In Sync - breaking down barriers to play music

Professor Ed Hughes and his Music Department colleagues have developed an app to help young orchestra ensembles follow a musical score with confidence and success.

Ed Hughes, Alice Eldridge and Chris Kiefer

Ed Hughes, Professor of Music at the University of Sussex, was volunteering as a pianist in his daughter’s primary school orchestra in 2015, when he realised that something wasn’t right during practice.  

Instead of being a uniformly joyous shared musical experience for the children, he noticed that some of the newer members were struggling. And not just with the task of learning to play their respective instruments. Keeping their place and time whilst reading the musical score was proving stressful for some of them. Not only that, frequent stopping to offer support was frustrating for the more experienced children in the ensemble.    

“This is like a language that players are just beginning to learn, whilst coordinating their hands to make a sound,” says Hughes. “It’s quite a miracle just to put a G down on the downbeat of the bar. But when you manage that, it’s really exciting and rewarding and you feel you are part of something bigger.”  

The problem appeared to be two-fold. Firstly, a range of musical literacy meant that for those who were less advanced at reading music, just trying to read the scores was hard enough; and secondly, a fear of letting the group down made the process of keeping track of their place in the music paralysing.   

Determined to help these children experience the myriad benefits of ensemble musical performance, Hughes enlisted help from colleagues in the University of Sussex’s Music Department, Dr Alice Eldridge and Dr Chris Kiefer.

This was to be the beginning of a harmonious collaboration between the trio. Together they developed Syncphonia, an app that replaces paper scores with a digital system, helping musicians with a wide range of musical experience keep their place and offering revolutionary change in ensemble music-making.

Collaborative design    

The academics quickly established that, in order to bolster player confidence, the technology needed to be reliable and intuitive to navigate for musicians of all experiences. Kiefer says: “If there was the slightest hint that it might break, musicians wouldn’t use it for live performance.”  

Rather than design an app for the children or teachers, the academics designed it with them, working closely with primary schools to test all design stages and receive vital feedback.

Eldridge and Kiefer worked on the technical developments of the app, with Hughes described as the ‘conductor’ in the partnership.

To date, 20 pilots have taken place, involving twelve primary schools and eight other young music ensembles, including a rock school and a youth orchestra. 

Eldridge says this approach was fundamental to the success of the app. “You can compare it to tailor-made vs off-the-peg clothing: an iterative process of making and trying on, adjusting and trying again ensures a better fit and more durable clothing. To see that in action with software development is really quite a beautiful process. The fact that Syncphonia works so well in a range of contexts is due to that process of careful listening and responding in those early stages.”  

How it works   

Syncphonia is made up of a conductor app and a performer app. The conductor, or lead musician, controls the synchronised digital notation, with access to a free bundle of 36 scores, with parts for all abilities. The current bar and/or beat is highlighted in the performer app and pages are turned automatically, meaning nobody loses their place, while the App helps them to look ahead.

During the design process, coloured noteheads for the score were suggested by a school and are now a feature in the app. The colours correspond with  classroom percussion instruments, making the ensemble music accessible to performers with limited or no musical literacy. The app integrates smoothly with mainstream notation software and music instrument pedagogic systems, and is performed through Bluetooth and XML files. A new version of the app, Syncphonia 2, was launched earlier this year, with the inclusion of GCSE and A Level set music texts and the option for users to upload their own compositions.   

Synchronised success  

Working with the Sussex Innovation Centre to make Syncphonia available for free to UK schools via the App Store, the results are an app that, since its launch in 2017, has received enthusiastic praise from music teachers, conductors and orchestra players alike. Players have reported feeling more confident, relaxed and can undertake longer and more complex pieces.   

“Lots of people say that it’s really transformative,” says Eldridge. “Previously, if they lost their place they were out – rather like falling off your bike. But Syncphonia acts like stabilisers. The technology isn't in any way replacing the age-old practice of music playing. It is enabling it.”  

Teachers cite improved orchestra retention rates and the benefits of being able to open up the orchestra to pupils with a wider range of musical experience. It has been endorsed by multiple UK music service leads, the Association of British Orchestras, and other music industry stakeholders, such as Peters Edition.  

“Enabling players from different musical backgrounds to play together is particularly exciting,” says Kiefer. “We’ve seen how well it worked at bringing together rock and classical musicians. I’d love to see it being used by electronic musicians to bridge even more diverse musical cultures.” 

The wellbeing of pupils was crucial to the academics and in 2018 this became an additional research focus through a collaboration with Professor Robin Banerjee and Dr Fidelma Hanrahan in the School of Psychology at Sussex. They found that Syncphonia appeared to interrupt the downward spiral of frustration and lack of confidence in playing for some young people, and enhanced the likelihood of feelings of enjoyment and belonging.  

And for Hughes, that’s the greatest mark of success: “A high point for me is that we’ve been told by children that Syncphonia makes them sound so much better – that reducing stress and enabling players to relax and enjoy the experience better has made it so much better. And that’s really what it’s all about.”

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