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Piano Instruction: Going outside the method book track

Method books on the commercial market have a certain lure because they attempt to conveniently package a set of step-by-step lesson goals through approximately six books that are divided into Lesson, Performance and Theory. A teacher can also choose Technique and Artistry to add to the mix. The basic program outlined in brochures includes branch-offs into separate albums with a classical, jazz, and popular focus. And there are sub-headings of sonatinas in various levels not to mention other musical genres. Add in Christmas time classics and the rest, and you have a dizzying listing, especially when the original method book progression is supposed to accommodate prescribed side trips to the holiday albums at a correlated level.

Most unwelcoming, at least for me, is the protracted reliance on fixed “positions” that are built into the basic progression of the underlying “method” and its spin-offs. The hand is molded into a predictable and contrived set of “positions” starting with Middle C and C position, journeying along to the same in G, etc. At least for the first year or so of study, flat and sharp recognition is delayed, though in most method books, the ambitious leap to playing on black keys for purposes of identifying the white ones inaugurates the journey. But it’s short-lived. One of my African American adult students commented that the black notes are musically ostracized.

The other issue I have with method books is related to their social network implications. Students who start Faber Piano Adventures, for example, are in touch with friends who do the same gig. They watch their peers go from the purple to red to blue to orange books, etc. (with subdivided level A’s/B’s attached) and measure their own progress in color coated advances. If a teacher should drop out of the “track” or side-step the method route, a student might have a serious psychological setback. More than likely that pupil will transfer to their friend’s teacher who’s waiting to shelter him/her in the next letter-named “position.”

I once interviewed a middle school transfer student who brought a music bag filled with four partially completed sets of Piano Adventures in various shades, fully expecting her journey to continue along color lines. When I candidly suggested that I would toss the method books aside in favor of repertoire-based learning, I watched the color drain from mom and daughter’s faces. Needless to say, the teenager was not signed up for lessons.

When I look back over decades and compare progress of students who used method books as the mainstay of their study with me, (in my early years of teaching) to those whom I steered away from the “positions” dominated material, substituting creative repertoire choices, I can confidently say that the latter developed a more long-lasting and gratifying connection to the piano. Their note reading skills also substantially improved.

Repertoire-based instruction that includes a substantial dose of scales and arpeggios traveling around the Circle of Fifths provide in my opinion, a more realistic assortment of keyboard geographies that are otherwise inhibited by method books. Would Mozart have applauded “C position” as he was composing his early minuets? How would Bach have felt about boxing one of his Inventions into G position?

The question for me is how to creatively teach when the very early materials available do not realistically prepare a student to branch off into music that does not have “positional” crutches?

Right now I am experimenting with Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey which has no positional indoctrination and focuses on tone production and the physical means to the end, note by note. There is no rush to play pieces framed in rigidly assigned places along the keyboard spectrum. While many parents would wonder why junior is not tapping melodies that can be easily sung back in the first few lessons, the delay built into the material has pedagogical merit. It allows the teacher to work on the very fundamental aspect of playing the piano–creating the basic singing tone that underlies all music making.

Taking each note, one at a time, learning how to physically produce tonal beauty with relaxed “weeping willow” like movements; traveling over octaves with rainbow gestures, without a deadline to connect notes in premeditated legato (connected) fashion before knowing the detached way of encountering them, is for me, a slow but substantial approach to teaching the art of playing the piano.

I think the most popular method books out on the market want to produce “tangible” results in contrived parcels on a time allotted schedule. They want teachers to have the color code to progress in short order. They want parents to see children advancing from level to level according to the “program” without a second thought.

Perhaps thinking outside the method book track is needed with a creative mix of ingredients.


Tales of a Musical Journey:




4 thoughts on “Piano Instruction: Going outside the method book track”

  1. Very good blog. I, too, struggle with the pace and teaching/learning of method books. I’m usually out of the method book by the time the student gets to level 2, putting them in easier classics and other repertoire. But it is challenging to know how to begin students without a method book.
    I, myself, was a beginner in the ’60’s with John Thompson, which is now frowned upon. But I became a very good music reader, and we seemed to progress much faster back then. My first recital piece is more advanced than my students can manage, and I was not an outstanding student back in my early years.

    Keep us posted on how you like the Tales of a Musical Journey.


    1. Thanks for your comments. You are so right about what to begin with when one needs a progression of steps that makes sense in early pianistic development. I am videotaping all my lessons using Tales of a Musical Journey with Rina, age 4, and have embedded them in my past blogs. Today is lesson 7. Normally, I don’t start children as young as 4, but this was an exception given a set of circumstances that made this particular journey worth taking. Rina’s sixth lesson is blogged at: https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/rina-4-has-her-6th-piano-lesson-learning-about-short-and-long-sounds-using-black-and-white-circles-tales-of-a-musical-journey-4-videos/ All previous lessons are also blogged.. with videos attached.


  2. I’m curious to know more about your repertoire-based instruction. How do you choose pieces for students? Are there certain books of classical pieces you use with your students, or do you perhaps use imslp.org to obtain the pieces you wish to assign to students?


    1. Of course each situation is different. I do try to get out of the method book track as soon as I can. With an adult student who has had little if any exposure to the piano, we, by necessity go method book.. and it’s usually Faber accelerated Beginner. (don’t like to stay beyond 6 to 8 months) There are some times where I actually will use the Primer for an adult before getting into the Adult volume.. and like I said, it seems most of my students want to move away from the method book, because the repertoire is uninteresting, and having the mandatory boogie woogies sandwiched between contrived makeovers of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Mozart’s A Major, K. 331 transposed to some other God forsaken key. As an example, I transitioned an adult student over to some Album for the Young (Schumann) First Sorrow,
      Wild Horseman, an Anna Magdalena Minuet.. Clementi Op. 36 no. 1, Burgmuller Arabesque.. as you know Op.100 progresses a bit quickly, so you take the ones that are leveled down. Kabalevsky has some fairly rudimentary pieces.. .like Joke, Funny Event.. You can steer clear of the more complex ones like Galop and Clowns when you make the transition. You can find some snatches in Developing Artist… like the JC Bach Prelude in A minor that has those logical sequences on the second page, and lots of common tones on the first.
      There are so many choices of great music at elementary levels.. like the Reinagle Minuet… I frankly take from here and there and work intuitively. Right now I have a second year, 10 year old playing Gillocks Stars on a Summer Night.. lovely miniature, and I am a big fan of Gillock’s music that has something for everyone. Basically, each student needs a tailor made musical menu adjudged by how he or she is progressing along. I think this is why teaching can be joyful and exciting. I really don’t like being a method book teacher and look for any excuse to put them behind the student. For technique I am into pentachords in all keys .. major and parallel minor, leading to one octave scales, then two… Going around the Circle of Fifths is my frame at all times.


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