In praise of methods - Advantages of using method books

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

Postby Stretto » Mon Feb 05, 2007 1:27 pm

As teachers or students, most of us probably have our share of complaints and criticisms of various traditional piano methods. Some of the main criticisms I have come across are criticisms of methods that teach based on positions, poor choice of repertoire, poor sounding arrangements to name just a few. It seems weaknesses can be found in most every method book on the market. Just read back through some of the previous threads in this forum and you will discover that I have done my share of putting down methods even to the point of discontinuing using method books altogether in teaching for about two years. But what about the advantages of using method books in teaching? Are there any? After a two year "trial" period of not using methods, I have decided there are several advantages to using method books in lessons and have decided to go back to using them with students.

So, as teachers and students what have you found to be the advantages in using method books? I would like to hear some of the praises or good things that teachers and students would have to say about the use of methods in teaching and learning the piano. What are some of the advantages of using method books in teaching piano? In what ways have using method books in teaching benefited your students? If you're a student, what benefits do you feel you have gained from learning out of a method book? I'm not necessarily looking for a list of benefits of any method in particular but for a list of advantages in using method books in general.




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Sat Feb 10, 2007 9:39 am

Stretto wrote:It seems weaknesses can be found in most every method book on the market. ....

After a two year "trial" period of not using methods, I have decided there are several advantages to using method books in lessons and have decided to go back to using them with students.

The position that you seem to have arrived at vis a vis methods is pretty much the one that we have taken throughout the site, i.e. they have advantages, especially for new teachers, but they're not perfect. That said, some are better than others, based on our reviews of method materials.

(By the way, I moved most of the Piano Methods page content to the PEP CD when I redid the site last time, but will be restoring it in full in the next upgrade of PEP.This will make the method reviews linked on that page easier to find than they are now.)

In general, those methods which emphasize sight reading via intervalic relationships and which minimize "position-playing" are probably more effective for most students and teachers. There is a long discussion of "The Perfect Method" in this forum which is relevant, though not necessarily identical to the ideas expressed in your post.

Since you have gone back to using method books after a hiatus, what drove you in that direction? Obviously, there must have been advantages in using method books for you to do so.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Wed Feb 14, 2007 9:50 am

For me, the advantage of method books, is to keep you on track so you don't miss any basic information as certain technic, theory, key signatures and so on. The problem is that there is not one "perfect" method.

I teach with much material that my students choose and that I have used over the years. I have folders and books labeled good for learning pedal, left hand melodies, jazz pieces, minor pieces, variations, and so on with of course exercise and scale books and pieces noted for specific challenges. Every week I spend time coordinating music for each student. It is time consuming, but I can't teach any other way. Starting with a method book, any method, and playing through every song until the book is completed does not give a student a good musical start, in my opinion. Familiar pieces, favorite pieces, creative variations and composing, duets and more give the student a great learning and fun experience. Music should be enjoyed and the student will be more likely to continue in this atmosphere.

:D
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Postby Glissando88keys » Fri Feb 16, 2007 3:51 pm

loveapiano wrote:For me, the advantage of method books, is to keep you on track so you don't miss any basic information as certain technic, theory, key signatures and so on. The problem is that there is not one "perfect" method.

Every week I spend time coordinating music for each student. It is time consuming, but I can't teach any other way.

Starting with a method book, any method, and playing through every song until the book is completed does not give a student a good musical start, in my opinion. Music should be enjoyed and the student will be more likely to continue in this atmosphere.

:D

You post, Joan, was just the information that I needed, and just the right time to hear it, for I started to teach several beginning students at a learning center, last week, taking over from the previous teacher who was using the Alfred method and Piano Adventures, exclusively, for each student.

I did not learn from a method book at the conservatory, but my teacher did assign technical exercises from such time honored books as "A Dozen A Day," Herschberg, "Finger Power," Schaum, "Technique is Fun," etc. She also supplemented with classical literature. My teacher actually taught the technique during the lesson according to what she felt was relevant to the pieces I played, making sure that I experienced a broad range of techniques in her choice of composers, and pieces of music.

I wonder if anyone had experiences with either of the two methods, Alfred or Piano Adventures. I've read a not very favorable review on the PEP site about Alfred, but nothing about Piano Adventures.
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Feb 16, 2007 5:08 pm

Glissando88keys wrote:I wonder if anyone had experiences with either of the two methods, Alfred or Piano Adventures. I've read a not very favorable review on the PEP site about Alfred, but nothing about Piano Adventures.

You can find a review of the Faber and Faber method on our Piano Teaching Methods page and a link there to our reviews of specific Faber and Faber books (Piano Adventures). Another link on the Faber books page points to our Artist/Educator Interview of Randall Faber. Use of our Search pages would have pulled these up for you in a few seconds. :;):




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Postby 108-1121887355 » Fri Feb 16, 2007 7:40 pm

Perfect, Glissando, playing a piece and following with the exercises and technique. A bunch of unrelated exercises have little meaning. Again, playing through a book cover to cover, does not teach a lot nor is it fun or interesting for the student. My students want to play some pieces they know and like - "Saints go Marching In", "Star Wars" music, folk songs, nursery rhymes, show tunes from a show they just saw,( 42nd Street, a Gilbert and Sullivan), a popular song they heard on the radio or television show, (Schroeder plays some good concert music), and so on - including all styles of music. Some opera and concert music is heard on commercials - not great, but I find the original music and open up new ideas.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Fri Feb 16, 2007 9:25 pm

And some of the very best technical exercises are those that can be extracted from passages in the compositions themselves. Imaginative teachers and players alike can accelerate their mastery of a piece by distilling the essence of any difficult figuration, repeat, extend, or modify it, play it in different keys or in both hands, etc. Technical drill is then seen to have an immediate payoff. It's one of the ways we can encourage our students to prod their imaginations and be self-reliant.

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Postby 108-1121887355 » Mon Feb 19, 2007 10:28 am

Right on, as always, Dr.Bill. I do use passages in the piece and thanks to you have become more creative in using them. Playing backwards is an interesting one. At first the student thinks I am kidding, but then, guess what, the passage now plays better when played as written. Switching hands is another good one...often finding reading the treble clef in the left hand is not so easy. Giving the student creative ways to practice opens up his mind to more ideas of his own and gives him a deeper and better understanding of the music.

I was taught it was, "play it as written, exactly", with no chance to be creative, even with dynamics. Scales were played in exact rhythm. The metronome used to be a torture. When I began to play popular music that I wanted to sing, I could follow the words and 'fudge' with the rhythm and change the dymanics. I have learned more through teaching - learning from my students - and even more now, through PEP.

Thank you, again, Dr. Zeigler and Dr. Leland. :;):
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Mon Feb 19, 2007 6:21 pm

I was thinking mostly of taking just a short passage, extracting it from the composition, and using it for special exercise to solve that one problem. Students hate to do this--they always want to play the piece through from the beginning.

I used to tell them, "Look, if you have a flat tire on the rear wheel, you're not going to start working on the front bumper, then the radiator, then the engine, and keep on until you finally get back to the rear wheel. You're going to take the wheel OFF the car, fix the flat, and then put it back on!"
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Tue Feb 20, 2007 5:01 pm

My 12 year old is learning the value of working on one section - it took a while. She does take it from the piece and examines it to see why she is having trouble. She is getting good (easier for her) in starting anywhere I choose without an argument. The younger ones still have trouble but I work on trying to have them go back to a certain spot. One 9 year old is getting the idea.

I will use your example about the tire - good one! :D
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Postby Glissando88keys » Mon Feb 26, 2007 3:51 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote: Students hate to do this--they always want to play the piece through from the beginning.

It's as though if they don't play it from the beginning, they can't play it at all! It seems that their knowledge and memory of the music only works if it is continuous, and they are not at all familiar with the individual passages or phrases.

That reminds me of a Honeymooners episode where Ed Norton began each piece he was practicing only after he played
the introductory passage of one particular piece of music - can't remember the name of it right now.

With that in mind, I instruct my students to practice a difficult passage phrase by phrase, even note by note, and then practice by adding the new phrase to those already perfected.

This is met with a little reluctance from those students who like to plow through a piece from beginning to end, and can't seem to stop and pick up from where I would like to them to.
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Postby Glissando88keys » Mon Feb 26, 2007 4:15 pm

loveapiano wrote:Again, playing through a book cover to cover, does not teach a lot nor is it fun or interesting for the student. My students want to play some pieces they know and like including all styles of music.

When I asked a 14 year old student ( who seemed to be quickly losing interest in piano, missing lessons and using her volleyball practice as an excuse not to practice) what piece she would like to learn, here eyes lit up! The pieces she was previously assigned were boring her to tears, and were meant for a student much younger. I feel I can teach her whatever
techniques necessary directly from music she likes.

Better to let her pick her own music than lose interest and give up piano, completely. In the future she may decide that classical is cool, however right now, her heart is in a different place.

I remember when I was a teenager, I wanted to learn the Beatles and other popular songs, and would teach them to myself, because I felt weird asking my teacher. One day I summoned up the courage, and to my surprise, she was very receptive to the topic of popular music. We had a long discussion about cellos on Eleanor Rigby that day. She asked to hear me play those songs I loved, and offered suggestions on improvisation and chord structure. I think that day was a life changing event for me, so powerful was the effect on me that my conservatory piano teacher actually appreciated music other than classical.
:D

Now, back to the original topic, in praise of method books:

I suppose method books could be used as a handy in- home review to reinforce the material taught at each lesson.

Theory is theory, no matter what book you learn it from.

The supplementary books that have familiar tunes are useful, so method books have at least that in their favor. :)

But I am finding something very disturbing among students who studied hand positions. These students have become rigid in the positions of both thumbs on middle c. I have a hard time when I try to move their hands or when I ask them to play the notes to the right of middle c with their left hand, and vice versa. The earlier the method book was introduced, and the younger the child's age when introduced, the more rigid the insistence of both thumbs on middle c, or in hand position on the first five notes following middle c. This training actually is counterproductive to teaching keyboard topography. I am afraid these students will, unfortunately, need to un-learn, and re-learn almost everything that one must in order to feel at home with the topography of the keyboard. This takes us back to square one in terms of progress, so that younger students who should have had a head start, are actually being held back, and will be the ones most behind the students who started later but who, never- the- less, are flexible in their hand positions, thus advance more easily.

Sorry, I tried to find some positive aspects of method books. ???




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Postby Stretto » Fri Mar 16, 2007 1:58 pm

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:Since you have gone back to using method books after a hiatus, what drove you in that direction? Obviously, there must have been advantages in using method books for you to do so.

Sorry I haven't gotten back to this question yet.

The primary advantages I feel of methods that were missing when I tried to go without using them is:

1. Methods offer a carefully graded approach. It's a little tougher to provide a carefully graded approach just by selecting this piece or that piece. It's easier for students to wind up jumping around here and there even if it's pieces at a given skill level and sort of stagnating at one level of skill rather than making gradual progress. I feel those who write and design methods are much, much more qualified than I at carefully grading concepts and materials. If I were to try to devise a more concrete plan myself, I'd basically be reinventing the wheel. With so many more choices of methods and materials than there once was, a teacher has an easier time finding something they can satisfactorily teach from and the student would enjoy.

2. A "level" system such as methods provide has been a HUGE motivator for students. When using lesson books, students I've had get on a perpetual drive to progress through the lesson book so they move to the next higher level. Students would come week after week only playing the lesson book material while ignoring any fun, familiar additional pieces I would assign. It was apparent that moving to the next level was even more important than what music they were playing. That was the main reason I quit using lesson books to "force" the students to learn some other important music besides their lesson book pieces. But without as clear of a "level" system in place, students stagnated again as there was not as clear of goals to motivate them to work to move up. With or without lesson or method books, some sort of clear goals are necessary as they provide tremendous motivation. Method books are designed to provide for clear goals of moving up by level. It reminds me of school: students are motivated to get through each grade in school so they can move onto the next grade, graduate from high school, go onto college, etc., etc. A level system again is a gigantic motivator.

However, I'm again on the fence as what to do. I am thinking of using methods only through the beginner levels and then switching students to a piano literature series that moves by levels or labeled beginner, intermediate, advanced at least. The reason is I just can't find any method books where I am totally happy with the pieces in them. I think the beginning method books all have nice little tuneful pieces, but once a student gets to level 3 and up, they may as well be putting their efforts into easier piano lit. and/or other pieces in styles they are interested in than most of the stuff found in at least the lesson books in methods. That's not to say methods have some nice repertoire in their supplemental books. It's just the lesson books that I feel at a certain point, a students time would be better spent on other music of the same difficulty. Again, however, some sort of gradual approach in skill level is still important so that's the catch 22 for me ! :D

Any suggestions. Any ideas for a teacher on creating one's own "system" whereby students have a graded approach utilizing repertoire in a graded fashion, with the motivation of clear goals such as levels provide, AND music that students would really find appealing.

For me it all boils down to not wanting students to waste their time learning some mediocre pieces (pieces that don't sound very good and/or are written in such a way as one would probably never find anythiing similarly written in "real" music) just because they happen to be the next one in the book.
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