With 28 Grammys to his name - at the last count - Quincy Jones is something of a music industry legend. So when he co-creates an online piano tuition app like Playground Sessions, the world should probably take notice. Big-name pianists like Harry Connick, Jr are also featured, so right from the get-go, it’s evident that this app means business. Unlike other apps that simply teach the notes on the stave, Playground Sessions imparts both wisdom and passion with its introductory videos. And with a huge variety of well-known songs available to learn in both simplified and authentic incarnations and a bewilderingly comprehensive ‘Bootcamp’ lesson plan, everything here is meticulously crafted to teach you piano with authenticity and precision. No wonder it's our top pick of the best online piano lessons for several years in a row.
Playground Sessions: Membership
You can purchase a subscription to Playground Sessions in three separate ways – monthly, annually or a one-time payment for a lifetime plan. Playground Sessions accepts payments via debit and credit cards and PayPal, which is handy. A monthly subscription will cost you $17.99 per month, whereas an annual membership is $119.88, with the monthly cost working out at $9.99. A lifetime membership recently came down to $289.99 from $349.99. This is billed as a one-time payment and offers you all the perks of other membership types, so unless you’re really committed to learning piano we’d suggest going with a monthly membership to give you an idea of if you want to continue.
Some sites such as Piano with Christie Peery offer perks to signing up to longer-term memberships, such as VIP bonus content when you buy an annual membership. Playground Sessions does this differently, offering no discrepancy (other than a price benefit in signing up longer-term) in perks for monthly or annual memberships. We like this, as it won’t make you feel penalized if you don’t go for the longer-term option, and all members are treated equally.
Playground Sessions: Lessons and features
Playground Sessions uses well-known music to teach you the basics of playing piano, so you stay invested. You learn by playing, which is the motto of Playground Sessions. The main learning is done in the Bootcamp, which teaches key skills intensively in Rookie, Intermediate and Advanced curriculums. There are also supplemental Courses available, plus the option to hone in on theory, playing, or improvisation skills here.
Playground Sessions works with MIDI compatible keyboards – this is how you track your performance and how much you practice in real-time. Unlike Flowkey or Yousician, which work with acoustic models, you’ll have to own a MIDI keyboard to get started with Playground, which means absolute precision, with feedback to match. When you take a lesson, the correct notes you play will be marked in green and the wrong notes will be marked in red. After the lesson is complete, it will break your performance down into a percentage, and you will receive points for your performance. Playground Sessions keeps track of the points based on a level system, and as you earn points and hit certain point totals, you level up.
Unlike many other piano apps, which won’t give you hands-on experience until you’ve mastered the basics of posture and hand positioning, Playground Sessions lets you jump right in with mastering the 5-Finger Position in your second lesson. In the Rookie Tour Bootcamp, which will be the first port-of-call for any beginner, you’ll be challenged but also rewarded as you tailor BPM to a speed at which you feel comfortable. Notation is only raised once you’ve had a crack at using the 5-Finger Position. Harry Connick Jr. explains staff notation very thoroughly before you move onto a nine-part practice of this. The video tutorials are informative, and although you’re not given the opportunity to work one-on-one with a tutor like PianoWithWillie, it certainly feels like you build a relationship with the variety of teachers in the video lessons. One of the things we loved about Playground Sessions is the ease at which you can take your time and master the basics. The backing music allows you to clearly see where you’re going right and understand your role in the context of the wider song. If you’re someone who learns by doing, this is a great option for you - it makes everything you’re required to learn digestible by breaking it into small chunks.
Other features include ‘Courses’ which get unlocked over time as your playing becomes more advanced. Some of the courses available include a 30-day challenge where you’ll learn how to play specific, aspirational songs, as well as reading music, and octave scales. There’s a song store where you can learn to play specific songs, with a variety of movie soundtracks, pop tracks and theater pieces to choose from. There are also a host of classical songs available, for free. These are graded in difficulty and there are different skill levels for most songs, meaning they’re accessible for a variety of capabilities. You need to use song credits to buy these, and both annual and monthly memberships give you five credits free a month. If you want to buy any in addition to this it’ll cost you $1.99, and most but not all are available to print. These songs are largely available in melodies rather than accompaniment, which means you might find limited options if you’re looking to play piano and sing the melody, for example.
Playground Sessions: Experience
While the quality is clearly there, newer apps are more user-friendly and pleasing on the eye, but Playground Sessions still has it where it counts. Our skills improved a lot in the time we spent reviewing it. For beginners it can be overwhelming to play two-handed, but Playground teaches you one hand at a time before you have a crack at combining what you’ve learned. You can adjust the speed if you’re finding the track a bit fast (or slow). If you’ve mastered all but one small section of the piece, you can easily highlight the section you want to focus on and repeat this until you feel comfortable, and the option to record yourself means you can sit back and scrutinize your progress.
There’s also the option to have a full backing track, a metronome and/or the specific notes playing alongside you, and you can choose to have the note or finger represented in each bar displayed above to help you if you’re not totally comfortable reading music. If you’re hoping to learn to read music before you get playing, this isn’t the site for you. Playground immerses you in the world of the piano, meaning you’ll learn these skills as you go.
Like Piano Marvel, Playground Sessions motivates you with awards and points which help you feel like you’re making progress. There’s even the incentive of free song credits when you win 15 stars. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, and Playground Sessions displays how many hours you’ve spent learning on your dashboard, along with a list of all the classes you’ve completed and attempted. There’s also a Playground Sessions app available, meaning you can put your tablet on the music stand for a more dialed-back setup.
Playground Sessions is designed for adults, and we’d say that if you’re not at least in your teens this isn’t the site for you due to the way the lessons are structured. That being said, there’s nothing to stop multiple members of the family getting involved with Playground.
Playground Sessions: Technical support
Playground Sessions has an easily-accessed forum where you can consult past chats and raise your own. There’s an emphasis on creating a community here, which we liked, and you’ll also get helpful responses from moderators within the Playground team if you raise issues or questions. You can also call Monday-Friday, consult an FAQ page for specific queries or email customer support.
Should you try Playground Sessions?
Playground Sessions is still our top pick for online piano lessons, though you might want to try a more streamlined app like Simply Piano if you want a slightly less formal but similarly effective approach. Playground Sessions has an easy-to-use interface, which lets you tailor your learning to your own specific preferences, but it feels more like a textbook than an app. Nonetheless, the quality is obvious. We enjoyed the mix of Bootcamp, Courses and songs on offer which helps keep you interested and engaged as you learn. Playground Sessions is a great choice for immersing you in the world of piano without being too overwhelming.