Sheet Music Review
Piano Safari is a beginner piano method series written by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr, first published in the USA in 2008. A distinctive approach which has won over many American piano teachers, it is now available in the UK from Alfred Music.
I invited American teacher Brian Jenkins, who has used Piano Safari over a number of years, to write an introduction for Pianodao explaining how it has changed his approach, and why he loves it. I recommend you read his piece here before mine, because he speaks not only with enthusiasm, but with the authority of a teacher who has put the resource into practice.
As Brian has already given a comprehensive overview of the approach, my own points will be supplementary to his. I will review the product itself after reflecting on the methodology…
Sound Before Symbol
As Brian has pointed out, Piano Safari combines pieces to be taught “by rote” with those which use notation. As such it could be seen as a halfway house between the notation-driven approach found in so many method books and the rote-based learning found for example in the Suzuki Method.
While learning by rote is often linked to the concept of teaching “Sound Before Symbol“, the two should not be confused.
Teaching “sound before symbol” simply means that musical language should first be demonstrated through sound, only then introducing notation. Teaching by rote, on the other hand, might involve little or no use of notation at all.
The Piano Safari authors explain how students learn the “Rote Pieces” in their books by suggesting that they:
- Imitate the teacher
- Refer to the score to “detect patterns” (NB, not note reading)
- Reminder Videos for home practice
- Listening CD “for musical understanding” (which costs extra)
Notice that of the 4 stimuli the authors list, 3 are particularly visual, and only one primarily aural (with a focus on developing “musical understanding”).
Personally my initial concern would be that separating “Rote” and “Reading” pieces potentially segregates sound and symbol in a way that could be counter-productive.
Rote vs. Reading?
For the benefit of less experienced teachers I should mention that if “Rote Pieces” are consistently enjoyed more than “Reading Pieces”, this can lead to problems. Consider the following quote from a highly esteemed teacher with many decades experience teaching piano to young beginners:
“Very young beginners, of five years or under, sometimes appear to make remarkable progress at first, and can be taught up to a point by imitation or rote … they progress a certain way and then appear to stand still and, very often, to lose interest.”
Some readers might be surprised to learn that these words were written as long ago as 1954 by revered pedagogue Joan Last in her seminal book The Young Pianist (OUP). If nothing else, it’s a reminder that in the world of piano pedagogy, not much is new under the sun!
Having successfully included rote teaching with students of all ages in my own practice over the last 25 years, I would personally say that it is a question of balance. Visual and aural response are important for musicians, but unless the connection between sound and symbol is properly maintained, music reading can become a stumbling block at any point in the pianist’s progress.
Introducing Music Reading
The Level 1 Repertoire Book contains 5 Units. In the first two, “music reading” involves no pitch notation, and is limited to reading finger numbers (Unit 1) and letter names (Unit 2).
Rhythm reading is introduced right from the start, albeit exclusively using American terminology for note values. The basics of reading pitches on the staff are introduced in Unit 3, but without using note names.
“Reading Pieces” throughout the remainder of the book all start with the RH playing G (treble clef, second line) and the LH playing C (bass clef, second space). However the pieces do not stick to the same hand positions, so that for example the C in the LH is sometimes played with the thumb, other times with the little finger, giving different hand positions.
One clear benefit is that these positions place the hands further apart than they are in many methods, avoiding ulnar deviation and thus setting up the beginner with a healthy technical foundation.
The introduction of these hand positions and many pitches works because the pupil is not expected to make a connection between notation and letter names at this stage. After positioning the first notes, subsequent reading is intervallic.
Having already introduced finger numbers and note letter names, I suspect that many teachers will want to help pupils make connections between the various approaches that Piano Safari concurrently uses.
Reading is further consolidated using the Piano Safari Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards. This is a large pack, with cards that are half-page size and include many additional pieces and exercises. They are for home use, and significantly increase the quantity of material.
Having considered the method, how about the product itself?
The Product Range
The Piano Safari range incorporates the following:
- Level 1 Repertoire Book : £15.50
- Level 1 Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards : £13.50
- Level 1 CD (only actually available as a digital download in the UK) : £6.00
- Level 1 Pack (includes all three of the above) : £30.50
All three elements are for pupil use and essential to the methodology, so it would seem that pupils should invest in the Level 1 Pack at £30.50.
The prices and content grow with Levels 2 and 3:
- Level 2 adds a separate Technique Book, bringing the pack price to £41.50.
- At Level 3 there is no CD/download, but the price remains £41.50 anyway.
This means that the total financial outlay for a pupil using this method will be an eye-watering £113.50.
Any independent review should compare this with popular alternatives, just as parents buying the books will. My preferred choice Get Set! Piano costs less than £30 for all four books. And the glossy UK best-seller, Piano Time by Pauline Hall (OUP) would cost around £40 for the two Tunes for 10 Fingers books plus all three Piano Time level books.
Perhaps the US and UK markets are very different. When visiting a US store a while back it appeared to be dominated by just three method series, whereas a large UK music store may well have 30 or more different method choices on display, each with an entry price point below £10.00.
First Impressions Count
The Level 1 Repertoire Book is a generous 118 pages long, ring bound. The front cover artwork is, as Brian said, “gorgeous”. The back cover, on the other hand, is black card with a bar code sticker.
But the real surprise comes when opening the book.
Although aimed at younger beginners, the whole book is printed entirely in black-and-white, including the small cartoon illustrations.
I can understand why the authors might have wanted the overall appearance of the books to be “clean”, allowing for teachers to use coloured marker pens for example, but I don’t see why the cartoons could not have been colour.
It’s apparent that the book has not been adapted for the UK market in any way. Imagery that appeals to American kids doesn’t always translate well.
“Cleaver the Beaver”, for example, is a peculiarly inappropriate piece title that left me completely and genuinely baffled.
I quickly developed concerns about the quality of the music engraving too. Where notation is used it is suitably large, but treble clefs appear pixilated, like low resolution computer graphics.
The Level 1 Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards are printed on standard coloured card, neither laminated nor embossed. They might be sufficiently durable for one student’s home practice needs, but a teacher using the cards regularly may well need a new set before long.
To be honest, when compared with the many colourful and imaginatively illustrated alternatives available on the UK market, I think that the design and overall presentation here is a problem.
Some Better News
Happily, for those who might be considering using Piano Safari alongside another method, there is an alternative in the form of the Piano Safari Technique & Rote Pieces book, which is reassuringly priced at £9.95.
According to the publishers, the contents are excerpted from Piano Safari Repertoire Books 1 and 2, including:
- Rote Pieces from Piano Safari Repertoire Book 1
- Rote Pieces from Piano Safari Repertoire Book 2
- Technique Exercises based on animals from Repertoire Book 1
- Rote Pieces that correspond to the Animal Technique Exercises
The Technical Exercises & Rote Pieces book thus contains some of the most distinctive elements of Piano Safari in one affordable book, which UK teachers can use alongside their preferred method.
If you feel drawn to implementing the best aspects of Piano Safari in your teaching, this seems to be the obvious place to start.
It seems ill-advised to pledge allegiance to one method when teachers have so much to gain from exploring the many alternatives, offering expertise based on a wider range of approaches to suit each student.
Piano Safari is certainly one of the most interesting methods I have seen, and provides a rich seam of ideas for teachers to consider and tap into. The way notation reading is introduced is distinctive, and in the right hands I believe that some pupils would particularly benefit from this approach. I also like the effort that the authors have made to carefully integrate rote learning and technique into the method.
All that said, I can’t deny my disappointment at the quality of the product itself, nor that I am dismayed by the UK pricing.
Unless Alfred Music can significantly lower this to fit the UK market, while also adapting the content to be suitable for British children, Piano Safari will at best remain a niche product.