Piano Wizards

Shannon Drake | 22 Aug 2006 08:00
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Plenty of kids wind up press-ganged into the car, driven to a house that smells of cats and shouted at as they mangle Mozart, but it's seldom fun. Consequently, I was intrigued when I was presented with Allegro Rainbow's Piano Wizard. While Oregon Trail taught me a little about heading out west - naming a character BUTTS added to the hilarity when it died horribly - and Mavis Beacon was one hot babe, I'd seldom experienced a program that combined enlightenment and entertainment in a significant fashion. Playing through "Piano Man" in a DDR-style rhythm game with a full-size keyboard was fun, but then they upped the difficulty, and I recognized the strange shapes moving across the screen. It was my old enemy: Musical notation. Merciful heavens, I was learning. What manner of sorcery was this?

Chris Salter, Allegro Rainbow's CEO, has been carrying this particular vision - fun meets learning - for quite a long time. "I have double degrees in Linguistics and Music, and a Master's from UCLA. I'm particularly fascinated with how we learn language and how we can learn music." During his Master's research in Brazil, that sort of learning was his focus, and he "saw the relationship of visual anticipation and cues to learning rhythm and guitar and realized that would be a huge asset if we could incorporate that into a game."

His post-grad career of selling voice recognition software and joysticks at trade shows led Chris to a realization. "If I could build it and show it to people, I could definitely sell it," he says. "And that gave me the courage to start this company." He managed to find an entrepreneurial support network and raise the funds to start the company in 2001. "We were able to raise money even in that challenging market," Chris says, after reflecting forming a company in the middle of the dot-com recession probably wasn't the best time to do so.

He called his company "one of those overnight sensations," but from talking to him, it's clear that these are the fruits of a long labor of love. And it feels like this man and this company are on the cusp of something big. Maybe it's the business relationships he describes as we continue talking about the business side of Allegro Rainbow. "A lot of our strategic partnerships are all coming into alignment and fruition, and those are kind of the key to our ability to get very big very quickly. Because we're just software and intellectual property. We're not a hardware company. We don't build pianos or keyboards. We certainly don't have computers. We're not really content providers or creators of content, either. We just have an amazing engine that lets virtually anyone take virtually any piece of music and play it."

Business logic dictates that they will need people who do those things, which has been the key in developing these partnerships. "For example, Fisher-Price in the toy industry embraced it very early on; about a year and a half ago, they approached us and wanted to take it into the toy market as an educational toy."

Apple is another key partner, he says. "With [Apple], they are huge in the education department, but one of the things we really need to show off the game is computers. And if we can help them sell more computers, they love that. ... We can help them transition iPod users into Mac users." As we spoke, he was working on a deal to demonstrate the game in 50 Apple stores. The key difference between his company and the rest is: "We are really about people who want to be musicians or want their kids to be musicians, not a niche market of musicians. That's a much, much bigger market."

Perhaps remembering the cranky old teachers of my youth, I asked about that much bigger market, and whether he's run into any resistance bringing his game out into the world. "First of all," he responds, "we have people who are in the trenches, working with kids, and they embrace it right away. Anything to get the kids excited. And if we have the time to educate them about the way we're transitioning to musical notation, I would say two-thirds to three-quarters of those teachers and educators, at that point, they're very excited [because they realize that] under no circumstances do we think this is a replacement for a piano teacher or a music teacher." In fact, it makes their lives easier by doing two things: "This game teaches notes very, very well. It lets kids practice very, very well," but he emphasizes that Piano Wizard doesn't teach the rest of it, saying, "It does not teach phrasing, dynamics, interpretation, all the art of music has to be taught by a human being, that's just clear to us. And the kids will reach bottlenecks anyway with their techniques, fingering and so on."

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