Allegro Multimedia Piano Wizard

This self-teaching piano system is designed to be fun and easy. But several important limitations prevent it from being the learning tool it could be.

January 27, 2006

6 Min Read
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Having been the volunteer who actually went up and tried the Allegro Multimedia Piano Wizard Premier at a recent CES press reception, and having managed to bang out a recognizable melody to "Born to be Wild," I had high hopes that even if this product couldn't teach me to actually play piano with proper finger positions and all the things that would have made my sixth grade piano teacher happy, at least it would teach me to be able to gallop through a few popular tunes at parties. I could see myself casually

delivering a little "Peter Gunn," or maybe a few Bond themes (if I was lucky, a latter day Shirley Bassey might come over) to the amazement of my friends.
Having played its games for a week now, I'm far less hopeful, at least for this product iteration. As either game or teaching tool, it promises far more than it can deliver…both in terms of fun and learning experience. All it needs to fix it is expanded music libraries, game options, game modes, and an actual learning track, and it would be perfect, or good enough, for you to get by with at parties anyway.
There are some excellent ideas in Piano Wizard, starting with a four-step transition from "shooting" objects coming at the colored keys displayed across your computer monitor (in glorious VGA) to reading actual musical notation scrolling sideways along your screen. That's good, though it falls down in execution due to an inability to control the starting rate and lack of any structured learning or memory of the student's progress. What's potentially better is the ability of the program to use and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files with the program, opening up piano learning to more than the hackneyed nursery rhymes and beginners classical bits that beginners everywhere are so familiar with (available in the "Premier" version, though that may be the only version you can buy at this writing).
Theoretically you can progress from a game environment where you play sort of an inverted version of Centipede with choice of "worlds" depicting aliens, dinosaurs, aquatic life or a futuristic cityscape or to playing music as standard music notation scrolls by. One of the products tag lines is that "nagging isn't included" but in reality, I'm dubious that even nagging would keep this in regular play.

Unpacking the kit makes you wonder where the product is...since the Piano Wizard box wraps an M-Audio Keystation 49e box with no sign of the software. It's packed in keyboard box, there being no point in wasting packaging to make it look like more than it is. An installation map and video on the CD guide you through simple setup. You can buy a keyboardless version ($199.95 v $139.95) for fifty dollars less, but if you don't already have a keyboard, the M-Audio seems like a good place to start. The setup video was a bit balky, but ran well enough to be understood. It turned out to be unnecessary to load the drivers from the keyboard's own CD as recommended, since it accepted the preloaded ones from my Windows XP machine. The challenging part came in laying colored stickers on each key. No matter how diligently you may try to place them, you're certain to wind up with a less-than-professional look, but in time you're hoping to take them off anyway. There are enough sheets for a full 88 keys, though even tagging the 49 keys you get takes plenty of time, in my case about twenty minutes. The game will accommodate full sized keyboards if you've got one.
Once you get the program loaded and the USB keyboard connection plugged in, it's time to try your hand. "Easy Mode" will get you started with minimal options, while under "Play Now" you can choose which tracks you want to play (choose the vocal, you'll at least recognize it) and a number of useful options like finger number displays. If you start with the "Begin with Beattie" folder, you'll at least get some keystrokes right. Then you can move on to the classics of piano instruction.
The idea of using the keyboard as a shooter is attractive, and even more so the notion that you can load any MIDI song file into the game so that you can start off with something cool rather than something only adults could love. Don't get me wrong. Two of my FM presets are for classical stations, or at least I think they are…since I listen to more satellite radio than FM these days. It's just that I'd like to see kids benefit from music as a social enabler, rather than something that makes them stand out as weird. So being able to learn popular songs has an immediate attraction.
The hidden reef it runs aground on is, of course, intellectual property. Virtually everything you might think of as cool is also being thought of as private property, and though the manufacturer tells me they're working on licensing a collection of popular songs, it hasn't happened yet. If you want to download songs on your own, there are plenty of free sites with generally poor arrangements that scoff at copyright law, or a number of fairly pricey ones with better arrangements that don't. "Born to be Wild", which I demoed for the CES press, isn't included in the package, but instead you get some scales, children's songs, simple classical pieces (though they're beyond me) and a collection of hymns. How cool is that? Not cool enough.
What really bogs down this product is that lack of structure. There are no user histories, no storyline (or lesson track), no drills, and no free play mode. What you get is thrown onto the battlefield of music, with no way to preset the tempo at which rocks, heads, butterflies, or whatever are thrown at you while you frantically use the computer keyboard's arrow keys to slow things down to a crawl. The good news is that the surge of pleasure you get from actually hitting enough notes in succession to sound like music is pretty powerful, and it's this reward that the designers should work on making the target, not false applause at the end of a game round. The single most useful feature would be for them to stop the music until you hit the next correct note. Forcing you to go along at the song's pace might be good from a music theory standpoint, but first you need to be able to hit the keys, and your choices are either to have the notes whiz by while you miss them, or drag on while you wait for the accompanying instruments to catch up.
Though I can't recommend buying this product to readers, I can hope for better versions to come. In order for that to happen though, the designers will need to go out an get a copy of Mavis Beacon's Typing Tutor and spend some time playing actual computer games, or even classic ones, to see how fun and learning can combine. Until then, I'll only be singing Born to Be Wild in the shower, where the RIAA can't charge me for use…yet.

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