The Problem with Method Books

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

Few topics generate as much heat online as discussion about which piano Method Book series is ‘the best’.

As a reviewer I have more than once found myself on the receiving end of some odd feedback on the subject. One teacher might chastise me for being in their view way too generous in my evaluation of a particular Method Book, while another responds to the same review as if I had just personally insulted their favourite grandma.

In this post I will explain why there will never be a truly perfect Method Book. We’ll consider a balanced curriculum, stare into the abyss of a world without Method Books at all, and hopefully come away with a better idea of how to use Method Books in a sensible, balanced way.

Playing vs. Reading

Let me start by asking you A Really Big Question: Do you expect a Method Book to provide a comprehensive resource for playing the piano, for reading music, or both?

How we personally answer this question will have a huge impact on how we view the various Method Books available (and how we teach).

And at the heart of the question lies the sobering reality that there are many different but valid approaches to learning the piano, and a similarly diverse range of well-tested strategies for developing reading skills.

Learning to Play

UK teachers may well be familiar with A Common Approach 2002, which was developed (under the combined auspices of the FMS, NAME and the RCM) by a team of leading teachers of which I had the privilege of being a member. It offers a framework to guide instrumental teaching, and was quickly adopted by Music Services across the UK and beyond.

Here is The Piano Framework, which offers a guide to the areas of learning which can be holistically integrated to promote what A Common Approach calls ‘broad and balanced programmes of study’

A. Listening and internalising, including
• listening to music with concentration in and out of lessons, building on their experiences;
• having a clear aural perception of the music to be played;
• recognising and discriminating between the musical elements of pulse, pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, texture and tone colour;
• recognising and conveying structural elements in their playing;
• making links between sound and symbols when using notation.

B. Making and controlling sounds: developing technique
• posture and freedom of movement / keyboard geography;
• fingering and co-ordination;
• tone quality, sound production and articulation.

C. Creating, developing and interpreting musical ideas
• improvising expressively;
• applying their instrumental skills in composing;
• interpreting music, developing a personal response.

D. Playing music
• working out how to play music by ear
• repeating musical patterns and phrases accurately from memory
• playing pieces in a variety of styles with fluency, expression and understanding
• memorising pieces that have been learnt
• reading and playing music at sight

E. Playing music with others
• listening, watching, responding and leading
• contributing to collective decisions, including interpretation

F. Performing and communicating
• interpreting and communicating the character of the music
• evaluating their performance and making improvements

To what extent it is desirable to consistently incorporate all these with each student at every level of their progression is of course debatable. But for those keen to delve into how this might work in practice, A Common Approach goes on to offer specimen schemes of work, with practical teaching and learning strategies for every level from beginner to advanced.

These schemes of work can now be accessed freely online here, and I trust all teachers will find them useful.

Using this list to devise the materials needed to help your students learn to play, how similar would they be to your current preferred Method Book?

My guess is that there will be some similarities as well as striking differences, and areas that need to be dealt with ‘away from the page’.

Each unique student’s requirements will of course also be different. Method Books are at best a compromise, useful only in so far as they match any individual student’s needs.

So when selecting and tailoring teaching materials we must carefully consider:

  • the age and gender of the student;
  • their prior musical and academic learning;
  • their approach to learning and multi sensory needs;
  • any identified learning disabilities or needs;
  • their ongoing musical engagement and personal enthusiasms;
  • your agreed medium term musical goals;
  • ethnic and cultural considerations.

Notice the very first point from A Common Approach

This is of course the absolute foundation of musical learning. But it can’t by definition be included in any Method Book.

Any author’s best guess about prior listening experiences will never be very accurate, and is likely to be even less so if that writer is from another country/culture.

Learning to Read

While Method Books cannot be expected to provide a comprehensive basis for instruction, they can offer a systematic approach to learning music reading, which is obviously very useful. And this appears to be the primary aim of many Method Books on the market, which is hardly surprising given that the main products are – well, books!

But notice that in the list from A Common Approach above, reading only plays a minor role.

If we aim to be ‘broad and balanced’ in our approach, then a method focussing on the introduction of notation as the primary driver of progress is quite probably the wrong way to go about things.

In any case, there are many approaches to learning how to read music, and the following have all proven popular and successful with at least some students:

  • Using “Landmark Notes”
  • Intervallic reading – noticing steps, skips and jumps
  • Starting from Middle C, introducing notes in each clef, moving outward in a five finger position
  • Using hand positions an octave apart
  • Pattern recognition
  • Using Coloured notes
  • Flash Cards, note recall
  • Note rhymes (mnemonics)

Whatever the approach taken, I would suggest that it’s important for teachers to understand that accessing a variety of strategies is far better than limiting ourselves to just the one favoured by our chosen Method Book, however good we believe it to be.

How to Use a Method Book

When Ofsted began inspecting instrumental Music Services in earnest in the mid 1990s, one of their early conclusions was that much of the worst teaching they observed occurred where teachers relied too heavily on Method Books, simply working from one page to the next each week, failing to be flexible and creative in meeting students’ needs.

Several of the best, most inspiring teachers I’ve met over the years avoid Method Books altogether, and you might by now be expecting me to recommend following their example…

But actually, I would suggest that the problem with Method Books is not with the publications themselves (which in many cases are rather good!), but more with how they are used, especially by teachers who are dogmatic, or who haven’t learnt to critically evaluate the content.

With all this in mind, here are some of the considerations which I would recommend that teachers reflect on:

1: Avoid recommending a Method Book in the very first lessons. Take time to get to know your student, assess their prior learning, work on basic aspects of piano playing, and evaluate their approach to reading strategies introduced first in lessons. Only then, with an open mind, decide which approach might best suit them.

2: If you are fairly new to teaching, don’t simply adopt the Method Book which is newest on the market, or which seems to have the loudest fanbase on Facebook. Familiarise yourself with three or four method series, trying them out with pupils, evaluating outcomes and suitability.

3: It is ultimately more important to be aware of a Method Book’s weaknesses than its strengths. These are the areas that you must compensate for in your teaching, away from the book.

4: Try to start every lesson with the Method Book closed, using activities you have devised to meet each students’ particular needs, and taking care make up for any shortcomings in the book.

5: Pick a Method Book that introduces notation in a way you are comfortable with, but be careful to avoid “confirmation bias” – don’t jump straight for the Method Book which fits with your existing ideas. Be flexible and mindful of each student’s needs.

6: A Common Approach refers to playing music in a ‘variety of styles’. Method Books that rely too heavily on the music of their own authors must be treated with caution. Any player’s repertoire should include music by a broad range of composers, including contemporary styles, songs the player will recognise, and core pedagogic pieces.

7: Don’t waste time and energy searching for a perfect one-size-fits-all method. Instead devote yourself to tailoring each lesson to meet each of your student’s specific needs. That way you will undoubtedly develop into a better and more sought-after teacher!

8: In addition to all the points made above, also consider:

  • The cost of the publications;
  • The clarity of presentation;
  • The visual aesthetics of the books;
  • Supplementary materials, e.g. online videos, audio recordings, etc;
  • How long a book is likely to last the pupil before they need to buy another.

The only way we will ultimately find the best Method Book for each student is to write them their own!

An Exciting Pathway

In keeping with the spirit of the Pianodao site, I will conclude by drawing some philosophical parallels.

In his excellent book 365 Tao (Harper, 1992), daoist teacher Deng Ming-Dao describes our personal growth in four stages, which I think are certainly also pertinent for our development as piano teachers:

  • Starting out, following the rules/method.
  • Growing to maturity, and developing more flexibility.
  • Learning to embrace creativity and spontaneity.
  • Reaching toward mastery, exploring our own path.

We would be wise to consider this list “aspirational”, while also reflecting on which of the four stages best describes our current teaching.

If the Method Book is “the rules”, we need not so much throw it out as absorb those aspects that are good, adopting and personalising them in our teaching so as to meet the particular needs of each student.

Over time we are likely to draw on a wide range of published resources, while relying on suitable beginner repertoire and our own expertise and experience to comprehensively educate our students, each according to their needs.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.