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Exploring Piano Methodologies: An Alternative to Piano Adventures

Updated: Mar 21

I wrote an essay detailing why I believe, on the one hand, that Piano Adventures and similar modern pedagogies are not conducive in themselves to good technique and may require caution to avoid the development of bad habits; and why, on the other, traditional methods are still valuable. Much of what I said was understood, but there were a number of misconstructions from that article. I propose to address these misunderstandings here.

Piano Adventures, book 5
Piano Adventures, book 5

Firstly, let me say that I stand by everything I said about Piano Adventures. I invite anyone with questions to review that article. But, in brief, the blob-notation is pointless. Music may be rhythm plus pitch in its most simplistic form, but there is no need to delay the introduction of staves, and rhythms may be best practised in context. While legato playing may be studied in book 1, as one reader pointed out, my point concerning the lack of caution around pedaling stands, along with the example that I drew. I stand by too the banality of many of the exercises in those books: we all aim for muscle memory, but doing more of the same in a shorter time will not accelerate matters as the brain can only process information so fast.

So many interpretations of the things people say are reductive to an absurd degree. Where my original post was advertised, it was treated as if I had said that only one method of tuition was valid, which was in fact the opposite. My urging was for synthesis; the rejection of traditional methods leads, I argued, to the methodization of learning. That is, abolishing memorization as a principal aim of teaching and learning leads to the need for the constant application of calculi, such as reading intervals. Like so many methods that focus on working things out rather than memorizing, brighter pupils will invariably learn the very things that are not taught (i.e., they will memorize through acquaintance), and so the method will appear to work by itself. However, many will simply fail at the more advanced stages to acquire independent mastery, though even they may appear competent whilst under the direct guidance of the teacher.

What traditional piano teaching actually looks like

In my previous article, I made allusions to several methods of teaching and learning, which were taken separately and in isolation by some detractors. I made reference, first and foremost, to mnemonics. This reference, in particular, drew the ire of a certain set. It is, they say, a 'terrible' way to teach reading music. I agree, that is why I do not, nor has anyone, ever used them in that way. They are a memory tool only; they help to order information in the mind so that it does not appear arbitrary. This is a long-established means of memorizing new information through rhymes and association. For instance, if you cannot remember what a diminished interval is, you might think of 'dim' as in turning down the lights, and so the semitone goes down. This is a mnemonic.

We must with any piano method begin with a knowledge of at least some notes. With the mnemonics for both hands, and some reading practice (thirty-seconds at the beginning of each lesson), that part can be achieved. The next component is to apply this knowledge, gradually and not all at once, to the playing of simple tunes. I am informed that we call this 'muscle-memory'. How fast we progress will depend on the age and ability of the student. It may indeed appear slower than the easier approach adopted in Piano Adventures, but that is because there is more going on. And, of course, we must practise rhythms; that is, unless and until these are understood and simple pieces can be played without error. There is little point in doing a thing just for its own sake.

As soon as the pupil understands the notes and rhythms sufficiently well, we can introduce basic finger-exercises. I favour Schmidt as these are not too difficult for beginner pianists. In addition, I begin to use the Oxford Graded Keyboard Musicianship book 1, which encompasses basic theory, chords, inversions, score-reading, transposition, and improvisation (with structure). Then, further, either Piano Time Sight-reading book 1 or the appropriate volume from Paul Harris' Improve Your Sight-reading! series. And yes, not only do I teach intervals, but make use of them in teaching sight-reading to my students. The difference is, I expect my students to know all the notes they play from the start. Which is, I might add, not as much of a leap as it at first appears. I have never had a student who couldn't learn from the method I described. Some students need more or less encouragement, but in my personal experience, patience is a far better teacher than highly-vaunted short-cuts.

Taking account of the piano student's needs

Another accusation is that I am not taking sufficient account of the individual student's needs. This is false. Firstly, when a new young student comes to me, I consider it my duty to assume the highest aspirations until informed otherwise. If I teach to the highest standard and they later wish to focus on pop songs and playing for fun, nothing has been lost. If I do it the other way around, and they later want to be a professional musician, it will be much harder for them to catch up.

Nevertheless, I have a number of books designed for different approaches, and like every teacher, I take account of the differing tastes and interests of my pupils, and accommodate that when possible. What I never do is take the path of least resistance; that is, require less from a pupil than they are capable of achieving.

In conclusion

In conclusion, I repeat the view of my original article. All the good things that can be found in Piano Adventures can be found in other books. The rest adds little of value.

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