Playground Sessions comes partly from one of the most creative musical minds of his, or any, generation, co-creator Quincy Jones. That’s a name that carries a lot of weight, and a lot of expectation, so we’re excited to try Playground Sessions.
As always, we are looking for a user-friendly workflow, high-quality content, sensible lesson plans, and a clear progression path. Let’s see what Playground Sessions has to offer.
Our verdict on Playground Sessions
Playground Sessions has a few glitches and slight issues, like every other platform we’ve tested. But, in the area we value most (a clear progression path), Playground Sessions delivers more than any other.
It’s full of high-quality content, it will have complete beginners playing songs in no time, and it’s fun, so you’ll learn more than you realize. It has the most straightforward interface and perhaps the best instant feedback of any platform.Playground Sessions: Sign up
Most platforms allow you to access some free content before signing up for a paid account or a free trial, but Playground Sessions is slightly different.
Playground Sessions doesn’t provide a web/browser version (we’ll get into that below); you have to do everything through the app. The only content you can access through the website before downloading the app is the songs. You can view one page of sheet music per song, listen to it with or without a backing track, and have the option to purchase it for $4.99.
Now, you have two options; you can view, listen to, and learn single pages of music on the website to get an idea of what’s on offer. Or, you can purchase sheet music, download the free app, and turn any purchased sheet music into an interactive learning experience.
As far as free material goes, none of that sounds too impressive, but here’s where it gets different. Playground Sessions offers a 14-day free trial without a credit card. Some platforms offer free trials after adding your credit card details, and some even charge immediately with a money-back guarantee.
We encourage all platforms to remove the need for a credit card until signing up for a paid subscription; it just puts off potential subscribers.
We’d typically talk about free trials in the pricing section below, but since you get two weeks of all-access without a credit card or obligation to subscribe later, everything is free, and we love it.
We’d rather see all platforms do the same than offer a limited amount of non-sequential lessons and songs.
Playground Sessions offers multiple subscriptions, including monthly, annual, and lifetime; they also provide family plans if you need more than one membership.
- Monthly: $24.99
- Annual: $12.49 (billed upfront as $149.99)
- Lifetime: $349.99
Downloading the free app, creating an account, and starting the free trial took minutes, so we can’t fault that at all.
If we wanted to be critical, we’d say that Playground Sessions doesn’t ask as many questions as some other platforms, like your current experience level, musical interests, and expectations/goals.
Those questions make the experience feel more personal, which is critical for platforms like Pianote with so much video content. But, in this case, we don’t feel they are essential, and it’s nice to get started quickly.
Anyone considering Playground Sessions should know that you cannot use an acoustic piano, as you can with other platforms; you must use a digital piano/keyboard or MIDI controller.
Playground Sessions offers branded keyboards for purchase, often with discounts for members.
After prompting you to select your device, the app will ask you to play the lowest and highest notes on your keyboard, before confirming the number of keys it has.
Again, it’s quick and easy, and you’re ready to jump straight into lessons.
If we could design the perfect interface, it probably wouldn’t be too different from this one. Playground Sessions doesn’t have as many sections/areas as most platforms, which makes it easier to have a well-organized interface, but still, they did a great job.
In similar reviews, we’d commonly refer to browser versions as desktop versions. Before we move on, we want to reconfirm that there is no browser version; desktop, tablet, and mobile all require that you download the Playground Sessions app.
As you’ll see, there are four sections of the platform: Dashboard, Bootcamp, Courses, and Songs.
Everything starts with the Dashboard, which shows your progress in various forms, from playing time to overall note accuracy.
We snapped a screenshot early because we think this section is especially good for kids and beginners. Everyone likes to keep track of progress, but kids/beginners often need extra motivation. Detailed statistics can provide a confidence boost, a sense of achievement, and encouragement to do better.
The Bootcamp section has Rookie, Intermediate, and Advanced tabs, and the mini-courses within each tab are sequentially arranged. Courses are color-coded, with Rookie purple, Intermediate green, and Advanced red.
Once you get to the Songs section, you can search songs by name, difficulty level, songs with video content, and more. You can find everything you need quickly and easily, and when you do, it’s in a sensible order; perfect.
The mobile app is virtually identical to the desktop version, as much as it can be with a smaller screen, at least.
App sections are shown at the bottom of the screen, and tabs and searching options are shown at the top. The only difference we can see is fewer search options in the song section; no big deal.
The Playground Sessions mobile app is an excellent reminder that simpler is usually better.
Desktop app vs. mobile app
In terms of which is better, we don’t have much to say other than a bigger screen makes things easier, so we always lean towards the desktop version where possible. But both perform well and provide virtually identical functionality.
One of the reasons we like to test piano lesson platforms on desktop and iPhone rather than a tablet is that we want to see how they perform on the smallest screens. Some users might be limited to a phone screen, and we want to be sure it’s worth the time and money for them.
If you are using an iPhone, you can connect your MIDI keyboard with a Thunderbolt to USB adapter.
We encountered a couple of glitches on the desktop app, but we did use it far more, so we can’t say it wouldn’t happen on the iPhone with more use.
During some lessons, we encountered some random ghost notes that meant we couldn’t get a 100% score. In the affected lessons, the wrong/ghost note would appear immediately, but as you’ll see from the image, it appears some bars into the lesson and nowhere near the notes we are using.
We also experienced random notes appearing in the first bar before we played anything, but usually, it was further down the music.
Another similar issue occurred a few times, and always in lessons related to tied notes (we don’t know if that’s a coincidence because it didn’t always happen while playing a tied note).
In this case, we found a few lessons that seemed impossible to play perfectly or at least to get a perfect score. Some lessons had identical repeating patterns, and despite playing the same way each time, the second time around would always show as incorrect.
We even had a few lessons where every note was green (correct), yet the score given was 83%.
After browsing the Playground Sessions forums, we found others mentioning similar issues. A suggested explanation was that although users played the correct notes, some aspect of the performance was slightly off, like the note lengths.
The explanation also suggested that these aspects weren’t shown in the instant feedback but registered behind the scenes, which is why they altered your final score.
We can’t comment on anyone else’s experience, but we can confirm that, in this case, everything was correct, and the score didn’t reflect that. As we progressed, we found some inconsistencies that would seem to oppose the above suggestion; we’ll detail that shortly.
As an adult, it’s easier to accept glitches or inconsistencies, but kids might find it far more frustrating. The gamified aspect of Playground Sessions is one of the things we think kids will find most appealing, so anything that alters their score that isn’t their own doing could be an issue.
The lesson interface is similar to other software-based platforms that provide instant feedback. The difference is that Playground Sessions implements it better than any we’ve seen so far.
If we go from top to bottom, the top bar shows the name of the current lesson, how many parts it has, and available lesson settings.
The settings include:
- Toggle left/right hand or both.
- Repeat tricky sections (you set the length).
- Adjustable playback speed.
Those are the main settings, but Playground Sessions offers a few simple options that we don’t find on every other platform, and they make a massive difference.
You can turn on/off the following features:
- Backing Track (where applicable)
- Count in
- Finger numbers
- Note names
- Instant feedback
You can even adjust the volume level of the metronome and backing track and count in. We love that beginners can display note names early on if needed, then transition to finger numbers only, and eventually turn both off – every platform should do it.
Moving down the screen, we come to the notation, which you can make larger/smaller using the notation zoom function. While playing, the interface provides color-coded feedback:
- Correct notes – green
- Incorrect notes – red
- Rhythm/timing issues – pink
A good example of a rhythm/timing issue is playing the correct note but slightly early or late. Another example could be not holding a tied note for the right duration.
We found some inconsistencies with the color-coded feedback, such as:
- playing the correct notes, but the wrong lengths still scored 100%,
- not properly holding tied notes sometimes showed pink, but other times showed green,
- purposely playing slightly early/late often showed green.
The fact that we could get a 100% score while purposely playing the wrong note length appears to show that the explanation we mentioned earlier isn’t valid, and it seems more likely that there are just inconsistencies in the software that there shouldn’t be.
Below the notation is an on-screen keyboard that you can play if using a touchscreen device.
When you complete one part of a lesson, a pop-up will display your score, details of your performance, and the option to repeat or progress to the next part.
Playground Sessions teach through a combination of short explainer videos and interactive lessons. In our opinion, this hybrid method is the most suitable approach for beginners.
Any new concept (whole notes, for example) will start with a short explainer/demo video before jumping into a lesson. You won’t see a video before every lesson; you’ll typically only see a video when an entirely new concept is introduced or if the current one expands significantly.
The videos provide more than enough information to complete the lessons, and don’t waste your time with needless repetition, which means the player has to think fast, and we like that.
Learning begins with the Rookie Bootcamp, and it makes sense to complete it before moving on to Rookie Courses and Songs. You won’t get too bored because the Bootcamp lessons involve plenty of songs.
Moving through the Bootcamp levels has a common pattern, which is that you’ll learn a new concept, then practice it in the following sequence (or similar): one hand, one note, and one note length at a time – additional notes, but same note lengths – additional note lengths/new rhythms – both hands together.
As you progress, you might experience a mix-and-match of everything you’ve learned so far. For example, the first part of a lesson might be whole notes only, and the last part of it might be various note lengths and include rests, tied notes, and dotted notes.
As we mentioned earlier, the lesson interface provides various adjustable settings that allow you to learn at your own pace.
Instant feedback is the foundation of the Playground Sessions teaching method. We say the same thing no matter what platform we are discussing: students need accountability, otherwise, it could be a waste of time.
The instant feedback isn’t perfect, we found problems, but more often than not, it worked as it should. That means Playground Sessions still have some work to do, but we believe they are on the right track. We’d even say they are further down the track than other platforms.
What we like about the feedback is that it aims to be more than a simple right or wrong. It considers timing and rhythm too, which should help players develop a greater sense of musicianship and feel for the piano. Also, if you want kids to learn, make it fun; what’s more fun for kids than trying to get a high score?
Playground Sessions doesn’t have a unique teaching method; it just does it better.
Lessons and courses
Playground Sessions include Rookie, Intermediate, and Advanced content.
The material provides a healthy mix of technical exercises, songs, and music theory. It covers everything from learning where middle C is to reading music, syncopation, inversions/voicings, swing feel, chord progressions, and more.
Bootcamps are where you learn new skills, and Courses are where you apply those skills to specific tasks/songs/styles or enhance them.
Let’s look at what you can expect from each difficulty level before focusing on specific lessons.
Rookie: There are 93 stages in the Rookie Bootcamp, each with a varied number of parts. The Rookie Bootcamp is your introduction to the most fundamental aspects of playing piano, but by the time you complete it, you’ll be familiar with key signatures, intervals, basic sight reading, ear training, and playing with both hands.
At the time of writing, there are 12 Rookie Courses, which are subject to change as it includes time-sensitive challenges.
Intermediate: The Intermediate Bootcamp has 63 stages and goes deeper into rhythm and expression. There are currently six Intermediate Courses.
Advanced: The Advanced Bootcamp has 25 stages and focuses heavily on more complex rhythms and extended chords. There are currently four Advanced Courses.
We’ve picked out the Whole Notes & Half Notes lesson from the Rookie Bootcamp, which is quite near the start.
The lesson uses the “Can-Can” song as a vehicle for learning, and we chose it because we think it will provide a genuine sense of self-achievement for most students.
The tempo is 148 bpm, and even in whole/half notes, that’s a pretty decent tempo for beginners.
The lesson also deals with rests, repetition, and playing perfect fourths melodically. A perfect fourth interval isn’t a huge stretch, even for smaller hands, but playing them at this tempo sounds more complicated than it is.
For the most part, the individual elements of this lesson aren’t overly challenging, but when played together, it’s very satisfying.
The Intermediate lesson we’ve chosen is Bootcamp stage 42, featuring the Alicia Keys song “Fallin'”. This lesson focuses on broken chords, and it’s in the 6/8 time signature.
At the start of the lesson, you’ll cover the chords that feature in the song, and you’ll soon realize that you can apply them to various pop songs. Next, you’ll break the chords into single chord tones and arpeggiate them.
Once you get used to playing the broken chords in your left hand, you’ll add the melody in your right hand.
At this point, it not only sounds great but deals with additional techniques like contrary motion and counter rhythms.
We chose this lesson because learning about broken chords is a milestone moment for most musicians. It’s the start of being able to busk through chord changes convincingly without sheet music, and that changes everything.
For the Advanced section, we’ve chosen Bootcamp stage 18, featuring “At Last” by Etta James.
The lesson focuses on the dominant 7th chord, which is a fundamental part of Jazz harmony. But it’s not just about Jazz; dominant 7th chords are game-changers for pop, soul, R&B, and most other genres.
The lesson starts with block chords in the left hand, providing a great base to play over. However, things get much more interesting toward the end of the lesson.
You’ll be playing the melody by the end while spreading the harmony across both hands.
The reason we consider this to be an important lesson is that learning how to voice chords suitably is critical for any pianist. It doesn’t have to be the left hand for chords and the right for melody. Spreading the harmony across both hands produces more open, lush voicings, and it’s something every solo pianist must learn.
Playground Sessions has a vast selection of songs, covering more genres than Quincy Jones has worked in, and that’s saying something. It has everything from classical to jazz and pop to dance music.
The song selection is impressive, not only because it covers many genres but also because the choices offer something educational.
Songs are categorized as Rookie, Intermediate, or Advanced, but there can be Easy, Moderate, and Advanced arrangements within each category. So, you can potentially have up to nine arrangements of the same song, getting more complex along the way.
We really want to score Playground Sessions five out of five here, but we can’t, for one reason. We don’t think the Advanced section is legitimately advanced.
The pop song “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton has an Advanced (Hard) arrangement, as does “Desperado” by the Eagles, but realistically, neither is advanced.
The same goes for the Bootcamp stages and Courses; we would consider most of the Advanced content to be Intermediate and some of the Intermediate to be Rookie.
It’s not that everything is easy, you will learn a lot, and lessons will challenge you technically. But Playground Sessions version of advanced, like most other platforms, is different from real-world advanced or professional. So far, Pianote has the best advanced content we have seen.
Now, here’s what we love: the transition from one lesson to the next and one level to the next is perfect. Playground Sessions knows when to spend more time on a topic when to move on, and to introduce important concepts.
Playground Sessions is probably the first platform we have tried that never left us feeling like students were learning some concepts too soon or too late; they get the timing right.
A good example is that many early Rookie lessons feature the five-finger position, which means your fingers never move from the selected five notes. You’ll spend time learning various concepts within the five-finger position before moving on to a wider range of notes, and it makes a real difference.
So, while we don’t think the Advanced section is genuinely advanced, you’ll be well on your way by the end of your Playground Sessions journey, and the sequence/order of tuition makes perfect sense.
Value for money
Again, we’d like to give the maximum score here but don’t for the same reason as above. However, what you’ll learn in your time with this platform is well worth the tuition fee.
In addition to the app content, Playground Sessions has a YouTube channel and a forum where users can exchange ideas and ask questions.
Who does Playground Sessions suits most?
It suits students of all ages, whether you want to learn a few songs or become a serious musician; it’s excellent.
- User-friendly design.
- Outstanding progression path.
- Vast song library.
- Free trial without credit card.
- Great teachers.
- Instant feedback.
- Gamified learning.
- Concise but informative videos.
- You can’t use an acoustic piano.
- Not enough advanced content.