Guest Post by Karen Marshall
People may assume as an author of a method book I always use it. This simply is not the case. The right material is always my first consideration. And at times another tutor may be more suitable.
Perhaps for a very young beginner needing a slower progression or a teenager/adult needing something faster. Students have many different needs. I’m currently using alternative tutors with two beginners for those very reasons…
One size fits all?
When I first started piano teaching I used ‘one method’. Another pupil of my old piano teacher had been using it for years. So I thought,
“If it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me!”
It worked quite well until I had a student who seemed to not be making any progress. I received some promotional material through the post about another piano method. Sounded fantastic! I promptly purchased this and became – well the only way to describe it is – evangelical about how wonderful this method was.
And then, you guessed it, I had a different student who luckily had the courage to tell me
“I really don’t like this book.”
I was having piano lessons with a very experienced teacher at the time. He laughed and said,
“Haven’t you realised yet Karen, you can’t just use one method.”
“You are just teaching based on what you think is best, how you were taught, in a way that you want to teach.
You really should be using lots of different methods and finding what works best for the student.”
Tough to hear!
To this day I feel a little guilty and, yes, embarrassed that I was simply using a ‘one size fits all’ approach. However there is a reason for this. It’s worth doing a little research on ‘confirmation bias theory’ (this video is a useful summary ). It explains why I was pre-disposed to making this mistake.
Choosing the Method
Over the many years of piano teaching I have learnt to never follow ‘one method’.
Here are a few things I consider when selecting a method or any materials for teaching the piano.
- How old is this student?
- Are they male or female?
- Children 5 to 7 years won’t progress like an 8 year old.
- Teenagers need something different to adults
- And if a child has a specific learning difficulty – or is ‘gifted and talented’ – then this also needs to be taken into account.
The younger beginner needs in my view a really good primer and before even that, general musicianship training. Helen Reid, the concert pianist, runs a series of classes in the Bristol area call Black Bird Early Years Music for just this purpose. Similar things can be found across the UK.
My own experience is that younger students need a slower progression with lots of singing activities (sound before symbol). Pulse and rhythm games are pretty essential too.
In my time I’ve used My First Piano Adventures, Hal Leonard Piano Lessons 1, Dogs and Birds 1, Poco Piano, Tune for Ten Fingers, Alfred and also Bastien Books. I’ve even just developed my own material as I’ve gone along, as nothing has seemed to quite fit.
- Boys can prefer a different tutor to girls – Joanna McGregor’s Piano World, supplemented with some additional material has been quite a hit with some of my young boys.
- Teenagers have enjoyed Alan Bullard’s Pianoworks along with Christopher Norton’s Microjazz for Absolute Beginners book A & B.
- Some Adult’s have enjoyed Carol Barratt’s course – the faster learners – others have like the Alfred Adult All in One Course that includes lots of chord work. Hal Leonard also offer an adult course and Faber offer Pam Wedgwood’s It’s never too late.
- For students aged 7 to 8 years, there is much out there – and I’ve used about 30 different tutors in my time. I select a tutor simply on what works best for the child – my personal collection is vast!
Students tend to borrow a book to begin with and then purchase it after I’m sure it is working. Inevitably this still gets supplemented with other materials on the way – from Bartok’s Mikrokosmos 1 to Faber and Faber Fun Time piano – five finger melodies and much, much, more.
How long is the lesson? I’ve taught lessons for just 10 minutes in schools. Currently my average lesson time in school is just 20 minutes but 30 minutes in private practice. What tutor book I use with a student is at times reflected by this.
A very short lesson may need a parent to back things up more at home so a tutor that is very clear for them to follow too (even if a non musician) is needed.
What is the motivation for the person learning the piano? This can be particularly important when teaching teenagers or adults. Perhaps they simply want to play pieces they recognise?
I have battled with this as a teacher, wanting to give a very ‘classical’ experience. I am now quite happy to teach primarily material they want to play.
I do try to find the best pianistic arrangements of popular Beatle songs (Hal Leonard and Piano Adventures provide lots of material here), Alan Haughton’s series for teenagers published by Kevin Mayhew offers some good material too.
As a peripatetic teacher I have taught in very small spaces and moved up to three times in one three hour teaching session. A tutor that demands lots of activities away from the piano may not work well in this environment.
So you may need to teach material that can be done with the student sat on the piano stool or using the piano lid.
For example, sat at the piano the student can mark high, medium and low pitch using their shoulders, waist and knees. Rhythms and pulse can be tapped on the piano lid or they can use their lap.
Karen Marshall is co-author of ‘Get Set! Piano’ and ‘The Intermediate Pianist’ with Heather Hammond, and The Foundation Pianist with David Blackwell. She has also compiled the ABRSM ‘Encore’ Series, and co-authored ‘How to Teach Instrumental and singing lessons: 100 Inspiring Ideas’ with Penny Sterling.
Karen teaches students of all ages and abilities as a peripatetic, private and classroom music teacher (primary) in York. She is a specialist in Music and Special needs.
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