Ted McDonald

I design products that are helpful, fun, and easy to use. Currently, I’m studying Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington.

Learning Tool for Group Piano Classes

I designed a teaching tool — "key card" — for piano group lessons, that dramatically improved the number of students who were able to play a song, unaided, by the end of their first class.

The key card was a physical, paper-stock representation of the notes C through B on the piano keyboard. It had folds that held it in place on the keyboard, and a shortened height to allow fingers freedom of movement.

My Contributions

  • Ideation
  • Design
  • Prototyping


Main Stem taught after-school group piano classes (elementary) and had classes with up to 40 kids at a time. Their goal was to have every student, regardless of initial skill level, be able to play a song for their parents by the end of their first class.

Problem & Goal

Beginner piano students are expected to memorize 3-5 letter names, their position on the keyboard and on the music staff. At an elementary age level, learning ability can vary greatly between students, and dealing with these three expectations can be difficult for some students.

The goal was to reduce cognitive load, so that students could learn a song during their first lesson.


I was able to observe a few after school classes, during which I gathered notes.

Piano group classes. Students gathered at front of class for mini-lecture.

There was a group instruction period at the beginning of each class. Afterwards, students spread out to individual pianos to practice. I noticed that an overwhelming number of students would raise their hands and wait for a teacher to show up and help them with their songs. The majority of questions involved identifying notes on the keyboard.

Ideation & Prototypes

I started sketching up ways to take the load off the teacher by addressing students’ main pain point — remembering note names and their position on the keyboard. Given the young demographic and location of classes, the focus was on effective solutions that were also simple, cheap, and disposable.

I experimented with ways to display the notes on the keyboard, using a variety of stickers and creating representations of the piano on paper, folded in different ways.

A selection of sketched concepts I explored.

Stickers proved too difficult to take off the piano, lost their adhesiveness, and/or left behind residue. I began focusing on paper representations of the piano (or "key cards" as I called them).

The paper key cards worked pretty good, but would not stay in place. They sat vertically and would flop over when the keyboard was knocked.


Ultimately I settled on a flat design, sitting flush with the top of the black keys. The card was a representation of the keys underneath, though less than half the height so that the student was able to place their fingers on the keyboard. Students could also use these key cards as mini keyboards when they followed along during a lecture demonstration.

Lock-in Folds

I designed small cut sections on the key card, which students could fold down. Spacing tolerance in the folds accommodate slight width differences between keyboard models. Folds kept the key card locked in place horizontally. The student could even shake the keyboard side to side and the key card would stay put.

Key card on piano (left) and fold demonstration (right).

Improving the Design

I was initially using a standard paper weight which would crinkle very easily. I increased the weight of the paper to 110lb stock, which was more rigid and longer lasting.


The key cards include seven letters, C-B. By not making them a full octave (C-C, or eight letters), multiple cards can be stacked side by side. This allows students to use two key cards when playing with two hands.

Key cards can be stacked side by side as needed.

A Delivery System

Main Stem produced their own books for classes. By printing the key card on the side of the front cover and perforating the top edge, students could simply tear off their key card and place it on their keyboard. The tear would then reveal a strip of colored paper where the students could write their names.

Piano book cover (left) and detaching key card from cover, revealing area to write name (right).

The front cover of the book is meant to look like the top view of a piano.


Over 1,200 key cards were produced and used by students. Feedback was very positive and many parents asked about purchasing extra copies for their children.

Being able to play a song for a parent increases students' motivation to continue piano lessons, and parents are happy to see their kids enjoying music and progressing. The key card dramatically improved the number of students who were able to complete their song by the end of class.