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Computer Times
February 2006

Editors' Choice Music

Piano Wizard Premier

Review by Terry Kibiloski

Is it a bird or a plane? Am I playing a video game or learning to play the piano?  You are doing BOTH if you are using Allegro Rainbow's Piano Wizard PREMIER Keystation 49e Package (Retail $199.95).  This remarkable program is one of the many affordable lessons for the piano and has taken the fun of playing a video game and combined it with a MIDI piano keyboard with music learning video game software that effortlessly teaches people of all ages to play the piano. In addition to learning the songs that are provided by Piano Wizard, you can play any MIDI song, millions of which are available on the Internet. This package also includes color coded removable keyboard stickers that let you quickly customize your music keyboard to be compatible with the color coding in the software screens to help you learn to play songs in minutes.

The game's patented sound and color learning cues transform tedious and repetitive practice sessions into an exciting and rewarding video game experience for people of all ages and musical abilities. During our testing, adults and children (ages 4-13) were captivated by this piano learning system.  All of the children and one of the adults were playing a piano keyboard for the first time in their lives.

The Piano Wizard rewards players with a score and the satisfaction of playing favorite songs, even if they have never played piano before. The kids who tested the system were determined to increase their score as they played the same song over and over again. As a musician who endured long and boring piano lessons in my youth, I was amazed at the amount of practice and determination the Piano Wizard encouraged from each of the children. Knowing the hyperactivity level and limited attention span of some of the kids added to my astonishment.

Players, parents, and music teachers can up-load any song into the game, instantly creating a new video game experience or music lesson every time. Thousands of songs are available from Bach to the Beatles, including religious hymns and children's favorites. All the child needs is a certain amount of hand/eye coordination and the ability to distinguish colors.


 

 

The premier system we tested included the 49e keyboard, which is a professional 49-note, full-size velocity sensitive keyboard. To get started you simply connect the keyboard to your computer's USB port, load the included driver and Piano Wizard software, and place the color coded stickers on the keyboard keys.

If you already own a musical keyboard or digital piano that can be connected to your computer, you could get by with the Piano Wizard PREMIER and USB/Midi Combo, which sells for $139.95.

However, we were very impressed with the 49-note full-size, velocity-sensitive keyboard that is included with the Keystation 49e system. It allows for authentic playing experience, as well as built-in MIDI interface, pitch and modulation wheels, and sustain pedal input. This sleek, compact keyboard is USB bus-powered, requiring no external power supply.

Now, let's take a closer look at this remarkable piano learning system. Unlike conventional music teaching methods that emphasize learning music notation and theory first, Piano Wizard lets students play a song first and later brings musical theory into the teaching process.  The game uses notes, initially disguised as brightly glowing colorful characters that move with delightfully engaging motion.  Colorful turtles, spaceships, ladybugs, aliens and a host of other cute icons, chosen by the player, travel on a line toward a matching color-coded keyboard on the computer screen.  The player then simply hits the same colored key on the computer screen when the traveling characters reach the keyboard on the screen.  In the process, children as young as three can play music from Beethoven to the Beatles, from Mozart to Madonna and any other style of music in just minutes.

Unlike many educational games that have limited options, this system is virtually unlimited to keep the learner’s' attention for many years. Students can choose from four different fantasy worlds to play in. They can change the speed, the instrument sounds, and the skill level. In addition to the MIDI songs that come standard with Piano Wizard Premier, thousands more can be downloaded from Internet libraries to keep up with changing music preferences from virtually any artist, whether classical, pop, rock, country, or alternative.

Traditional piano lessons teach musical notation first. But most students don't want to wade through the hieroglyphics before they get to play. They want to play now. With Piano Wizard Premier, the students have instant gratification, playing the piano the instant the game is started. They learn intuitively to hit the right note at the right time. Gradually, as their skill level advances, so does the game. Before you know it, it isn’t just a video game anymore; it’s reading  music.

Beginner Level:

The student can choose from four different fantasy worlds. Each musical note is represented by a different character that corresponds to that world. As each character lands on one of the keys shown on the colored keyboard at the top of the computer screen, the student presses the corresponding key on his own colored keyboard in order to hear the song.

 Intermediate Level:


In the intermediate level, the colored keyboard at the top of the computer screen rotates from its parallel position to a position that is perpendicular to your personal keyboard. The musical notes are still represented by characters, but now the learner begins to get accustomed to reading music in its traditional horizontal format.

Transition Level:

At this stage of musical development, the fantasy world, as well as its corresponding characters, all are replaced by traditional music notation. The notes are still colored, however, to match your personal colored keyboard.

Advanced Level:

In advanced levels, the colored keyboard at the top of the computer screen rotates from its parallel position to a position that is perpendicular to your personal keyboard. The musical notes are still represented by characters, but now the learner begins to get accustomed to reading music in its traditional horizontal format.

When appropriate, all backgrounds and colors are removed completely. Because the learner has learned to play the music first, hand/eye coordination and skills like pitch, rhythm and reflexes are all second nature. The student is now able to view notation as a map to playing music, rather than as frustrating hieroglyphics.

O.K. It sounds great for kids, but what about adults? The true test was with our Executive Editor Charlene Jones. Rather than attempt to share her experience, I have reprinted below her exact words after her first try.

"I am NOT a musician of any sort. I barely know where middle C is on the keyboard. Before we test the Wizard with children, I wanted a shot at it. I must tell you that I was very frustrated with my beginner "ABC" song, as on the first attempt I think I got ONE note correct.  Of course, I had not looked at the demo yet, so I did watch it and it helped me very much. Within about 20 minutes I was playing the ABC song with 100 per cent accuracy. Then I switched to Frere Jacques, not realizing that I would be using the sharp keys, and was totally frustrated a second time. When I figured that out, I did much better. I think the single most effective feature was the ability to slow the temo down,,using the arrow key on my computer, to a rate to achieve a level of “beginner  success” that encourages the user to try again."

As you can see, even an adult can learn from this great piano learning system. According to a company spokesman writing to our Executive Editor, the game is designed to be self-taught, but it also goes well as a supplement to more traditional methods of learning. However, we tested it both ways (with some guidance and without) with children and adults and found that some supervision and instruction was far superior than a stand-alone, no prompter lesson method of learning. Its method has been so effective that Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Music Professor, Don Beattie and his wife, Delayna, launched the first Piano Wizard Academy at SIU in Carbondale, Illinois this year. 

Professor Beattie and Piano Wizard inventor Chris Salter, CEO of Piano Wizard’s parent company, Allegro Multimedia, have been long time friends. Though Chris had no musical background, he graduated with a degree in music from SIU, due largely to the groundbreaking teaching style and mentorship of Professor Beattie. In the years that followed his university studies, Chris Salter kept in contact with his professor friend and the SIU School of Music, and after extensive testing of the game and recognizing the impressive results that Piano Wizard continued to achieve among both young and old students, Beattie and his wife Delayna founded the Piano Wizard Academy.

Professor Beattie first utilized Piano Wizard as a tool for his university level Group Piano courses (comprised of 110 college participants).  He then enrolled university students to create two programs to teach children from SIU’s Child Development Center.  Currently, about 20 children, each with a student mentor, are participating in the revolutionary piano class experience using Piano Wizard.

Studies show that normal attrition rates for piano lessons among the general population can approach 80 percent. If our testing is any indication of the enthusiasm that both children and adults will have learning piano using Piano Wizard, I have to believe the attrition rate will be small.

We test many products at Computer Times that perform well and earn our Editor's Choice award. Seldom, though, do we find a product that is as exciting as Piano Wizard. As an editor, educator and musician, if we had medals to award along with our Editor's Choice award, I would certainly present Piano Wizard with the gold medal. Hats off to everyone involved in its design. It doesn't get any better than this.

Now for the technical specs. If you own a personal computer, you simply add:

• The Piano Wizard Premier software

• An electronic keyboard with MIDI connection

• A MIDI cable to connect the electronic keyboard to your PC

Suggested System Requirements for Your PC

• Windows 98SE / ME / 2000 / XP

-Please note that Windows Media Center Edition is not supported

• 733+ MHz processor, 32 MB video card

• 200 MB free hard drive space

• MIDI cable, MIDI keyboard and appropriate system drivers

• Internet access to update game and download MIDI songs

 

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