When I was a kid, I could play the piano. It saddens and amazes me that I could look at pages bristling with notes and translate them into sounds, and yet now I couldn’t tell you what even one of those symbols stands for.
It was this sadness that led me to add ‘learn an instrument well enough to play the Game of Thrones themetune’ to my 30 before 30 list (the same list that’s caused me to read an actual paper book recently). I’d already tried and failed to learn guitar with Rocksmith (fun, but wayyy too much time), so when an email came through asking if I’d like to try Skoove, a service that teaches you piano in easy online lessons, I didn’t (semi) quaver.
The whole system is based online, which is really smart. There’s nothing to download, no setup to do – you just go to Skoove.com and sign up. Even with the slightly ropey WiFi in my flat (THANKS HOUSEMATE), it worked really well.
So how does it work?
Well, first off, you’re going to need an e-piano or keyboard of some kind. We used a Casio keyboard, which took me right back to my childhood, and plugged in with a USB-B cable. You can also use a MIDI cable if you prefer, but bear in mind that your keyboard’s not likely to come with either of these, so make sure you’ve bought one before you get started. You’ve probably got a USB-B kicking around somewhere, it’s the square one that’s mostly used for printers.
Once you’re plugged in, you just go to the Skoove site and get started. Strangely, the site switched into German fairly early on – it’s a German company, so it’s obviously just a mistake. If this happens to you, it’s easy enough to figure out where to change the language back in the settings, and it didn’t happen again. You still spot a bit of Denglisch here and there (and slightly cringy terms like ‘Skoovy’), but you can tell what they mean.
In the bottom-right corner where that question mark is, you often get ‘messages’ from Skoove founder Florian popping up. I found these a bit annoying – they’re generally soliciting feedback, and like Facebook chat heads, they don’t go away entirely. You get emails from Florian, too, along the same lines. It’s not a major issue, just slightly annoying.
Once you’re all signed in, Skoove asks you to set up your keyboard. I winced at this, because the process of calibrating my guitar with Rocksmith took ages to figure out – but it’s actually really easy. It basically just tells you to press this key, then this one, then this one, and you’re done. I guess a keyboard is basically just a deck of buttons, after all.
One of the big things I like about Skoove is that it really eases you in. It doesn’t expect you to know the names of any of the notes – to begin with, it picks 5, numbers them 1-5 and tells you where to put your fingers. Then, as you progress through the courses, it starts to replace the numbers with the real names of the notes, but very slowly. I found this refreshing after Rocksmith throwing me in the deep end with what felt like a zillion string and fret combos.
The first step in each of the courses is to listen to the melody. You can do that as many times as you like. Then, you play along at your speed – if you want five-minute intervals between the notes, have at it. Skoove does encourage you to continue to the next level after a while, but if you want to keep practising, you can.
Annoyingly, while you can move between some of the steps using keys on the keyboard, you often have to go back to your laptop to press “OK”. That’s not the best design, but Skoove say they’re working on it.
Once you’re ready, you get to tinkle along with the tune in time with the music. It’s a little bit annoying that the first step highlights the notes as you play them, but the next step doesn’t – so unlike Guitar Hero and the like, you’ve got no way of knowing if you played the note at the right time (other than by ear). It’d be nice if the note was highlighted as you played it, as it is on the previous stage.
As you progress through the courses, more proper note names are added, and the system starts to teach you things like time signatures and two-handed melodies. There are lots of recognisable songs in there: Beginner Course 1 includes Mozart and Madness and – awesomely – ends with the theme from Jaws!
At the moment, only beginner courses 1-3 are available, but you can see on the site where they’ll be adding more, including Pop Piano and the awesome-sounding Blues & Boogie-Woogie.
As a total newbie to piano, I found Skoove really easy to get into. The learning curve is perfectly pitched and I never felt rushed or out of my depth. It’s not as fun as Guitar Hero or Rocksmith (because it’s not designed as a game), but if you’re willing to put the time in, it’s a very intuitive way to get started with piano.
At the moment, the site is in public beta, so it’s free to sign up. After that, there’ll be a monthly subscription which Skoove tell us will be priced somewhere between £3.50 and £7.50 a month. If you’ve got a keyboard or e-piano, you can get started now – and impressively, Skoove say acoustic pianos will be coming later this year, using the built-in microphone on your laptop or tablet (it only works on laptops at the moment, but apparently mobile devices are on the way).
I may not be Matt Bellamy yet, but I’m a whole lot more musical than I was last week. As the app would say, “Skoovy.”