I've come to the conclusion that no full-proof piano method, or method book can be applied across the board to beginning students or those at any level of study. Each pupil is so unique that an individualized growth and development plan is needed.
By example, I faced a dilemma when a new adult student who had a few months of private childhood lessons and recent classes at a music school came for her initial interview.
After she’d read through a few pieces that were contained in a loose-leaf binder, I had to decide whether I’d be an automatic pilot teacher, recommending the Faber Older Beginner Lesson and Performance Books, or head in more creative directions.
The easy way out was to plod through the method book, which had some enticing selections, but came with lots of FILLER pieces that were so trite I could barely wait for the last note to trail off.
And while the student might grin and bear it for a time, the mundane repertoire could send her scurrying out the door sooner than later as a newbie dropout.
Faber Primer Performance at least wooed players with black-note pieces wrapped in harmonically rich teacher secondo parts. “Wind in the Trees” and “Shepherd’s Flute” kept pupils on track until a white-note version of “Hot Cross Buns” derailed them. It was mostly downhill from there.
Where would I go at that point? Did I need a methodical flow of pages to teach piano? And who decided what should come next for each student who was herded into the same procession of progress?
This was not how we learned as toddlers or pre-schoolers and well beyond.
Upon reflection, it was a no-brainer that hunting up engaging repertoire at the early elementary level could be a springboard to teach the basics of piano playing–like the SINGING TONE.
I could start with a two black-note piece to teach tone sensitivity, a supple wrist, and a range of dynamics. Throw in framing rhythm and we were on our way.
Abracadabra, I dug into a pile of music and unearthed The Music Tree, Time to Begin by trail-blazer, Frances Clark, and played a few duets with my daughter, Aviva.
Together, we relished three harmonically appealing selections: “Take Off,” Landing,” and “In a Canoe” (5/4 time)
Using two black notes, we explored up and down note motion, nuance, and the singing pulse. As teacher and role model, I could shape the phrases, sing them, and demonstrate the supple wrist and relaxed arms. The printed page had its own reinforcing landmarks.
Time to Begin spent 24 pages on BLACK notes and very gradually approached the whites on an abridged staff.
The shortened staff was likewise used in Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey, Book I at a point when a child was ready. His receptivity should not be programmed in to meet a fixed learning deadline.
It made sense that a beginning student at a tender age, or even older, should not be overwhelmed with five lines and four spaces when he needed exposure to capsulized line to space movement of notes. This cognitive understanding followed ample physical space exploration of the keyboard with its repository of mood and emotion. (kinesthetic and affective knowing)
Part of the problem was that students and parents expected learning to be acquired in specific doses on a predetermined schedule in a one- shoe-fits-all package–the equivalent of a method book panacea.
Perhaps as alternative, a diverse sample of pieces, materials, and creative explorations such as composing would enliven and enrich the piano teaching environment at all levels of study.
As example, I worked with Fritz, age 8, who was playing Gillock , a sprinkling of Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals, (“Introduction and Lion”) and selections that I choose from Faber’s Developing Artist, Elementary (We added the parallel minor for each) Skipping over the weaker pieces, we dashed back to Gillock’s “Clowns,” and “Argentina” and The Toronto Conservatory series Level I that included Telemann’s “Dance” and a Hook “Minuet.” I would not use all pieces from any one book.
In this spirit, I chose compositions based on their musical value, synthesized with what they might teach in the realm of phrasing, articulation, etc.
Such repertoire-based learning, even for beginners like Fritz, would be supported by Major/minor five-finger positions around the Circle of Fifths.
More advanced students played keyboard-wide scales, arpeggios, and various permutations of them in the company of rich and diverse repertoire. Technique was not off on an island, it wove into the pieces studied.
Irina Morozova, concert pianist, and faculty member at the Mannes College of Music and Special School of the Kaufman Center in New York City described her individualized approach to teaching Daniel Mori, a very gifted 8-year old.
“Daniel is just one of several excellent and promising students I teach. Although he is small and immature (even for his age), he nonetheless demonstrates a rare musical talent, a remarkable devotion to his piano studies, and incredible patience.
“I approached teaching Daniel about the same way I would approach teaching any other student.
“In the early stages I usually pursue three areas simultaneously: developing musical expression and imagination, reading notes, and laying the technical foundation (we call it “building the house from bricks,” where the bricks are various technical formulas).
“We played very simple pieces, many of them duets (kids enjoy them as they sound like “real” music with a few notes in the student’s part). Daniel sailed through many of these easier pieces and I never wanted to skip important stages. Studying works of diverse musical styles, learning musical “vocabulary” of different composers and times has been an important goal from the very beginning. While not giving him “mechanical” technical exercises, I have introduced different types of technique, carefully choosing pieces and etudes.”
I’ve come to the same conclusion embodied in Morozova’s mentoring style.
It’s that each student has his own tempo of learning and a unique set of needs and talents. To try to box a pupil into a method book mode of study will most likely stifle the natural flow of his musical development and deprive him of the rich pianistic journey he deserves.
Interview with Irina Morozova