What do you look for in a method (book one)?

The P Plate Piano launches began on Sunday with an event at Coffs Harbour (for those unfamiliar with Australian geography, a seaside town roughly halfway up the coast between Sydney and Brisbane) with a small number of piano teachers in attendance.  Notice had been short and, in any case, there are not a large number of piano teachers in smaller centres like Coffs Harbour (population, an estimated 66,000).

Having a small group meant that we could run the launch event a little more like a conversation, or a discussion group, and I took the chance to ask the teachers attending about the choice of method book they make for their current students. P Plate Piano Book 1 starts at about the place most method’s book one finishes off, so the discussion was highly relevant to the music we were about to look at.

Astonishingly, no two teachers used the same method. Maybe less surprising was the consensus that none of the methods already tried by the teachers had been quite right, and whichever method they were using was in some number of ways a compromise.

But when I asked the teachers in Coffs Harbour to explain what it was that they wanted in the methods that they weren’t already getting I was met with a kind of frustrated silence that I’m sure would also be forthcoming from most other groups of piano teachers anywhere in Australia or, for that matter, the world. It’s one thing to be dissatisfied, but quite another to be able to articulate what one wants.

Of course, we didn’t end up dwelling on the question, and I’m sure that with a little more time we might have ended up with a bit of a wish list.  But it made me think it was worth asking teachers who read this blog – what do you look for in the first book of a method?

First and foremost I look for experiences that do not centre on middle C.  I also look for opportunities for students to learn in ways other than simply by reading from the page.  And I need the pieces, no matter how teensy-tiny they might be, to sound sophisticated and contemporary (in the sense of not sounding arcane) in their harmonic language and rhythmic realisation.

Next up, I look for a method that uses pattern recognition rather than label recognition in teaching reading.  And ideally, I would be looking for a method that is well-pitched for the age group and maturity level of each beginner starting with me.

What about you?  What attributes do you look for when choosing a method book to work through with your students?  And what aspects would be most off-putting, and prevent you from using a particular method book?  Do you look for plenty of additional repertoire?  Is the range of written activities important for you? From the mundane to the momentous, what would you most like to see in a method book, that maybe you are not finding already?

6 thoughts on “What do you look for in a method (book one)?

  1. I am a voice teacher, but my two daughters (now ages 5 & 8) are young piano students. When my youngest began piano lessons last year in July 2008 (at age 3 3/4), their teacher switched over to the Bastien “My First Piano Adventure” series. My oldest (who had been studying for a year) went into book B and the youngest into book A. There are 6 books in the series, each level of repertoire is accompanied by a writing book. Books A & B both have accompaniment CD’s that go along with them – these help because there is silly singing to go with the notes (& fun is ALWAYS better!) and also it REALLY helps with tempo control and flow. Although the books are C-based, there is a nice mix of fingering, tempi and general fun. It really got both girls EXCITED about practicing – which, I think, is a very large goal of early piano education. Currently, my oldest daughter is doing several different books of repertoire and the youngest is almost through book C in the My First Piano Adventure series (not to be confused with Piano Adventures, also by the Bastiens). Perhaps these books are at a PRE-method level, but they work extraordinarily well for young beginners, even if they don’t yet read text. As a parent and a music teacher (if not a piano teacher) who plays piano, I am very happy with how these books worked in my girls’ musical lives.

  2. I love this blog post!

    I really dislike method books that don’t start with proper (staved) notation – they drive me nuts. Most of my beginning students are already reading at school, so why can’t they start straight away with reading music too?!

    I also really want beginning songs that are beyond nursery rhymes in c major! I am tired of 3 blind mice and Lavender Blue. I want my students to learn traditional classical music, YES, but also some more modern hipper stuff (which is why I really like the Getting to… series – it’s such an ecclectic mix of so many styles). In other words, I want my students to be playing, right from the start, black keys as well as the typical C Major stuff. I don’t want them to be asking me ‘which position is this piece in?’ like I hear so many young players ask their teachers.

    Finally, I want pieces that encourage my students to be very active in music making – including the opportunity for improvisation or ‘additive’ composition. I have had to write so many little pieces for my young beginning students that allow them to take some control of the music and create their ‘own’ pieces from (simply because it’s so hard to find anything in the beginner repertoire that does this). I don’t care if my students have only been learning piano for 3 lessons, or if they are 5 years old and can barely touch the floor while sitting on the piano stool. I don’t know anyone who wanted to learn piano after hearing 3 Blind Mice – unless, perhaps, it were improvised and boosted with rhythmic kicks and richer harmony. THIS is why I encourage my young students, who have such active imaginations and creativity and enthusiasm to experiment on their instrument, to have a go at being composers and arrangers right from the start. Even a complete beginner understands basic concepts (like loud/soft/fast/slow/black keys/white keys) that can be implemented creatively to a piece of music.

    There is my rant!

    PS – Are you aware of the European Piano Method books (Fritz Emonts)? His books feature a section with yellow pages that look at improvisation or being creative with common well-known songs or playing with the LH harmonic progression of a song… i like them. Also, the music in these books is fun and exciting for young students – plenty of interesting duets too.

  3. Hi Elissa
    Waht I like about methods that begin with thumbs on middle C is that I find kids seem to be able to manipulate their thumbs fairly easily, but not their 5th fingers.

    I like the Progressive Piano book [with all the colour pictures and the elephant that looks like a pig] for a really easy beginning for younger children, but it is not helpful when the left hand part starts on the c below middle c with the fifth finger.

    We have used Howard Kasschau Teach Me To Play for over years and are pleased it is still available.

    I like using Kasschau’s Piano Course Book 1 with slightly older children, though it moves too fast for some.

    I also fidn the combined Alfred’s book 2 and 3 for the older beginner to be a good 2nd or 3rd, or in some cases first book.

    But I’m eagerly awaiting slotting in the P plate piano books next year and am already using them for some fun sight-reading.

  4. A method book?

    first, I differentiate the means, the modes(methods) and the meaning. Most “method” books I come across are not actually about methodology. As an adult I want to know how, when, where, why, who and what, in that order.

    First is how to play, the more tricks, traps and techniques I can learn *about*, the happier I am (the “what not to do” type of stuff is particularly insightful). So, “play” and how to do it, is my starting point. I’d rather “play” with a simple riff, learning how to do it in different ways – and method surely is about “the way” or tao of music.

    When to play, where to play, why to play, who to play and finally what to play. Above all else, *play* is not work.

    Most books that go under the title of “method” are actually about the materials, tools and equipment – the means rather than the way. I’m a stickler for skills, but my experience of undergoing instruction in piano about 40 years ago, never actually got beyond the tools. the body, mind and soul were all subservient to the big black machine with white teeth and the old crone who was hitting me with a ruler every time I dropped my wrists. At 6 years old I had to submit to that machine and the it’s keeper. I didn’t.

    • There’s not too much instruction-by-ruler goes on any more, but to this day when I ask seminars of piano teachers how many were ‘corrected’ through this kind of corporal punishment about 50% were taught that way….
      Hmmm, Neil, I do think that P Plate Piano might be just what you would be looking for if you ever did want to start your piano tuition over again!! (love the list about aspects of playing, and the reinforcement of the idea ‘play’ in playing an instrument).

  5. I know this is an old post but I just have to comment…
    Firstly, Elissa, I adore your blog, I’ve been learning SO MUCH over the last few years from american teachers on the Piano Adventures forum. They have changed the way I teach.
    I believe I teach quite differently to the other teachers in my city and its easy to get a bit concerned that my kids aren’t quite at grade 1 level at the age of 11 and that I’m teaching too many songs per week at a too easy level. Although I know deep down that they way I’m teaching is right, it’s nice to have someone in my own country agree!

    Onto methods:
    I started out teaching 9 years ago with the Hal Leonard method. I found that my students were dropping out at level 3. The level was just getting too hard too fast. I researched other methods and settled on Piano Adventures and it has been brilliant for my studio. I am keen for a revised version of the primer level, and I’m not keen on level 4 and 5, but the other levels are developing great reading skills, and wonderful technique and artistry.

    My First Piano Adventure is just absolutely amazing.

    Knowing what I know now, I would approach teaching Hal Leonard method very differently, and I would probably have more success with it.

    I like a method that gets the hands moving around out of ‘position’ of course. I want something with music that the kids love and that progresses in difficulty at a steady pace. I love Piano Adventures because of the focus on technique, and the explicit teaching of basic technique that I didn’t have knowledge of prior to using the method.

    I guess I’ve found that any method can be used very differently by different teachers, and although the method works great for the people who created it and the experienced teachers who know how to teach around it and use it to it’s capacity, it can really fall apart in the hands of someone less experienced.

    There’s a lot that isn’t written on the page that might be taken for granted by the makers of the method.

    I don’t know what my point is 😛 Just thoughts.

    What would i love to see in a method? More creativity definitely, and a teacher’s guide. I know some already have teacher’s guides. The great teachers take the method materials and manage to get creative activities, explorations and teaching for understanding out of them..ear training etc. But it would be nice to have more of that explicitly on the page.

    Your P Plate piano books are awesome 😉

    – kylie.

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