I started taking piano lessons for the first time in the so-called days of yore -- that is, when I was 12 years old and, like many teenagers, didn't appreciate the value of getting my feet wet in the field at that opportune age. I was simultaneously attending English classes and, given the fact that I didn't have a piano at home to practice, I even came to the conclusion that the time I might spend at, or on, the piano can be devoted to English. As an Iranian I knew how mastering English could provide me with a whole host of opportunities -- something I don't regret to this day. I used to listen to Kim Andrew Elliott's awesome program, Communications World, on Short Wave, courtesy of my improving English skills. The particular episode mentioned here was aired in 1999, is dedicated to the visually impaired and technology, and is quite interesting.
To put it in a nutshell, all of that language tinkering meant that I decided not to continue my piano classes after six months, and the fact that I had to transcribe my own Beyer didn't help at all. Later I entered university, received my BA and MA in English Literature and TESL respectively, and had no time to think about my rough patch with piano lessons though piano remained my most favorite instrument.
However, almost eight months ago I came across an engaging BBC article titled Adult piano lessons: Never too late to learn? and decided to become one of those adult piano learners at the age of 36. The points raised in the article resonated with me in a way that I thought someone had written it to reinvigorate my love of piano.
Incorporating iOS apps into piano practice
After reviewing my options, I decided to purchase a digital piano for various reasons, and it was a Yamaha Clavinova CLP-575. Even though this time I had access to a Braille Beyer, once I was about to start my tortuous quest for a teacher who, among other things, could also understand the needs of a visually impaired learner, I discovered Bill Brown's Music by Ear page and, much to my own surprise, his Piano by Ear website! For those who don't know, Bill teaches a wide range of instruments by ear, and his guitar and piano offerings really reach both advanced playing levels and complex songs. In short, I was ecxtatic!
At any event, few weeks after my first encounter with Bill's courses and songs, I decided to see if both the iOS operating system and my iPhone 7 Plus can accompany me in this challenging journey or complement the training I'm receiving. Well, after 8 months or so I must admit that I'm still trying, but it seems to me that finding accessible apps for that purpose is even more challenging than playing Mariage d'amour -- please note that Bill's arrangement based on Richard Clayderman's version is more difficult!
Let's see why.
iOS apps for piano playing and learning songs
Here we're basically out of luck. I first tried Yousician - Your personal music teacher:
Yousician is your personal music tutor for the digital age. Learn at your own pace, whenever and wherever you want. The app listens to you play and gives instant feedback on your accuracy and timing. Our curriculum, designed by expert music teachers, will help musicians of all levels improve, from complete beginners to professionals.
The moment I opened it, VoiceOver froze and refused to talk and I had to press the home button. With sighted assistance, I was able to move forward a few screens; however, even at that stage VoiceOver was extremely sluggish, and I noticed so many strangely labeled buttons that I decided to call it quits.
I then focused on Simply Piano, which I think is the best and the most comprehensive piano teaching-oriented app of its ilk.
Simply Piano is a fast and fun way to learn piano, from beginner to pro. Works with any piano or keyboard.
- Tons of fun songs like Imagine, Timber, Counting Stars, Safe and Sound, also J.S.Bach.
- Includes courses for different musical tastes and playing levels.
- Learn the basics step-by-step from reading sheet music to playing with both hands.
- Slow down library songs to choose your own pace for easy learning.
- Personalized 5-Min Workouts ensuring you progress fast and always succeed.
- Suitable for all ages, no previous knowledge required to learn piano.
No Piano? Try the Touch Courses with 3D Touch to turn your device into an on-screen keyboard!
Unlike Yousician, Simply Piano allowed me to move past the Registration process, but VoiceOver again became sluggish as the Study mode was activated. This freezing effectively prevented me from purchasing a monthly access package to test Simply Piano.
It's worth mentioning that both Yousician and Simply Piano set the screen orientation to "landscape" -- something which gives me more headaches as I don't like that mode on my iPhone 7 Plus. Moreover, though both apps are free, you need to pay on a monthly basis in case you want to take advantage of their offerings. These payments range from $6 per month to $19 or even $29 -- depending on your choice of course and plan.
Any discussion of piano teaching apps would be incomplete without mentioning Piano Melody which allows users to learn and play songs by ear. It also has a Pro app which costs $2.99. The problem with this app is that once you get into a song whose notes should be played, you can't figure out which notes you should pick as VoiceOver apparently fails to read or locate them. Moreover, one needs to turn off VoiceOver if the piano portion of the app is to be used. With VoiceOver, one should press on a key twice in order to activate it. Without VoiceOver, however, a mess is generated as one can't distinguish between sharps and flats, and expanding/shrinking the keyboard area becomes impossible without speech. Add this to my growing list of unusable apps when accessibility comes into play.
Learning scales and chords
A good piano player should memorize and master scales and chords. This is more important for those who want to play by ear. So I tried to see how or if I could use apps to learn them faster especially when I'm not near my piano. I had more success this time around.
The most useful app I tested in this category is Piano Chords and Scales. A free app whose extra features can be unlocked by paying $4.99 as an In-App purchase, this allows us to explore chords, scales and chord progressions. All chords and scales can be played ascending, descending and harmonically and are shown on virtual piano and staff. Of course, I have no idea how scales and chords are displayed on the screen because I just use it to hear the notes in a particular scale/chord, and get the app to play them for me. This is good for memorizing scales and chords -- nothing fancy. The portion of the app which allows us to compose songs isn't quite accessible.
If you open the app which is simply titled "Chords," you'll be presented with items like Chords, Scales, Progressions, Circle of Fifths, Songs and Settings. These are buttons although VoiceOver doesn't use the word "button" as they're reached. In the Scales window, for instance, you'll see a Reverse button along with a C button -- these are indicated as buttons. The latter helps us move to a different scale. Various modes for each scale -- like Major, Natural Minor, Ionian (Major), Dorian, and so on are at our disposal. I like this app as it displays some useful degree of accessibility.
Another useful app I've seen in this category is weirdly titled Piano Chords, Scales Companion, Chord Progressions, and its Pro counterpart costs $4.99. This app which appears as "Piano Companion" on the screen
is a flexible piano chords and scales dictionary with user libraries and reverse mode with a flexible chord progression builder. If you can’t remember the name of a chord or scale, this app helps you find it by keys. For example, just press C, G and you will get C Major as the first chord in the search result. If you don’t see a chord, you can create a custom chord and use it for chord charts or your user library.
It's also accessible to the point that VoiceOver reads which notes are being pushed on the keyboard when describing chords and scales. However, the app seems to be more tailored to intermediate or advanced learners because if, for instance, you go to a scale, you won't see its Major mode listed first. For C, for instance, it lists C Acoustic first which might confuse some. It's a stellar app otherwise with lots of positive reviews on the App Store.
It's worth mentioning that a wide range of apps exist which have been designed to make the task of remembering and mastering scales/chords easier, and I've tested more than 10 apps of that sort. But many of them like Piano Friend aren't intuitive in terms of their controls or like Piano Scales & Chords insist on their irksome landscape mode and intrusive ads. Many of them haven't been updated for ages, and everything I include in this article has been updated over the past few months.
And how about ear training?
Again lots of apps exist to give piano players a helping hand in this regard, but out of the 10 I've tested I can recommend just one: Earpeggio - Free Ear Training (Intervals, Chords). It allows us to:
Master the identification of intervals, chords, scales and rhythms solely by hearing them. Earpeggio is an ear training app which lets you improve your musical hearing.
It's accessible and free, and can be utilized with little tinkering.
So what to expect from all of this?
Mastering the piano requires lots of practice, meaning the more you play, the more proficient you'll become. As things stand right now, finding useful and accessible iOS apps which can enhance the playing skills of the visually impaired is a painful challenge. Some more or less accessible apps exist in the arena of chord/scale practice, but unless developers take into account the requirements imposed by VoiceOver, their apps won't be usable at all -- as is evidenced by Yousician and Just Piano which provide awesome courses though at a hefty price.
One more conclusion I've reached is that the iPhone, even the Plus variant, might not be suitable for such apps. Many of them insist on switching to the landscape mode, but, to me at least, holding the larger iPhone in that mode seems and feels awkward. Maybe one can get better results with the iPad. Turning off VoiceOver to be able to touch/play the keys is another challenge.
All in all, my iPhone is a good RSS reader, works well as a fabulous book reader, offers useful dictionary look-up capabilities, has replaced my traditional radio, provides some truly accessible podcast apps, and does a good job of image/text recognition, but when it comes to playing the piano and mastering this grand instrument, it's not as useful as one might think. After all, the transition from acoustic pianos to digital or electronic pianos on iOS hasn't gone as smoothly as the transition from physical books to electronic ones, and the fact that VoiceOver carries its own tune makes things worse. Hopefully that might change in the future. In the meantime, Bill Brown's Music for the Blind faces virtually no competition from our smartphones!