Tuesday, September 2, 2014 Elul 7, 5774

Jumping for JoyTunes, Another Israeli Startup

March 19, 2014 By:
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A piano teacher and his student play their hearts out with Piano Mania.

Mastering an instrument is extremely difficult — and many aspiring Beethovens or Claptons never make it past the first round of cuts.

In fact, according to figures gathered by JoyTunes, an Israeli startup, 90 percent of people who begin learning to play an instrument quit within the first year.

This statistic, coupled with JoyTunes co-founder Yuval Kaminka’s observance of his 8-year-old nephew’s preference for wii video games over piano lessons, led him to hatch the idea of Piano Mania, a music education application for iPads.

The app functions as a game, utilizing music sense technology, which allows iPad microphones to acoustically recognize piano notes. Users play along with directions on the screen, starting with relatively easy songs. If they successfully play the songs, new levels with an increasing range of difficult arrangements, are unlocked.

“Joytunes created these iPad applications that are fun, that look like a game,” said JoyTunes’s community manager, Marta Mozes, a Lower Merion native now living in Tel Aviv. “But they are teaching music in an engaging and fun way.”

According to the 27-year-old graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy, now known as Barrack Hebrew Academy, the Israeli company is attempting to turn a younger generation’s obsession with technology into something positive.

Instead of playing the popular smart-app game Angry Birds, “if they are going to be staring at a screen no matter what, then we might as well create games that will teach them something,” Mozes said.

JoyTunes has a strong collective of brainpower firing its programming.

Kaminka served in an elite computer-programming unit for the Israeli Defense Forces alongside co-founder, Roey Izkovsky.

Rounding out the creative team of JoyTunes is Yigal Kaminka, Yuval Kaminka’s brother and the primary oboist for the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

This might explain why Piano Mania has achieved a high level of success. The free app, which is categorized under education as opposed to music, recently held the top ranking for education apps and peaked at No. 18 on apps in all categories for iPad on Jan. 16.

“We could have done ‘music’ or ‘kids’,” Mozes said of the decision to be categorized under the education label, but “we really see ourselves as an education app.”

JoyTunes is so serious about the ‘education’ tag attached to its app, that it is in the process of changing the app’s name to ‘Piano Maestro’ because “it holds a more educational feel,” according to Mozes.

The company, which also has created a new logo with “a more educational and professional look” as part of a rebranding effort, hopes to receive official approval for the name change from Apple in the next week or so.

Robin Kahn, the education director for Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, previewed the app herself after learning of its existence from Mozes’ mother, who is a member of the Beth Am community.

“I was hooked pretty quickly,” she said of the experience.

After beginning piano lessons as a second-grader some 30 years ago, Kahn said, she quit after three or four years. Piano Mania offered her an opportunity to dust off the old keyboard.

Though “learning to play the piano is not a priority” for the educator, she said she would “definitely tell a parent to try this app” from an educational perspective.

“It was designed in a really clever way,” she added.

Her only knock on the app is that it doesn’t feature any Jewish or Israeli songs.

According to Mozes, Piano Mania has more than 2 million users worldwide, including 10,000 music teachers — whom the app targets.

Danny Gold, owner of Danny’s Guitar Shop in Narberth, which  doubles as a home for music teachers on the Main Line to conduct lessons, said he has never heard of JoyTunes. But after listening to its description, he theorized that it might be most useful for disciplined individuals.

“Some people are self-starters, but there are a lot of people, like me, who need hand-holding,” said Gold, a life-long bassist who performed in the ’70s with singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman.

Though Gold said his teachers have a 66 to 75 percent retention rate of their students, which is far above the statistical average cited by JoyTunes for music teachers in general, he agreed that younger students often take up musical lessons with misperceptions of the dedication required to master an instrument.

“They see Taylor Swift on TV, and they think it’s going to be easy,” said Gold. “They don’t realize its going to be a lot of repetition and hard work.”

According to Gold, the music teachers whom he works with keep students interested and progressing by using books that cover simple, popular contemporary songs or by helping students work out how to play their favorite songs by picking out notes while listening to a cd.

“It’s different than when I was a kid,” said Gold who also hosts a TV show on music that is aired by PBS twice a week. “It’s not all theory and rote anymore.”

Either way, he said, whether aspiring students use JoyTunes or a more classical approach, learning music is “about getting inspired and having fun.”

The app’s high ranking suggests that people are finding Piano Mania useful.

“The leaps and bounds we’ve made are unheard of,” Mozes said. “Interest is growing immensely — we’re on a really good path.”

In the past, successful Israeli startups have generated interest from big spenders. Last year, for example, Google bought GPS app Waze for close to $1 billion — a fact that Mozes said the JoyTunes team is well aware of.

“Any startup’s dream is to be bought out, and anyone who tells you differently is lying — that’s just the nature of the game,” she said.

But before JoyTunes is ready to think about selling Piano Mania, those involved still feel there are new challenges to tackle.

Currently, Piano Mania is available only for piano and recorder. Mozes said they would like to make apps for other instruments as well.

“But JoyTunes is everyone’s baby and we wouldn’t sell it just to sell it,” she added. “There’s still so much more we want to develop and do.”

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