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Individualizing Piano Study: How to avoid Method Book dependency

Over decades of teaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that each student needs a custom designed long-term lesson plan. Method books only go so far.

Often they stratify the learning process, keeping students in an interminably drawn out, regressive C Major universe. For the most part, flats and sharps with Letter Name identifications are regarded as aliens, not welcomed into the musical cosmos until a student is so addicted to white notes that he can’t be easily detoxed. I was a such a victim, being fed John Thompson’s Primer series with pixies and parades. As a consequence, my fears of black notes linger. Do I need music therapy?

One of my African American students poked fun at the preponderance of white notes on a keyboard as evidence of hard core discrimination. We both chuckled, but at that the same time he didn’t realize that his observation had relevance to Method Books and their built in color line:

“Black notes are not welcomed here, right now.”

I don’t mean to knock Bastien, Faber, and any other Lesson, Performance, Theory, Technique and Artistry package, but the only way I can co-exist with these materials is to modify them as I go along. And the adjustments I choose will be different for each pupil, because mass produced, standardized education doesn’t work for me.

In a previous blog, Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery, I inserted p. 24 of Faber’s Piano Adventures that contained the “C-D-E-F-G March” as a perfect opportunity to introduce the Parallel Major/minor tonality by lowering the E to Eb. (Did I commit a sin advancing the clock on the FLAT?) If so, let the black notes go to hell.

For the vast majority of pupils who’ve entered the sanctuary of piano learning as beginners, they jump at any chance to create a different mood by a simple alteration. Knowing Left from Right is the only requirement. Flats descend to the LEFT by a HALF STEP. If a pupil doesn’t understand the quantity of a “half,” just rely on the tiniest distance on the piano and there you go. Kids love analogies, imaginary references to things. They can make up their own name for the smallest distance from one note to another. Could be “elf-like.” If Grieg liked elves, why not borrow the metaphor.

Some students might follow up, creating a rote piece in a new tonal center–like playing the “C-D-E-F-G March” in C minor and then in G minor. Wait a minute, TRANSPOSING for beginners isn’t part of the program when we get to p. 24 of the Lesson Book? Or if a creative activity is suggested, BLACK NOTES are once again barred, jailed, imprisoned, waiting to be paroled.

Who cares what method books do or don’t do? For lots of kids, improvising in the company of sharps and flats, makes piano study more interesting. And as a fringe benefit, students who are tonal adventurers, will find that their explorations become second nature.

Composing is a joyful activity. Ask the student to shuffle around the five notes that have been drilled into him as “C POSITION” in the METHOD BOOK and relocate the tonal center to G or D, (oops, another alien SHARP is introduced on the planet) Hang loose, and let the student name it. He won’t decompensate in the process.

The pupil can even vary the order of the notes, up and down, which means he might choose to skip, and NOT step. (Wait a minute, the METHOD book doesn’t introduce SKIPS at this point) Just a second. It’s the student’s piece–his creation and copyright. Such creative expression is not owned or controlled by the Method Book publishers.

Uh, oh, Should I dare to show up at this summer’s MTAC Convention without my Groucho Marx disguise? I think I’ll be otherwise, persona non grata.

All I’m saying is that short of designing individual materials for each student that we take what we are given and MODIFY, EXPAND to meet individual needs.

And while this discussion applies in the main to beginning pupils, it equally pertains to those who are at Intermediate and Advanced levels.

First off, I beat it out of the Method Book track as soon as I can see the forest from the trees. By and large, after Book One of Faber Piano Adventures (with my modifications) I’m off to Classical Repertoire. If a student would like popular pieces, those are added into the mix as long as the musical diet is balanced and enriched with scales, arpeggios, minuets, sonatinas and the rest.

I like Faber’s the “Developing Artist Series,” Book 2. Favorite selections: Johann Christian Bach’s Prelude in A minor and Andante; Rameau’s Menuet en Rondeau.
and the Sonatina series starting with Book one:

Even at the Faber Lesson Book One level, I supplement with Gillock, a composer with amazing gifts. I love “Little Flower Girl of Paris,” “Argentina,” “Splashing in the Brook,” and most pieces contained in Accent on Solos, Level TWO.

Some pieces in this collection work for students in Level One, Faber. And perhaps more apply to students who’ve had modifications in their method books as they’ve moved along.

With such adjustments, NO child will be LEFT BEHIND.

Gillock’s “Flamenco” highlighted in a previous blog, is another fabulous piece that has a built in sequential pattern in its harmonic progression, so while the selection is flooded with alien black notes, the student can see and “feel” note grouping relationships that ease his anxiety during the learning process.

Side journeys to Kabalevsky’s “24 Pieces for Children Op. 39” (Palmer/Alfred) Schumann’s “Album for the Young” and Bartok’s Children’s Pieces, offer repertoire enrichment at early levels of study, easing the burden of a standardized teaching curriculum.

In conclusion, we need to give our students more leeway– Let them break out of the method book mold, and spread their creative wings.

At least it will be a start in the right direction, reaping rewards at every stage of learning.

PS As a footnote to this writing I have experienced the joy of using Irina Gorin’s Tales of Musical Journey that utilizes a creative approach to teaching children in the 4-7 year-old range. It is a book I highly recommend because of its early focus on tone production, and fluency of motion. It mobilizes the young imagination, and takes baby steps in its progression.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/music-theory-and-piano-study-video-it-doesnt-have-to-be-drudgery/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/piano-students-as-composers-stimulating-a-creative-teaching-environment/

7 thoughts on “Individualizing Piano Study: How to avoid Method Book dependency”

  1. While your approach is to break away from the methods you mention ASAP, many teachers use them throughout lessons until the series ends. Most (if not all) teachers seem to infuse their own slant to these standardized lessons (like you do) but I think many find comfort in having a regimented, time-proven method to anchor their lesson plans.

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  2. It’s certainly a convenience to go the method book route to the end of time, so to speak, but not necessarily the soundest instructional journey. Right now I am weighing and measuring a repertoire based learning juncture for a 12-year old who has been studying with me for one year. We will probably head over to pieces hand picked from the Developing Artist Series. She has had sandwiched pieces along with her modified Piano Adventures including, “The Little Flower Girl of Paris,” (Gillock) and “Part of Your World” from the Little Mermaid, utilizing Bb and inserted accidentals. I want her to get OUT of the rigid pre-designed positions and branch out into the real world of piano repertoire with interspersed black notes and all. That of course does NOT preclude the popular music selections already mentioned. To pigeon hole piano teachers as just preparing students for classical music does not hold water.

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  3. “If a student would like popular pieces, those are added into the mix…”
    “…we need to give our students more leeway– Let them break out of the method book mold, and spread their creative wings.”

    That is exactly what killed my short 3-years as a piano student in the 1960s >> the BOREDOM. If the teacher had offered even ONCE in those years, “Let’s take a break from John Thompson & learn something from the RADIO,” I would have been ecstatic! It wasn’t a dislike for the instrument. It was the suffocating boredom with the same-o same-o that killed the will to keep going. As I said in another comment, Carmen is the ONLY song I really liked & remember from the JT books because at least it was very “exciting” to play. 🙂 (Who knew or cared at that age the song was re jealous rage & murder, lol).

    Your idea in another post to use the student’s own poems to create music would also have been a thrilling mind-blowing adventure. As a poet in those younger years as well, I had a spiral notebook full of poems to the last page, from age 8 to teen years. Can’t imagine the piano teacher at that time ever thinking to offer such a “music composition” endeavor! Who knows, an entire “musical” might have sprung forth at some point as I had written five “books” in those years, too, ages 8-11; & a “play” for the Girl Scouts. But the music side of life got “LEFT BEHIND,” as you say. :-/

    Good ideas, keep thinking outside the box! Kids will go where led, so keep leading their creativeness while it is very fertile & ready to bud!

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  4. Thanks again, for sharing . There’s a linked-in discussion on this very subject
    ttps://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=266125294&gid=134791&commentID=157345254&trk=view_disc&fromEmail=&ut=0m_0eTMvMVaRU1

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