Fine-tuned fingers

WE KNOW THAT TYPING TUTORS CAN HELP US TYPE FASTER, BUT NOW INTERACTIVE SOFTWARE CAN MAKE LEARNING MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS AND EVEN THEORY FUN. HERE'S HOW TO GET STARTED.

Relatively cheap software can help you master the instrument you've always wanted to learn how to play. Of course, software will never replace a dedicated teacher (or student, for that matter), but you do get the flexibility of studying at your own pace, in the privacy of your own home and at a fraction of the cost.

Your PC is particularly adept at instructing the piano/keyboard. By using a musical keyboard equipped with a MIDI or USB interface, software can not only "hear" but also keep track of your playing abilities. Here are five virtual piano/keyboard instructors, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and some with a few extras to boot.

Charanga Keyboard Coach

Keyboard Coach initially presents you with a "map page" featuring sections to complete as you increase your proficiency. Level 1 covers plugging in the keyboard, using the software, and basic music reading. This is great for beginners and new notes and rhythms are introduced as you progress.

You'll notice that each level has five distinct sections (see FIGURE 1). These include Play Tunes (read and play music with your right hand), Play By Ear (learn to listen, watch and play by ear) and Play Solos (improve coordination through right hand melody/left hand single finger chord repetitions). You'll then move onto Cool Songs (learn to play two songs including Salt n Peppa's "Push It" bit by bit) and Cool Band Trax (play different keyboard parts such as the lead or strings with a backing band at your own tempo).

The program's big fault is that it relies on the sounds inside your keyboard. This is fine if you own a keyboard with built-in sounds, but not if you're using a basic USB MIDI keyboard as you won't hear any sounds as you play.

With a decidedly contemporary feel, Keyboard Coach shows you how to play and checks and corrects your playing. It features around 50 videos, plus many more diagrams and photos to provide an easy-to-use but basic introduction to modern keyboard playing. Price: $49.95 Distributor: Hal Leonard URL: www.halleonard.com.au; www.keyboardcoach.com

eMedia Piano and Keyboard Method 1.0

eMedia's Piano and Keyboard Method focuses on quality of information instead of visual aesthetics. It was the only software I looked at that's also available for the Mac. It includes over 100 songs (with accompaniments) to learn throughout 316 step-by-step lessons, spread over 11 chapters.

\It really does feel like you're experiencing a thorough course, but there some serious interface limitations, including its text/diagram-heavy nature. The program makes you click on an audio or video icon for playback and it only maximises to full screen at a resolution of 640x480. This may not help maintain everyone's interest, especially younger students.

However, the program's strong points include its animated keyboard (with colour-coded fingerings) that moves as you play along to the sheet music lessons. You can adjust the tempo of exercises and an interactive feedback section allows you to get pop-up, note-specific advice on where to fix your playing (see FIGURE 2). Price: $99 Distributor: Intelliware URL: www.intelliware.com.au; www.emediamusic.com

Magix Piano & Keyboard Workshop

This package looks good on the surface, but scratch a little deeper and you may be disappointed. There are five instruction modes to learn the 20 traditional songs supplied as MIDI files (with accompaniment). The modes are Listen, Teach, Backing, Recital, and an uninspiring Game.

You'll need to manually open each of the 30 lessons before building upon each to first cover just rhythm then just notes (see FIGURE 3) then apply both together.

The program will test you in some areas, let you adjust tempo, learn to play by ear, give you basic information on left/right hand placement and introduce more complex notes but overall, I feel this isn't the best pack­age for beginners.

More focus could have been spent on instructing fundamentals, particularly in reading music. Instead, emphasis is on intermediate features such as creating sheet music of and learning how to play any imported MIDI file.

The package comes with a decent quick start manual, a range of Magix demo software and a basic version of Magix MIDI Studio for home music creation/sequencing. Price: $79.95 Distributor: Harvey Norman URL: www.harveynorman.com.au; www.magix.com

PlayPro Interactive Keyboard 2.6

PlayPro's Interactive Keyboard (see FIG­URE4) feels like a complete and well structured course. The package includes no less than four CDs providing more than 350 lessons with 55 videos and huge array of well-laid out information delivered through an easy to use interface.

A terrific 240-page ring-bound manual is bundled and goes far beyond program use to mirror much of the content of the software. This includes using right/left hands, all sorts of scales, arpeggios, voicing, listening and copying plus a variety of special techniques and feels in traditional and modern styles.

The software's "Comp-U-Pare" feature lets you record, compare and chart your playing skills to receive grades and advice on where you need to improve. It also has progress markers allowing multiple students to be at various stages.

Interactive Keyboard will let you see where to play on a "virtual key­board", practice with "the band" and jump between lessons as desired.

The emphasis here is on thinking and playing musically, learning to read music and improving your technique. As such, Interactive Keyboard is ideal for beginners through to advanced users of any age after 8-10 or so. Price: $99 Distributor: Central Music Instruments URL: www.cmi.com.au; www.playprosoft.com

Voyetra Teach Me Piano Deluxe

Although a little long in the tooth, Teach Me Piano Deluxe (TMPD) still provides more than 150 lessons, 100 exercises and 75 classic songs to learn for solo recital or with accompaniment (see FIGURE 5).

You can also add your own MIDI songs but, like certain areas of the program, this can be a little buggy at times. The program only runs at a resolution of 640x480, so users with bad eyesight may have to change their display settings. Additionally, video segments presented by Professor Hugh Berberich aren't of the greatest quality and although interesting, don't ultimately provide much extra information.

TMPD suits beginners, but parents may want to monitor their kids, as some program functions can be finicky. Usefully, there's a report section to view all lesson progress and multiple student profiles.

Lessons employ a process where you can adjust the tempo as you first learn the rhythm then pitch/notes (for each hand at a time if appropriate) before putting it all together with improved eye-hand coordination. This is satisfying, but the jump in skill between lessons can sometimes be tough.

Also included are some music games (which are fun for a while), a great music reference document (including a history of keyboards) and some extra utilities for jamming and recording. Price: Approx $70 (US$49.95) Vendor: Voyetra URL: www.voyetra.com

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