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Fast Forward / GVOX: On the Web, Music for Your Eyes [The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Fast Forward / Business section
The Washington Post
March 15, 2005

I’ve always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument, but it was always too expensive, or too inconvenient, to take lessons. The one time I actually sat down to learn to play a tune, it was on my daughter’s Little Tykes blue plastic piano; using a color-coded guide I taught myself “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but I didn’t get much further.

I’d like to think my kids wouldn’t have the same problem. A Web site called NotationStation (http://vrvw.Aoiationstation.net) offers one way around this time/space problem by offering its music lessons online.

Gvox, the Philadelphia firm that runs the site, launched it in May after shelving its earlier line of music-lesson CD-ROMs. The company had sold less than $2 million worth of software last year and didn’t expect to do much better, given that its customers also had to buy $50 worth of hardware to connect a guitar or other instrument to a computer.

So the company elected to shift its product to the Web, developing a browser plug-in, Musictime Online (available for Windows 95 and 98 and Mae OS 8.6 or newer) that lets you compose, edit and play music from within a Web browser.

Address books and maps have been easy to Web-ify, but can music lessons work over the Web? From our experience, the answer is yes, probably, but only if the company properly markets its service to music teachers.

That may be a tough sell, which is tragic because this interface is quite elegant and easy to operate. Install MusicTime Online and up pops a palette of notes, rests and musical markings. Kids (the site is designed for them, although adults can get into it too) get to toy around with what amounts to a word-processing program for
musicians, placing notes on staff lines with their mouse.

They can then play the music on any instrument into a standard computer microphone, and NotationStation will identify the sounds and translate them into notes that in turn pop up on the screen. Once students master the basics of what notes sounds like and how they can be combined, they—and their parents—can get jamming, making and modifying music.

For teachers-who aren’t paid anything extra to teach at the site-the main lure is the ability to extend their lessons beyond the classroom, without necessarily having to invite the whole world in. They post lessons on the Web site, and then, using a password and class code, students retrieve the scores with any browser. So far, 2,369 teachers—who, the company reports, teach a combined student population of 769,381 kids-have signed up for the service.

To pay for all this, Gvox is relying on sponsorships, private investors’ support ($4 million to date, with plans to raise close to $20 million more in the next year), and possibly ads and sales of such items as musical instruments on the site.

It already has competition. Another company, OnlineConservatory.com (http://www.onfineconservatory.com), based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, matches music teachers from the U.S. and Canada with students for live piano and keyboard lessons, using its own Melodus software (Win 95 and 98 only) to hook up a student’s Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) keyboard over the Internet. Type in what you want to learn-and when you want to take your lesson—and let the search engine do the rest. A customer support rep will call you back to make sure everything is working.

Depending on where you are located, and where the teacher lives, the fee runs an average of $20 per half-hour lesson.

New York-based Net Music School (http://www.netmusicschool.com) takes a similar approach but costs less, charging $8.95 a month for a one-year subscription to one of a variety of beginning piano and guitar lessons. It can afford to charge less because there’s less human interaction.

When students log in to their password-protected lesson packages, their tutor is an animated stick figure named Sticky, who takes you through each lesson, telling you where to put your fingers and move your hands.

This is actually not a bad deal if you want to take your own sweet time to learn. Sticky, however, can’t tell you how well you’re doing. For now, NotationStation still delivers the best value-it is, after all, free. But this entire category of learning sites is still only in its first movement; don’t tune any of these sites out just yet.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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