Nancy L. Ostromencki
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
ll piano methods must reach a similar endpoint, i.e. students who can read music, handle basic technique and understand some of the piano literature. However, there are significant differences in the manner and timing in which critical principles and techniques are presented to students in the various methods, considerable differences in the way individual students respond to a given method and even variation in the strengths and inclinations of teachers using the methods. What do you do as a teacher if you are unsatisfied with the effectiveness of a given method and/or its materials with one or more of your students? Can you switch methods? How can you best accomplish a switch? In this article, we'll discuss some general considerations and approaches to using method materials and, when necessary or desirable, changing from one to other(s).
Any method is only as good as your understanding of the method and the student.
There are probably well in excess of fifty named piano "methods", if we count only those offered by music publishers. If you include those offered on the Internet or in software, there are probably at least three times that number. Thus, there is no shortage of choices for the teacher. Method materials can be a great help for the teacher, in that they provide a structured set of pre-built teaching aids, complete with suitable repertoire, at each level of training. Although the originators of every piano method would have us believe that their method is "unique" in its ability to teach students, the simple fact of the matter is that the real differences are relatively small, save for the position playing issues that plague some methods more than others. Of course, some method materials may be more graphically attractive or current than others, but these are usually secondary reasons to choose one over another.
The mere fact that a given method is "popular" should not be construed to mean that it is right for all students or, even, pedagogically sound. There are a number of popular methods that, while possessing many valuable attributes, are so hampered by position playing teaching approaches that their value as a whole is limited. Some of the more popular, best selling methods tend to minimize the amount and importance of “work” required in order to be able to read music and acquire technical proficiency. They have the student doing a new “piece/song” each week, rather than building real knowledge and skill. While this may keep parents and students happy, very often this “happiness” is occurring at the expense of students becoming functionally musically illiterate and unable to play past 5 finger position ditties.
We are not "anti-method", by any means, but teachers should realize that all methods have strengths, weaknesses and limitations. The degree to which these manifest themselves in a given teaching interaction will depend on the student, the teacher and the way the method is implemented.
Before the teacher can meaningfully consider a change to different method materials, she has to know many different methods, many different repertoire books, and take the time to analyze where and how they might fit the student's needs. It is different for each and every student. Your personal piano library should include copies of at least representative parts of 15 different methods materials. All method materials have strengths and weaknesses; you should be thoroughly familiar with all of them that you use or are considering using.
You can find in the archives of the Interview section of PEP interviews of both Robert Pace and Randall Faber, the originators of two of the most popular methods currently. To some degree, piano methods have been discussed with many of the other interviewees as well. By reading these interviews, you get to hear from the originators of the methods themselves about their ideas. Secondly, PEP's Forums have an entire forum devoted to piano methods. You can read it and get ideas from other teachers regarding the strengths and attributes of methods. Discussions of various methods and reviews of method materials can also be found on PEP.
If the current approach is not working, you may need to figure out where a student is, why he is failing to meet the standards you feel are appropriate, and how other materials might be more successful. If a student cannot read music after completing 2 books of a method, something is wrong. A student should know how to read music in the basic clefs and play notes in those clefs rather readily and without much problem after 2 books of a method. If a teacher realizes that a student has poor technique, something is wrong and a switch may be indicated. If a student is struggling even after say, 6 lessons, that is one of the best indicators that the teaching “method” is not working as well as it could.
To test sight reading/note reading skills, there ways to confirm what your students do or do not know. Bartok Microkosmos Volumes 1 and 2 (MIDI recordings of these in The Audition Room) are wonderful studies in reading music. They defy playing by ear and many of them also confound playing in positions. Music Tree, Parts A, B and C are also great sources of confirming note and intervallic reading skills. The “activity books” that work with the Music Tree Parts A. B and C also help instill and reinforce good sight reading, intervallic reading and theory skills.
Because the various methods introduce different material at slightly different stages and in slightly different ways, there is no such thing as a "seamless" transition from one method to another. One of the problems with using and switching methods is that some methods will get the note reading, technique and repertoire done in say, 2 books, while others take up to 10 books. With some methods, a student who has been playing for say, 3 years, may not be at an intermediate level, even though they should be. We believe that a student should be on a path that teaches them all the basics of note reading, technique and repertoire sooner rather than later.
That said, if you're convinced that the method you're using isn't working as well as it should, you have some choices, which involve a careful weighing of the needs of the students, the attributes of the method and your own preferences and inclinations.
Before we get into that, let us point out that you're really only likely to have significant transition problems for "intermediate" students. Although students can see differences in method materials if the teacher compares them side by side, for the most part, beginning students don't know enough yet to have any idea how the methods might differ and will make almost any switch easily. Moreover, most beginning piano methods are, at root, so similar that the differences are more semantic and graphic than real. Advanced students are beyond most of the standard piano methods, so any change in method is essentially irrelevant to them.
Regarding the practical problems of switching students, there is no set formula. However, if a student has mastered well a certain level of Piano Adventures, say, you will want to take him to a higher level of something else than you would with a student who is struggling. The switch need not be jarring to any student. You can continue to use the older method while phasing in the newer one, using less and less from the old and more and more from the new.
Of course, students that you have been training yourself must be handled differently than those who come from another teacher. Transfer students, especially if they have had lessons for a considerable period of time, provide a special challenge. Nothing can be worse for you than having a student transfer to you who has had upwards of 5 years of piano doing a position-oriented method, and discovering that the student cannot read music and cannot handle a scale passage from something like a Clementi sonatina. You and the student will have a lot of work ahead of you to get the student caught up with note reading, technique, theory, etc. That student may have to start near the beginning with the method you choose. To ease the transition for such poorly trained students, you can let them continue to do simple music of their own choice, while making it clear that these are done independently of their lessons and are not considered part of their practice time. Let them have fun on their own, while you do the make up work really to learn music.
One way to deal with the deficiencies of piano methods
or having to change them, as just about any experienced teacher will
tell you, is simply not to use them! You can simply ignore all of them and
chart your own path based on your experience and knowledge. This is a little
frightening for many teachers, since you must devise your
own teaching materials and aids and choose appropriate repertoire to avoid method materials
Many teachers have done this, but it requires a lot of
extra work. However, you can take a compromise position.
There is nothing, in principle or practice, that prevents you from "mixing and matching" the best parts of several different methods to suit the individual needs of each student. Indeed, we have advocated that approach all over PEP, because it produces a better result, without subjecting the teacher to having to create all her own teaching aids and materials. This approach still requires a little more attention and work on the part of the teacher, but we can tell you from personal observation over many years that the winners of local competitions are almost always the ones whose teachers take this flexible and tailored approach. Teachers who have a "religious" attachment to a single method often produce students who have noticeable gaps in their training. We believe that such an attachment is particularly sad, since successful teaching is not about the "method", but about learning.
Most teachers who tailor their teaching in this way choose a basic method, then bring in other methods and materials where they are advantageous (e.g. one of us uses the Robyn method as a base, then supplements it with a combination of her own and commercial method materials). For example, she uses Keyboard Town, Technique Tales Books 1 and 2 by Louise Robyn along with the Music Tree Books by Frances Clark together and at the same time. Clark and Robyn work well together because they have complementary strengths: Although the Robyn books make sure that the student is not reading by position playing, Keyboard Town does not spend enough time dealing with recognizing intervallic relationships between notes and using those intervallic relationships to help with the speed and ease of sight reading. Time to Begin and the books from the Music Tree Series stress intervalic reading as a key to rapid and accurate music reading. Used together these two methods approach note reading from two very solid aspects— intervallic relationships and names/placement of each specific note starting from low C to high C. If your chosen base method is weaker in some area than you would like, simply supplement it with books from another method.
Such a "mix and match" approach helps reduce the load on the teacher, while still affording the benefits of tailoring. Of course, any base method you choose should be carefully chosen from among those that avoid position playing. If you use the tailoring approach, your students will be used to working out of different books and materials. Switching methods for these students will be more straightforward than for those accustomed to using only a single method. For more on tailoring teaching to the student, see PEP's article, Tailoring Your Teaching to the Student.
Although you will have some "cleanup" to do, switching methods shouldn't have a major effect on any student, as long as you have prepared for the switch yourself. You will also have to keep the parents informed of any changes. If the parents pay for the student's teaching materials (as opposed to borrowing them from your personal library), you will have to provide a rationale to them for the change. There may not be any prescriptive solutions to changing methods, but we hope these thoughts will help you arrive at a solution that works for you and your students.