If you need an incentive for beginning and early intermediate students to come prepared to lessons, and you’d like to help them improve sight reading, rhythm and ensemble skills, Piano Maestro is worth a look. For one thing, it’s free (although you do need an iPad, and speakers are helpful for sound projection). For another, it actually helps students develop important musical skills. And last, but not least, they like it and look forward to using it.
When I first heard about Piano Maestro and looked it up online, I was biased against it. It seemed too “cute” and doing cute things at lessons (or anywhere else for that matter) isn’t my cup of tea. (I admire people who can make lessons fun and entertaining. I’m just not cut out for it.) However, as part of the technology project this year, I decided to try Piano Maestro because it’s won awards and it keeps coming up in the literature.
It’s a quick download from the App store. You set yourself up as a Teacher, add your students with their parent’s email, and click a button to send them a link if they would like to download it at home. (The first student I set up was one who I didn’t think would use the app so that I could play with it myself as a student.)
There are 3 main components in Piano Maestro:
- Musical Journey (with 27 chapters, and takes students from reading one note (middle C) to reading 2 hands on both staves). There are tutorials available for each lesson or students can just play the music in each chapter until they get enough points to unlock the next chapter. Pieces include classical, pop and other genres and cover a variety of moods and tempi.
- Free song library (starting at about a Level 2 difficulty). Other songs can be downloaded via iTunes for a fee.
- Method books: including Alfred, Piano Pronto and a couple others.
When you open the app you select a piece (e.g., Vivaldi), and play it on your own piano with an orchestra accompaniment generated by Piano Maestro. The piano score moves across the screen while the student plays and keeps track of correct notes and counting with a remarkable degree of accuracy. In Chapter 1, the only note in each score is middle C, but notes are added in each of the chapters and the pieces become increasingly difficult rhythmically. At the end of the piece the student gets a score from the computer, applause based on the score (less for lower scores) and if the score is high enough the student moves up in rank.
The first student who tested the program for me is preparing for a Level 3 RCM exam this year. She started the Musical Journey at Chapter 1 and found it boring (because all you do is middle C). So she took a test to skip to Chapter 5 and then Chapter 10 and then 15. Then she started finding the pieces more fun and challenging, and she’s developing a nice steady rhythmic pulse in her reading and playing, which has been one of her skill gaps.
Another Level 3 student who has a tendency to lose focus and start over several times is linked to Piano Maestro on his iPad at home and is learning to start once and keep playing on his solo pieces because you don’t get to start over on Piano Maestro. He’s interested in pop music, so he finds all the pop tunes in the library. Bonus: it’s sunk in that yes, pianists have to count in pop music and yes, pianists have to keep up with the band not the other way around, and no, I haven’t just been being mean all this time making him count.
Two other students who have the app at home are coming much better prepared to lessons after only a month because they are getting practice with note reading that is “fun” for them. But the majority of students (ranging from Levels 1 – 4) don’t use it at home to practice, either because they don’t have an iPad or their parents want to limit screen time, and they are doing a better job on assignments so that they can earn time at lessons on Piano Maestro. (I’ve made a rule that we don’t do Piano Maestro until the end of lesson time and only if the rest of the assigned work is completed properly.) It makes lesson ends very upbeat and the next students are always drawn to the music that’s playing. I like that students are getting exposure to a variety of good music.
If a piece is too difficult, there are assist features that let students slow down the tempo (without affecting pitch), play without the accompaniment and get stopped and prompted when they miss a note, or practice hands separately. If they seem to be doing OK on notes and counting, I remind them to use good technique and musicianship when they play with the band, and to follow dynamic changes and sound variations in the accompaniment. For example, there’s a long hold in The Star Spangled Banner in Chapter 1 that requires students to listen and follow, rather than charge ahead. It’s great preparation for ensemble playing, which sometimes catches students off guard if they’re only used to playing alone, or with forgiving teachers who follow them!
If anyone would like to try Piano Maestro, feel free to call or send a message; you’re welcome to stop by and give it a test run.