piano blogging

An adult beginning piano student helps to shape his musical journey

When a newbie knocks on my door, not knowing how to read music, but is starving for a connection to the great “Classical” piano masterworks, I have to figure out a way to engage his interest in the earliest phase of learning without losing him along the way.

One approach is to go the “method” book route which can be stultifying for teacher and pupil alike. Another is to hybridize the journey, and not commit the fledgling to ONE-track learning that often ends up in a despairing ditch!

Using “Peter” as a “classic” example, I started him in the basic FABER Primer Piano Adventures, just because I liked the introductory black key duets which were within his easy reach. These afforded a landscape to explore “singing tone” production (supple wrist/relaxed arms) and dynamic variance, while imbuing a fundamental “singing pulse.”

Following notes floating in space, (not yet on the staff) taught step and skip relationships, with finger numbers assisting, but not yet associated with MIDDLE C, the death knell of most method-driven materials.

The duet form, wholly expressed on black notes and framed in lovely harmony through the teacher “Secondo,” (part) kept Peter engaged, until we proceeded onward.

Naturally, the Faber path eventually led to fixed five-finger positions springing from MIDDLE C, so while we sampled a few of these beginner pieces, TRANSPOSITION became a mandatory ADD-ON–making the parallel minor a defining option.

As an aside I hand-picked “Midnight Ride,” in duet form from Faber’s Older Beginner Accelerated Piano Adventures not adhering, again to any fixed method-oriented material. This particular piece was quite engaging so I extracted it, as well as a Minuet or two from the same source.

(I sent the student secondo parts that I recorded to you tube, first in slow tempo followed by a faster rendering) In this one, I recorded 3 tempos using a metronome.

Back to Five-Finger positions and transposing

Parallel minors introduce a mood change, so lowering the third of a five-finger position stimulates the student’s vivid imagination. (while introducing a flat into the musical universe)

Though letter-naming is synchronized with a stream of five-finger based pieces, teaching solfeggio side-by-side with a knowledge of the musical alphabet is pertinent.

It proved especially useful when Peter was asked to “transpose” his pieces to more adventurous locations. (i.e. D E F# G A or A B C# D E, or F A Bb C D) By then he was not deprived of learning to alter notes in sharp or flat directions, while he easily memorized do, re, mi, fa, sol….before adding la, ti, do. (He would move the DO to different locations as he played his short five-finger pieces in various “keys.”)

The problem with most method books is that they fixate on white notes for too long, keeping a student in a narrow geographic universe, thereby increasing anxiety about stepping out into an integrated world of blacks and whites. (See my post: https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/bias-against-black-notes-stopped-me-in-my-tracks-video/ )

A Better Route

For Peter, having to learn an adjustable “center of gravity” with each new tonality propelled him toward his next “integrated” adventure:

Dozen a Day gymnastics. (Edna Mae Burnham)

“Walking and Running” in Book 1, afforded more opportunities to transpose through the Circle of Fifths, though pentascales (five-note positions) would not reveal all accidentals (sharps in particular) in a full-fledged 8-note scale.

Dozen a Day Walking running and hopping

Of greater significance was his practicing a singing tone LEGATO and then snipping it into staccato (short detached notes) within proportioned rhythm changes from quarters to 8ths to 16ths.

Given his unique physical talents, he easily slipped into 32nds.

Peter has the gift of fine motor skills and coordination so I refused to impede him from advancing his own journey according to his abilities. A fixed “method” book, or one-size-fits-all instruction would not have worked for him.

In the repertory realm, I found five-finger pieces in Faber’s Developing Artist Series, Elementary, that offered short one-page Classical selections that could be played in parallel keys (Major and minor) keeping Peter in touch with sharps and flats.

“Melody” by Beyer, is especially beautiful, attaching a lovely teacher “arpeggiated” Secondo in broken chords. The student simultaneously plays a broken chord pattern in the bass that lends itself to “blocking” in the early practicing phase. The duet scoring is particularly full, harmonically rich and satisfying.

melody by Beyer p. 1

(Here, Peter and I collaborate in the MAJOR key of G, though we easily transposed the piece to G minor by lowering the third, B, to Bb)

I strongly believe that five-finger positions have pedagogical relevance in early study because of their springboard value in teaching the legato singing tone, and providing transposition opportunities.

In the solo universe, Peter worked on a Minuet in G by Reinagle that contained an F# in the bass. He easily transposed it to G minor.

Minuet by Reinagle

At the 6th-month juncture of his studies, Peter routinely warms up with Dozen a Day in various transpositions, adding the HOPPING exercise in parallel thirds (staccato) advancing from quarters through 8ths to 16ths. (in Forte–BIG, and piano, soft) Scales have been added as I note farther down in this posting.

For Sight-reading and transposing I use Snell and Ashleigh
Fundamentals of Piano Theory

This was a first integrated sight-reading and transposition experience for Peter adding this material. Besides Parallel Major and minor transpositions, the concept of the Relative minor was woven in.


For more note reading practice, (and teaching use of ROTATION) I selected the following two studies by Leo Barenboim (No. 8) and (No. 6) by Y. Chernavskaya

Study 8, integrates descending five finger positions in various keys, so these “shifts” advance coordination skills by nursing “rolling” motions through groups of notes. In the Theory realm Peter applies his knowledge of Major and minor pentascales to organize his learning process.

Study No. 8 by Birnbaum

Study 6, provides another opportunity for rotational practice through every group of three notes, while offering a parallel minor playing.

Study no. 6 by Chernyavskaya

Peter reached beyond five-finger positions at the 3rd-4th month juncture of study at first playing one octave scales in C, G, and D, but quickly he progressed to 2 octaves and more.

Here he is practicing a one-octave scale in parallel and contrary and motion (4th months)

With his advancement to playing two or more octaves, he routinely organizes his scales by practicing separate hands slowly, then marking out common fingering points, and bridge over the octave crossings. Such spot practicing has nudged him along to fluency in moderate tempo in legato and staccato. (Exposure to connecting and detaching notes in five-finger positions greatly assisted his progress to full scale playing)

I use the FJH Classic Scale book that also includes arpeggios, and chord inversions.

Peter regularly practices 4-octave scales and arpeggios in progressive rhythms as part of his warm-ups. We devote about 20 minutes of his lesson to these romps.

Where we go from here will be determined by the student and teacher in a working alliance.

I have an intuitive hunch to next give him this beautiful Elizabethan style piece: (pp. 1 and 2)

Go No More A'Rushing

Go no More A' Rushing p. 2

And “Sadness” by Turk

Turk Sadness

While this particular journey has unfolded well for Peter, it might not be the right one for another newbie.

Shaping a music-learning pathway has a lot to do with a student’s needs, abilities and desires, so it’s best to be flexible and open to new ideas often suggested by the student.

6 thoughts on “An adult beginning piano student helps to shape his musical journey”

  1. Wow an epic post! Your students are certainly fortunate to have you as a teacher. There is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than the knowledge that they have found a pathway that assists a student to facilitate their goals.


  2. Shirley, I enjoyed this chronicle of the experiences of your adult student. Does the student buy all those books or do you lend him some of them?


  3. Yes, l let him borrow the Faber Primer and then the Adult Accelerated.. I had no intention of having him plow through the whole (of either book) I find the Primer, usually used for children, moves a bit slower (and hence gives more breathing room to teach the singing tone) And then I wanted him to get into decent repertoire so yes, he is not buying any complete books. The Minuet by Reinagle came from Faber’s Developing Artist series.. same for Melody by Beyer. The other pieces (Elizabethan) and Sadness come from another collection. At this point his learning will be repertoire based but supported strongly with scales and arpeggios. Transposing and Ear training are integrated into lessons as well.


    1. Thanks for the clarification, Shirley. I lend books also, but am frustrated when students then copy them despite my explanation of copyright law, and the fact that I’m pretty strict about that in my studio. Nonetheless, I can’t ask them to buy all of the books for one or two pieces each that I want them to use.


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