Guest Post by Brian Jenkins
Popular in the US, the Piano Safari method is now available in the UK from Alfred Music. With many here now expressing an interest, a review from a U.K. perspective will follow here soon.
In the meantime, US teacher Brian Jenkins explains how the method has impacted his teaching…
If you haven’t heard about Piano Safari yet, it’s a piano method book that was released in 2011 that both teachers and students are falling in love with. It uses a different approach than the mainstream methods out there, and if you ask me, that’s a good thing.
Katherine Fisher, one of the two authors of the book, compares the learning of piano in traditional method books to learning a language.
”Although a person may learn to read and write in ancient Greek through a grammar book, it will not be useful for learning to speak the language the way it sounded in the time of Alexander the Great. In order to speak the language correctly and become fluent, one would need to hear the language spoken and practice speaking it.”
If you’re familiar with the Suzuki method, this may sound familiar. Suzuki taught that students should learn music the same way that we learn our native language, by speaking first. In the Suzuki method reading music is delayed, sometimes even by a few years.
Delaying music reading is a cause for concern for some teachers. Piano Safari takes an all inclusive approach. It encourages learning by ear and rote, similar to the Suzuki method, but it also deeply integrates reading from the beginning.
There are so many benefits to teaching by rote, and Piano Safari does a great job of promoting it.
Most pieces in Piano Safari come with a teacher duet part. Students are encouraged to listen to the music on the accompanying CD before playing each piece. This way the student can get to know the piece better rhythmically and by ear.
The rote pieces begin with an introduction to piano geography. In the introduction and Unit 1 they use only the the second finger of either hand. At first glance I was a disappointed that it took a full unit to introduce more than just the second finger into the rote pieces. Once I taught with it for a while I found that it was written like that for good reason.
Beginning piano students, especially young ones, learn a lot from moving their entire hands around the keyboard. They understand the piano much better when they can physically experience it. This foundational understanding of the piano would be difficult if they were introduced to more fingers right away.
When I was teaching “I Love Coffee”, a rather long rote piece in unit 1, to a 4 year old student, I noticed the student making very interesting discoveries for herself. There is a part of the piece that goes from C8 down the chromatic scale to D6. I thought that if I just said, “play every note including the black keys!” that she would get it right first try. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that easy. She would often skip some black keys or even a white key or two. I could see her mind processing and learning how the keys were arranged.
There’s no way she would have been able to effectively make that discovery by playing the chromatic scale using a regular chromatic scale fingering. Reading a note as high as C8 would be too difficult as well. That’s one reason that teaching by rote is so helpful.
Finally, each rote piece has a corresponding “reminder video” on the Piano Safari website. These videos can be used so that students can practice throughout the week even when the teacher is no longer there.
In the introduction, technique is taught in a very similar way to other method books with pictures of correct hand shapes and sitting at the keyboard.
One of the authors, Julie Knerr, wrote her PhD dissertation on teaching elementary piano technique. Technique in Piano Safari is therefore done masterfully as well. Piano Safari does a great job on teaching technique because it is taught by rote.
The first book of Piano Safari takes the student through animal based technical exercises. Each exercise relates to a different animal and teaches a new piano technique. Following the technical exercises are (fun) rote pieces that use that technique. The exercises in book one are as follows:
- Lion Paw – Arm weight
- Zechariah Zebra – Fast repeated notes
- Tall Giraffe: Non Legato
- Tree Frog – Legato with bouncy arm
- Kangaroo – Fast repeated notes
- Soaring Bird – Legato with one arm motion
- Monkey Swinging in a Tree – Rotation
If you haven’t guessed yet, most of the music in Piano Safari is animal based!
One of the many differences between Piano Safari and the Suzuki method is its focus on reading music.
Music reading is taught intervallically with Piano Safari. It begins without a staff with fingering written out for the black keys similar to other methods. It then progresses to white keys with pre-staff notation as well using a simple five finger pattern. Finally it begins to teach intervals. It begins with teaching 2nds, then 3rds, and then a combination of the two.
The names of the notes are not stressed with this intervallic reading approach, and reading is not rushed. This is an especially interesting part of the approach. By the end of the first book (which takes most students about a year to complete) students are reading just 2nds and 3rds.
This doesn’t mean that there are few reading assignments, there are a lot. Out of the 74 pieces or activities in the first book, 30 of them are reading related. Reading is not a small part of the method. By spending plenty of time on learning these intervals, students get a strong foundation in intervallic reading.
The students are still able to have fun at the instrument and feel accomplished because they are playing so many fun pieces by rote.
Improvisation is often left out of method books, likely because classical music of today is rarely improvised. Piano Safari doesn’t follow the crowd, though, and it includes 5 great pieces that the student can improvise to. Although there are only 5 pieces, there is no reason why they can’t be used continually even at every lesson. There is a lot the student can experiment with during an improvisation. The teacher’s duet is included, and instructions are given for what notes the student is supposed to use at the piano.
Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards
All great sight readers know that one of the best ways to learn to sight read well is to do it a lot. The sight reading cards which are produced as a companion for Piano Safari allow a student to read music that they haven’t seen before.
Each card contains rhythms to tap out and notes to play at the piano as well. There are 16 cards for each unit. They follow along nicely with what is being taught in the repertoire book. They should be used daily by the student to improve sight reading.
If you’re already teaching a student using a different method, you may be interested in adding just the rote and technique pieces to supplement your lessons.
You can purchase just the rote and technique separately in addition to other great supplemental material that they provide on their website.
Julie and Katherine don’t just expect you to buy Piano Safari and be on your own. They have written, and recorded, some amazing guides to help the teacher through their journey of teaching. Each guide gives suggestions on how to teach each unit. They have also published mini essays that will help you not only teach with Piano Safari better, but become better teachers in general as well.
The Actual Book
The cover is gorgeous. When it first arrived I was surprised, though, that every page was in black and white. It was more of an observation than anything else. I figured it was less expensive to print, and it seems to have more pages than a traditional method book, so perhaps to stay competitively priced they needed to leave out the color.
On further investigation, though, it turns out that they made it black and white by design, so that the teachers own color markings would stand out on the page.
It’s just a small feature to the book, but it further emphasizes how much the method was thought out from beginning to end.
If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to at least give Piano Safari a try. I think you’ll be surprised by what you find. It may change your approach to teaching for the better.
Brian is owner and CEO of YourMusicLessons, an online marketplace that connects music teachers to music students throughout the United States. Brian graduated from Chapman University in Orange California as a Piano Performance major.
In addition to running YourMusicLessons, Brian teaches private piano lessons throughout Orange County California.