What is a “method”?

In English, we often use the same word to mean two, or more, different things. Bow, for instance, can mean a ribbon in someone’s hair, the shape shoelaces are tied into, the front bit of a ship, what you do at the end of presenting a recital, or what your head does when you pray.

The word “method” seems to regularly cause some consternation in piano teaching circles. I’m not quite sure what the parents of piano students make of this word, but it’s a fairly central concept for any teacher who has worked with beginners. Pretty much ever since piano existed, so have “methods” – methods to teach the piano, and printed resources to help teachers do their teaching more effectively. But teachers are wont to nod in agreement when one of their number notes that “the teacher is the method”.

There are three major permutations of this word “method” in relation to piano pedagogy.

One, the least admired, is the use of the word to refer to a (presumably) unified collection of teaching materials designed to be used in conjunction with each other, as befitting the needs of individual students. This least admired status of the term “method” does not, however, render it meaningless. But this use (to refer to a progression of pieces and exercises as contained in progressive volumes of piano-training books) does arouse sneering, and there’s no getting around it. The sneering, in no small part, happens because there’s that second meaning that “method” can convey:

“Method” is also a term applied to a system of pedagogical thought. “Suzuki Method” is a good example of this term in action: the Suzuki Method is a whole philosophical approach to how-to-learn-to-be-an-instrumentalist, involving concepts about how to relate to others in your community, about how students acquire language, about the role of listening in the life of a musician, and so on. You can’t just buy “Suzuki” books and there you go, you’re learning the “Suzuki Method”! 

The funny thing is that sometimes method books (in the first sense of the meaning of the word “method”) don’t actually reflect a method at all (in the second sense of the meaning of the word “method”). And this actually-amazing-when-you-think-about-it fact is why piano teachers sometimes find themselves or their colleagues experiencing a touch of disdain toward the use of the word “method” when it is used to refer to a catalogue of colour-coded print music items.

Often, fortunately, method books do reflect a well-thought through pedagogical approach, and, when this is the case, this vision of what piano lessons might deliver manifests in the details of the product: by their deeds ye shall know them. Piano methods (first sense of the term) can be more revealing of their author’s musical and ethical philosophies of education by what they omit and ignore than by what they include.

I remember the first time I heard Randall Faber speak about Piano Adventures – he spoke about how important it was to have live performances on the backing tracks, rather than synthesised accompaniment. This was/is an ethical decision – a decision that is based on an ethos of music education and piano pedagogy and of what will develop the musical imaginations and inner ear of students. So many examples of a genuine ethos-of-education guiding the shaping of the product as it is taken to the market-place.

Meaning number three lives in the phrase “the teacher is the method”. This is more of a kind of culinary concept of “method” – you know, the half of the recipe that tells you what actions you need to take to turn the already listed and measured ingredients into the plated dish. The teacher is the method in the same way that the cook is the method of a recipe – same instructions can result in extraordinarily different dishes when it’s time for a taste test (and on the truth of this premise has many a reality TV show been made).

There really is no doubt that this is powerfully true when it comes to piano lessons – the same material in different hands can be rendered into experiences so diverse you wouldn’t necessarily know the same resources had been used in the making of the lesson.

This aspect of “method” is why “methods” often want to engage in certification, quality control, ongoing training. Without the teacher being the method in a way that reflects and enhances the ethos of the method as a philosophy, without the teacher having the capacity to BE the method, there’s not a whole lot of point the teacher using the “books” part of the method, is there? 

This urge to have the method brand consistently reflect a particular kind of pedagogical purpose sees organisations as diverse as Suzuki, Taubman and Simply Music require bespoke training of teachers who wish to work as purveyors of THEIR brand values.

The teacher is the method, the method is a philosophy, and the method is a colloquial term used to refer to all the resources (usually print, plus whichever “supplemental” resources the “method” may have developed) teachers can access that emanate from a single pedagogical perspective.

Can all three uses of the word be appropriate? 

I’m thinking that the answer, surely, must be “of course!”.

3 thoughts on “What is a “method”?

  1. As a piano teacher for 35+ years, I’ve had various ‘favourite’ tutor books but I’d never restrict myself or my pupils to those. I insist on each beginner having one, but if lessons convince me they’d be better on another series, there are two things I can do: (1) from my lending library, supply a more fitting book as a companion source, and (2) switch to a more appropriate series when the student reaches the end of the first book. And regardless of whichever tutor book is used, I’m quite likely to grab an isolated piece from yet another book if I want to introduce something before the current editors see fit (eg. triplets, 3 flats, ‘voices’, whatever…). This is actually good psychology when you turn the page in the student’s book and can say “Oh, this is introducing triplets but you ALREADY KNOW, don’t you?”
    I insist on all students using tutor books because I believe the editors have thought well as to what concepts, keys, note-groupings, forms etc. need to be presented before a student finishes the series and becomes “repertoire-only”. And I sigh when I inherit a student whose playing material has hitherto been photocopies supplied by the teacher — that can’t be as thorough a system as most of the “methods”. I know then, that I’ll be looking for the gaps and wondering how to present what was missed in a way so as not to make the student feel taken down a peg or two.

  2. Dear Elissa,

    How do I know when I am ready to teach someone to play piano? I am a self-taught piano learner. Honestly, I think I am still an amatuer after those three and a half years. Shall I start again?

    I am looking forward to hear from you.

    Yours faithfully,

    • If you’ve never had a lesson yourself then it’s very hard to know how to judge if you are ready to be a teacher!

      I would suggest finding a piano teacher who mentors piano teachers – and book in for a consultation lesson, or a series of such lessons, where you can work with a highly experienced teacher to assess your strengths and weaknesses.

      As a rule, I wouldn’t think anyone would be ready to teach until they’d been playing for at least six years, and while part of it is about your own performance expertise, it’s also about having assimilated and integrated a deep understanding of music theory, music literacy, performance skills, and an understanding of child development, too!

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