Spending hours of practice time learning a piece of music has plenty of rewards for piano players. To truly master the instrument, though, it’s equally important to master the art of playing what you don’t know.
Sight reading, as it’s known when a musician plays a piece of music they’ve never seen or heard before, can be maddening for young students who are still in the process of learning how to read music. It’s also a section of lessons that teachers have pondered over for years.
“A lot of teachers really don’t have a good means of teaching it. it’s difficult for people to keep going with it and it takes a lot of new material,” said Travis Hardaway, a professor in the music theory department at the Peabody Institute. “Once you’ve heard it once, you’re not really sight reading anymore.”
To improve his own instruction, Hardaway came up with the concept of creating music that disappeared as students play. He soon learned that fellow faculty member Ken Johansen was working on his own sight-reading instruction material. The two instructors combined notes.
Soon, they were also entrepreneurs with an iPad app called ReadAhead.
A prototype of the app, which is designed specifically for piano instruction, is already available on iTunes. It has enough material for about a week’s worth of instruction.
Using Hardaway’s disappearing music concept, most of the program is focused around 5-10 minutes of instruction where students look at the music for a few moments before playing it for the first time.
“Looking at music is only useful for a short period of time,” Hardaway said. “It helps condition people to read more quickly.”
There’s also a feature that allows students to identify problem spots so they can focus in those areas of highest need.
As a result of the cofounders’ early realization of the app’s potential reach, the material is now suitable for blooming musicians as young as 10.
Music school isn’t normally an incubator for technological innovation, but Peabody’s affiliation with Johns Hopkins helped ReadAhead get off the ground. JHU’s work with TEDCO normally centers around startups that arise from faculty life sciences and medical research. But since Hardaway and Johansen have a program using technology developed at the university, they were eligible to receive a $100,000 grant from the Maryland Innovation Initiative in 2013.
They’ve also had access to Hopkins’ Center for Educational Resources, and became a member of the first cohort of DC I-Corps, which is backed by the National Science Foundation.
For now, Hardaway and Johansen are trying to get the app in people’s hands, and collect as much feedback as possible. It saw more than 2,000 downloads in the first year. Later this month, they’ll be at the Music Teachers National Association Conference in Las Vegas. It’s the largest gathering of music instructors in the country, so another earful is expected.
“It’s been a really continuous number of people trying it out, every day,” Hardaway said.
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