The power of integrating apps into my teaching is admittedly addicting. With a mere tap one can easily access and customize just about any type of teaching tool. It got me thinking that the brilliance behind the apps I use on a daily basis is partially thanks to Apple’s unique device and operating system but more importantly thanks to the imagination of determined individuals.
The process of developing an app from the light bulb moment, to the blue print stage to the final product intrigued me. Anyone willing to spend hours diligently designing an app to enhance music education garners some attention. There’s always a story, a human factor behind what we consider a useful, practical, innovative app. Here’s the scoop on Melissa Harris, developer of one of my favorite apps, SightReadPlus and SightReadMinor, too.
A. As a pianist, I studied with Esther Mills Wood (1977-1987), Texarkana, AR; George Mueller, Tyler, TX (1987- 89); George Rutherford, College Station, TX (1989-91); Tanya Schwartzman, Sharon, MA (1991-1995).
I didn’t start out my life as a piano teacher, but, rather, in Football Recruiting at Texas A&M (1989-1991), moving two years later to New England to work for the Patriots (1991-1995). My Russian teacher here in New England, Tanya Schwartzman, suggested I consider teaching as a career. Nowadays, I’m a mother of four, and I teach adults full time at my home studio on Cape Cod.
Q. What prompted you to develop SightReadPlus?
A. In 2011, not too long after Apple had introduced the first iPad, my student, Keith Sisterson, Ph.D., approached me with an idea. I remember him saying, “Now, hear me out on this.” He wanted to tell me about his recent visit to California to see his granddaughters, ages 4 and 6. He was struck by what he called their “intensity of focus” in solving little jigsaw puzzles on the iPad. He realized then the educational potential of this new tool. Having recently retired from MIT’s Lincoln Lab, and being an expert in “signal processing,” Keith had an idea to create music education apps that would have the ability to “listen” to a student playing an acoustic instrument and offer feedback. I’d heard of others trying to create this type technology, but only in university settings and with teams of scientists. I was fascinated with his idea and knew I wanted to get onboard. Only problem was I’d never heard of an iPad. My kids had all had iPods, and I knew they bought apps and music from iTunes, only because I was their funding source! But, I had no idea what an app was.
I bought an iPad shortly thereafter and was particularly interested in starting with a sight reading app, knowing this is something that teachers have difficulty addressing for many reasons. Working with so many adults who studied as children but can’t read music made me especially aware of the need for a solution.
Q. What are the steps you took to bring your app from the blue print stage to the iTunes store?
While he was working on the hard stuff, all I had to do was come up with a systematic approach for the sequencing of things. I borrowed heavily from folk repertoire to create the little four bar exercises.
My daughter, Catherine, 17 at the time, was already working as a professional photographer and created the artwork with the Adobe Suite. She and my other kids, Lis, Tori and Thomas, were our official advisors!
We needed to find Beta testers, but that was easy — I had several adult students with iPads who stepped right up. I was able to use the iPad during lessons with the few young students I had. Teacher friends and associates also served as Beta testers.
Once we had the app together, we needed to incorporate the business, as Apple requires this for all developers. Keith showed me how to get into iTunes Connect, the developer website, and helped me get started. We shared the duties of entering things there. It’s pretty straightforward, really, and Apple also has resources available to assist developers in getting started.
One of my students fathers did offer some sage advice on promoting the app through social media. I had closed my personal FaceBook page a couple of years earlier, having hardly ever used it. I didn’t have a LinkedIn account. Oh, boy. I was way behind the curve here. My kids helped me learn what blog was and showed me how to set up a FaceBook page for my piano studio and for Cape Cod Music Apps. While I’ve never been a good sales person, I’ve shamelessly promoted these two sight reading apps on social media, feeling they can truly enhance study for all early level students who are physically ready to play in pentascale position.
Q. Did you develop and design your app yourself or did you hire someone?
A. No, we did everything ourselves. And now we’ve added a new member to our development team, another piano student of mine, Bruce Gendler. He’s helping develop the new flashcard app.
Q. What advice would you give someone who is interested in developing an app?
A. Go for it! You’ll need to partner with someone who can do the coding and whom you trust and can work easily with. If you’re an independent piano teacher, you already understand the basics of running a business. Being a pianist, you likely have the self-discipline and determination needed to see it through.
A. My situation is a bit unique, in that I work with adults almost exclusively, many of them retired. Even so, I think at least half have iPads. I do use SightReadPlus with early readers during the lesson. As soon as the student is able to work independently at home, I have him/her follow the Sight Reading Achievement Program (www.mymusicta.com) in daily practice. In the past, I required all adult students to have digital recorders, but now most of them use Recorder Plus HD to record practice tracks during lessons. I also recommend Rhythm Lab for home practice
There’s a lot of interest in the iPad in general, but especially with regard to music education apps. The adult students and I have discussed starting a studio “enrichment series.” I’m also considering ways in which we might offer group classes with iPad for non-private students.
If I had a traditional studio, I would likely schedule private lessons followed by the technology lab, knowing it’s hard for many families to schedule separate classes. When I taught kids only, I hosted a monthly repertoire class. I think it would be easy to integrate technology into this type of get-together.
In our local schools, the kids learn to use GarageBand. If this isn’t the case in a teacher’s local community, I could imagine offering 90 minute group classes for that one app alone — and not just for your private piano students. What a great way to build a reputation as a “cool” teacher, always a good way to draw more students!
Q. Do you have plans for creating future apps?
A. Because our apps are designed to “listen” and offer feedback, we were limited in the beginning to single tones. But, now we’re now able to offer products that will allow for two hands (polyphony). So,we have plans to continue the sight reading app family, offering more advanced apps.
We’re currently developing a Hanon app that will offer Book 1 through all major keys and with rhythmic variations. We’ll be releasing this app within the next few months.
We’re developing flashcard app, a truly novel approach, presented in a systematic, sequenced manner that will work well with any (or no) method . This app will encourage students to explore the entire piano keyboard, recognize any note, and understand directionality and steps/skips.
Q. If you had to choose a favorite app other than your own, what would it be?
A. I have to admit I haven’t really explored this app yet, even though I bought it months ago. London Symphony Orchestra has an app called The Orchestra which I think is truly amazing, both for kids and adults.