A Short History of Piano Methods
Lesson 12: A Short History of Piano Methods
To the consumer, finding a piano method must be like shopping for a golf swing, or six pack abs: there are a million different methods out there. First let’s distinguish the historic methods from the current spate of internet derived products. Further, let’s distinguish between historic methods that are “legitimate” and those that are, shall we say, “new school.”
Most legitimate, historic piano teaching methods are derived from the work of Carl Czerny (1791-1857) a pupil of Beethoven. He was the first to number the fingers and create exercises based on that numbering, as well as create an entire library of teaching pieces.
In the mid to late 1800s, the great teachers Leschetitsky and Liszt both had schools of thought to deal with the emerging romantic pieces that presented entirely new demands to the pianist and teacher.
Their pupils and descendants still rule the land of Juilliard. If you’re attempting to play the piano, sooner or later you will come up against similar demands, which a serious pianist must fulfill by any means necessary. For the amateur or hobbyist of today, their standards are irrelevant.
The New School
Around 1925, the piano craze waned in popularity due to the proliferation of the radio. Many new methods had been put forth during the piano fad, in an attempt to make piano lessons less of a chore, while still following the principles of the Old School.
Methods like John Schaum’s and John Thompson’s date from around here. Books were dressed up with pictures and illustrations, all geared toward the masses. But as time went on, musical skills became the property of the few, and less and less people bothered to learn to read music, regardless of the fancy drawings and the window dressing.
Even the “friendly” methods such as Schaum and Thompson became a bore. No one had ever heard of any of the songs as time passed, since these methods were NEVER updated from their original form.
More modern versions of these methods came under names like the Alfred method, and the Faber series. They were still all basically the same. Even our favorite, the Bastien series, is no more than a colorful rehashing of the same strategic concepts, 1 2 3 4 5 or C D E F G.
The intellectual design of all known piano methods is to find the first five white keys above Middle C, and branch out from there. No matter how you dress it up, there is really nothing else that these methods CAN do at the beginning.
In Piano By Number, we start with 1 2 3 4 5:
In standard musical notation, it is expressed in this this much more complex way ("C" is the same as "1".):
Because of the restrictions that reading music imposes, these conventional methods tend to veer off, quickly, into boredom for almost all children. Since there is nothing musically recognizable, the accomplishment of learning a familiar song is lessened for the child.
The drudgery necessary to get all the fingers in a row, to get all the rhythms correct and master all the other aspects of sheet music is a process that so dulls the spirit of the child that few wish to continue after a few months. Statistics bear this out.
Teach Yourself Piano
The Newer School
In the 1950s, just in time for the baby boomers, there came many attempts to simplify piano lessons further, resulting in everything from piano by color to piano by animal. The Emenee organ came with a book of songs with numbers, while others featured simply the letter names of the keys.
The intent of all these methods was to get the child to play something without the drudgery of reading music at first. This is another way of admitting that reading music is lethal to children if introduced too early in piano lessons.
While all these methods have some merit, in my opinion, only numbers have permanent relevance to musical construction. Piano by color and animal, and the others, although they are a nice gimmick for the beginning, do not have any other lasting value other than their ability to usher the child gently into the world of the piano.
The Internet And Software
With the advent of the internet, just about anyone could present their method online and try to gather converts. Some offered simply the old-style books with variations, and some were early software systems, like Music Ace. Further variations such as Piano Wizard and Piano Made Easy veered off into the automated realm using irrelevant gimmicks like keys that light up.
The trouble with software, in my opinion, is that it does not give the child command, the feeling of making music at a keyboard. All children I speak to about piano software report the same theme: software is fun for a bit but then soon become boring.
And there are other products that are expressly for adults, which I will not name. I have had many refugees from these methods come and seek my services, because these methods never take into account how terribly slowly a beginner must go at reading music.
Too many online teachers assume the consumer knows or will be able to quickly understand the minutiae of deciphering sheet music.
What You Should Aim For
You may have to combine several methods from the above list to suit your student. Don’t forget that ultimately, the student must learn to read music. Exactly when to place this in their curriculum is a decision only a sensitive and patient teacher can make. My suggestion is to embrace every new or nouveau method, from color to chords to numbers, in the very beginning, and then slowly start including the curriculum from the old school.
This method assures enthusiasm in the beginning while expertise is building. Attack more difficult problems slowly and patiently. “Difficult” is a term irrelevant in comparative use between one student and another. Find the lowest common denominator of motor skills a child can handle, and patiently start there.
This is a child’s “comfort zone” at the piano, and expanding it successfully at the piano is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a piano teacher.
COURSE ONE: TEACHING TOOLS
COURSE TWO: TEACHING BACKGROUND
COURSE THREE: PIANO GAMES