Learning how to play the piano ultimately comes down to two potential methods of learning: Using an in-person piano instructor or taking online piano lessons. And that’s where Playground Sessions steps in, a robust online course that offers an interactive and immersive experience that you can do from the comfort of your own home (so long as you have a computer or a tablet handy).
Developed by musical innovators including Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson’s album Thriller, among others, Playground Sessions is currently the highest rated and some say the best online piano course in the country.
I recently received access to the Playground Sessions piano learning app for several weeks, and in this article, I’m going to breakdown everything you need to know about this piano course, how it helps you learn piano, and see how it stacks up against the tradition of learning how to play the piano with an in-person instructor.
10 Things We’ll Cover Today
Here are some of the questions I’ll address in this Playground Sessions review:
1) How easy is it to get started with Playground Sessions (or PS, for short)?
2) What are the compatible keyboards that work with PS?
3) What are the methods it uses to help you learn how to play the piano?
4) How does PS treat you when you make a mistake? How do they aid or encourage learning if you make a mistake?
5) How does Playground Sessions teach you about chords, scales, and music theory? How advanced does the teaching and learning get with Playground Sessions?
6) Does the software do a good job of helping virtually anyone learn how to play the piano, or do you need to have a basic knowledge of music to have success using PS?
7) What are the actual music lessons like?
8) What kind of music do you learn?
9) How does learning to play the piano with Playground Sessions compare to one-on-one lessons with a piano instructor? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of using the program versus an in-person lesson?
10) Is the cost of the Playground Sessions “bundle” worth it? How does the cost compare with one year of one-on-one instructors for a year?
Let’s get started!
How to Begin
I want to show you my setup for the program.
In my setup, I’m using the Playground Sessions keyboard that’s advertised on their website.
I’m using a digital keyboard bundle that features the Playground Sessions PG-150 keyboard. This bundle includes the 61-key keyboard (the PG-150), a sheet music stand, headphones, a sustain pedal, USB cable, an AC power supply cord and a user manual. This keyboard also can be powered with 6 AA batteries (sold separately).
To the left of the keyboard (on the printer in the photo below) are the headphones included in the package. My laptop sits behind the keyboard; the package includes a sheet music stand which I don’t have set up in this photograph.
My laptop is an old Lenovo, and I mean really old. Since my laptop is the only device I use, I had to improvise to make the setup work.
As you can see, I placed my laptop stand on top of several books so that its keyboard would rise above the back of the PG-150. You also see the mousepad and mouse next to the keyboard toward the front of this photograph.
However, I don’t have the arm length or wingspan of an NBA player, so to use the mouse I have to place the pad and mouse on the upper section of the keyboard, like this:
The headphones included in the keyboard bundle have no brand name present on them. Here’s what they look like:
They plug into the keyboard using the jack adapter included in the package.
Here is a photograph displaying the sheet music stand:
There isn’t room on my desk to use the sheet music stand on the keyboard, so I’ve removed it to accommodate my laptop computer. The sheet music stand is obviously for any music that you wish to play; it also supports a large iPad, as does the slot built into the keyboard for an iPad:
The keyboard connected to its USB port without a hitch. I’m what tech-geeks in my family call “technologically challenged” (ouch, low blow guys) and even I didn’t have any difficulty setting up the keyboard and connecting it to my laptop.
So if you have a newer laptop or desktop computer (and most of you reading this likely do!), rest assured you’ll likely have no problems setting this up.
I’d also like to note that Playground Sessions is both PC and Mac compatible. So for those out there that have iMacs, Macbook Pros, Macbook Airs, or even a simple iPad, you can certainly use PS without a problem.
Here’s a little closer view:
The cord that you see running from the keyboard to the floor is the pedal cable. The pedal that’s included in the package is a typical on-off-switch pedal that plugs into the back of the keyboard.
It looks like this:
The keyboard connects to any computer with a USB cable port. Also included in the package is a cable that will allow you to connect the keyboard to a iPad.
Installing Playground Sessions
To install the program, go to the Playground Sessions home page. It looks like this:
Set up an account for yourself and login. When you login, notice your name comes up in the upper right hand corner of the home page. Let your cursor stop on your name and you will see a drop-down menu:
Click on Downloads/Installs and you’ll see:
You have the option of installing to a PC/Mac computer or to an iPad. Click on whichever one you prefer and let the program install. You can link two devices to your account, so if you want to download to your PC or Mac and to your iPad, you are able to do so.
Once you have downloaded and opened the program, you are given the option of a beginner level, intermediate level, or advanced level. (Playground Sessions calls these levels “Rookie Tour, Intermediate Tour, and Advanced Tour”).
I chose the beginner level (or Rookie Tour) for the purposes of this review (but we’ll dive into the Intermediate and Advanced levels a bit later):
Click on the level you wish to begin. My ancient laptop took less than 60 seconds to download the information on each lesson of the rookie tour; if you have a newer device (and I certainly suspect that you do!) the lessons should download much faster.
You have an option to take a “Features Tour,” and I strongly advise that you do so. This very short tour explains all of the icons and buttons that you see on the control bar above the music/video screen.
In the first lesson, “Breaking Down the Piano,” Harry Connick Jr. introduces you to his piano and talks a bit about learning to play the piano. He’s a very cordial fella in his introduction. I’ve always liked his music, and I like his manner in this introduction. He could put a child or adult at ease with his easygoing style, and he isn’t patronizing in any way.
He also introduces the beginner to what I call “Keyboard Geography”: identifying the landmarks on a keyboard so you can find any key you wish to play:
Which Keyboards Are Compatible?
Playground Sessions offers bundles that allow you to not only get a subscription to the program, but to notable keyboards and pianos too.
In fact, PS offers bundles that come with the Yamaha PSR-E363, Yamaha NP-12, Yamaha PSR-EW300, Yamaha P-45, Casio-PX-160, Casio PX-770, and Yamaha YDP-144.
With that said, I think it’s important to know that as long as you feel comfortable with a keyboard or piano that best fits your needs and experience level (and so long as it comes with USB connection), you’ll be fully able to use Playground Sessions.
With that said, PS recommends that in order to fully accommodate their Rookie and Intermediate arrangements, you’ll benefit most by getting a keyboard with at lest 61 keys.
Learning Methods in Playgrounds Sessions
In the education business, we talk about “visual” learners, “kinetic learners,” and “aural” or “auditory” learners, among other styles. And what’s so impressive about Playground Sessions is that it incorporates all three of these learning styles.
When you begin a learning module on Playground Sessions, the program gives you preparatory audible counting that is accompanied by a background track. This allows the chance for you to lock in on the speed of the music and decide if you want to attempt to play the music at the preset tempo (a word that means rate of speed) or if they want to slow the piece down.
The control bar shows you the preferred tempo of the piece you’re working on and allows you to adjust it up (faster) or down (slower):
This is a valuable feature, especially for a beginner. Once you’ve learned a piece of music at a slower tempo, you can gradually increase the tempo and master each level until you reach the desired rate of speed. This is the way that professional musicians learn difficult pieces, no matter which instrument they play.
My husband is not a musician, but he would love to learn how to play the piano. As he listened to my experimentation with the Playground Sessions methods (since our desks are next to one another), he made the comment that the preparatory counting and audible beats would be a great help to him in learning to play the piano.
His work over the past 40+ years helped to make him an auditory learner—one who learns by listening. Playground Sessions helps those who are auditory learners by creating ways to enable them to hear the music, the beats, the rhythms, and the elements which make good music.
I am an auditory learner, but I am also a visual learner. This program displays the music as you listen to the preparatory beats. As a musician who learned to play first by ear and then learned to read the notes on the page, I find both of these methods quite helpful.
In each of its learning modules, Playground Sessions incorporates a picture of the music, a moving line that displays exactly where you are in the music, and a voice that counts down to the beginning of the piece:
I also liked the way David, the instructor for the segment I sampled, talked about developing finger independence. This appeals to those who are kinesthetic learners, or learners who excel through physical movement.
Playing the piano requires a great deal of physical movement and finger independence. The methods employed by the Playground Sessions program incorporates such finger independence as they encourage the user to learn how to read the finger numbers above the written music and respond appropriately.
Rookie, Intermediate and Advanced Levels
The Rookie Tour section of the program covers most of the beginning elements of music. It offers 94 modules on such elements as 5-finger notes for right hand and left hand, notation, basic rhythms, note durations, counting music, dotted notes, accidentals (sharps, flats, natural signs), and scales.
Each module consists of anywhere from 1 to 9 lessons on that particular element. There is even a lesson on how to practice (Lesson 72, Practice Techniques).
In this lesson, David shows you the best methods to use when you’re practicing a piece of music. You can see the video, the notated music, and the keyboard in the photograph above.
This facilitates understanding the concepts as you see him demonstrate practice techniques for each hand, as well as shows on your keyboard (at the bottom of the photograph) what you’re playing.
The modules in the Intermediate Tour include courses in building triads (3-note chords), major and minor triads, first and second inversions of triads, combining melodies and triads, playing broken chords, triplets, key signatures and various rhythm styles, as well as pedaling and what to listen for when studying triads.
Playground Sessions offers 62 modules in the Intermediate Tour, with hundreds of lessons and practice opportunities.
Here is an example of one of the modules in the Intermediate Tour. This is Module 4 Lesson 1:
This prepares the student to play “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin) by teaching the notes in an F Major chord for the left hand.
The module takes you through each note of the chord and shows you on the keyboard at the bottom of the page which keys correspond with the notes shown in the music above the keyboard.
The Advanced Tour gets really interesting with its modules on voicings, arpeggios, new note types and 4-note chords. Here’s an example of the screen when working on Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Notice that a chord is not indicated on the keyboard below the music, because this lesson deals with playing the 16th notes in the melody of the song:
Don’t be intimidated by the music. By the time you reach this level in Playground Sessions, you’ll be ready to play music on this level of difficulty!
At the end of the Advanced Tour group of lessons, you will find a pair of videos by Harry Connick Jr. In these videos, Connick talks about various genres and styles of music and about improvisation. It’s really interesting to listen to him discuss these elements of music.
Using the elements of music introduced to the user of Playground Sessions, Connick details ways to play chords in various styles of music. Then in the last video, he proposes some ideas for improvisation that are, on the surface, quite simple.
But based upon the structure of the piece that you want to improvise over, you can create something pretty amazing by using his “rules.”
As you proceed through the various levels and modules, your note-reading becomes easier and more natural. Another cool function of the program allows you to print the music of whatever pieces you’re studying up to 3 times.
Learning From Making Mistakes
Adults hate making mistakes. One of the challenges of trying to teach an adult virtually anything is the inculcated idea that adults have to be perfect.
I opened up Module 2, Lesson 8 in the Rookie Tour level:
This lesson is a 5-finger exercise for the right hand after learning about music notation. The lesson covers the notes Middle C, D, E, F, and G in the treble staff using all five fingers of the right hand.
I listened to the preparatory counting and played along with the music as the line scrolled through the piece. Take a look at this photograph of the grading screen when I finished the lesson:
This screen is the “Lesson Results” screen and it shows the user how accurate their playing was in the lesson. The results illustrate the correct notes, the notes that were “close” and the notes that were incorrect.
The user has the option of repeating a lesson; I believe this option is available as many times as desired by the user.
If you click on the “Details” button, you get this:
This screen shows the work you’ve completed and the score progress you’ve made.
Playground Sessions also offers the user session points which can be redeemed for new music on the website. I receive frequent emails from the website offering many new songs, many of which can be purchased with session points and all of which can be purchased with a credit card. It’s kind of like the Apple Store or Google Play for piano study!
By utilizing this assessment method at the end of each lesson, adults avoid the onus of making mistakes in front of other adults and can feel free to learn without inhibition.
A piano teacher’s dream.
Learning Chords, Scales, and Music Theory
One of the features that I appreciated in this learning program was the freedom that Playground Sessions gave me (as a user) to move around in the program. I finished a few modules in the beginner-level group (The Rookie Tour) and then I moved on to other levels (the Intermediate Tour and the Advanced Tour).
Each group begins with a video of Harry Connick Jr. demonstrating some aspect of the level. Every level encompasses one or more aspects of music theory–whether it be notation or scales or chords. You’re definitely going to learn a lot when using Playground Sessions.
Can Anyone Learn How to Play Piano?
I believe this program would help virtually anyone learn to play the piano. Whether or not you have any musical knowledge, this program seems to be extremely user friendly and does an incredible job of explaining musical elements so that anyone can understand them.
That isn’t to say that anyone will be able to quickly learn the most complex of the elements offered in Playground Sessions. As with any new skill, learning to play the piano depends greatly upon how motivated the learner is and how dedicated they are to disciplined practice.
Everyday practice is absolutely mandatory when it comes to learning a musical instrument. And Playground Sessions can make your practice sessions fun.
What Are the Music Lessons Like?
Musical elements are introduced by an instructor at the beginning of each module. You have the opportunity to practice, and you also have the chance to repeat any of the practice lessons as often as you wish.
This factor is really important when you’re just beginning a lesson because it allows you to hear how the play-along begins and the tempo of the music, as well.
You can slow down the speed of any of the music you begin to learn so that you can manage it. You can also practice the written music before starting the recording, which will help it feel a little more comfortable under your fingers.
The amount of time it takes to complete each lesson depends entirely upon the user/student. Some lessons are structured to take just a short time, especially on the Rookie Tour level.
As you proceed level-to-level, the lesson materials become more challenging, but Playground Sessions has done an effective job in keeping the lesson materials doable in relatively short chunks of time.
What Music Do You Learn?
I’m impressed by the great variety of music offered by Playground Sessions. Here is a (partial) list of some of the artists and their songs offered:
Remember: this is just a tiny sample of the songs offered at the Rookie level of Playground Sessions.
Here’s a partial list of the Intermediate Level songs:
Here are a few of the Advanced Level songs:
If you go to the Playground Sessions website and look at the Song Library, you will notice that some of these songs are offered on more than one level. Whether your taste is classical, old time rock and roll, country, pop, or contemporary music, there are many different offerings in each of the various styles of music. You can search for songs by artist, by genre, or by difficulty (level) of play.
The folks at Playground Sessions are always adding new songs as well, so you can be assured that you will find music to play that will be interesting and exciting for you.
Playground Sessions vs Piano Instructor
Full disclosure here: I have been a private piano instructor for more than 30 years. I have a degree in piano performance from a liberal arts college in Florida. I’ve been a piano/vocal performer for more than 50 years.
Most private piano teachers would insist that an online piano course can never replace one-to-one learning on a weekly basis. Frankly, I would have believed that I would be one of those teachers…until I studied this course.
To my astonishment, I genuinely enjoy this program and method of teaching! Will it replace the one-to-one instruction received at a university or school of music? Of course not—but that isn’t its purpose.
Here’s how I see it: our world is very busy right now. Piano students, especially kids, have very short attention spans due to all the electronic gadgets and gizmos that occupy their time and their brain power.
Why not use those electronic gadgets and gizmos to teach them something about playing the piano? If they enjoy it and continue onward with it, then it was truly worth it.
If they try it, play around for a little while and then give it up, then you (Mom and Dad) can feel comfortable in knowing you didn’t fork over a boatload of money for little Johnny to drive Ms. Piano Teacher absolutely insane with his refusal to practice.
Instead, little Johnny gets to play around with an electronic keyboard for as long as he stays interested, and then the keyboard and the lessons can be passed on to the next child—or adult—who wants to learn.
Playground Sessions even offers family plans. For a small amount of additional money, you can sign up as many as four students on the web site. Each person has his/her own account in the software that you install, which allows individual progress to be charted by the program.
Benefits of In-Person Instructors
Now, to be fair, there are absolutely some obvious advantages of hiring a regular piano teacher and attending weekly lessons:
1) Accountability to another person is an effective motivator to nudge students to practice regularly
2) Immediate answers to any questions that the student may have
3) There is someone with knowledge that can properly evaluate posture, hand position, or other important technical aspects of playing the piano that cannot be easily or thoroughly taught or learned through online courses
4) Personal encouragement from a real person with expert credentials and experience can be a vital part of learning to play the piano.
Having to face your teacher becomes an important part of the motivation to practice. It’s easier to “let things slide” when you know that you won’t be accountable to someone whom you respect. Online learning removes this accountability and can make it easier to slack off during your practice sessions.
Immediate answers to questions can have an important impact upon learning to play the piano. I’m a curious person, and sometimes I want to know “why” or “how” right now. Online learning may prohibit those immediate or timely answers.
For example, I sent a message to the Playground Sessions admin folks regarding an aspect of their program and it took two days to get a response. 48 hours is a fairly standard response time, but your mileage may vary on this front. If you expect a response within 24 hours (or sooner), this may be an area you’re not content with.
Playing the piano encompasses a great deal of elements—physical elements that, if learned improperly, could have physical ramifications. Having a regular piano lesson with a regular teacher who can evaluate your posture, your hand positions on the keys, the way that you approach a passage physically, technically or emotionally, or teach you to use the pedals properly are all important aspects of playing that cannot be addressed by an online piano course. Learning improper technique can create muscle tension in the body and cause several types of discomfort and even pain.
It’s always helpful when you undertake a new opportunity to learn that there is someone with experience in the task/skill you’re attempting to give you encouragement and positive feedback.
Yes, you can get positive feedback from online courses like Playground Sessions and its intriguing way to score their lesson modules; scoring well is a greatly satisfying type of feedback. However, if you get discouraged, it can tempt you to give up on the endeavor without the individualized encouragement and “pep talks” that a private teacher can give you.
After all, he/she has walked the path you’re learning to walk, and they know how it feels to feel frustrated or stymied by a skill or piece of music.
Benefits of Online Piano Lessons
However, there are a few disadvantages to having a private teacher when compared to online learning courses. First and probably most pertinent to you is the cost of private lessons versus the cost of online courses.
Overall, online courses are considerably less expensive than one-to-one private lessons. Playground Sessions uses some of the finest musicians in the world to present their lesson materials. When you purchase their software or a keyboard bundle, you have the benefit of accessing these musicians and the materials they present without the high payout of a private teacher.
Second, learning to play the piano online fits your schedule. If you want to work on your lesson modules in the middle of the night (be considerate to your neighbors and family and use headphones!), it’s easy to do. If you can access the course whenever it suits your schedule and motivation levels, then family appointments or other situations cannot cause you to miss your piano lesson.
You can find materials and videos online that further explain and demonstrate the principles being taught in your lesson, as well.
It’s difficult to say that one way is unequivocally better than the other. Maybe a combination of both would suit your needs. Playground Sessions even offers piano teachers a way to use their online courses in their piano studios. I can tell you that when I’m ready to rebuild my piano studio in the near future, I will definitely be utilizing Playground Sessions for my students.
Cost of Playground Sessions
Let’s take a close look at the cost of this program (as of this publication, as prices are always subject to change).
A private piano teacher with a degree in piano—whether in performance or pedagogy—costs approximately $15.00 to $25.00 per lesson. Here are the costs of the Playground Sessions memberships and multiple-user bundles:
As you can see, the comparison of costs between hiring a qualified private teacher and purchasing a membership in the Playground Sessions online course is significant; you will pay less for a monthly subscription than you would for a private teacher per month.
And if you purchase a Lifetime Membership, you’ll pay less than you would for a single year of private lessons.
Plus, Playground Sessions often offers significant discounts, as you can see in this photo:
You might also be able to find a discounted price on Playground Sessions when certain holidays roll around every year, too. But just know that there’s always a ticking clock on discounts, so you’ll want to quickly take advantage when the opportunity arrives.
If you want to enroll more than one person in the Playground Sessions learning modules, they even offer discounts for multiple users:
Pictured above are the significant savings offered by Playground Sessions for multiple memberships and user accounts in their software.
The intriguing thing about Lifetime Memberships for your kids is the idea that they will be able to access and use Playground Sessions all through their lifetime, even as your kids mature to been teenagers and young adults. Imagine paying less for four memberships than you would pay for one year of private, one-to-one piano lessons! That’s a truly significant price difference.
Playground Sessions isn’t perfect, but no service is. But I think they’ve done a great job of providing you with a robust, affordable, and fun variety of lessons to help anyone (even a novice, regardless of age) learn how to play the piano and hone one’s skills as they continue to improve.
Using Playground Sessions, you’ll be able to learn what you need to know to enjoy playing the piano. You’ll have the chance to earn or purchase songs that you love and learn to play them at your own pace, often on a variety of levels.
Reviewing this program has surprisingly changed my mind about online piano lessons. This course is easy, user friendly, and a great deal of fun to engage with and learn from.
I give Playground Sessions a:
To me, it’s a 9 out of 10 for its ease of use and its terrific ways of keeping budding musicians engaged and entertained—all the while learning how to play an instrument.
This article was written by Digital Piano Review Guide contributor Anita Elliot. Images provided by Anita Elliot.
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