I’ve long fancied the idea of astonishing my friends by whipping a cloth off a keyboard and playing a glorious rendition of festive tunes à la Downton Abbey Christmas special. But apart from prodding the odd key, I’ve never been near a piano.
Enter Skoove, the app that promises to “make your musical dreams come true”. Excellent. I’m already Googling fancy evening dresses and recipes for mulled wine. Better still, the current beta version of the app is free (it’ll cost between £3.50 and £7.50 a month when commercially released), which is a boon considering an electric keyboard costs around 60 quid (there’s currently no way to use the interactive features with Granny’s upright).
I rig up the outfit in my front room. Unlike an analogue piano book that perches neatly on the music stand, this guide has to be hooked up to my computer. Cue a precarious attempt to balance my ancient laptop behind a cumbersome keyboard on my tiny coffee table. I had envisaged propping up an iPad on the music stand, but as the app doesn’t yet work with mobile devices, it was cables galore.
Once wired up, however, I was off. The screen shows the score for each song, together with a representation of a keyboard and a disembodied pair of hands hovering above it. They deftly play the tune, then it’s up to you to follow step by step, learning the keys for each hand before putting the two together to play in time with the hands.
While learning the keys, the digital guide moves on to the next note only when you’ve got the previous one right. Irritatingly, however, I have to keep taking my hands off the piano to click “OK” on endless notification messages. Which isn’t really OK, though the company says this is its “top of our priority to-do list” to fix.
Once you feel confident, you’re ready to play in time with the hovering hands which, I suspect, are connected to an instructor wondering quite how he’s ended up with this gig instead of a rousing recital at the Boston Symphony Hall. Slowly, slowly, I play Our House by Madness with my right hand. I can take it only at funeral pace (more like Our Hearse) but, hey, I get the hang of it. Hurrah! Then it’s time to work out what the left hand should be doing – which is where it all goes wrong. Having played the clarinet for umpteen years I can read the treble clef just fine, but everything goes a bit “through the looking glass” when it comes to the bass clef. Still, Skoove isn’t going to be impressed by bad language so I plug on, following its approach, initially matching finger positions with the keys and score, rather than worrying about their names. It seems to work. Eventually, notes, keys and names fall into place – I even play four suspiciously simple bars of Bach by sight! With both hands! Success!
Skoove gets me through the three beginner courses in a few days and I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to bash out Silent Night, loudly, by Christmas. But even its jolly encouragement (“Skoovy!” it flashes up as I thrash away at Simon and Garfunkel) can’t erode the inevitable frustration of learning a new instrument. Unsurprisingly, the urge to shove the damn piano back in the box is pretty strong at times and Skoove does little to stop you. There’s no points-earning, no nagging cutesy character to remind you to practise and no way of sharing your progress with anyone – all of which, though irritating, have been surprisingly successful in keeping me hooked to my language learning app for more than 60 days straight.
It’s a kindly instructor, but Skoove needs to dangle a few more carrots if I’m going to stick with it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010