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    China Exclusive: Virtual music maestro
    English.news.cn 2015-06-04 16:43:06
    At the age of 27, Zhao Yutian achieved his childhood dream - to play the piano. He could not read 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. Although "with no more worries about food and clothes" nowadays, the Internet entrepreneur no longer has the time to learn to play the piano from the very beginning either. Now, he has the smart piano and he can learn to play a tune within a few days, if not hours.

    Many other Chinese have their musical inclinations stifled as children, when they were subjected to complicated music theory, persistent finger training, and practicing scales, melodies and rhythms.

    Wang Zhengsheng, 39, describes such music students as "ascetic monks". Wearing jeans, a blue T-shirt, and a pair of black semi-rimless glasses, the innovator says he believes that a smart piano integrated with mobile Internet can lower the barrier to musical skills.

    In October last year, Wang's company, Qule Technology created a smart piano, which features a line of striking LED lights on the keyboard. When a player connects the piano with a smart phone or other terminal to install a piano music application, which contains thousands of scores for a user to choose from, the LED will 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."

    A user can also speed up or slow down the tempo on the app, and the music will continue playing until he or she presses the right key.

    Wang and his team believe that the positions of the keys and how long one should press the keys are enough for a beginner to learn an easy piano piece.

    He named the smart piano "GEEK" - "Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both geeks," he says - which sounds like "jike", the Chinese word for "instant".

    He hopes the smart piano will help 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," he says.

    Piano tuition in China took off with the reform and the opening up of the country 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 the 1980s, pianos were still viewed as a luxury item, but "tiger moms" 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 this period.

    Piano tutor Chen Xuejia, 32, started learning the instrument 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 says. In junior high school, he almost gave it 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 accomplished one was on the piano, the more chances one had of being accepted to a good school.

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

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

    In 2005, Wang became a pioneer of 3D virtual reality technology in China and operated a successful company Zhongshidian Digital Technology Ltd.. When he wanted to unwind after work, 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 Qule Technology to develop piano music applications.

    He did not expect that his app 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 had a record of 300,000 users, "but there was a vast market and people wanted it."

    Two years later, he was seeking investors when user growth slowed sharply. Wang found that a music app 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 didn't want 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.

    Wang's innovations are very much in line with the "Internet Plus" plan that Premier Li Keqiang unveiled 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, to create a new growth engine.

    Many piano manufacturers, however, criticize the smart version for encouraging people to ignore key practice and music theory, while 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."

    Still, 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 Pearl River based in Guangzhou and chooses the best hardware so users will have the same feeling as a real piano."

    Zhao Yutian, the entrepreneur, sees the smart piano as a "shortcut" to playing music within days - rather than the years it requires to learn to play the traditional piano.

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

    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. "The consumers will not resist the temptation of this cheap but smart instrument."
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