Piano Teaching Methods
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
and Nancy Ostromencki
iano lessons are often taught by a variety of different "methods". Individual teachers will have their preferences among the different methods, each of which has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Our goal in pointing out both strong points and criticisms of teaching methods is to provide teachers and parents with an overview of a given method's strengths and weaknesses, so that the buyer knows what he's getting and how he might supplement or improve it by good teaching.
All teaching methods involve compromises and not every method works well for every student. You should evaluate these methods in light of your own needs and choose a teacher whose personal choice of a method or methods is consistent with your needs, wishes, and the way in which you learn most efficiently. Keep in mind that the best teachers will tailor their teaching to you or your child's individual needs, rather than being wedded in all respects to a single approach. Tips for teachers on choosing a teaching method can be found in our article, Starting a Private Teaching Studio. The Piano Education Page section, The Teaching Studio, has among its over 40 articles for the piano teacher several additional articles relating to use of methods in teaching, switching methods and optimizing results from method use.
Below are short analyses of some of the most well-established teaching methods. In cases where we have formally reviewed examples of books from the method, you'll find links to our reviews. Links to additional PEP reviews of less-known method materials can be found on our Learning Materials Reviews page.
Popular Children's Methods
Other Children's Methods
Alfred Method For Children
The Alfred method uses a lot of colored pictures and graphics to help with the teaching process. The newest updates in the Alfred Method for children include use of software, compact discs, and /or cassettes. This method utilizes the concept of position playing, which has a disadvantage that students sometimes do not learn to read the notes, but rather rely totally on position playing. Thus, if they approach a piece of music not written in a Five Finger Position, they are at a loss. An advantage of this method is that students learn to read intervals and to see the intervalic relationship between notes. They are also exposed to chords and progressions. While the lyrics to the songs are not really necessary, the pictures and graphics are wonderful. Students who have been raised on this method exclusively sometimes seem to have limited competence in note reading and undeveloped technique. Another disadvantage is that the major classical composers should be presented to the students at a much earlier stage than is typical in this method. The Alfred method is great for beginning teachers who need a pre-programmed lesson format to follow. It would be our hope that once the beginning teacher becomes more comfortable and knowledgeable with different methods that they would expand beyond sole use of this method.
Bastien Method for Children
The Piano Party Series is great for those little ones who have never had lessons before. It is a lot of fun for the teachers also. We would suggest that the lyrics of the pieces be omitted, but the pictures and graphics are positive.
A strength of the method is its exposure at this early stage to technique, dropping to the keys with keeping the first knuckle of the finger rounded, and the arch high. Too often beginning students play with smashed-in knuckles, and fingers flying around as straight as a pencils. We wish however that this introduction would be followed through more with reminders much more often about using proper technique. We have been having excellent success with A Line a Day, a wonderful series of four levels concentrating on sight-reading. Use of the metronome is needed, and very often the exercises defy the tendency to play by ear or in the position pattern.
Clark Method (The Music Tree)
This method is tremendous for getting right down to the basics; the students are presented with dynamics, counting, phrases, and form. They are reading intervalically from day one. Another strength is the introduction of ensemble playing from the very beginning. After the students are finished with the Music Tree Series, they are quite competent in music terminology, sight reading, knowing form, and generally have a solid enough start to begin study of the masters.
Faber and Faber
The books by Nancy and Randall Faber are a popular and heavily promoted piano "method" with many adherents. The Faber and Faber beginning books can serve a teacher well who needs a pre-programmed series of books to follow as a starter for their teaching. Each page of the books embodies delightful graphics and is cross-referenced to other books in the series along the outer edge of each page. There are good practice suggestions given for most of the materials such as counting aloud and holding the hands in a rounded position on the piano. The main pedagogical weakness of the Faber and Faber beginning method books is the insistence on using position playing, although the books also attempt to mitigate the effects of position playing after it has been introduced. From the standpoint of substance, the Faber and Faber "method" offers little that is fundamentally pedagogically new over methods like the Clark, Robyn and Suzuki that have been in existence for many years. Methods like the Clark cover the same material in one or two books that the Primer Level and the Level 1 in this method take 8 or more books to do. We would like to see students exposed to unvarnished beginning classical repertoire earlier than they are in these books, which utilize arrangements for most of the repertoire.
The many books which make up the "Pace Method" provide solid, pedagogically sound piano training for the youngest to the oldest beginners, as well as somewhat more advanced students. More concise and challenging than many other method book series, the Pace books prepare the student for the classical repertoire at an earlier stage of training than many methods. They build strong intervalic and note-reading skills, while encouraging creativity and complete musical development of students. The Pace books avoid the position-playing approaches which afflict so many other methods currently in vogue. They are best used with a knowledgeable and attuned teacher to help guide the student.
The Robyn Method approaches note reading both from intervalic and single note approaches. The students are to sing the names of the notes aloud while they play the exercises in Keyboard Town. The notes are NOT presented in position playing, and fingering is often juxtapositioned so that students cannot rely on the finger number to play the note. Rather, they have to know the exact note names, and then put the correct finger number on the note. Technique is strongly developed from the beginning with a graduated, consistent method where each finger is individually developed and then put together in sequences to help prepare for scales, Hanon, arpeggios, etc. The Robyn Method also incorporates an entire book for the use of the damper pedal, preparing the student to cope with irregular pedal patterns, pedaling with the harmonic progressions of a piece, and pedaling after the beat, rather than with the beat (causing muddy pedal). We do not care for the lyrics that all books except the Pedal book use, and the pictures in the method books are quite archaic. In light of its many strengths, it is our hope that this method will be revamped one day to be a bit more up to date.
This method originated in Japan and is very popular there and in the U.S. The method seems to be more successful with Japanese than American students. Suzuki students from Japan that we have taught have great note reading and ear training skills, a strong and secure technique, and exposure to other composers besides those in the method books. American-trained Suzuki students are often lacking in many of these skills. These students often cannot read music, depend too much on playing by ear, and can lack a strongly developed technique. A particular strength of this method is that it exposes little ones to performance opportunities presented in a very positive fashion, so that performing becomes a joy rather than a dreaded experience. Certified Suzuki teachers in America must have completed a course of study at the Steven's Point, Wisconsin Suzuki Teaching Workshops.
This is an older method which, during its day, was very popular, presenting students with simplified arrangements of standard classical repertoire. It has become very dated and could benefit from a thorough revision to modern teaching standards and techniques.
With rote teaching, the student becomes familiar with the keyboard before reading from the staff. Hearing, thinking, seeing intervals and harmony on the keyboard and noting phrasing gives the student an easier and better start. Concentrating on the keyboard opens up more opportunities for improvising and composing, and, ultimately, easier sight reading with a better understanding of music. For a more complete description of the rote, see our article An Introduction to Rote Teaching of Piano, and three follow-on articles present on the PEP CD.
Use caution in adopting any of the "miracle" methods that promise to teach you to play piano in an hour or a day or even a month. While some of these may be able to teach you how to play simple songs or watered-down versions of some of the classics, our experience with them is that they typically provide a weak or non-existent grounding in fundamental theory and technique, leaving you poorly prepared to advance your skills outside the limited framework of the method. In many cases, they actually leave you with bad technique and habits that have to broken later if you are to become a competent pianist. If one of these techniques appeals to you, then investigate it carefully and consult a qualified piano teacher regarding the technique before you pay any money. Be particularly wary of such methods touted over the World Wide Web. We have looked at many pages devoted to "play in a day" methods and we have not found a single one that provides enough information to even understand what the method is, let alone evaluate it in the context of the needs of an individual student. This is the reason that we do not link any pages devoted to "miracle methods" on The Piano Education Page. For more information on how to evaluate piano methods, see our section Learning to Play on Your Own. Finally, these comments should not be construed to apply to "The Miracle Piano Teaching System" software and hardware. This is a fundamentally solid system which can be very valuable, especially in the context of private lessons to supplement it.
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Play by Choice
This is one of the best beginning adult methods available. Mr. Kern has organized a teaching method that treats adults as adults. The multi-faceted approach to learning basic concepts is one that is pedagogically sound and acknowledges the fact that no two people learn the same concepts in the exact same way. This is a no-nonsense, well planned book. There are no flashy graphics or associated bells and whistles, just the facts and lots of suggestions for how to integrate these facts into your practice.
This method emphasizes the reading of individual notes, chords, intervalic relationships, and following the melodic contour, not merely position playing. The musical pieces are a good collection of pop, religious, Broadway musicals, and arrangements of some classical pieces. The adult student is given a choice of which pieces to play and study. The text book has indicated pieces that need to be studied for emphasis and instruction, then there are several pieces in each chapter to be played by choice.
Play by Choice has been one of the most successful methods that we have used for adult students. The students are not locked into the position playing frame of mind that most beginning methods use. All the students that we have taught with this method can read music and are not dependent on the position playing to get them through a composition. They become functionally literate music students, who can see the patterns in the music and understand the form of a composition as well as the individual notes. Play by Choice is available through the publisher, Hal Leonard, as well as at most major music stores.
Bastien Method for Adults
This method generally over-emphasizes the five finger position-playing method. We have used this method a lot in the past and have found out that students have a very frustrating time getting out of the mode of position-playing. Their note reading is slowed down tremendously, to the point of being almost non-existent, and progress is very slow. Unfortunately, most of the units in Book One deal with the different five finger positions of playing, rather than taking a multi-faceted approach to note reading. The repertoire in the piano course books is rather dated and the student doesn't have enough variety to choose from. Our experience with this method in 25 years of teaching is that it is generally inferior in its results to the Play by Choice method. Major faults would include the emphasis on position playing, extremely limited repertoire choices, and a dated pedagogical approach to teaching multi-faceted older beginners. If you wish to pursue this method, we suggest using the video series The Bastien Piano Professor or similar aid to supplement the books and fill in many of the huge gaps in this method.
Pace Method for Older Beginners
The Pace books are a pedagogically sound aid for teaching the older beginner. They eschew the cute graphics that intrigue children, but put off older beginners. Instead, the material is presented in a concise and to-the-point manner. Thankfully, there is neither reference to nor dependence upon position playing in this book. Students who did a test drive of this material, soon realized that they really had to think and apply themselves well to be able to understand and successfully use it. Although the method is challenging, the only complaints that from students are that the music was a bit "old fashioned" and the method could use more sight reading exercises and material. As with the Pace Method for children, the older beginners method requires a lot of effort on the part of the student and teacher, though it is effective and reasonably priced.