I was optimistic when String Basics showed up with play along software. Classroom methods aren’t really my thing, so the pedagogy of the actual book was not particularly inspiring. But I was interested to test out their practice software called Interactive Practice Studio. It’s a neat idea – a digital version of the book with accompaniments for each exercise, the ability to record yourself playing along with that accompaniment, and some neat historical context pop-ups for pieces that have a background.
Unfortunately, the actually execution leaves plenty to be desired. Just getting past the software registration required an email to the support team. The problem was a hidden “Click Here to Send” button. Where was it hidden? Turns out the bottom of the interface was cut off. There was no scroll bar or any other indication that there might be more to the interface than I was seeing. Despite the minimum resolution requirements being 1024x768, my 1280x800 screen was not big enough. I had to move my taskbar to the side, then reopen the window to get it tall enough to display the button. Yup, I had to close and reopen the window to make it bigger with the taskbar out of the way. The actual program’s window is not resizable and does not generate scroll bars when the content is outside the viewable size of the window. On the plus side, the email support team is very responsive, and I had a reply within the hour of submitting the question.
Once you get past the registration hurdle and into the actual program, it doesn’t get much better. The window remains non-resizable. The music cannot be zoomed in, it just is the size that it is. Not only that, but the whole page does not fit in the window and there is no scrolling. At least it’s not quite as bad as the registration screen though. See that obnoxiously neon green down arrow next to the page? That will move to the bottom of the page. So you get either the top or the bottom, no smooth scrolling, and nothing in between. With my 2730p in slate portrait mode, it was able to display the whole page in one screen.
Navigation within the book is much better. There are arrows that let you flip forwards and backwards through the book, and clicking the giant page button at the top will bring up a table of contents, allowing you jump directly to a page.
The speaker icon next to the title of each piece will bring up the accompaniment playback window. There, you have options to mute the student part or loop the whole thing. I have to say the accompaniments are ridiculously overdone for my taste. We’re talking epic full orchestra accompaniment for plucking open strings, or all the percussion toys pulled out to play a scale. Perhaps I was just a cynical kid, but I would not have been fooled into thinking I was doing anything more than plucking open strings. Additionally, the student parts are not book specific, with many pieces in the violin book being played on cello or bass. I realize this is a mixed class method, but the Suzuki teacher in me wonders how kids are supposed to learn the ideal tone they should be getting out their instrument when they are listening to a totally different instrument which is half buried under crazy accompaniments.
The microphone icon opens a simple to use recording window so students can make recordings of themselves playing the line. Some pieces also have stars next to them which open neat historical information windows.
The idea of an interactive method book is great, and the Interactive Practice Studio adds a lot. But interface is just inexcusably poor. If you really want an interactive experience for your string students, I would take a good look at Essential Elements with SmartMusic first.