Rainbow-bright Lumi teaches piano with video games

Springboard is the latest game on Roli's educational light-up keyboard. It got this rusty musician playing again.

No question, Lumi is a piece of tech that just makes you feel happy. This pint-size piano keyboard lights up like a rainbow, with an RGB LED illumination for each of its 24 keys. But the fun goes beyond the looks with Roli's creative new instrument. It pairs with an app that teaches music lessons through video games, interactive video lessons and tons of chart-topping hits. 

And now, just a few months after it began shipping the first models to Kickstarter supporters, the Lumi app is adding new features, including a platform-jumping style game it calls Springboard. Players need to read the music on the app screen and hit the right key in sync with the song to get your hero to jump from note to note. It's an irresistible challenge when the songs you're trying to match are Van Halen's Jump or Survivor's Eye of the Tiger. Practicing doesn't feel like practicing when it's a game.


The Lumi's new Springboard game turns piano practice into a platform-jumping game.


I spent a few weeks with Lumi, along with an early beta version of the Springboard game, which is set to arrive this week. The keyboard itself costs $299 (£299, or about AU$540), and with it comes a selection of video courses and music. 

But to unlock the full suite of more than 100 lessons, songs and challenges, you'll need a subscription to Lumi Complete. Roli is running a promotion now that lowers the cost of access to $29 for the year when you buy a Lumi keyboard. That's not bad at all when you see the quality of content and interactive lessons. The normal subscription cost is $79 for a year.

Lumi costs more than some full-sized keyboards, and it isn't even a third of the size. But what you're paying for here is the app and its creative, color-synced approach to teaching you music -- not to mention a huge library of songs and music to read. Sure there are classical works, but it also has hit songs from every decade -- even fresh pieces from artists such as Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and The Weeknd. Lumi itself doesn't have a speaker to make sounds. It only works when connected through Bluetooth to a mobile device running iOS or Android.


Roli's Lumi is a light-up keyboard that pairs with an app to teach you how to play piano -- even if you can't read sheet music.


Lessons with a live feel

So let's get into the lessons, since that's what Lumi is all about. The courses are well-designed and come in bite-sized chunks, with teachers getting you familiar with keys and fundamentals of scales and chords and timing. But you're not just watching a video. As the teacher talks, the keyboard lights up to show you what they're doing, and the video will seamlessly pause to wait for you to hit the right note to move forward. You feel as though the teacher is there with you at every step, so you can go at your own pace. 

These aren't exactly traditional piano lessons, since they reference notes on the keyboard as colors. ("Hit the red key. Now the blue key.") It's a rainbow keyboard, so you'd expect them to talk about colors. But the teachers do jump into the names of the notes as well -- and how to read them on a staff. It's all designed to warm you up to the idea of where to put your fingers.

I took piano lessons for years in my childhood and I was skeptical about how much an app could teach compared to an in-person instructor, but Lumi left me impressed. The teachers are inviting and I liked the pacing and structure of the courses. And they keep it entertaining for all ages. In your first lessons you're not just playing Three Blind Mice -- you're playing along with sea shanties and the overture to the opera Carmen. You may only be playing a couple notes at a time at first, but backing tracks keep the rest of the song going to give it a lively experience.


One of the ways Lumi teaches you how to play is through these falling colors that correspond to keys on the keyboard. It's a challenge familiar to anyone who's played a game like Guitar Hero.


What Guitar Hero wishes it could be

Every lesson includes challenges that will be familiar to anyone who's played Guitar Hero or Rock Band: Color bars fall down on the screen, and you have to play them on the keyboard at the right time, with keys lighting up to indicate which to play next. I played plenty of Guitar Hero back in the day, but it still took a little rewiring of my brain to play with notes falling down instead of reading them from a staff. Still, it's cool that Lumi's getting your brain to think about music using games with different presentations.

The courses also teach you how to read music in a traditional way, and you can take your practice to a number of songs. You want plain sheet music? Lumi has that. But there's also these hybrid creations of colorful notes on a staff, with note names written on the circles. I was sight-reading much faster than I would normally.

I haven't regularly practiced piano since my high school years. I know the fundamentals and how to read music, but I'm rusty. Even so, something about Lumi's approach swept the cobwebs out of that musical corner of my brain. I loved the innovative challenges. After a few sessions I could just walk over to the full-sized keyboard in my living room, pull out the same Bach piece I was toying with in the app, and play it with confidence. That's a great feeling.


One of my favorite ways to practice a song on the Lumi is through this hybrid of colorful notes on a music staff. The keyboard lights up with the corresponding color as a guide for where to put your fingers for the upcoming notes.


Grows with your skill level

The Lumi team continues to add lessons -- and even with a small keyboard, Lumi covers some two-handed techniques. But I found most of it to be a one-handed experience. That said, it can be expanded. Multiple Lumi keyboards can snap together magnetically. Although I don't see many folks dropping $600 to get another two octaves out of it right away, the bigger takeaway is that Roli wants this to be an expandable tool for writing music. The Lumi is a fully functioning MIDI keyboard, so you can compose with it. The keyboard is compatible with most digital audio workstations and plugins. 

Roli is known for its unique electronic musical instruments. You may have come across its light-up touchpad Blocks in Apple Stores before. Roli also makes a pro version of the Lumi called The Lumi Keys Studio Edition, which is designed more for experienced musicians to compose their own pieces. The idea is that you could connect Roli's other instruments to the Lumi to expand its potential, which is worth knowing if you're considering investing in it as a music tool.

It's still early days for the Lumi, but Roli has built a quality experience. You could think of it as a Peloton for piano. You're at home more often, you want to strengthen your mind with creative activities. Maybe in-person music lessons aren't an option for you right now. That makes this the perfect time for something like the Lumi to arrive. It won't replace a live teacher all the time, but I like how this is a great system for getting you into the basics and making practice fun -- not to mention it's kid-friendly while also engaging for adults.