Comparing Piano Teaching Methods | Bastien Piano Basics, Suzuki, & More
As you search for local piano teachers, you might notice some teachers listing specific teaching methods on their TakeLessons profile. Here, St. Augustine, FL piano teacher Heather L. explains what each really means…
Over the length of its history, American piano pedagogy has changed dramatically. In its earliest days, when families and communities braved the broad frontier of our continent, music was written on animal hides and skins. Only families who were wealthy enough to afford a keyboard instrument, or lucky enough to have a local schoolhouse or neighbor with one, had the opportunity to take piano lessons. For many years students were taught to curl their fingers drastically when they played, as if they were holding a small ball. Now, we teach to curve naturally and softly.
Other aspects of piano teaching methodology have grown and developed, as well, and several have come about in the last 60 years. The following is an introduction to the most popular teaching methods of the last decade that I’ve seen as a piano instructor.
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“I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”
The late Japanese violinist Shin’ichi Suzuki created the Suzuki method, one of the most popular methods for teaching instruments, especially to young children. He believed that every child could become well-educated and that every child could learn how to play a musical instrument in the same way in which they learned language. For Suzuki, it was all about learning from your environment. If the pedagogical steps were small enough, a positive and encouraging environment was nurtured, and the instruments were scaled down to a child’s size, then any child could learn to perform at a very high level. Within the past 50 years, piano teachers began instructing children in the Sukuki method.
The primary criticism of the Suzuki method is that its focus on memorization, group playing, and extensive listening to recordings leads to poor sight reading ability and a virtual absence of personal musical expression. Essentially, critics see it as just a method to churn out little cookie-cutter pianists. In response, Suzuki teachers have incorporated sight reading earlier into their curriculum and re-emphasized the development of individual style. Suzuki piano books are available in 10 volumes.
Bastien Piano Basics
“Never before, nor since, has there been a piano method as easy to follow, as pedagogically sound, as exciting to look at, as musical to play – and as well-designed for motivation, achievement, and success as BASTIEN PIANO BASICS.”
—www.KJOS.com (website of Bastien publisher, Neil A. Kjos)
The Bastien Piano Basics, available from the Neil A. Kjos publishing company, is made up of five levels of learning: primer, for the very youngest piano student, and increasingly more challenging levels one, two, three, and four. Typically, the primer series is used for children aged four and five, but as a teacher myself, I’ve seen its usefulness in the lessons of those who are six and seven. They are filled with colorful, albeit dated, illustrations and fun themes. Each level is completely correlated, which means that each page in the theory book is meant to work on the same concept or technique as a page in the performance book and in the lesson book.
While this is a very popular method, critics hold that both the Alfred (detailed below) and Bastien methods’ emphasis on position playing (that is, placing hands in “C position” or “F position,” for example) results in students who lack a lot of sight reading and technical skills. Your child might end up only able to play pieces that have the hands in a certain position. Real music literature just isn’t set up like that. While I teach the Bastien piano method, I prefer the next one.
The Music Tree by Frances Clark and Louise Goss
Published by Summy-Birchard Inc. and distributed by Warner Bros., The Music Tree emphasizes sight reading, rhythm, theory, and most importantly, intervallic reading. This means reading by recognizing the distance, or intervals, between notes. Learning this way not only helps prepare students for the wide world of real music, but also helps you read faster. The method consists of workbooks, even one for your teacher!
Alfred Piano Method
While this method also teaches position playing, it also dives into intervallic reading, as described above. Many true, albeit arranged, baroque, romantic, and classical piano pieces are featured without a lot of fluff and fanfare. This may be an ideal method for more serious, self-motivated students. The Alfred method is featured in a variety of books, including an all-in-one piano course for children, a prep course, and a basic piano library, completely correlated and presented in progressive levels.
Faber and Faber Method
With this teaching method, Nancy and Randall Faber created a well-liked and approachable series for both young and old beginners to grow with. Colorful graphics and good practice suggestions, like counting aloud, are terrific features of this set. The flaws are, yet again, a focus on position playing and the fact that it takes such a long time for you to get to play classical repertoire that isn’t arranged.
Beware of “miracle methods,” which claim to be able to teach you to play the keyboard in a matter of days. Sure, you’ll be able to play a song, but you won’t be able to read music and therefore learn another instrument or grow as a pianist. They’re also often not pedagogically sound.
The Suzuki method, Bastien piano basics, and the Clark, Faber, and Alfred methods—even though this certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, you’ll see that a variety of piano methods abound. Preferences vary between teachers. Different students respond better to different methods. With the help and guidance of your piano teacher and knowing your or your child’s learning style, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about which is best for your studies.
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