Stephane Collopy (left), strings teacher at The People's Music School, works with a student and Youtopia practice partner. (Courtesy of The People's Music School)
Stephane Collopy (left), strings teacher at The People’s Music School, works with a student and Youtopia practice partner. (Courtesy of The People’s Music School)

A 40 year-old music school in Uptown is taking a tech-forward approach to improving music education.

The People’s Music School, a free music school in Uptown, is partnering with five music tech startups to launch pilot programs that infuse tech into their lessons and classes. In return, the startups will get feedback and data from teachers and students to aid product development. President and artistic director Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, a former consultant at Bain and accomplished pianist, believes taking a startup and tech approach could improve access and efficiency in music education.

“There is so much tech that is related to music, everything from Guitar Hero to sound engineering equipment,” said Matsuzawa. “Some of the most advanced tech is music related…But nothing has been applied at a broad scale in a school setting.”

Here’s the thing, according to Matsuzawa: learning music is pretty inefficient as it stands today. There are a variety of stakeholders who aren’t always on the same page (a tutor assigns practice to a musician who is held supposedly held accountable by a busy parent). Teachers still often write music quizzes and lessons by hand. Students in group classes struggle to get adequate individual attention.

With that in mind, the school is launching partnerships with five tech startups (Youtopia, Soundslice, Sonation, JoyTunes, and Music Prodigy) to address these inefficiencies.

Chicago-based Youtopia, which is an edtech badging platform that has previously worked with Chicago Public Library, will be implemented to help students instill a practice discipline, and offer a better way for teachers to track practice habits.

Soundslice, another Chicago-based startup, makes sheet music interactive, with notes that light up, song recordings, and graphics that show the keys a student should play. The People’s Music School is working with Soundslice to develop interactive music guides for multiple instruments.

Boston-based Sonation has a music tech app called Cadenza, which uses artificial intelligence to conduct a virtual orchestra that plays, listens, and interacts with a soloist. Given the People’s Music School largely caters to low-income musicians who may not be able to afford an accompanist, they want to use Sonation’s tech as accompaniment on auditions for music school, scholarships, and other opportunities.

Piano teacher Jaime McCool uses JoyTunes in a piano class. (Courtesy of The People's Music School)
Piano teacher Jaime McCool works with students in a piano class. (Courtesy of The People’s Music School)

For group lessons, the People’s Music School is testing out Tel Aviv-based JoyTunes‘ Piano Maestro, a tablet app that Matsuzawa describes as the “Guitar Hero for piano.” The app tests how many notes a student plays correctly, allowing teachers to quickly check progress on a given song in a group setting.

LA-based Music Prodigy‘s platform allows music teachers to digitally find and create music quizzes and lessons, plus track student progress through an online dashboard, which the People’s Music School anticipates using in classrooms.

These tech pilots will run from one to two semesters on a limited scale before they decide whether to move forward with the tech, Matsuzawa said. In return for the pilots, the People’s Music School will provide startups with efficacy data and product feedback. She anticipates continually experimenting with tech and running pilots with more tech startups consistently in the future.

The People’s Music School was founded in 1976, with the mission to provide free music education to underprivileged students. 40 years later, they’ve served over 10,000 students. This isn’t the first time they’ve explored technology. The school recently started using Berklee School of Music’s PULSE software for music theory classes, and they’re hosting their second annual “music hack day” in April. But Matsuzawa sees the startup partnerships as a way to increase the scale of their operations.

“If we can increase efficiencies we can impact more students,” she said. “It’s not for innovation’s sake or tech’s sake. The cool thing is when we can scale and serve more kids.”