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GVOX: Teaching Kids to Play Music the Old-Fashioned Way [Crystal City magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Crystal City magazine
Spring 2001

When Nathaniel Weiss was in college his goal was to get girls. To accomplish this, he would play ballads on his guitar to charm the women at the University of Pennsylvania. It worked well enough, Weiss admits, but he was frustrated because he couldn’t figure out how to take his electric guitar outside to play a bigger crowd. So, as his senior project, the electrical engineering major went into the lab to devise a portable electronic guitar.

“I worked for months on it, spending nights and weekends in this dimly lit engineering lab,” recalls Weiss, 33. “Two weeks before it was due, I tried it. And it worked. I couldn’t believe it. Looking back now, I realize it was probably the worst thing that ever happened.” The reason, he says, is that inventions rarely work the first time. Success spoiled him, he recalls; thereafter he believed he could do anything. Instead of joining the military after graduation—as planned—Weiss formed a company.

He called it GVOX, short for “Voice of the Guitar” (VOX means voice in Latin and G stands for guitar). The idea was to harness the technology of a computer and use it to teach people how to play music. His concept won seed money in 1991 from a Pennsylvania state-funded organization called Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

By 1993 GVOX shipped the first of several software products that linked a guitar to a PC. Unfortunately, the concept did not succeed to Weiss’s expectations. Consumers were interested, but balked at paying $80 for software and connection charges.

When the Internet exploded in the mid-90s, Weiss had another idea. Instead of selling off-the-shelf software, music students and teachers could access the same program online. He hired a group of innovative engineers, business managers, and cutting-edge designers to develop the plan and then raised the money. In 1998, GVOX bought Passport Design, a company that published well-known music notation software Encore and Music Time, and everything clicked into place. Last June, before an audience of journalists at the posh Le Cirque restaurant in Manhattan, Weiss made his pitch. He explained that a month earlier, GVOX had launched the Web’s first music instruction portal, NotationStation. net, and already hundreds of people had signed on.

“The purpose of NotationStation.net is for music teachers to extend their reach beyond the classroom,” he told the crowd. “Kids are using computers all the time, and NotationStation.net provides an immersive, collaborative environment to make the music they learn in school come alive.”

Since the Spring 2000 launch, more than 4,000 teachers and their 1.2 million school-age kids have logged on to play with the company’s proprietary software, according to statistics gathered by GVOX. Part of the allure is that the site is simple to use. After the start-up process, up pops a palette of notes, rests, and musical markings. Students can play their music using a number of instruments (i.e. guitar, piano, flutes, trumpets, and clarinets) into a standard computer microphone, and NotationStation will identify the sounds and translate them into notes that simultaneously appear on the screen.

Once students master the basics of what notes sounds like and how they can be combined, they—and their parents—are likely to enjoy making and modifying music. To pay for all this, GVOX is relying on sponsorships and private investors ($4 million to date, with plans to raise close to $20 million more this year), possibly ads, and on-site sales of related items. Several instrument manufacturers have shown interest in selling their wares through GVOX.

Musical products are also being developed, such as a “Share the Music Interactive Recorder,” which came as a result of GVOX’s collaboration with The McGraw-Hill Company last April. The package contains a recorder, lesson book, CD-ROM, and computer microphone.

The big question is: Can kids really learn to play the piano from a web site? “Absolutely,” says Irene Light, a music instructor in Vienna, VA who has been teaching children to play piano since 1966. She likes being able to post her lessons on the Web site, and then, using a password and class code, retrieve the student’s finished work on her browser.

“It’s so simple to use, you don’t need instructions to figure it out,” says Light, who logged onto NotationStation for the first time last summer. “Anyone who is hesitant about using a computer or the Internet doesn’t need to worry, because he will be able to use NotationStation: It is a common-sense approach to teaching people to play and write music.”

So far, Light says, she has gotten about l0 of her students to do their piano homework online, including 10-year-old Mason Lubert of Vienna. “NotationStation has done the impossible,’‘ says the precocious 5th grader. “It makes writing and learning music awesome.” Light says Lubert has been taking piano lessons since he was six, and calls him a polished performer who enjoys creating music. Before NotationStation, he had never wanted to write down his creations.

“I couldn’t believe it, but Mason and many other students who didn’t want to write music before, are now eager to do this exercise,” says Light. “It’s the magic of the site. It simply takes away the obstacles that usually get in a student’s way and just lets them create.

GVOX officials predict even more pupils will become excited by the technology. In July, it became accessible to Macintosh users. And in September, the company inaugurated NotationStation.net 2.0, which includes Step Play— a feature that listens to each note the student plays and then waits for him to play the correct one before moving on. More upgrades and modifications are coming this year, promises Weiss. “Our aim has always been to make music more accessible. As far as we are concerned, there is no limit to what we can do.”

THE COMPETITION

GVOX’s NotationStation isn’t the only musical lesson web site on the Internet. Canada’s OnlineConservatory.com, matches US and Canadian music teachers with students for live, interactive piano and keyboard lessons. It sounds like something out of a Jetson’s episode, but in fact this site has interesting potential for kids and adults—especially those who want to learn jazz, African ethnic music, Trance, or anything else in which a music teacher might have a specialty. Simply type in what you want to learn—and let the search engine do the rest. A customer support rep will call you back with a “setup assessment’‘ to make sure everything is working. The lessons aren’t free. The cost can be up to $20 per half hour, depending on the location of the student and teacher.

Stay tuned: Musical education online is only in its first movement.

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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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