Piano lessons for me as a child meant sitting down every Tuesday at a shiny black Yamaha upright, looking up at shelves laden with tributes to my piano teacher’s twin obsessions: busts of classical greats like Beethoven and Chopin, and copies of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, to which he contributed every year. I’d sit and play; he’d sit and criticize. And over the course of a torturous six-year education, my teacher, Mr Dyson, instilled in my grumpy teenage self a love of music I can never adequately thank him for. I did my grades, paid my dues, and I’ve played more or less ever since.
All this is perhaps why the Lumi keyboard — the slickest, most intriguing piece of musical hardware I’ve come across in recent years — appalls and impresses me in equal measure.
The $299 Lumi is the latest offering from music hardware startup Roli, known for its squishy Seaboard keyboards and modular beat-making Blocks accessories. But while Roli’s past products have been aimed squarely at professionals, the Lumi is meant to attract would-be musicians: people who’ve never read a note of music in their life, but are eager to play all the same. It’s designed to lure in newbies with its light-up keys, Guitar Hero-style interface, and slick Bluetooth app, before embedding musical hooks deep in their heart with a back-catalogue of simplified pop, rock, and classical tunes to play along with. It’s a bold approach to musical education and unquestionably engaging. But I fear it has its limits.
Let’s start with the product first before we get on to the teaching aspects. Roli unquestionably makes gorgeous, idiosyncratic hardware. The Lumi has more design DNA in common with slick MIDI controllers used by DJs than starter Casio keyboards. It’s minimalist and compact, with two octaves of slightly small-than-average-size keys, a matte black plastic construction, and three soft-touch rubber buttons at the top. Although testers of early Lumi prototypes reported problems with the product’s build quality, the keyboards we tested were reassuringly solid. Each key lights up top to bottom, capable of displaying a full rainbow of colors as musical guides. The Lumi also has an internal battery, meaning you can toss it in a bag and take it on the go.
Setup is as simple as the design. Just download the Lumi app on a phone or tablet, push the power button on the keyboard, and connect to your keyboard over Bluetooth. The Lumi is really only designed for one hand to play at a time, but you can join multiple keyboards together using magnetic connectors to engage both of your hands at once.
My only slight criticism of the hardware is the keys themselves. The action of keyboard keys in general is, unsurprisingly, a matter of some importance to piano players. The more expensive sort of digital keyboard has what are known as “weighted” and “graded” keys, meaning they offer different levels of resistance at different parts of the keyboard. (This is to mimic the mechanics of an acoustic piano, where lower keys are harder to press and higher keys easier; an effect created by the keys’ levered construction).
Lumi’s keys don’t feel weighted or graded, which is not that surprising. Although you can get keyboards that cost the same as the Lumi with these features, Roli is justifying the price primarily via its software, not hardware. That being said, I still felt the Lumi’s keys were mushier than I would have liked, even for a starter keyboard, and has a disappointing plunge depth (you can’t push them down nearly as far as keys on a regular piano). And they also failed every now and again to register my touch if I was playing too fast. That could be extremely frustrating for someone struggling to learn an instrument that doesn’t seem to love them back. They keys are touch-sensitive, too, which allows you to play more softly or loudly. But again, that sensitivity is limited. Try playing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” for example, and you’ll feel like you’re clomping through an art gallery in heavy boots.
The sleek design of the hardware is carried through to the software. Open up the Lumi app and you’re presented with a few options: Home, Learn, and Play. The Home screen lets you jump in to music straight away with three categories of tracks: “very easy songs” (staples of first piano books like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”); “abridged hits” (minute long snippets of pop songs such as Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy”); and, somewhat bafflingly, a “hit the dancefloor” playlist containing tracks from the likes of Major Lazer, Pharrell Williams, and Calvin Harris. The latter category reminded me that Roli is really trying to attract a wide range of customers here — not just children learning to play for the first time, but older people who’ve perhaps always loved listening to music but never known how to start playing it.
In addition to the Home screen there are two more sections: Play, containing the app’s back-catalog of music, and Learn, home to Roli’s music lessons. A word on the back-catalog first, though, because it is simply wild. A quick scroll through the “intermediate” category, for example, takes me through an eclectic selection: Satie’s “Gymnopédie No.1”, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, Toploader’s “Dancin’ in the Moonlight”, and the State Anthem of The Russian Federation, all right next to one another. I honestly don’t quite know how to convey the weirdness of the music Roli has chosen, but I can say for certain I love it. Anyone can find something they want to play here, and though the bulk of tracks are split between classical tunes you can hum and pop hits of the last 10 years, Roli keeps you guessing by dropping in bangers like “No Scrubs” by TLC or “Rocket Man” by Elton John. These hits don’t come for free though, and require a $79 yearly subscription to “Lumi Complete” (which also gets you access to a full range of lessons and exercise). Those without the subscription only get a selection of 40 classical tunes, leaving the product severely diminished as a result.
However, this acclaim for Lumi’s back-catalog brings me to the feature I had the most doubts about, and it’s one that’s central to the entire product: how the music itself is taught. As mentioned above, the Lumi uses light up keys to power a Guitar Hero-style interface (officially known as “cascade” mode). Notes fall towards you on the screen and you hit them in time to play the music. The keyboard’s keys also light up faintly before the notes arrive, guiding your hands and fingers. Just as with Guitar Hero, there are also little gamified touches to keep your attention. You’re graded on how accurately you timed each note; earn multipliers for hot streaks; and get a star rating at the end of each song you play. It’s a simple, intuitive interface that anyone can understand. But its simplicity creates limits.
The problems come when songs progress beyond relatively simple tunes and start incorporating more complex rhythms and melodies. Here, the amount of information you can fit into a Guitar Hero interface is simply too restrictive. Traditional sheet music, by comparison, uses a style of notation that’s evolved over centuries. It’s streamlined and compressed, and contains a wealth of information that can be understood at a glance. Things like dynamics, key signature, time signature, and a song’s overall structure can be taken in by an experienced musician almost intuitively. If you can read sheet music, you can not only look ahead in a song, but also better engage with its structure, picking out patterns like repeating motifs or harmonic progressions. Sheet music is also even more important for the piano, where different staves are used to separate what each hand plays.
The Guitar Hero interface, by comparison, is all about the moment. It focuses attention on a stream of notes that move constantly towards the player rather than a musical landscape they can survey at leisure. ‘Here comes the note,’ says the interface, ‘don’t miss it, here it is, play it, now!’ It’s a framework that borrows more from video games than musical education, and that doesn’t so much teach you to read music as react to it. And while it’s certainly possible to learn relatively tricky songs on the Lumi keyboard, I’m dubious how transferable these skills are. Once you reach the limits of the interface and have to change to traditional sheet music and keyboards, you’ll have a lot to learn as well as some bad habits to forget.
In fairness to Roli, Lumi is certainly much more than just Guitar Hero for piano. Many songs give you the option to play along with traditional sheet music, for example, and the app includes a fantastic library of lessons and exercises that teach you musical fundamentals. Chords, fingering and hand positions, as well as elements of notation are all covered, with interactive video presentations from bright and lively musicians. The company told me that it also plans to expand these lessons in future, to encourage the transition to traditional sheet music.
More good news though: it’s in these early stages that Lumi’s gamified environment really excels. For beginners sitting down at the piano for the first time, there are few things more discouraging than being confronted with their own ineptitude. You plod through scales and struggle to play nursery rhymes as if they were Rachmaninov, and then you give up because it’s all too hard. (Believe me, I’ve been there! I regularly go back to there every time I try something challenging!)
Lumi at least brightens these early difficulties through light and color. Even for the simplest songs, it gives players a backing score that makes them feel like they’re performing on stage. And for children learning to play for the first time I imagine these features would help keep them engaged and interested where a music book by itself could fail.
The question, then, is how far can you go with Lumi, and is it worth the price? Right now, the $299 price tag includes a $50 voucher for a year of Lumi Complete, the subscription service which gets you full access to the Lumi library and all its exercises and lessons (the cost without a voucher: $79). Roli isn’t selling the keyboard without this voucher right now, and I can see why: so much of the product’s attraction comes from its lessons and music. And while for that money you could get a better quality keyboard and a clutch of learn-to-play instructional books, you couldn’t get the lessons needed to take you through your first couple of grades.
At a time when most of us are stuck at home, or at least trying to avoid leaving the house, the all-in-one pitch from Roli seems particularly attractive. I just wonder how far Lumi can really take first-time musicians. I think Roli’s first educational produt is a good, but expensive, on-ramp for someone keen to try and play the piano for the first time, but the road soon runs out. If you really want to play, then the Lumi is only the start.