Virtual Music Maestro

2015-05-15By Yuan Quan

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A pianist is playing See You Again on GEEK Smart Piano.

At the age of 27, Zhao Yutian achieved his childhood dream – to play the piano. He did not understand or memorize the score, but with the help of his iPad and the lights on his keyboard, his fingers danced to Chopin’s Nocturne.

Zhao’s family could not afford a piano when he was a boy. But now, “with no more worries about food and clothes”, the Internet entrepreneur no longer has the time to learn.

The smart piano helps solve his problem. In October last year, Wang Zhengsheng’s company created a piano featuring a line of striking LED lights on the keyboard. When users connect the piano with a smart phone or other terminal to install a piano music application, the lights shine synchronously with the tune.

“Users do not have to look at the scores,” says Wang. “They just follow the order of the lights above the keyboard.”

Many Chinese had their musical inclinations stifled in their childhood, when they were subjected to complicated music theory, persistent finger training, and practicing scales, melodies and rhythms.

Wang describes music students as “ascetic monks”. Wearing in jeans, a blue T-shirt, and black semi-rimless glasses, the 39-year-old innovator believes that a smart piano integrated with mobile Internet can lower the threshold of musical skill.

He named his smart piano “Geek” – “Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both geeks,” he says – which sounds like “jike” in Mandarin, the Chinese word for “instant”.

He hopes the smart piano helps music wannabes play quickly. He spent only three months learning Castle in the Sky, by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi. “More talented people take less time,” says Wang.

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Wang Zhengsheng says he wants to be a geek of piano music. Photo provided by Wang Zhengsheng 

Piano tuition in China took off with the reform and opening up more than three decades ago. In 1980, China manufactured more than 10,000 pianos a year and production has stabilized at 350,000 since 2003.

At the end of 1980s, pianos were still viewed as a luxury item, but pushy parents would invest their savings in one so their children could master “the king of musical instruments”. Internationally renowned Chinese pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi grew up in that period.

Piano tutor Chen Xuejia, 32, started learning at the age of 8 in Dalian, northeast China’s Liaoning Province. It was his parents’ decision rather than his own. “I was very obedient,” Chen recalls. In junior high school, he almost gave up, “because I thought, as a boy, I should be good at sports.”

Learning was tough. Chen had one lesson a week and practiced every day for three to six hours.

Han Baoqiang, head of the Music Technology Department at China Central Conservatory of Music, began working part-time as a tutor in 1980. At that time, schools and universities across the country recruited students with special artistic skills. The more they accomplished on the piano, the more chance they had of being accepted to a good school.

“Some people could reach grade 10 (the highest) in two years, because they only practiced the test pieces, over and over again,” says Han, who says such training cannot cultivate a love of art.

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For many people, the piano grade examination has become a springboard for better education. Web Photo

Wang says his parents did not force him to learn the piano when he showed little interest during his childhood. He developed new hobbies: weaponry, mechanical devices and computers.

In 2005, Wang was a pioneer of 3D virtual reality technology in China and operated a successful company. However, he wanted to unwind after work, and the piano, which he had not touched for two decades, came to mind.

Bookstores offered mostly expensive and advanced textbooks, and finding piano scores online was not easy. In 2011, he quit his executive job and started a new company to develop piano music applications.

He never expected that his application for music scores would top Apple’s App Store sales within three months. “It’s not easy to get an edge over game apps,” says Wang, who boasted that this paid app once set a record of 300,000 users, “but there was a vast market and people wanted it.”

Two years later, he was attracting investors when user growth slowed sharply. Wang found that a music application requires a real piano and smart devices, but few people had both.

Meanwhile, mobile Internet use had exploded. By 2011, China had 400 million smart phone users, triggering an entrepreneurial boom and prompting the government to offer greater financial support to Internet startups.

“I don’t like to miss the opportunity,” says Wang, whose company began developing the smart piano to run with mobile devices in 2013.

Hundreds of the Geek smart pianos – each costing 3,888 yuan – sold out online within six months of the launch. Brisk sales inspired Wang to develop a guitar, which began selling online in May.

Premier Li Keqiang unveiled an “Internet Plus” plan in his government work report during the annual political sessions in March. He proposed integration of the Internet and traditional industries through online platforms and technology, aiming to create a new growth engine.

Many piano manufacturers criticize the smart version for encouraging people to ignore key practice and musical theory, and others argue the smart piano will drive piano tutors out of business, but Wang is unfazed.

“The irreversible trend is that all instruments will become smart, and all things need to be smart,” Wang says. “People must adapt to the changes brought by the Internet.”

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Wang Zhengsheng believes that more people will find the joy of playing samrt piano in the Internet Era. Web photo 

He believes his smart piano will never replace the mechanical one, despite having a wider sound range and more functions.

His biggest challenge has been making the smart piano as good as the mechanical one in tone, sound and feel.

“My company is cooperating with the world’s largest piano manufacturer, and chooses the best hardware so users have the same feeling as a real piano.”

Zhao Yutian sees the smart piano as a “shortcut” to playing music within days – rather than the years required to learn the traditional piano.

“What’s wrong with a shortcut? It helps you find the joy of playing piano in hours or minutes,” says Wang.

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Wang Zhengsheng says more talented people will take less time to learn a piece of music. Photo by Yuan Quan / China Features

Piano tutor Chen says children should still learn the same way as earlier generations: “The smart piano is good for an adult, but it won’t enable children to develop their own music aesthetics.

“Smart devices should expand the joy of music, rather than stop people learning music.”

Wang is now promoting the smart piano in Western markets, where it will sell for under 600 U.S. dollars. “They will not resist the temptation of this cheap but smart instrument.” 

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