To use or not to use - The use of method books in teaching

Discuss the pros and cons of various "methods" with other teachers

Postby Stretto » Sat May 21, 2005 9:57 am

I have been teaching for about 8 years and have had many of the same frustrations with the "hand-position" method books I've been teaching from as mentioned in the "Piano Teaching Methods" review on this sight. I have purchased and gone through a couple other primer and level 1 books that steer away from hand-position playing but I'm not sure I would be happy teaching out of those books either.

I feel like my students' time is limited and they are using valuable practice time learning mediocre sounding pieces and arrangements. When I have assigned fun, familiar, pieces (even one's they can learn on their own without much difficulty) my students still practice the lesson book material more because they are so intent on moving to the next level.

I have been seriously thinking of doing away with using lesson books altogether except perhaps primer and level 1 books to get a student started. Instead of using lesson books, I am thinking of assigning a variety of quality repertoire appropriate to a student's level with some kind of requirement for moving to the next level. I can always teach the theory, ect. behind the music without the use of lesson books.

I would like some imput from other teachers. What do you thing are the advantages of using lesson books? Do any of you teach without the use of lesson books (especially to school-aged students)? Perhaps some students have some insight on the use of lesson books as well.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu May 26, 2005 1:31 pm

The methods that really tick me off--and there are tons of them--are the ones written for and aimed at the people who are not musicians and have little training, but decide they'll open a piano studio so they can make a few bucks while sitting down; they figure they can always stay ahead of elementary school kids.

These methods are full of all kinds of gimmicks, games, pictures and awful music that collectively steer the instructor through every step of the teaching process (no, for 'teaching' read 'entertaining').

The good methods leave a lot of leeway (how do you spell that?) for the teacher's imagination and the individuality of the student. For myself, I got to where you did: deciding it might work better to teach appropriate repertoire instead of following some method. I realize this is not for everyone, but we all need to examine methods very carefully for real, creative teaching savvy and musicianship. I applaud your efforts.

Dr. Bill L.
Technique is 90 per cent from the neck up.
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Postby Stretto » Sat May 28, 2005 7:30 am

Dr. Bill Leland:

The reason I chose to use the particular piano method I did was perhaps based on assumption. I did look at almost every method sold in the music stores at the onset and a few times since. I trusted the music stores that sold them, the teachers that used them, and the experts that designed them that they must be an improved and updated approach.

While there probably will never be a perfect method, I will have to say that in the method book I've used, I was impressed by the emphasis on learning intervals from the beginning (something that would have benefited me to learn earlier on). I also appreciate the emphasis the method places on chords, inversions, and so on. The emphasis on hand-position seems to dissipate over level 2 and my level 3 and 4 students don't have any problems being stuck in hand position.

I got into using a method book because people who knew of my future plan to teach piano started asking me to teach their kids so I had not yet had a chance to formulate my own system. I could tell even from my first 2 students what the main pitfalls of the book were. Although something in the back of my mind told me from the beginning that I should stick with an older 'tried and true' method, I still put my trust in the experts who design the books.

So over the years I have set out compensating for what I call the pitfalls of the method book I use. I have came up with so many angles to teach note names and made up several of ny own note i.d. handouts, and flash card quizzes. I assign repertoire that goes outside of 5-finger position as soon as possible. I downplay the mention of hand-position in the book. I tell the students that hand-postions don't exist in music but were made up to make it easier for beginners. It still feels like digging oneself into a trench and having to dig your way back out.

The main frustration I have now is that students are so motivated by moving up to the next level that they are almost more content to strictly practice lesson book material in order to get to the next level sooner. They come to their lesson only having practiced the lesson book pieces over some of the more exciting, better quality repertoire I've assigned. Since my initial post on this subject, I have come up with a new written policy on requirements for moving up to the next level. Students will have to learn a certain number of classical pieces and a certain number of folk, pop, jazz, etc. before moving up a level. I just wonder why I didn't do this sooner. I guess it took me this long to realize the students' biggest motivation. I already had one 8 year old student say of my new requirement, "I'm not going to do that!" I didn't say anything but was thinking, "We'll see." I think students will start realizing what they've been missing out on by confining themselves to the lesson book. I'll try to let you know how the changes I'm making go down the road. Thank you for your imput.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat May 28, 2005 10:03 am

Great, that's the main thing: use whatever you do use with variety and imagination, and it sure sounds like you're doing that.

I didn't mean to disparage the good methods, only the bad ones. The only problem with any set approach, of course, is that it's the same book every time while the students are all different people. A creative teacher like yourself will work around that, as you do.

Do you feel that today's students tend to be more goal-and-reward oriented, at the expense of interest in content? I've had my share of university students who are fixated on a 4.0 grade average, where that seems to be the most important thing even if they don't really learn anything. Some have told me that it's because grades are so important to job application resumes; they might even be read only by a computer.

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Postby Stretto » Sat May 28, 2005 11:59 pm

Dr. Bill Leland:
I think even beginners notice mediocre-sounding music and all students deep down would rather be playing more interesting material than the lesson books offer. However, I think the beginners, at least, are more focused on moving to the next level. (No one wants to be at the bottom). When they achieve a higher level, they start paying more attention to quality. It would be nice if lesson books had more well-written arrangements including more classical, pop, folk, etc. without buying so many separate books. I guess they don't because perhaps students would figure out the pieces by ear rather than read the music. But don't you think a better sounding piece of music or a familiar tune makes students want to practice more?

While levels, achievements, rewards, etc. are the way society in part works, and necessarily so, I guess it's up to those wanting to learn and those teaching to ensure quality isn't compromised. Letting students advance by simply completing the level in a method book was a compromise of quality on my part. Why not be able to have both achievement and quality learning?

(In the context of a university, it is different in that advancing in piano/music can be a life-long pursuit while university students are under the pressure of a time frame and pressures from several angles at once. The desire to learn and enjoy learning can be sabotaged by the pressure. I think they sometimes deserve a break. Unfortunately, scholarships and employers put too much emphasis on GPA which leaves the student with a 2.0 who may be more knowledgeable and better qualified by the wayside. I was one of those 4.0 driven students and amazingly learned something along the way but I envy some I know with a 2.0 who I view as smarter because they can rattle off all kinds of facts, and remember how to do all the math calculations, etc. they learned in school 20 years later. That's what I want for my students - to learn enough to at least appreciate and comprehend music at a deeper level even 20 years from now.)

There are times in life when achieving is the focus. Then when the achievement is reached, what you know becomes the focus. If we as teachers are finding "creative" ways as you said to ensure a student's quality of learning even in the midst of their focus on achievement, they will thank us for it in the long run.


Perhaps some other teachers could help us on this subject:
How do you demand quality learning from your students without allowing them to advance simply by completing a level in a method book?
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Postby Stretto » Sun Jun 05, 2005 9:32 am

To all teachers and students:

In order to jumpstart this discussion, I would like to pose a more direct set of questions related to 'quality' in teaching and learning music. First let me explain that by 'quality' I mean repertoire that deserves to be played and heard. While most methods offer supplemental books (classical, folk, pop, jazz, sacred, etc.) with worthwhile repertoire, the majority of lesson books have repertoire that no one has ever heard of, or even would want to hear. Teaching or learning such repertoire, in my opinion, eats into time that would be better spent on more deserving repertoire.

With that in mind would anyone like to provide their imput on the following questions? ???

Do you teach or learn from a method or other set 'system' designed by outside experts? What do you think are the advantages of following a method or system? Do you feel confined in the system you teach or learn from? Do you find yourself teaching or learning 'mediocre' repertoire just because it happens to be part of a method or system, while leaving less time for more deserving repertoire?
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