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The Problem with Modern Piano Methods: Why Traditional Piano Teaching Works

Updated: Feb 29

If you are thinking about learning to play the piano or are a piano teacher yourself, you will at some point come across someone singing the praises of methods such as Faber’s Piano Adventures. Indeed, Piano Adventures is ubiquitous; so ubiquitous that one cannot help but wonder two things: first, is there some kind of affiliate program of which I am unaware? And second, how do I get in on the action? Unfortunately, no such program exists, except perhaps in the sense that the books themselves are relatively cheap. So, why the ubiquity? Well, they teach some basic technique for piano playing without becoming overly choreographed, and they are not attached to rigid hand positioning at the keyboard. As for other virtues, however, it's not exactly clear. Other methods teach the same information with a great deal less fuss (like the excellent Piano Lessons series by Fanny Waterman). Two reasons come to mind, one is that they also include fashionable methods like the so-called 'intervallic' method of note-reading, and two, they require the teacher to know less.

Piano teacher teaching female student

What do I mean when I say that Piano Adventures requires less knowledge on the part of the teacher? I mean simply that it interposes a large number of repetitive exercises for the pupil, which are quite unnecessary in this humble teacher's opinion, but which provide information which would otherwise have been supplied by the qualified teacher. Furthermore, the initial exercises in the primer level are so heavily simplified as to make the teacher's job much much easier. In the first few pages, when, at length, the playing of notes is introduced, these are not represented as notes on the musical stave but as letters written inside floating blobs. The fingers with which the pupil should play each blob-note are clearly indicated. This blob-notation continues for nearly ten pages, not counting the black-key twiddling that preceded it. Not to be entirely unfair to Piano Adventures, other methods (like the Alfred series) use these peculiar phenomena, but most are not so universally lauded.

Much of what proceeds, aside from the addition of chords for, er, "reasons", is fairly quotidian. It is nothing that might not be found in John Thompson or another older model of piano method. But it is not only in the initial stages that we can detect problems. In the later books, there are eight, we constantly find mixed in with the all-too-rare traditional study or piece of repertoire, strange, other-worldly compositions by the author(s) of the books. They are not necessarily bad, but they are certainly a poor substitute for Beethoven, Czerny, Schumann, or Gurlitt. Why are they there? Do they add anything to the instruction that a composition from the true masters of the art could not have achieved? It is a question asked by C. P. E. Bach in his own invective against teachers who substituted their own mediocre compositions for the excellent pieces available from others. 

To take some examples from book five of the series, we find the ‘Coral Reef Etude’ on page 6. This piece is a woolly, overly-pedaled series of arpeggios in different positions because, apparently, we can’t understand chord inversions unless we iterate them in straightforward forms which one would almost never see in real-world compositions. We do not have just one of these strange pieces, the same motif recurs with ‘Inversion Study in F’. Why? Defenders might say that these sections are teaching useful theory. Well, certainly, the theory that is taught is useful because of what it is, but I would demur on the idea that its presence here, or the exercises offered constitute either necessary or useful instruction in these concepts. In the first place, and going back to what I said at the start of this article about repetitive exercises, the concept is not that hard to grasp, and further, the teacher ought to be capable of using simple chord and arpeggio exercises to demonstrate it. Furthermore, dedicated works like the outstanding Oxford Graded Keyboard Musicianship books teach it far better.

And, finally, why all the pedaling? Why is the sustain pedal present as soon as the authors suppose their young readers' feet can touch the ground? This was never standard piano pedagogy. The pedal is a useful tool if used with control and conscious understanding of the effect one wishes to achieve. But I, and I suspect many educators, were taught that we should always be able to produce a good quality sound without the pedal first, and that when we do introduce it, it should not be a substitute for legato playing. Will the pupils who use these volumes understand that? Will they be made to? One particularly terrible example can be taken from page four of book five, the so-called ‘Jazz warm-up’, where the chords presented, sevenths (not even octaves), are played 1-5–that is, the pedal substitutes for legato technique in a book whose standard is approximately equivalent to ABRSM grade 3.

Of course, some will want to say that we do not always play chords legato, and sometimes the pedal does function in this way. All I can say there is that every piano teacher must do as he or she thinks fit, but for my part I prefer to head off bad habits before they have a chance to form.

I believe there are important problems arising from these books. Don't get me wrong, a good teacher will not permit these weaknesses to afflict their pupils–if they can help it.

Why should we be concerned by these oddities of modern piano methods?

What should we make of these observations? The first thing to notice is that the modern piano method–I choose Piano Adventures as my chief example because it is by far the most popular–tends to spoon feed information. Many teachers love these books I suspect for this reason. There is little in these piano methods to unpack. The simplicity of its exercises makes the teacher’s job easier. Unfortunately, these exercises, taken by themselves, will not establish any greater pianistic dexterity than had the pupil merely been informed that such-and-such were the case and made to play an arpeggio or two.

All of this, and I admit that it can not be more than speculation, seems to me to produce students that are overly reliant on their teachers for basic information that they should grasp innately by the time they are learning any serious music. They frequently know their notes imperfectly; they are hesitant to learn new sections of music outside of lessons; their sight-reading, despite the vaunted intervallic method, is poor.

I believe there are some good reasons for this state of affairs. Firstly, the intervallic method of reading music, like phonics in English, has its clear advantages in some situations, namely, sight-reading. But if it is taught in place of memorization, mnemonics and abstract note naming, or dilutes these traditional methods of learning the effect will be precisely the opposite of that intended. With phonics, if you do not use rote learning alongside it, you get absurd pronunciations of English words; with music, you find that without the immediate recall of note-names and positions on the piano, an understanding of intervals is useless.

If we compare Piano Adventures Primer with, say, Piano Lessons Book 1 by Dame Fanny Waterman and Marion Harewood, we can see the difference. Waterman’s book begins with the usual instructions on hand and body posture at the piano, and then proceeds to present the notes middle-c to high-c on the stave and keyboard, and presents, on that single page, a series of exercises to help the pupil find their way around. The following page teaches basic rhythms, and after that we move on to note-reading on the grand staff. On the very next page are the traditional mnemonics to aid beginners in remembering their notes. The book also comes with a double page of unordered notes, which the pupil is instructed to read aloud each day.

The Waterman/Harewood series has three books, rather than eight, and contains standard repertoire and exercises from Beethoven, Hummel, Schumann, Czerny and so on. The key issue here is that the pupil, from beginning to end, is encouraged to take responsibility for knowing things. Initial progress will seem to be slower, because making knowledge a part of oneself is harder than learning calculi for working it out afresh each time, but then it will be faster later on once that knowledge has been firmly inculcated. Naturally too, there is an expectation that the piano teacher will interpose their own knowledge, experience and other available resources.

In the end, every piano teacher should do what they think best and use the resources that they believe will give their pupils the best chance. Nevertheless, I personally have grave concerns about the direction in which Piano Adventures and similar methods are taking us.

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I really like the Lang Lang Piano Method series. I like it because of its wide range of topic-based pieces, and there is not an over-reliance on Middle C. It also encourages use of the whole keyboard through appropriately placed octave jumps.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on this series?

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I'm not personally familiar with that series, though I have used several of the others I mentioned. I'm not in principle opposed to a different approach in terms of finding one's way around the keyboard. I think octaves are not practised nearly often enough, certainly. I always try to make my students practise octave scales, arpeggios and jumping around when I can. I'll take a look at some point.

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