Karen Marshall: “Bespoke Teaching”

I am delighted to welcome Karen Marshall, the co-author of the excellent “Get Set! Piano” series and compiler of the ABRSM Encore books, as a regular contributor on the Pianodao site. In this, Karen’s first post here, she explores the importance of personalised teaching…

Meeting the needs of the individual

It’s good advice to ‘teach the way a student learns, rather than expecting them to learn the way you teach.’

My specialism, along with piano teaching, is music and dyslexia. For this group of learners, the above approach is essential. Vital. Without it, you may as well give up before you start (see the British Dyslexia Association’s Music Committee’s top ten tips for teaching music to these students at the end of the post).

However, I’d like to suggest that developing a bespoke way of teaching that meets the needs of the individual is actually the best approach for teaching anyone. As piano teachers, we are in a unique position to do this because most of our teaching is done one to one. However, this isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Too much information: the example of reading notation

I always think it’s good to use an example when exploring a topic. Let’s just take one area, teaching notation to piano students, and explore it a little. There is a huge amount of information and different opinions out there. What are the options? What do we use? Below are the main methods of teaching notation I came across when researching my piano tutor, Get Set! Piano.

N.B. My discoveries are based on students I’ve worked with. It may be that other teachers have experienced different things when working with their pupils.

1) The middle C method

Starting with middle C and sequentially introducing notes in the treble and bass from that point.

Strengths: Provides a focal point (Middle C) for introducing both clefs in relation to each other; enables pupils to quickly play five-finger tunes; it is within the aural range of the child.

Weaknesses: It can promote finger number reading. In some cases, it can cause fear of higher and lower register notes and occasionally apprehension about keys with several sharps and flats.

Verdict: Despite the weaknesses, I did find this (much to my dismay) the easiest method for children to access, as long as middle C isn’t the first note taught, you strategically move pupils out of the position quickly, and bass and treble clefs are introduced at the same time.

The latter approach (introducing both staves at the same time) is advocated by Mrs Curwen’s Pianoforte Method, amongst others.  Many methods use this method wholly or in part: Pauline Hall’s Piano Time, John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course, Michael Aaron’s Piano Course, Waterman and Harewood’s Me and My Piano, Ann Bryant’s Key Club, Joanna MacGregor’s Piano World, Carol Barratt’s Chester Piano Series.

2) Landmark notes

Using particular notes on the stave for other notes to be worked out from.

Strengths: This provides various points for the child to focus on, working out notation from those landmarks. For example, F in the bass, middle C, and G in the treble used by Frances Clark’s Library for Piano Students, published by Summy-Birchard 1955 or using the five C’s the full keyboard of the piano, Music Pathways by Lynn Olson, Louise Bianchi and Marvin Blickenstaff, published by Carl Fischer 1974 (Source: How to Teach Piano Successfully, James W. Bastien, 1995, publisher Neil A. Kjos Music Company). Hal Leonard Piano Lessons uses both clefs, with F in the bass and G in the treble.  This can be particularly helpful with bass clef reading.  Alfred too highlights these landmark notes amongst intervals and hand positions.

Weaknesses:  Some children can prefer to work by intervals from one note to another and simply get confused having to refer to certain notes.

Verdict: This method can work well especially if the student picks which landmark notes to use them-self. For some children, I’ve found this method a hindrance, for others a godsend. Jibbidy-F and A-C-E by Lena Hoover Ward uses landmarks of the lines and spaces of the notes.

3) Intervallic

Identifying intervals and how they relate to the keyboard as a means of note reading.

Strengths: Children can relate the keyboard to the stave, e.g. notes that move line to line or space to space on the stave miss out a note on the keyboard. Hal Leonard (Piano Lessons) use this approach,  as does Carol Barratt in her Chester Piano Series (steps 2nd and skips 3rds) and Alfred in their Basic Piano Library. However, these two series combine interval reading with other methods.

Weaknesses:  Some children see notes as their letter names, rather than the pattern of one note to another. Children using this method can struggle to identify individual notes and simply work on intervals and referencing the keyboard.

Verdict: I think this is an important tool in teaching notation but best not used in isolation (which most tutors don’t do anyway).

4) Hand positions

Notation is taught in the main hand positions based on five finger positions such as C major, F major and G major.

Strengths: Develops good key and harmony awareness; enables a child to play familiar exciting tunes quickly and easily.  This is very much the approach in the Bastien Piano Basics books (Bastien refers to his as the gradual multi-key method where things are presented at a slow pace); Carol Barratt also uses it in the Chester Piano series as does Alfred in the Basic Piano Library.  Hal Leonard Piano Lessons, John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course, and Pauline Hall’s Piano Time all use this approach at times within their tutors without necessarily formally labelling it.

Weaknesses: Children struggle to move out of five-finger positions and to move fingers over and under.

Verdict: Again, this is an approach worth using but not to be used in isolation. Beginner music by Hook uses this approach too,  it does have some great benefits. 

5) The importance of pattern

…such as scale and arpeggio patterns and familiar melody (tunes like Twinkle, twinkle). Using patterns of notation and familiar melody is a powerful way of teaching notation for some students and well worth the exploration!

Other approaches

‘Starting with the black keys’: Alfred, Hal Leonard  (Basic Piano Library and Piano Lessons) and others do this. Good for learning finger numbers.

‘Introducing notes on the keyboard before the stave’: My First Piano Adventures, Piano Lessons (Hal Leonard), Basic Piano Library (Alfred), Playing by Colour by Sharon Goody, Colouring the notes, one colour for each finger number, or allocating other objects to them, e.g. Dogs and Birds, Elsa and Chris Lusher, which makes notes different animals: D for dog, C for cat, etc. And many more…

Every method has strengths and weaknesses and students relate to them in different ways. Lots of the books used several methods to teach notation, rather than just sticking to one: I think that’s helpful. That’s the approach I’ve taken in Get Set! Piano, trying to incorporate as many options as possible so one may work for the student.

NB: Before being introduced to notation, children benefit greatly from a course of musicianship including singing, rhythm work and improvisation. And whatever method book you use, it is always a good idea to bear the general principal of “sound before symbol” in mind when introducing any notation.

See Andrew’s blog post ‘Sound before Symbol: lessons from history’.

Is this a good approach?

I try to question myself constantly when using any of these methods

  • ‘Is this working for my student’
  • ‘Do I need to change?’

My own piano teacher, the late Christine Brown, advocated: ‘No one method!’  I would add to this that the student’s individual learning needs and enjoyment should be your greatest guide.

Questions we need to ask ourselves when considering what teaching methods to use for the individual:

  1. What makes this child or adult tick?
    What are their interests, what do they enjoy at school, do they have a pet, what’s their favourite TV programme, do they have many friends? For children, an in-depth chat with the child and a parent is a useful starting point.
  2. Ask your student how they like to learn.
    Some children will struggle with this but older children and adults will be far more aware than you think.
  3. Ask your student what they like to play.
    And be brave – ask what they enjoy in your lessons!
  4. Are they progressing with the method you are using?
  5. Should you change what you are doing?
  6. What are the options available to you?
    Be open to trying all of them until something works.
  7. Is your student comfortable with the material you are using?
    Try to read their body language.
  8. Record when your student has really excelled with materials.  Why do you think it worked?
  9. Can I do something to make this piece personal to my student?
    A beginner student can love a simple piece with their name in.  ‘Funky Freddie’ in Get Set! Tutor Book 1 is always very successful with the Freddies I teach, or ‘Bounce High, Bounce Low’, in the same book, can also include the child’s name. Try it!
  10. Is your teaching inspiring enough to make your student want to make the piano a friend for the rest of their lives?

‘A good teacher is a willing learner’, and I’d add ‘a flexible facilitator’

Teaching Dyslexic Students

Top Ten Tips for accessible/dyslexia friendly music teaching, taken from the British Dyslexia Association’s website

  1. Be imaginative and patient. One size doesn’t fit all: everyone is different. How do you/does your student learn best?
  2. The student should choose what works including reminders (such as tracking from one end of the stave to the next). Don’t impose ideas.
  3. Use colour (of the student’s choice) for highlighting etc.
  4. All activities should be very structured: chunk information; build it up.
  5. Use multi-sensory approaches: hear; see; feel; read; write; hands on etc.
  6. Consider whether visual difficulties (visual stress) could be a problem; try copying onto tinted paper (of the student’s choice).
  7. Use over-learning/revision/embedding: recap – repeat – give overviews and summaries. This helps with short-term memory difficulties.
  8. Try approaches from Kodály, Dalcroze, Suzuki. They aren’t always successful with dyslexic/dyspraxic students, so just given them a go!
  9. Remember: dyslexic people can take 10 times as long to complete an activity = extra tiredness and perhaps stress & poor self-esteem.
  10. Help with organisation (in imaginative ways): use mobile phones; post-its; labels; colour-coding; texts etc.Use written reminders (using large, sans-serif fonts, if possible, not handwritten).

Queries? Contact  bdamusicdyslexia@gmail.com

Karen Marshall

Karen Marshall is the co-writer of Get Set! Piano with Heather Hammond (Bloomsbury), and the compiler of ABRSM Encore.  She works as a peripatetic and private piano teacher, a classroom music teacher, and music and dyslexia specialist.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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