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A Review by Keyboard Player Magazine

1 October 2008 No Comment

UNITED KINGDOM -  Piano Suite is an interactive, computer-based tutor designed to get you playing piano, and I was sent the Premier version of the programme to evaluate.

When you run the programme, you’re presented with a login screen. Type in your name and a password and you’re away. This means that several people can use Piano Suite quite independently from one another. The programme keeps track of each users progress individually and no one user can ‘check up’ on another. If you log in as Teacher, you get a whole lot of other tweaks available to you that allow you to set up the way that Piano Suite works with each user, generate reports, and also set up and view profiles for each user. Anyone who’s thinking of logging in as Teacher will be thwarted, unless they know the teacher’s password, of course!

After logging in, you’re greeted by the main screen, which, as you can see from the screenshot, gives you seven options. The very first time you log in, a large flashing cursor indicates that you should start with the Theory Thinker option. The ‘this is what to do next’ approach is typical of the ‘hand holding’ offered by Piano Suite. It’s going to be darned helpful at first, though over a period of time it may well become a bit irritating. Never mind, all you have to do is ignore it, as it never actually forces you to do anything.

The first steps you take in Theory Thinker include a lot of very useful bits and pieces, starting with what a piano is, how it came about, how it works and so forth. Given that you’re using an electronic keyboard or piano as an input keyboard, these are also well explained. You’re then given guidance on how to sit properly, how to position your hands and told in no uncertain terms to go and cut your fingernails short!

Piano Suite uses every trick in the book when it comes to presentation, with MPEG animations and video clips, audio files and MIDI files on tap at all times. These first steps introduce some of the programme’s avatars, who look suspiciously like characters from ‘The Sims’, my daughter’s favourite computer game! You also get to hear the American twosome who narrate everything – and whilst I love some American accents, these aren’t two of them, sorry!

As you’ll have gathered from the above comment, this is an American product and is aimed at the US market. When you get a little further into theory, you’ll find only American descriptions of note values and so on. It would have been nice to see some mention of crotchets and quavers as well.

The theory lessons quickly get you playing notes and at the end of each little test, one of the avatars will comment on your performance, good or bad. Unless you choose a particular avatar, they will appear at random. I couldn’t quite figure out why my first efforts were greeted with a Mexican in a huge sombrero shouting ‘Ole!’ or whatever, but apparently he is ‘Senor Semitone’ and pops up in some of the various games on offer!

Now the theory course is quite extensive and is designed to last up to two years. Enough to accompany a lot of practical work, so lets look at one of the other options, the Piano Player. This lets you choose a piece from Piano Suite’s c o n s i d e r a b l e repertoire to listen to, learn and practice. Each piece is graded at one of five levels of difficulty (you’ll know what level you are at from working through the Theory Thinker) and is offered to you as virtual sheet music on screen. You can choose the note size to suit your screen and your eyesight.

After choosing a few simple set-up options for things like the sound you wish to use, whether or not to have a metronome tick or a voice count (very handy) playing along with you, and so on, you’re ready for the off. You can choose to play with either or both hands and then comes the fun part – playing!

At first you’ll want to select just a part of the tune to work on: no problem, simply choose the bars you want to work on. Then you’ll want to find the notes. Piano Suite lets you do so, indicating correct notes in green and wrong notes with a red cross as you play. Again, you get marked for this! Then move on to getting the rhythmic aspects right and finally start putting things together.

Piano Suite works in a very teacher-like manner, it’s obviously been very carefully thought out, and I can’t really fault what it does. There isn’t the one-to-one contact and feedback that you get with a real teacher, but the feedback it does give is positive and encouraging. Just like the Theory Thinker, this is something that is a long-term project: there’s enough music of all different styles to last for ages, and some of the level 5 pieces are quite tough!

Work through everything in a logical order and you shouldn’t go too far wrong. (One of the Teacher’s options, incidentally, lets him set things so that a user must do things in order – no skipping or shortcutting allowed!)

Composer’s Corner (an option only available in the Premier version) allows a user to do just that, to compose a piece of music. You give it a name, set its level, put it in a category of music, and then set its tempo, time and key signatures. You then play in your piece, one hand at a time or both hands together. There are a few handy editing features, but if you get just one hand wrong, you can easily re-record it without altering the other hand’s recording. Once done, you can add fingering, lyrics, correct any wrongly ‘guessed’ accidentals (Piano Suite gets most of them right first time) and finally save the piece in your own user library, or make it available for all the users on the system. You can even save it as and SMF, so you can move it around for playback elsewhere, or for further work in another programme.

History Happens is a brief look at ‘some of the musicians and composers who have helped shape the course of musical history’. Using a virtual keyboard as a typewriter, select the initial letter of the person you want to research. For example, if you want to look at Mozart, type M. As well as the onscreen data and pictures, you also get to hear some of their works and are told how to pronounce their names correctly – or at least in American! There’s a lot of good, interesting stuff here and it complements the lessons well.

Lastly, there are some musical games to play, aimed at the children (or young at heart). Some simple games are already included within the theory lessons, but these are three stand-alone games, namely Music Concentration, Semitone Says, and the intriguingly entitled Grand Staff Battle. I’m not going to spoil the fun by telling you all about them, but think ‘Snap’ and ‘Simon Says’ for the first two, with the last being a 2-D ‘Shoot-em up’. (Your kids will be able to explain that for you!)

Games they may be, and good fun if my two youngsters are to be believed, but they are educational and the musical content is valid.

In this review I’ve only had space to touch on what’s in each section, but to sum up the whole package, I have to say that I’m very impressed on several counts. Firstly, the presentation is absolutely first rate and uses the computer-based medium to its best advantage. Secondly, the content is excellent. All the bases seem to have been covered and I can’t say that I spotted anything that I disagreed with on a professional basis. The range of pieces is wide (400+) and varied, so there’s something to keep everyone happy.

Lastly, the way things work is just right, with well-structured ‘virtual teaching’, as much feedback as the medium will allow, and with enough control (assuming someone is using ‘teacher’ mode) that it almost feels like you have a real teacher.

Piano Suite is good, darned good. In fact, as a teacher, although I know it won’t ever replace me or my colleagues in the profession, it’s almost worryingly good!

Highly recommended.

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