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Beginner ‘Piano Method’ Books
I want to start this topic by referring to a very interesting and insightful article that was written and posted by Elissa Milne on . She writes about the three major permutations of the word ‘method’ in relation to piano pedagogy. I quote:
A ‘method’ is a unified collection of teaching materials designed to be used in conjunction with each other, as befitting the needs of individual students.
‘Method’ can be applied to a system of pedagogical thought; a philosophical approach. Piano methods (first sense of the term) can be more revealing of their author’s musical and ethical philosophies of education by what they omit and ignore than by what they include.
“The teacher is the method”. The same material in different hands can be rendered into experiences so diverse you wouldn’t necessarily know the same resources had been used in the making of the lesson.
At the end of the article she writes the following:
“The teacher is the method, the method is a philosophy, and the method is a colloquial term used to refer to all the resources (usually print, plus whichever ‘supplemental’ resources the ‘method’ may have developed) teachers can access that emanate from a single pedagogical perspective. Can all three uses of the word be appropriate? I’m thinking that the answer, surely, must be ‘of course!’ “.
In this first post about Beginner ‘Piano Method’ Books, I will elaborate on the different reading approaches and refer to the most commonly method books used in South Africa. One must remember that there are other ‘methods’ that focus more on rote learning at the beginning stages. I will discuss these methods in a later post.
There are numerous beginner piano methods on the market. These ‘methods’ attempt to present organised plans for learning the piano. At first the elements of piano performance are divided into individual sets of skills. These sets of skills are introduced and developed over a series of lessons and then combined with each other.
Many experienced piano teachers realise the importance of evaluating method books and making the best choice for each student. But even when a good method book is used, many responsibilities are left to the teacher. These responsibilities include practice instruction, stage presence, motivational techniques, memorisation techniques, the organisation of lessons, the inspiration to be creative, and many more…..
As a teacher of beginners, I find Jeanine Jacobson’s chapter on Beginner Methods in her textbook Professional Piano Teaching (2006) very insightful and helpful in guiding me through the evaluation process.
Experienced piano teachers also know that they can combine material and ideas from different methods. Therefore it is necessary to stay in touch with ‘new’ methods and to understand the philosophy behind all the different methods.
Middle C Reading Approach
Middle C is the first pitch taught, with the thumb of both hands sharing the key.
Well-known Middle C method books are:
John W. Schaum: Piano Course (1945)
John Thompson: Modern Course for the Piano (1937)
Multiple-key Reading Approach
Students are taught rather quickly to play five-finger patterns in all major keys and simultaneously are given numerous short pieces to play in the various keys. Keys are introduced in groups and the groups are determined by the black- and white-key shape of the tonic triad.
Group 1: C, G and F major
Group 2: D, A and E major
Group 3: D-flat, A-flat and E-flat major
Group 4: F-sharp, B-flat and B major
Well-known multiple key method books are:
Robert Pace: Music for Keyboard (1961)
James Bastien: Bastien Piano Basics (1976)
Keith Snell and Diane Hidy: Piano Town (2004)
Intervallic Reading Approach
This approach generally begins with gradual-staff notation. The staff is introduced one line at a time, allowing the student to focus on one interval at a time. The letter name of the first note is written to its left or shown on a keyboard position diagram. Note-reading is introduced by contour (direction and interval) and notes are grouped by patterns, allowing the student to see the spatial relationships. Without the full staff, the student is free to develop a strong sense of pulse, concentrate on counting, focus on comfortable technique and attend to sound production before having to read notes on the full staff.
Well-known Intervallic Reading Methods are:
Frances Clark, Louise Goss and Sam Holland: The Music Tree (1955)
Lynn Freeman Olson, Louise Bianchi and Marvin Blickenstaff: Music Pathways (1978)
Eclectic Reading Approaches
In the past decade or two, beginning methods series have combined reading elements from the three approaches already discussed.
Well-known Eclectic Reading Methods are:
Willard A. Palmer, Morton Manus and Amanda Vick Lethco: Alfred’s Basic Piano Library (1982)
Nancy and Randall Faber: Piano Adventures (1993)
Barbara Kreader, Fred Kern, Phillip Keveren, Mona Rejino: Hal Leonard Student Piano Library (1996)
Dennis Alexander, Gayle Kowalchyk, E.L. Lancaster, Victoria McArthur, Martha Mier: Alfred’s Premier Piano Course (2005)
Janet Vogt and Leon Bates: Piano Discoveries (2001)
Cathy Albergo, J. Mitzi Kolar and Mark Mrozinski: Celebrate Piano! (2003)
Criteria for choosing a Beginning Method
Jeanine Jacobson (Professional Piano Teaching, 2006) gives a thorough description of criteria to follow when choosing a Beginning Method. Here is summary of her suggestions:
Systematic and logic presentation of concepts and skills: each new skill or concept should build slowly on what the student already knows.
Ample reinforcement: no other significant new concept or skill should be introduced until there has been sufficient reinforcement of the newly gained skill or knowledge. Students should use the new skill/concept in a number of pieces and/or contexts.
Comprehensiveness: the method should simultaneously ‘cover’ the experience of reading, rhythm, technique, ensemble, aural development, transposition, creativity, theory and musical performance.
Scope and Format:
Consider the length of the book. Is it too short or too long?
What will the student have learned upon completion of the method?
Do the pages seem cluttered?
Is the material presented in a clear and attractive manner?
What is the purpose of the illustrations?
Is the printing the appropriate size for the age level?
Is the material presented in units or in a continuous format?
Are there sufficient fingerings without being redundant?
Does the book title reflect the content?
Are there sufficient editorial markings, without being over edited?
Are the editorial markings introduced systematically?
Do students explore the entire keyboard or are they restricted to one area?
How is keyboard exploration achieved?
For how long are students required to spend time in one key?
Does the method incorporate pre-staff notation?
Is there sufficient reinforcement for each new reading concept?
Does contour play a role in pitch reading?
Is there sufficient time spent using pre-staff notation?
Is the grand staff introduced gradually or all at once?
Once the staff is introduced, what is the basic reading approach?
Does each new piece have a logical relationship to the previously introduced concepts and pieces?
Are the note names written in the noteheads?
If intervals are used for reading, what is the order of the interval presentation?
Is transposition incorporated?
Are sharps and flats introduced with a definite plan?
Are key signatures introduced with a definite plan?
How is pitch reading reinforced?
Are landmark notes used?
What is the balance of black- and white-key use?
Is pulse sufficiently learned before other rhythmic concepts are presented?
What counting system is suggested or implied?
Are rhythms introduced in a logical way?
Is each new rhythm pattern sufficiently reinforced before a new one is presented?
Does the method build rhythmic understanding into the body?
Are rests introduced in a logical way and as a musical silence?
When are bars and bar lines introduced?
How is the time signature introduced?
Which time signatures are used?
How is rhythm reading reinforced?
Does technical development seem to be a systematic part of the method?
How is technique reinforced?
Does the technical development begin with a whole-arm or an individual-finger approach?
Do the pieces allow for equal development of both hands?
Are technical difficulties introduced gradually?
Are five-finger patterns introduced? And how?
How soon are chords introduced?
When and how are scales introduced?
When are articulations introduced?
Does the method introduce all of the basic motions and coordination needed to prepare for intermediate-level repertoire?
Does the method encourage a technique that is conducive to a musical sound?
How is the development of fingers 1 and 5 achieved?
Is the transposition of technical exercises encouraged?
Is the use of the damper pedal taught?
Are chromatic figures introduced?
Was the music originally composed for the method?
Is there a sufficient number of familiar pieces? Do the originally composed pieces sound somewhat familiar to most students?
How many of the pieces are simplified versions of masterworks?
Are titles appropriate for the age level?
Is the music appealing to the majority of students?
Is the music linear in nature or does it emphasise full sounds?
Are contemporary musical sounds explored?
Are pieces included that are easy to memorise?
Are the titles of the pieces chosen for a purpose?
Do the pieces include lyrics?
Does the method book encourage students to listen and make judgements about what they hear in the pieces and in their own playing?
Are ear-training skills developed in a systematic way?
Development of Musical Playing:
Are there student/teacher duets?
Are the interpretive markings appropriate for the age and level?
How are musical elements, such as articulations or dynamics, introduced?
Are students given the opportunity to apply new concepts and skills in creative activities such as improvisation?
Are students encouraged to make up melodies?
Are students provided the opportunity to harmonise melodies?
What patterns are introduced and emphasised?
How and when do students experience key or tonality?
Is there a written theory program?
Is there a keyboard theory program?
Will students gain a thorough understanding of the structure of pieces?
Are theoretical concepts applied to pieces?
Application of Learning Principles:
Is the text clear enough to enable students to gain independence from the teacher?
Does the method provide challenge without discouragement?
Is the unfamiliar approached from the familiar?
Will the pace of the method meet individual needs?
Are audio recordings, orchestrated accompaniments, and theory or ear training computer software available for the method series?
Are there flashcards?
Will students need supplementary books for reinforcement and a comprehensive education?
In the next post I will follow the above-mentioned criteria to discuss a few of the most commonly used ‘Piano method’ books in South Africa.
A summary of Chapter Three in Professional Piano Teaching. A Comprehensive Piano Pedagogy Textbook for Teaching Elementary-Level Students. Jeanine M. Jacobson, edited by E.L. Lancaster. Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. Los Angeles. 2006.