Opus Colorado

Piano Method Books
January 24, 2012, 10:51 am
Filed under: Commentary

Recently, I have been forced, through no fault of my own (Does that expose prejudice?) to deal with method books designed to make piano teaching “exciting and easy” for the student. I decided to post my opinion on this subject, because, in some ways, it could have been included in my two recent articles on the fragility and diminution of our culture.

For those of you who are not familiar with method books, they are books (most often a series of five or more) which are designed to be used, usually in consecutive order, starting with learning to read music, and usually covering some aspect of technique, which the books define as the ability to move one’s fingers in the right place at the right time. There are many publishers of method books, and I will not name any of the publishers since my opinion of method books has never been high, and with every re-acquaintance, sinks lower. The reason for my poor opinion of them is that all of these books and their authors and their publishers make several assumptions which are contrary to what I believe about teaching piano and teaching the art of music.

1.) They make the assumption that all students are alike.

2.) They make the assumption that learning piano is an arduous task for young people who want to learn it, therefore:

3.) The music in them is quite often a famous melody from symphonies, ballets, or operas that have been simplified so that the student can play them.

4.) That automatically assumes that the student cannot possibly be interested in anything they have not heard before.

5.) This should make it fairly clear that the authors and publishers (note that I did not say composers and publishers) think that children can’t be very bright.

6.) The five items above should also make it fairly clear that the authors and publishers think that the teachers can’t be very bright, or at least have not much education to know about the music written by composers for their children or their students, which is, unfortunately, often the case.

7.) The authors and publishers of method books also advertise often that their publications make it easy for the piano teacher.

8.) All of the above destroy the art of music, particularly when one considers that:

9.) Some of the authors of the method books consider themselves to be composers, and “compose” pieces with catchy titles such as “From the Wigwam” which they think will appeal to young students.

10.) This obfuscates the necessity of the teacher to teach music as an art and piano playing as an art.

11.) There is an alarming number of piano teachers who are not seemingly concerned with teaching music as an art, and likewise, playing the piano. Many of them have the absolute best of intentions, but continually insult the intelligence of even four-year-olds when it comes to teaching piano and music.

There are those teachers who think that only students who are “born with a natural gift” will ever become good students. They fail to recognize the fact that it has been proven that no one is born with a natural gift for anything in particular. Mozart excelled because his father, while a mediocre composer, happened to be a good teacher, and he started teaching Mozart at a very early age. The same thing applies to the famous golfer, Tiger Woods. Those who proclaim him a “natural talent” don’t seem to understand that his father, like Mozart’s, was a very skilled teacher, plus, he gave Tiger his first golf club when he was 11 months old.

It is alarming to me that the reliance on method books is so strong. It certainly demonstrates, again, in my opinion, that the teacher does not have proper training on which to rely. Education is of paramount importance to any profession. Lawyers and doctors have a professional degree, which they have to have before they practice, and for the rest of their lives they are reading to keep themselves current in their profession. The same applies to accountants and architects. I have run across many piano teachers who rely on method books because they lack that education. Therefore, the easiest path for them to take is to rely on a series of books that tells them what to do. I have always been mystified by those who don’t know the literature, and yet feel comfortable teaching the inadequate material that usually appears in method books.

It seems most obvious to refute the above eleven points as follows:

1.) It should be plainly clear that no two students are alike, no matter the similarities. It is certain that their hands will not be alike.

2.) Learning to play the piano can be an arduous task if:

3.) The music is poor, or a badly arranged version for piano of some orchestral piece that the student may, or may not be, familiar with.

4.) It is up to the teacher to teach the student something new. After all, learning to play the piano is new. What a gift it is to the student to learn Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Kabalevsky, Prokofiev, Haydn, Clementi, and countless others, who wrote music specifically for the keyboard, rather than teach something that has been poorly arranged for the keyboard (How many of you readers have ever heard a young student pound out the theme from “Star Wars,” and shuddered every single time?). There are those who believe that because they can play the piano, not only can they teach it, but they can compose music for it. The teachers who think this way suffer from a failing to understand that composition takes as much skill and study to learn as does learning to play the piano.

5.) Comments in Number 4.) should make it obvious why I call method book authors “authors,” and not composers.

6.) It has often seemed to me that method book authors and publishers do believe that teachers can’t be very bright because they seldom write material that does not insult the teachers intelligence because of its lack of artistic taste, and its implied statement that it will help make teaching and art easy. I am constantly reminded of Pablo Picasso’s statement that, “Anyone can turn the sun into a yellow spot, but only an artist can turn a yellow spot into the sun.”

7.) Teaching is work.

8.) How could one be involved in the destruction of art, and not even recognize it? The teacher fails in his own perception of music as art.

9.) Why continue to insult the intelligence and learning ability of the students?

10.) If the teachers don’t recognize music as an art, they ought not to be teaching it. What an advantage it would be if really young students grew up to realize that music is an art.

The problem arises because as the students get older, and can form their own thoughts, they can look back and regret that they never learned an art.

Many have complained, including myself, that concert audiences today do not include many young people – the majority of the audience is fifty years old and older, however this particular concert season, I have noticed that more young people have been attending concerts. I have sometimes blamed technology for the decline of the acceptance of culture (briefly described as music, art, interest in reading, and knowledge of those fields) in individuals younger than thirty-five years of age, but sometimes I think I have been unfair. Culture has had its aesthetic Pollyannas, preaching that all that it might do would be right; it has had its abusers, pushing it to express various agendas, sometimes literally “out of the barrel of a gun”; others have urged that it be respected, warning, as Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas More did, “This country’s planted thick with laws… and if you cut them down… Do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?” In addition, as everyone is aware, every time there is a financial crisis, artistic culture is the first thing that disappears.

Some may say that I am exaggerating when I discuss method books and compare them to the loss of culture. However, I would point out that the earlier students learn good music, the easier it is for them to understand and appreciate it, and what is learned at an early age usually stays with the student for a very long time. It also exposes them, by making them curious, to other forms of the arts such as literature and the visual arts. How many of Debussy’s friends were artists? Or Stravinsky’s? Or Webern’s? Or Cage’s?

On what path do we set our students? No matter how removed teachers think they are or wish to be, they must realize that they are navigators for these students lives, and they must not use faulty maps. I am quite sure that no teacher wants his student to suffer a loss of definition, or place, or meaning, for example, in the same manner that some of the characters in Samuel Beckett’s plays have suffered, such as Vladimir and Estragon who spend their lives together, and apart, with little to do but looking and waiting for Godot, because they have no culture in their lives to help give them meaning.

2 Comments so far
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Hi, Robin,
Being a piano teacher myself, I find most of your observations painfully accurate (e.g., on a dangerous attachment to ‘methods’, and on pushing pop and rock on our students). And some come close to the recognition of other serious issues still plaguing music teaching.
Anyway, here’s something I don’t agree with:
> [the] students … It is certain that their hands will not be alike.
These words can be referred only to the differences in anatomical size. In reality, this sort of difference is quite insignificant and shouldn’t stand for “each one of us is different” (even though, unfortunately, it still means exactly that, to many people).
What’s much more important is what’s at play here: that, also in playing the piano, our hands operate along the kinetic principles which are not just somewhat similar but downright the same for all healthy human beings.
It’s only that piano pedagogy did not discover that yet (and that’s why our piano teaching can still cheerfully cultivate its, basically Darwinian, approach).
Don’t give up, and good luck to you!

Comment by Paola

Dear Paola,

Thanks for responding to my article. I really do think that there is a difference between the hands of almost everyone, aside from the anatomical size that you correctly point out in your article. The difference really begins to manifest itself when the student is around the age of nine or ten (before that age, there is not much difference except for the anatomical size). When their hands begin to develop, many students have more meat on the ends of their fingers than other students. This means they can play more on the ends of their fingers, which is where the tone comes from, and it also allows them to play in a more relaxed manner. Those that don’t have so much “meat” on the ends of their fingers have to learn to play a little flatter, so that their fingernails don’t slide back and forth on the keys and force them to lose control. It has also been my observation that some students have more flexible joints where their thumb attaches to their hand, thus making it much easier to put their thumb behind their fingers (or under their hand, as some say) when they are doing scale-like passage work. Granted, these differences may be very subtle, but I think they can have a profound effect.

Comment by Robin McNeil

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