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Shirley S Kirsten

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Piano Instruction: Going outside the method book track
by Shirley S Kirsten   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, September 22, 2011
Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2011

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Reasons to think more creatively about teaching piano...


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 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 shelters 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, or at least considering a mix of creative ingredients that can alter the straight and narrow path is worth a try.

Tales of a Musical Journey:


Web Site: piano instruction: Going outside the method book track

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