An article in Fast Company earlier this year put forth an unsurprising statistic: Of the top 10 YouTube searches with "lessons" in the query, all of them were related to music. But those amateur lessons, the piece went on to note, aren’t always effective—they can’t be tailored to individual students, and they lack the instant feedback that’s such a helpful component of in-the-flesh instruction. Chris Vance, the founder of Playground Sessions, read the piece with interest. With a clever piece of interactive software, he’s trying to bring the dusty old piano lesson into the 21st century. And if all those YouTube searches are to be believed, there are still plenty of people eager to learn.
Playground Sessions, which is currently available as a sort of public beta and will roll out in its final version in the coming months, is an application for Mac and PC that teaches users to play piano through video tutorials and lightly gamified play-alongs. The lessons are led by self-trained YouTube sensation David Sides and take users through the fundamentals of music theory, from chords to key signatures to scales and syncopation. As users practice the techniques they’ve learned with a MIDI keyboard, they get scored for accuracy, and a progress panel tracks their achievements as they move through the program.
The inspiration for the software came a few years ago, when Vance noticed a confluence of public interest in music, interactivity, and learning. "It all started with trends….The incredible success we were seeing in Rosetta Stone, the success we were seeing in GarageBand and Guitar Hero—that’s when those were really at their peak. It kind of ended up being a fad. But it certainly reassured everyone that this global insight that’s always been around and will probably always be around—that people harbor the desire to be a rock star—is still very much true."
But if there’s anything in the music world that’s exactly the opposite of being a rock star, it’s sitting down for a piano lesson—the image evoked is one of a stuffy old instructor, an endless repetition of scales, and a house that smells like cats. Vance was convinced that there was a better way, something more engaging, more fun, and most of all, more relevant to how people enjoy music today.
The system’s core philosophy takes the idea of learning to play and flips it on its head; from the start, Playground Sessions is about playing to learn. The first video in the software’s Bootcamp section is titled "Intro to the Keyboard," but straight away things are livelier than the lesson’s name suggests. Within seconds, Sides is showing you how to play the familiar melody of the 2001 hit "Superman" by the band Five For Fighting. Only after you’ve spent a few minutes tickling the ivories—and have likely surprised yourself by how quickly you’ve been able to coax the keyboard into playing something that resembles music—does Sides double back and start explaining the theory behind the tune.
"We’re not going to pretend like music theory’s not important," Vance explained to me, "we’re just not going to teach music theory the way it’s traditionally taught. We’re going to teach the relevance of music theory. And we’re always connecting the music theory back to the music you know and love."
"We’re incredibly confident," he continued, "that if people go through our music curriculum, what we call the Bootcamp, they’ll be engaged by David, they’ll be engaged because it’s music theory, but you’re kind of learning without even knowing you’re learning. It’s not just like 'learn this, learn this, learn this’—it’s the play to learn method, so it’s 'play this, play this, play this.' Then [we] step back [and say], 'what did we just learn, how’s it important, and how can you apply it as you go on?'"
A focus on contemporary music is another one of the key ways in which Playground Sessions is a departure from traditional lessons. "The Entertainer," timeless though it may be, isn’t as likely to excite new pupils as much as familiar songs by The Jackson 5, Ne-Yo, or Beyonce, a few of the artists available in Playground Sessions’ built-in store (Vance says that the team is focused on expanding the store to include much more contemporary music, as well as jazz, classical, and holiday-themed pieces). In this section of the program, users can buy video tutorials for the contemporary songs, play along with live band accompaniments, or, once they’re ready, simply download sheet music to follow on their own. It’s a nice way to make sure that you’re learning the music you like, right from the start.
"The number one thing we did," Vance said, "is empower the users. Let’s not treat them like they’re idiots. Successful learning is about someone who’s being engaged, and because they’re engaged, they’re gonna learn." But the current iteration of Playground Sessions suffers a bit from this freedom—the smattering of songs and individual Bootcamp lessons available to users right out of the gate can be a bit overwhelming to someone seeking a more guided track of instruction. Vance agrees, and sees the need for a better balance in this regard. "One thing that we have learned over time with the testing, is we need to do a little bit of a better job with giving people recommendations or suggestions. So we’re in the process of building…a recommendation engine, so we can be more up front about where you want to go." Finding that sweet spot of engagement, where users feel compelled to keep coming back to the software to view new lessons and download new songs, will be one of Playground Sessions central challenges.
The application is currently priced at $150, which gets you all 27 interactive Bootcamp lessons as well as video tutorials for three songs from the application’s library, though Vance says that the company is considering an a la carte model for lesson sales going forward. It seems like the right move—a big part of the YouTube music lesson appeal is the low cost of entry, and knowing that if the instruction isn’t gelling with your needs as a student, you can always bail out. Still, for someone who sticks with it, Playground Sessions is undoubtedly a cheaper option than traditional lessons—and the only smells you’ll be subjected to are the ones in your own home.