One year ago today we launched Musical U, introducing it as the next generation of ear training online. After several years developing mobile apps, eBooks and training courses, we had a new idea for what modern musicality training should look like. One year on, how has it worked out?
This year we’ve had over 500 musicians join Musical U. Their experiences training inside the site have been encouraging to watch!
Musical U looks very different today than it did a year ago. Based on member ideas and suggestions we’ve added and changed a lot about the site. Through all that though, the core principles behind the site haven’t changed…
Why Musical U?
A year ago when we introduced Musical U here on EasyEarTraining.com we said:
Musical U has been created based on our years of experience helping people to become more musical.
We’ve learned was that even with the best tools and resources, most musicians still fail to reach their true musical potential. In fact, many get bored or frustrated, feel isolated and stuck, and often end up giving up on ear training – or even quitting music altogether.
We were determined to fix this problem, and we knew that just creating more training material or better apps wasn’t going to be enough.
It was clear that despite the huge variety of backgrounds and aspirations musicians have, there were a few core problems which caused them to stumble and fall short of their potential:
- They didn’t know how to set truly effective goals.
- They never created a step-by-step plan to reach those goals.
- They lacked the support and guidance they needed to follow through.
When we built Musical U we took all our best material on ear training and musicianship, but instead of packaging it up to sell as the “ultimate ear training course” we spent months developing an interactive learning environment which would solve the three problems mentioned above.
Today I’d like to look at the results of this innovative approach and how has panned out for our members. I’ve also invited the Musical U team to share their perspectives.
Musical U: The Results So Far
There are a number of things which make Musical U different from the traditional courses, CDs and apps for musical ear training:
- We cater to all instruments and genres
(not just rock guitar or jazz piano, for example).
- We provide a full suite of training modules covering a broad range of topics
(not just relative pitch or playing by ear, for example).
- We provide multimedia training
(not only video tutorials or text).
- Our training system is fully flexible to suit you
(not one-size-fits-all courses enforced from above).
- We pair our training system with a friendly, supportive community
(no feeling alone in your training).
- The Musical U team are in the site every day providing personal support and guidance to all our members
(it’s not just “Do-It-Yourself, and hope for the best”).
- We provide a friendly, positive, encouraging environment
(no elitism or intimidation here)
So how have each of those worked out, one year later?
All instruments and genres
This was a contentious decision! It’s easy to find a “play by ear” course for most instruments, and it’s true there are advantages to learning the listening skills in a hands-on way.
However, the true inner skills of musicianship are the same, no matter what instrument you play. We believe it’s better to focus on teaching the true underlying skills as clearly as possible rather than teaching just a narrow perspective that suits a particular instrument.
For that reason, we designed Musical U’s training modules to work for all instruments, and we provide additional exercises to help you connect your skills to your regular instrument practice.
There’s still room for improvement in this area but the results so far are solid.
Members representing over 25 different instruments (from piano, guitar and bass through to banjo, ukulele, tin whistle, harmonica, violin, classical harp, and more!) and all kinds of genres (from classical to rock, metal, blues and jazz) have used Musical U’s modules and succeeded in developing their “inner” skills and applying them to their instruments.
Many members particularly enjoy this because they play multiple instruments. The way we’ve designed the training modules means it’s easy for them to see how the same skills can be applied across a variety of instruments.
For example member Fermin A. told us recently:
“Musical U has helped me to feel more comfortable improvising leads on guitar and more confident singing. I’m also slowly transferring these skills to ukulele, harmonica and piano!”
Another advantage of not going instrument-specific is that we can provide a broad set of modules which teach valuable skills across a range of useful topics…
Most ear training courses or apps focus just on a few topics like intervals or chords, or they teach you just the “play by ear” skills for a certain instrument.
At Musical U we wanted to provide the full solution. Not just the core skills like interval recognition or recognising chord progressions, but also the application like playing by ear and improvising, and the musicality skills that are too often overlooked – like singing in tune, having good rhythm, and musical confidence.
We launched with a core set of 20 modules covering the topics we knew musicians were most interested in: pitch, intervals, chords, progressions, and playing by ear. Since then we’ve doubled the number (now 41) to extend those topics and add some new popular ones including rhythm, melodies, singing and several modules just about training effectively – for example making it easy to fit music practice into a busy life.
We’re still cautious not to go too broad: we don’t teach the instrument-specific skills and we tend to leave the music theory to Dave Conservatoire.
Many members joined Musical U interested only in a specific topic (for example, playing chords by ear) but are then excited to find there are other topics to help them improve even further.
As one member Carol G. put it:
“My favorite thing is that it has made me aware of just how much more there is to learning music than playing my instrument. I find it all fascinating!”
Another member Linda described it as “an exciting playground for my ears to explore!”
These days a lot of online “courses” are simply a series of video tutorials, perhaps with a downloadable PDF or two, essentially bringing the classroom experience to your computer screen. That can be very effective for some subjects, but for developing musical skills some interaction is required.
At Musical U our training modules are a combination of:
- Text explanation (sometimes video too)
- Plenty of audio examples to listen to
- Interactive quizzes to train and test your skills
We also provide access to our best-selling iOS ear training apps and training MP3s you can use on any mobile device.
We have a lot more planned on this front. Our company’s first product was an iOS app which was selected by Apple to be featured on the front page of the App Store, and cutting-edge technology is still one of our core strengths.
During the first year of Musical U our focus has been on making sure our members have all the training material they need. Now as we move into year two we’ll be focusing on making that training experience even more interactive and effective.
A fully flexible training system
As mentioned earlier, a lot of musicians struggle with ear training because they have difficulty with setting goals and creating and following a plan. The alternative, of rigidly following a course or syllabus prescribed by an expert, also tends to end badly because musicians are too varied for a single solution to work well for everyone.
This has probably been the most challenging part of developing Musical U this year:
How do you design a training system to be really flexible and suit the individual needs of each member – while still providing enough support and guidance that they never feel lost or confused about what to do next?
At the beginning this was a very hands-on process. We were still figuring out the details of our Training Planner module and so the team were spending a lot of time helping members one by one to figure out the best plan and stay on track.
With the introduction of our Roadmaps feature earlier this year things became a lot easier, for members and for our team! Now if you want to learn a high-level skill like playing by ear or singing in tune, there is a clear path for you to follow. Your training plan can still be unique to you, and your use of Musical U’s modules is still fully flexible – but now the MU team is able to focus more on helping members to overcome any sticking points along the way as they follow through on their plan.
One big advantage of this flexible system is that it can allow for external resources to be included. This works great for members who are taking instrument lessons or playing in ensembles and want to track their progress there too, or who are already using an app or website that they like and want to continue with. For example, many of our members are devoted Theta Music Trainer users too.
So even when members’ core practice sessions happen outside the site, Musical U can still provide the “home” for their musical training, where they can set goals, define their plan, track their progress, and get help and support whenever they need it.
Team member Sabrina Peña Young says:
“I am very excited to be a part of such a great team of music professionals developing such an innovative and effective way to teach music.
Musical U is on the cutting edge of music education, providing a supportive community of musicians and interactive modules on everything from chord progressions and rhythm to singing and performance.
Its flexibility as an online environment means that Musical U evolves with its community, with new lessons being added to suit what the Musical U students want and need. This is what sets Musical U apart.
Anyone can jump in, from beginners to pros, and find ways to truly improve their musicianship.”
A friendly, supportive community
This was another contentious decision when building Musical U. It’s not unusual to provide some community features on a website, for example adding forums. But to emphasise the community as equally important to the core training material? That took some explaining!
There have definitely been some members who were skeptical at first about the idea of sharing their progress with the community along the way, or exchanging advice with other members.
After overcoming a training hurdle, one member Jean R. told us:
“I must admit I had reservations about the Progress Journal but I am sold on it now. I probably still wouldn’t have connected [the problem and its solution] if it hadn’t been for the Progress Journal, which focused my attention on what I was trying to achieve and how I was achieving it.”
Some members still prefer to train quietly by themselves, and that’s fine. The MU team still checks in on them to make sure they have everything they need. But the members we’ve seen have most success are definitely those who dive into the community side of things.
Community Assitant Kelly F. says:
“Musical U is different because it provides a community similar to what you would receive as being part of a performing studio or music school, only on your own time.
You can reach out for support anytime you need it, whether it is having someone check in on your practicing every week, or being mentored by someone who has struggled through the same problems.
It gives you the tools to excel in music, while allowing you to customize your path and focus on what interests you, emphasizing musicality and consistency.
Being on the Musical U team allows me to help others and at the same time share my own musical growth. Musical U has put my feet on the path to become a more confident performer and teacher and I am honored to be a team member.”
Our members have started hundreds of discussions, posted thousands of comments and replies, and exchanged close to 2,000 private messages. There is some light chat about the world of music (inevitable, with a community of musicians!) but a large proportion is focused on members’ training: their goals, how their plans are going, specific questions about overcoming a hurdle, and so on. Although our team is there every day to provide expert guidance, we are also seeing members helping each other more and more with tips and advice, sharing their experience in a way which benefits everyone.
So I think it’s safe to say that emphasising the community side of Musical U has worked out well. The community is thriving and the discussions are proving valuable to our members in their training.
Personal support and guidance
One of my own biggest frustrations early on with learning ear training was that I’d get a course or a book on ear training – and then that was it. I was left to go it alone. This is fine at first, as your enthusiasm powers you forward and you tackle the beginner-stage material. But as the material gets more challenging and you get stuck or confused, I found there was generally no way to get help, except for desperately Googling and hoping someone somewhere could provide the answers.
At Musical U we were determined to make sure our members had all the help and support they needed.
This has proved to be a larger task than anticipated! But it’s been well worthwhile. I’ve personally done over 50 one-on-one calls with our members, lasting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, to discuss their background and musical training goals. The Musical U team are inside the site each day, replying to member questions, commenting on Progress Journals, and exchanging messages with members to help them with their training.
We recently asked our members what they liked most about Musical U and many of them specifically mentioned the personal support they get:
“I like the encouragement and tips from the Musical U staff.”
– Diana T.
“I appreciate the encouragement I receive and the input from other members and from the team.”
– Leith R.
“What I like most about Musical U is the personal support and advice the team have given.”
– Kevin B.
“What I like most about Musical U is the wide variety of resources, the camaraderie, and the ever-present, alert, ready-to-respond-to-stuckness team.”
– Carol F.
“I liked the personal interaction. It felt like I was getting one-to-one tutoring.”
– Liam S.
“I really like the service at Musical U – the quick response when I do have a question or problem. I feel that Musical U has a genuine desire to help and improve people.”
– Brian M.
A friendly, positive, encouraging learning environment
Too many music colleges and courses are simply intimidating. Between elitist attitudes that make people worry they’re “not talented enough” and stuffy old-fashioned emphasis on confusing theory and repertoire, learning music can be a scary and frustrating experience for people.
With Musical U we wanted to create the opposite. A place where you would always be encouraged. Where beginners were as welcome as experts, and nobody thinks you need to be born “talented” to enjoy becoming a great musician.
One member Carol F. put it well when she said: