For those of us who’ve gone a while without flexing our sheet music-reading muscle, or even for those who are looking to give piano a go for the first time but are limited by space (or budget), Lumi wants to help you learn the basics on a funky illuminated keyboard that gamifies the process. For the most part, it gets you there.
It should go without saying that the Lumi Keys by Roli ($299) is not a one-for-one replacement for a Steinway baby grand, nor a particularly inexpensive one. There are technical limits to how much you can really hone your skill on a miniature keyboard that measures a mere 11 inches. But the real draw here is the Lumi companion app that’ll help you pick up the fundamentals with guided tutorials, self-directed challenges, and as of this week, even education-focused games.
In just a couple of sessions with the Lumi Keys, I found myself getting back some of that muscle memory from my childhood piano-playing days even in its most introductory courses. And because sometimes picking up an old instrument can feel a little daunting, its light-up keys and points-based rewards system also make it feel like more of a video game than learning or re-learning a musical instrument, to Lumi’s credit. The Lumi itself gets up to six hours of battery life and charges with a USB-C port (a USB-C to USB-A cable is included), so you can play for quite a while without the interruption of needing to recharge.
As of this writing, the Lumi Keys includes a $50 voucher good for 12 months of Lumi Complete, the premium subscription option for the companion app. You’ll need to download the iOS or Android app on your phone or tablet to access the lessons. A little frustratingly, lessons for the Lumi Keys aren’t available on desktop. That means if you’re limited to your phone, you’re following along on a smaller screen than might be comfortable. I would have much preferred an app for my laptop, but my iPad Mini served as at least a slight upgrade over my iPhone 11. (The Lumi Keys Studio Edition can be used on macOS, but that product is for music creation rather than education.)
The app connects using Bluetooth, so once you’ve downloaded the app on your phone or tablet, you’ll be able to connect the Lumi after powering it on and selecting the keyboard in the app. What’s nice is that if you’ve got headphones connected to your iPhone, for example, others will not hear you practicing—one of the pitfalls of real deal instruments. The Lumi also allows for color adjustments if rainbow isn’t your jam, with settings for single color, night mode with dimmed keys, and piano mode for black and white keys. Octave and strike sensitivity can also be adjusted.
The first collection of lessons really focuses on timing, correctly following along with simple and then progressively more challenging compositions, and the perfection with which you’re able to execute each lesson. At any time, you can break away from the structured lessons and try to have a go on your own at popular or classical songs with varying degrees of difficulty. But I found the structured lessons to be where Roli makes a strong case for a $299 keyboard that looks like a child’s toy. As soon as you graduate to the second round of lessons, they’re already shifting toward more practical applications of the skill set.
One of the things I really liked about the Lumi is that it accounts for timing. I found myself frequently repeating lessons because my own clumsy fingers didn’t quite align with the track playing in the background—something that the app will flag for you while you’re playing with markers like “good,” “perfect,” and the occasional “late,” which after a few days with the app I came to absolutely dread. Having played piano regularly approximately 400 years ago in my youth, I can tell you the Lumi doesn’t perfectly capture the same experience of hitting a key on an actual piano. I would occasionally feel as though the input on my keyboard wasn’t being accurately read by the companion app, which was sometimes irritating, but wasn’t something I’d say interfered with the overall experience in any significant way.
Then there’s the recently added game version of the app, which sees an onscreen avatar leap from one cliff to the next using a springboard that corresponds to notes from a given popular song. This section of the app encourages users to beat their personal best “while learning to play ‘Jump’ by Van Halen, ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ by Survivor, and many more classic songs,” the company wrote in an email to users this week.
Lumi claims that its games are “so much fun, you’ll hardly notice you’re getting better at hand-eye coordination, reading notes, and building muscle memory along the way!” I don’t even particularly care for “Feel So Close” by Calvin Harris—or Calvin Harris generally, for that matter—but I’ll admit Lumi’s Springboard game had me hooked from this first song and that I did, in fact, get better at playing along and identifying notes every time I tried to beat my own personal record. It’s addictive! The games definitely help, at least in my experience, boost the educational element as well.
Lumi will not make you a master piano player, to be sure, and I’d hope that would be clear to anyone planning to learn the instrument on a miniature keyboard. You can pair two or three Lumi Keys devices together to get something close to a more authentic piano experience, though I wonder at what point it’s just worth investing in either a proper keyboard or some actual piano lessons for folks who want to take their education to the next level.
This device on its own will, however, help you nail down the basics, possibly learn a new hobby, or even kill some time in quarantine doing something other than binge-watching TV. And all in all, it was a delightful exercise during the time I spent trying to flex those old piano muscles and learn some new tunes.