Several years ago, Yuval Kaminka was wrapping up a master’s degree at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, and he found himself with some free time, much of which he would spend visiting with family. One day, he was playing a Wii tennis game with his eight-year-old nephew, and Kaminka marveled at his nephew’s skill and dedication to the game. Then, Kaminka’s sister walked in, telling her eight-year-old son it was time to practice his violin.
All of a sudden, Kaminka’s nephew got very good at something else: lying. "My stomach hurts," his nephew said. "I practiced yesterday. I’ll practice this weekend." There was no shortage of excuses, real or imagined. Kaminka gave his nephew a sidelong glance, and as he recalls, "the researcher angle kicked in." What was it about the Wii game that made his nephew spring to the challenge, and was there any way to bring those features to the evidently less alluring world of music practice?
Kaminka had more than an academic interest in the matter. Many years before, he had been a student of the violin, and then the saxophone. He failed to persist at either—and now as a huge jazz fan, he especially regrets dropping the sax. "I know how sorry I am now that I didn’t put in more time when growing up," says Kaminka (whose brother Yigal, a pro oboeist, apparently was better at keeping at it). "I still think [sax is] an amazing instrument, and a sexy one." And indeed, as he asked around, he found that many of the people he met likewise wish that they had stuck with music—and likewise voiced a nagging suspicion that to have done so would have improved their sex life. Later, he would learn that 85% of non-musicians wish they had learned to play a musical instrument. Wasn’t that, in the startup-world jargon, a kind of "pain point," ripe for a solution?
Several years later, Kaminka’s startup, JoyTunes, is producing some of the most popular music learning apps in the App Store (in March, they shot to the top of the children’s education category). The trick, while a buzzword from a few years ago, remains just as useful today: gamification. Kaminka realized that the basic problem for youngsters like his nephew was this: it’s not fun to suck at something. "The trick is getting through that initial three-year phase where there’s no payoff, where you’re practicing but no one wants to hear you play because you suck, honestly." Kaminka’s apps, like any game environment, create a landscape of instant gratification to get you over that three-year hump. Piano Dust Buster is a simple app that "doesn’t require skills to get hooked," says Kaminka; Piano Maestro is a bit more involved, featuring musical notation. Unlike Guitar Hero, say, both apps require you to practice at an actual piano.
The apps feature avatars, points, ranks, and all sorts of flashy eye-candy to reward the gamer/ musician who hits a lot of right notes in a row. In other words, it’s a page right out of Guitar Hero’s fake book. Extremely simple—and yet no one in the stodgy world of musical education was taking advantage of it in a serious way, until Kaminka came along.
And once Kaminka launched JoyTunes, the music education establishment began to listen. One day, Kaminka received an email he thought to be a prank. "My six-year-old is addicted to your apps," it read. "I’d like to be of help if I can. I have some interest in this field, because I was the CEO of Steinway." It wasn’t a prank. Dana Mecina, Steinway’s CEO from 1996-2011, is currently an investor in JoyTunes. While Steinway is in a wildly different market—selling $100,000 pianos instead of subscription-based apps—Kaminka says that Mecina’s philosophy is that "If you don’t have any beginners, then you won’t have advanced players."
On the face of it, JoyTunes might seem like another children’s app in an App Store awash with children’s apps. But unlike the casual games that Piano Dust Buster might get unfairly lumped in with, Kaminka’s strategy is wildly different. He began with children’s apps simply because that’s where "my biggest value is," he says. JoyTunes is aimed at beginners, and in music, beginners tend to be kids. "It’s kids that start music the most and suffer the most," he says. Kaminka has partnered with a few schools, and says that JoyTunes’s ultimate goal is nothing short of becoming "the standard way to learn and practice music." Part of JoyTunes’s site is devoted to piano teachers, and music students can opt to connect their app directly to their teachers, who can monitor their progress remotely.
It’s odd to see another goofy-looking app with such lofty ambitions. But Kaminka says that not only is his own company growing up, but that he sees it as a larger trend of the App Store itself growing up. "We’ll always have the casual apps," he says. "But you’re seeing this real trend of maturity in the App Store: apps offering real services, apps offering significant value." He finds that educators, especially, are beginning to take fuller advantage of the mobile computing revolution.
And as he watches his own saxophone rust away in the corner, Kaminka knows that in prepping his nephew to be a skillful musician, he’s doing the young man a great service—even if he might not realize it for many years. Kaminka recalls with a laugh a review of an app that, on the face of it, might seem like a JoyTunes competitor: an "air guitar" app that required no actual dexterity—merely passing your finger along it produced pleasant noises.
"It’s a cool app," the reviewer had written. "But it won’t get you laid."
[Image: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker]