Peabody Professors Develop App to Teach Sight-Reading to Music Students
The ability to sight-read—to play an unfamiliar piece of music from start to finish, without stopping—is an important skill for any pianist. Yet many piano students find it a difficult skill to master—even students at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, one of the world’s pre-eminent music schools.
Recognizing this need, Peabody Institute music theory professors Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen developed an app to help students learn to sight-read.
“Many Peabody Institute students are expert performers, but some of them sight-read at a lower level than what one might expect,” Hardaway says.
Hardaway and Johansen worked with other Johns Hopkins researchers, including Peter Dziedzic, a software engineer and research data systems manager for the Department of Neurology in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Charles Limb, an associate professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who studies the neuroscience of music, in structuring the app’s learning modules. Eye-tracking studies helped shed light on how the eye reads music across a page.
The app, called Read Ahead, displays piano music on a tablet but takes away the measures of the music, one by one, forcing a student to read the music ahead of where he or she is playing. The app also contains warmup exercises that train the eyes to look for patterns, the mind to increase short-term memory and the hands to find notes without looking at the keyboard.
Johansen and Hardaway tested the app with piano students in the Baltimore area, and they found that it is best for students 10 years old and up working five to 10 minutes a day on the exercises.
Read Ahead has six levels, with three sublevels and hundreds of exercises at each level. It’s designed primarily for use on tablets, although some of its features will work on smartphones. Johns Hopkins startup BST Medical Solutions helped develop the app’s cross-platform functionality.
The Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV) office helped Hardaway and Johansen turn Read Ahead into a viable product by assisting with applications for patents and Maryland Innovation Initiative grants. Hardaway and Johansen formed a company, Anacrusis LLC, and received funding from all three phases of the Maryland program.
“JHTV really helped us work through the whole process. They were a huge advocate for us,” Johansen says.
The JHTV office also encouraged Hardaway and Johansen to apply for participation in the DC I-Corps program, which teaches entrepreneurs how to develop ideas into successful products.
The I-Corps program “beat customer discovery into us,” Johansen says, requiring them to interview music teachers to make sure they were developing something teachers could use. Hardaway and Johansen are also developing a teachers’ portal that will allow teachers to check on student progress.
“Teachers all say that sight-reading is extremely important,” Johansen says, “but they don’t always have time to work it into a piano lesson.”