The UNC School of Music has announced the winners of the first annual Spark Initiative. Students Braeden Ayres and Trevor Lovell will receive $1,500 from the Monfort College of Business to continue development of a mobile and web-based app that teaches students rhythmic concepts. 

The Spark Initiative was launched this year in partnership with UNC’s Monfort College of Business. The program allows music students to pitch ideas for new musical products, prototypes, events, performance groups, or music related companies. A panel of business leaders then selects the project with the most potential to receive a $1,500 prize to aid in further development. 

Ayres, a first-year Master’s student in choral conducting, first saw the need for technology-based tools while teaching middle school music students. “Students would say, ‘I’m struggling with rhythm—how can I work on this at home?’,” Ayres explained. He had the idea to develop an adaptive app that would allow students to practice rhythm outside of the classroom and that would address the needs of a diverse student population more effectively than method books with a set pedagogical track. 

Once Ayres heard of the Spark Initiative program at UNC, he knew he had a path to turn his idea into a reality. He placed flyers around Frasier Hall, announcing that he was seeking a musician with programming knowledge to collaborate on his project. Sophomore percussion performance major Trevor Lovell responded. Lovell, who is minoring in computer science and knows “a bit about design and a bit about programming,” had the perfect combination of skills to build a rhythm-focused app.

One of Lovell’s passions is video game programming, and he has brought gaming concepts to this educational app.  “The ‘game’ that we’re teaching kids is how to read rhythm,” he explains. Lovell is also focused on making sure the app has a seamless user experience, and a “slick and clean design” that will keep students engaged. 

Ayres and Lovell’s app has also been picked up by Innovation Development and Enterprise Advancement (IDEA) at UNC. The organization will provide additional funding and support throughout the development and design process. Currently, the team is seeking bids from programming firms. Once a firm starts building the app, Ayres and Lovell will move from a programming role into more of a design role. They plan to run a beta test of the app in Fall of 2016 and launch a full version in 2017. 

Ayres hopes this app will fill a void in the music education market. Currently, the only similar app-based music instruction program that exists is Smart Music, which is expensive and does not adapt in real time to diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses. “We want to build something that isn’t cost-prohibitive to low-income students,” said Ayres. “Our app will be more than a practice tool—teachers will use it to monitor student progress as well.”

Ayres and Lovell’s venture is a perfect illustration of the increasingly diverse skill set modern musicians need to thrive in the professional world. Michael Alexander, director of UNC’s School of Music, says, “The work that Braeden and Trevor did here is an outstanding example of how a 21st-century musician can be resourceful to make a difference in our field and build a career in the arts.” Alexander hopes that the success of these students encourages others to pitch creative ideas during next year’s Spark Initiative.