by Kristin Cahill
• PRICE AND OPTIONS:
-$9.99/month (billed annually); includes $20 in song credits
-$17.99 for a single month; includes one free song
-$269.99 lifetime membership; includes $40 in song credits
*All subscriptions have full access to Playground software, community features (social media, leader boards), free Bootcamp lessons for all levels, and discounts on songs and sheet music. An option also exists for non-members to purchase Bootcamp packages separately ($50- $90) and single-song lessons and music for full price ($3.99 for members and $4.99 for non-members). Membership includes video tutorials for songs; the non-membership price for video tutorials is $7.99. Software upgrades are free for all users.
• OPERATING SYSTEM:
Mac or Windows
• EQUIPMENT NEEDED:
Laptop or PC, digital piano with MIDI/ USB capabilities, and MIDI/USB cable ($7-$10) that connects the keyboard to the computer. An iPad version will be released soon.
Students and teachers must register for individual memberships. Playground Sessions is currently developing a teacher portal. Currently, teachers must log into student accounts to monitor progress.
• CUSTOMER SUPPORT:
Excellent; forums, blogs, and contact through chat/email are readily available and thorough.
• Interactive, fun software that provides instant feedback
• Excellent customer support
• Frequent expansions and additions of lessons and songs
• Numerous practice and reward incentives, including social media post options, rankings, badges, and the ability to earn free songs with star ratings
• Background tracks for pop songs allow students to feel like a soloist in an ensemble
• Ability to reinforce concepts learned in traditional lessons using what is playing on the radio today excerpts
• Does not reinforce essential pianistic techniques such as legato; refining technique and pedaling needs more thorough explanations in videos
• 4/2 time signature in Rookie level is often difficult for young students to understand
• Intermediate and Advanced levels need further repertoire expansion, particularly in classical selections, and more full pieces rather than simply excerpts
Prior to this school year, I had never connected a laptop to a digital keyboard. Due to my inexperience with technology, the idea was daunting. What cables would I need, and how complex would it be to understand? After a download to my PC and a MIDI/USB cable purchase, I soon learned how interesting and easy it is to use applications with a MIDI piano. The software I am reviewing, Playground Sessions, is a wonderful way to augment and diversify piano teaching.
Playground Sessions has Rookie, Intermediate, and Advanced levels. There are numerous ways teachers and students can utilize this software: watching videos in Bootcamp tours to learn specific skills, practicing concepts learned in Bootcamp with short repertoire segments, and learning full songs to achieve ratings and stars. The Bootcamp lessons cover reading, practice tips, ear training, and keyboard skills including transposition and chord progressions.
This software utilizes both popular and classical repertoire segments to introduce a concept. There are forty-two lessons in Rookie Bootcamp, thirty- seven in Intermediate, and twelve in Advanced. The very first Rookie lesson starts at the beginning of study, using middle C as a keyboard reference, and playing the opening of Five for Fighting's Superman by rote while watching pianist David Sides explain the learning process step by step. The right hand pinky begins on F, and the thumb spans a seventh to G.
The LH supports with the pinky on C and the thumb on G in the left hand. While starting a first lesson hands together with a popular song is creative, I find stretching the right hand a seventh and starting on the weaker fifth finger problematic.
While there is an emphasis on pop music in all Bootcamp levels, some classical staples are present. Rookie Bootcamp includes arrangements and short classical excerpts such as Pachelbel's Canon, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Dvorak's New World Symphony, and J. S. Bach's Prelude in C but also the Beatles, Sam Smith, Beyoncé, Frank Sinatra, and other popular artists. Intermediate Bootcamp has considerably fewer classical selections and more popular music. The only classical excerpts in Advanced Bootcamp are Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5 and mm. 5-9 of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The purpose of Bootcamp is not to learn entire pieces but rather to experience concepts through repertoire.
I have used this Bootcamp in lessons for sight-reading practice, reinforcing a certain skill I have already introduced, such as inversions or dominant sevenths, and introducing students to an excerpt from a pop song that may be too challenging to learn in its entirety.
To use Playground Sessions, turn on any MIDI keyboard or digital piano, and connect it with a USB/MIDI cable to your computer. Look under your keyboard (or perhaps in the back) for the MIDI ports labeled IN, OUT, and THRU. Newer keyboards may also have an interface that can be connected with a single USB cable. When using the traditional ports, note the MIDI cable will have IN and OUT connectors, but the IN on the cable goes to OUT on the piano and vice versa.
On your computer, open Playground Sessions, and screens will emerge prompting you to verify your internet connection, and to play the highest and lowest note on the keyboard. This allows the software to adapt to your keyboard range. At that point, your keyboard's actions are displayed on the computer screen, so it is very easy to follow along and play the music, making it interactive.
There are many useful features Playground Sessions enables for student drilling and progress. For example, when a student purchases a popular song or plays a segment from a lesson, the computer follows along, highlighting correct notes in green and marking incorrect notes and rhythms red. This creates an engaging game and challenge, and a score appears at the end with an overall percentage as well as a breakdown of wrong notes and close notes.
In addition to being entertaining, the game aspect motivates students to practice to improve their scores. Toggle looping allows students to click and highlight any number of notes or measures, and the program will generate a constant repetition of that area for practice. In addition, icons appear at the top allowing students to see fingerings over all notes, letter names of notes, or nothing. Tempo is also flexible; a metronome can be turned on or off and adjusted to any tempo. Background tracks are available for slow and fast speeds, so students can play the melody with a small band. A recording feature allows students to listen to and review song performances.
From a pedagogical perspective, I have observed certain features of the software that can ignite undesirable habits. For instance, a note is counted as correct, or green, even if it is not held down for its full value. Understandably, students are so focused on getting a good score that they start letting go of notes instead of employing legato where essential. Although Playground Sessions does a fairly thorough job of covering many skills, the technique and finesse of concepts such as pedaling could use much more in-depth explanation. In addition, at Rookie levels, a 4/2 time signature with a dotted line in the middle of the measure is most common, and that has been confusing for my younger beginning students.
The reasoning for the prevalent 4/2 time signature is to delay introducing eighth and sixteenth-note values until the Intermediate levels, and using quarter, half, and whole notes so students have less to digest. However, students who are used to reading in simple time struggle to adapt, and the dotted line adds further confusion. In my view, Playground Sessions should not serve as a replacement for in-person lessons but rather as a complement to skills that need more practice or reinforcement.
With students, teachers can watch a video session together, and pause it to further elaborate while still using the virtual keyboard component for extra support.
My students really relished the competitive aspect of Playground Sessions. There are options to share scores on social media (Facebook and Twitter), star ratings at ends of songs that can later earn credits for free songs, ratings boards for the Playground Sessions community, and detailed graphs that show individual progress.
All songs and repertoire are introduced gradually (intro, chorus, verses, etc.), so students can master sections before moving on. In one of my group classes with teenage students, I set up a competition using Adele's "Hello." Students took turns doing the chorus and different verses to see which group could get the highest score. The students in the class with cautious sight-reading skills really gained as the computer keeps scanning across, advancing the music, and one must keep going. At the conclusion of the group class, everyone said it was the "best class ever," and they now frequently ask when we can try another song in Playground Sessions.
Overall, I am grateful to Playground Sessions for providing an impetus to further delve into the world of piano technology and even explore other new applications. I had previously taught students pop music from printed book collections and online scores.
Incorporating a computer with interactive, fun, and competitive software like Playground Sessions is a fantastic way to diversify your curriculum and expose students to something they enjoy and positively relate to. Playground Sessions is a valuable support tool for any studio!