a performance, there is an additional feature to “email” the song recording and picture snapshot (optional) of your student to their parents! This tool adds an incredibly fun and convenient way to chart, capture and share progress between the studio and home.
What are the limitations of this app?
As with most things, there are a few limitations with this app that you should be aware of when considering its use in your piano studio:
Cost: Though the app is free for all to download and create an account, you are limited to only a smattering of songs, exercises, and repertoire. This is great for beginners simply looking to learn how to use this app or explore some of its features, however, there is an additional cost to use gain full access to the thousands of songs, methods and exercises available. JoyTunes employs a full team at its headquarters and worldwide to manage, maintain and regularly update features and content in this app. Licensing with major publishers and major studios certainly adds to the cost of creating and using licensed content, however, the use of popular and recognizable music is one of the drawing features of this app. Families may opt to purchase a subscription with full access at a cost, however, there is also an option for teachers to purchase Studio subscriptions which grants all students in your studio complete access to full features. Students must be registered and connected to your account in order to “join” your studio in the app, however, you are granted an unlimited number of students profiles to connect within your personal studio, which is an added value to your lesson offerings.
At the time of this publishing, JoyTunes lists the following price structure for subscription (there is also a pricing calculator available on their website):
My Studio is $12.99/month, or $9.99/month in an annual plan.
Unlimited access for the teacher/students, at the lessons studio
Studio+ Home is $19.99/month, or $14.99/month in an annual plan
Unlimited access for the teacher/students, at the lessons studio AND at home on their own devices!
Methods/Repertoire: With thousands of exercises, individual songs and method book companion songs, Piano Maestro has a LOT going on for most students. The app primarily targets, however, the younger beginner and this is evidenced right out the gates with the fun, cartoon animated opening screens and fun animations. Many of my Middle School and even High School students find these entertaining, if not a little juvenile, but most seem to find the app an entertaining diversion in practicing rote drills, scales, and etudes requiring repetitive technique practice. JoyTunes does try to appeal to slightly older students by also licensing songs from various popular artists, however, it is evident that the primary intended user is elementary through early middle school age pianists. Several methods (an Alfred “Group Adult” book and few Hanon/Czerny/Berens Exercise Books) appear to target students even a bit older and hopefully JoyTunes will expand offerings in the future to include even more material geared for slightly older students.
Hardware Required: At this time, JoyTunes offers Piano Maestro only on iPad devices. JoyTunes’ other popular “self-teaching” app, Simply Piano, is cross platform and available on both Apple and Android devices, however, it is not quite as complex and feature rich as Piano Maestro when it comes to library, progress tracking between Studio and Home, and is designed for beginner students teaching themselves at home. Unfortunately, Piano Maestro is only iPad based at this time. In addition, though it may function on older iPad models, this app is somewhat RAM intensive and students with older devices occasionally encounter glitching or crashes mid song. New iPads seem to have little to no issue with operating, so older iPad users should take note. The app also requires Wi-Fi to download and play background tracks and open certain songs, however, there is a feature to allow for the download of selected song libraries directly onto the iPad, however, this uses your iPads onboard storage, so those with smaller storage capacities should also take note. Finally, as innovative as it is for JoyTunes to develop an app that uses its sound detection engine along with microphones and speakers on the iPad itself, there are instances where Piano Maestro may detect and register “ghost notes” and sounds or occasionally drop or miss notes played on the piano due to interference. Ironically, if you have the iPad speakers set to maximum to create a full background music experience while a student plays on top, the app occasionally detects notes from the music playing from the speakers or misses notes when a bunch of notes (think bigger chords) are played.
Overall, detection accuracy is impressive, however, it is hard to imagine it may perfectly detect every note due to the unlimited number of potential conflicts with sound in every studio and home (think fans, A/C, background noise, humming, etc.). Thankfully, Piano Maestro is compatible with MIDI to USB connections and if you are fortunate enough to have the right cables (setup is listed on JoyTunes’ website) to connect your iPad directly to USB/MIDI compatible keyboard/digital piano, you will be able to experience near 100% accurate note detection while also being able to crank the background volume to maximum or even turn the keyboard sound to minimum during those late night practice sessions. Overall, this app does work pretty much out of the box, however, with a small learning curve, JoyTunes has built in the features to overcome many of the challenges you may encounter when using the app regularly.
Why should I consider using this in my Piano Studio?
Ultimately, this is an app on iPad and cannot replace a music library (for now, at least), however, it could be argued that as educators we should be continually looking for ways to engage our students in an ever-changing world. Yes, there are great timeless masterworks and music by composers that will last through generations, however, the medium and way we share, view, and rehearse music will likely change. It is all but inevitable that digital music will become even more integrated than it already is today for musicians, and the students of tomorrow will likely come to expect some form of music technology engagement in lessons in the future. The beauty of an app like Piano Maestro is its ease of use and somewhat seamless blend between printed music/methods with notation/music that is already integrated digitally in app. Most of my students, especially younger students, are comfortable and competent with using the iPad as an educational tool and most are enthusiastic with the prospect of using one with lessons. The additional bonus of “game-ifying” exercises, etudes and songs adds to the lessons experience for my students and most find the balance between practicing note reading, rhythm, sight reading and playing technique gratifying and rewarding. On average, when I first introduce this app and get students connected to my full Studio +Home subscription, I am pleasantly surprised to see practice times jump up by hours (yes, hours), especially within the first few months as students explore all the features and repertoire provided. The “game-like” experience and format is very familiar to most of my younger students and the ability to blend more modern pieces with classical excerpts, all while tracking progress is an incredible benefit. My parents appreciate the added value and engagement Piano Maestro offers (at no additional cost to them) and I have found that with proper guidance and integration of the app in weekly lessons, my students’ motivation is spurred on and sparked by using a little familiar technology in lessons. Rather than shunning innovative and new technologies in favor of solely traditional, classical methodologies and tools, I have found great success with spurring a new generation of “digitally connected” students into practicing regularly and applying the techniques/methods learned in lessons with music they are often deeply engaged in outside of the studio. Consider downloading and testing out the “free” features of Piano Maestro today – you may be surprised and inspired to introduce an exciting new world of music technology and methodology to your studio!
For more information about Piano Maestro by JoyTunes, visit: https://www.joytunes.com/apps