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.