*Excerpted from Professional Piano Teaching, Volume 1, by Jeanine M. Jacobson.
What is a piano method?
The function of a method book is to provide a logical progression for learning concepts and skills, and music for the practice of these elements. Choosing the appropriate method will help students move through the beginning stages with relative ease, while laying a strong foundation for future study. The student’s learning style, experience with music, understanding of the keyboard, aural and physical development, reading capabilities, and rhythmic maturity are all factors to be considered when choosing a beginning method. Teachers should consider individual needs to select a method that meets the requirements of each student. The variety of beginning methods available today provides teachers with many choices.
Successful teachers are familiar with a number of beginning piano methods to assure that educated choices are made for individual students. Judging a method by teaching it is time consuming and sometimes places the student in an experimental role. A preliminary review, using a specific set of criteria, is an excellent way to become acquainted with a wide variety of methods. Initially, three basic questions can be considered.
Is the method systematic and logical in its presentation of concepts and skills?
The presentation of concepts and skills should be systematic and logical. For example, in many methods, beginning students learn to play pieces that use melodic 2nds only. Other intervals (3rds through 5ths) are added gradually, and larger intervals are introduced later. This is a systematic introduction to intervals. If, during the first weeks of lessons, the student has a piece that has 2nds, 3rds, and one 6th, the 6th is out of place since 6ths have not yet been presented. It is likely that the 6th would not occur again until several weeks or months later. Methods that include such out-of-order presentations are not systematic. When teachers study an unfamiliar method, they must compare each piece to the preceding one to make sure it is only incrementally more difficult. Each new concept or skill should build slowly on what the student already knows.
Does it provide ample reinforcement?
Once each new concept or skill has been introduced, students should use it in a number of pieces, or several times in the same piece, to assure mastery. For example, if a tie is presented as a new concept and practiced in a piece, but does not appear again until several other new concepts and skills have been introduced, students will probably need to relearn the concept of a tie when encountering it the second time. Likewise, when any interval is introduced, there should be several pieces in which that interval is presented with increasing complexity, variety, and frequency. No other significant new concept or skill should be introduced until there has been sufficient reinforcement of the new interval.
Does it present a comprehensive introduction to music through piano playing?
Methods that introduce concepts and skills in a way that helps students become complete musicians are superior to those that limit their experience to repertoire and technique. Students can simultaneously experience reading, rhythm, technique, ensemble, ear development, transposition, creativity, theory, and musical performance. For example, when each new interval is introduced, students can learn to read it, fit it into a rhythmic pattern, learn the technique for playing it, and play it in a piece. However, they can also identify its sound, move it to a different place (transpose), use it as harmony as well as melody, and play it in various ways (loud, soft, short, long, fast, or slow). They can hear the interval in relation to the teacher’s duet part, find it in other pieces, write it, and create their own pieces with it. When a method provides this variety of experience in a single book, or through supplementary materials, the student receives a comprehensive musical education.
After the three primary criteria have been evaluated, teachers can further explore methods for other specific characteristics. The following twelve elements should be investigated and considered when evaluating a method.
- Scope and Format – When elements seem inconsistent with the targeted age group, the method loses its effectiveness.
- Keyboard Exploration – Methods that limit students to playing only one section of the keyboard inhibit the students’ knowledge of musical sound.
- Reading Approach – Explore questions like, “Are the reading concepts introduced logically?” or “What is the reading approach?” or “Is there sufficient reinforcement for each new reading concept?”
- Rhythm – Consider questions such as, “Are rhythms introduced in a logical way?” or “How does the method build rhythmic understanding into the body?”
- Technique – In some methods, the technical exercises prepare for future needs, while in others, the technical exercises seem to follow their own independent order without a logical relationship to the pieces surrounding them.
- Musical Content – Originally composed pieces are often written to support the reading, rhythmic, and technical philosophies of the authors.
- Aural Development – When methods provide ways for students to develop their aural skills, they will make fewer mistakes, be able to correct the mistakes they makes, and learn to listen critically to their playing.
- Development of Musical Playing – When methods make it easy to play musically from the very first lessons, learning will be satisfying.
- Creativity – Students will understand concepts thoroughly when they create their own music from the musical ideas they are learning.
- Musicianship – Students who learn about the music they play will become musically literate.
- Application of Learning Principles – Successful authors of beginning methods have observed principles of learning, leading students to learn efficiently.
- Supplementary Materials – Supplementary materials enhance and make learning more enjoyable, assuring that no essential information has been omitted.
For a more detailed explanation of each of these elements, refer to Professional Piano Teaching, Volume 1, by Jeanine M. Jacobson.
Alfred Music offers two top-selling piano methods: Alfred’s Basic Piano Library and Premier Piano Course. The information below will help you in choosing the best piano method for each student.
Alfred’s Basic Piano Library
This method for the average-aged beginner (7-9 years old) uses a position-based reading approach that promotes freedom of movement around the keyboard. This was the first piano method to use an eclectic reading approach, combining elements of the Middle C, Multi-Key, and Intervallic reading approaches. The logical progression of concepts and skills makes it a fun and pedagogically-sound method, appropriate for any student. There are supplementary instructional and performance publications that correlate page-by-page to the Lesson Books.
About the Core Books
- Lesson Book—introduces all new concepts.
- Theory Book—contains enjoyable games and quizzes to reinforce concepts and increase musical understanding.
- Recital Book—provides correlated repertoire to Lesson Books that are based on concepts already learned.
- Technic Book—includes rhythm & reading drills to improve musicianship and develop coordination of the hands.
(Additional materials are available for the course.)
What Teachers Like About Alfred’s Basic Piano Library
- It is an easy step-by-step method that emphasizes correct playing habits and note reading through interval recognition.
- It provides students a solid foundation in music theory.
- In the first book, entertaining pieces are included along with clever lyrics that help the student play and understand the intervals of 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths.
- There are supplementary instructional and performance publications that correlate page-by-page to the Lesson Books.
See progression of concepts and skills.
Premier Piano Course
This method is also suitable for an average-aged beginner (7-9 years old) and uses a non-position-based reading approach, offering today’s students a fully integrated and comprehensive approach to piano instruction. This student-, parent-, and teacher-friendly method provides an imaginative exploration of the exciting world of music. It was written by a superb team of America’s most respected composers and teachers—Dennis Alexander, Gayle Kowalchyk, E. L. Lancaster, Victoria McArthur, and Martha Mier. All of the writers have extensive experience teaching students of all ages. After more than four years of research and testing, they created a course that perfectly blends music, lyrics, pedagogy, art, and fun! There are four core books with a correlated set of flash cards and multiple supplementary books at each level.
About the Core Books
- Lesson Book—introduces all new concepts.
- Theory Book—promotes comprehensive musicianship.
- Performance Book—contains outstanding music written in varied styles to reinforce new musical concepts.
- Technique Book—introduces easy-to-understand technique tools and applies them to artistic performance.
(Additional materials are available for the course.)
What Teachers Like About Premier Piano Course
- The pacing and sound pedagogy provided by E.L. Lancaster, Gayle Kowalchyk, and Victoria McArthur produce strong sight readers.
- The original music composed by Dennis Alexander and Martha Mier is appealing and accessible.
- The musical structure and concepts are presented in a fun and interactive way.
- The emphasis on performing rhythms in patterns helps with reading and memorization.
- The CDs for Lesson and Performance books, beautifully performed on acoustic piano, provide an excellent model.
- The creative orchestrations on the General MIDI disks for the Lesson and Performance books are motivating to students.
See progression of concepts and skills.
Using a beginning reading method is the most common approach to teaching beginners. Teachers must know how to choose the appropriate method for each student. When teachers take time to critically evaluate available methods, they’ll be prepared to build on the strengths of each method and will be ready to supplement where necessary to meet the needs of each individual student. For more information on how to choose the right method for your student, see Professional Piano Teaching, Volume 1, by Jeanine M. Jacobson.
To learn more about our most popular piano methods, visit alfred.com/pianomethods.
I want to keep students’ interest. The piano method needs songs. The student needs to play songs like Mary Had a Little Lamb and Old MacDonald as soon as possible, not pieces that only sound good with CD accompaniment. They do not want to learn songs with guide notes that are c-g-c-g-c-c. They do not just want to play c-d-c-b-c-c, to learn directional reading. (A few exercises like that are okay.) Students need to like their pieces so they will practice. They disliked the pieces in the Alfred Premier Primer.I know how to teach them proper technique, rhythm, and musicality. I have one brilliant student who is an expert at directional reading, so I put him in Alfred Basics 1B when he finished his easy primer book (not Alfred). The challenge is to teach him note names, not just directional reading. I think Alfred Basic is the hardest method. Personally, I like the beautiful music Faber Piano Adventures has in level 2 and up – NOT their primer.
My personal favorite is The Piano Adventures books to begin with. I also like to use Time to Begin, Frances Clark for younger students and students who have difficulty with coordination. I do enjoy many of the Alfred Supplementary Repertoire materials.
I love teaching from Thompson. The music is all based on classics reading starts on the staff instead of locking them into those blasted finger numbers. I can teach intervals on my own. There are lovely books of supplemental music out there, most notably Keith Snell’s “Essential Piano Repertoire” that starts from Prep Level to Level 10.
For Theory, there is nothing better than Keith Snell’s “Fundamentals of Piano Theory” that also goes from Prep Level to Level 10.
My students love playing “Grown up” pieces right away and the methods have CDs with the songs on them so they can hear the proper sounds. Of course, the teacher needs to provide the proper mimic.
Most of the methods out there are for lazy teachers who need everything laid out for them because they don’t know how to teach. If you don’t know how to explain each concept 10 different ways, get out of teaching. Each book has ONE way of explaining the concept. You have to be prepared for the inevitable questions. I had more bored students with the Alfred’s methods than with Thompson or Schaum. I do have one student with severe mental disabilities in the Noona method. She has been with me since she was 6. She is now 13 and is in Level 3 of the 12 Level course. She gets lots of supplemental music for each page of her books to make sure she is solid on each concept before moving on. Noona moves very slowly and it works for that student. She likes more contemporary music for supplemental work so I find books with current music written at her level. There is plenty out there for a competent teacher. Even Thompson provides books of pop songs correlated to the method books.
All my students now use the Fundamentals of Piano theory and are prepared to take the AP test for college credit. By the time they reach level 3 of the 10 Level set they know more theory than most of their school teachers.
I know Alfred’s wants you to buy their methods but Alfred’s, PLEASE by the time today’s kids are 7-9 years old they are way past the frogs, puppies and kittens. They are ashamed to carry around the method books with all the cutesy pictures and colorful cartoons. Especially boys. My students take their books to school and even practice there on pianos in choir rooms or a school room during lunch or recess. They want good, solid music to practice not songs about picnics and dinosaurs with bright cartoons of frogs and cats dancing all over the page.
Trust me. They’d rather be playing a study piece by Bela Bartok, with no cartoon pictures. They’d rather be playing a simplified version of the Hanon exercise written in quarter notes for technic or the wonderful Czerny exercises redone by Schaum.
For the tech minded teacher there are fantastic apps for teaching note reading, rhythm, Aural recognition.
Ningenius is a fantastic app for reinforcing note reading. The students play a game and earn “belts” as they gain speed and accuracy.
Music Tutor and Ear Wiz are both fantastic apps for teaching note recognition and ear training. Ear Wiz in particular can be set for interval recognition, scales, chords…even cadences. It’s great. I start my students off easy with just 2 different intervals and then slowly add them as they learn them. Scales are the same. As they learn one I add it to their Ear Wiz recognition group. When they learn cadences in their theory in book 2 or 3 of theory, I start adding those.
There is so much out there to help teachers now. The kids are tech savvy and the juvenile pictures and the songs with words that are, quite simply, embarrassing, aren’t getting the attention of students. I’d rather have NO words to the songs and have the student write their own lyrics, then have insipid words the kids or adults are too embarrassed to sing.
I have my students sing as they play. They can make up words or sing the note names. They can sing the rhythm pattern but they learn to sing while playing. They may balk a bit at first but they are very thankful later when they get to a point where they WANT to sing along while they play. Give them music they know or with words they want to sing.
Sorry, Alfred’s but I used you for years and had students get bored by Level 3. I never had one student graduate from level 3. They all moved to other methods either after level 2 or shortly after beginning level 3. They were tired of the cartoon pictures on each page and flatly embarrassed.
The supplemental repertoire books were quite good especially at the level 2 and beyond. I did use those. The method books, sorry to say, were just too clever by half. The students hated them.
Oh, I used Alfred’s Basic and also tried the Premier course. No student made it through level 3 of the basic course before switching methods. Not one. They all begged for something without the cartoons and with “Real” music.
I tried 3 students in the Premier course when it came out. One moved into Thompson Teacing Little Fingers To Play while in the Primer. She hated the music and the pictures in the Premier primer.
The other 2 students each made it half way through level 2A. Both got bored and practice became a chore. I moved them both into Thompson First Grade. They moved quickly through the first 1/3 of the book then slowed down to a steady pace and they loved the music. Another great book to use is the Thompson Adult Book One. Even for kids they like that it has no cute pictures. The Adult Book also has the songs from Teaching Little Fingers To Play in a format that leaves out the cute titles and words. It still starts them on reading on the staff and eschews the finger number approach. It does use some finger numbers at the beginning for finding the starting finger but not on every note like the Alfred’s does. If you want your students to read the notes, play by intervals and not be playing by finger number, avoid Alfred’s. Every student I had inevitably asked what “Hand Position” a note was in when I asked them to identify it. I had to explain that hand position had nothing to do with it. The note was identified by its placement on the staff, not by what position your hands were in.
No such confusion with Thompson that starts off with staff reading from the first. No “finger number” songs.
Schaum is the same way. Staff reading from the beginning. A bit more emphasis on intervals so I like both Thompson and Schaum. Schaum also uses concert music for the method books.
Thank you all for your valuable feedback! We certainly understand that not all methods will work for all students, and while many teachers have been very successful in using our methods, we’re just happy to know that you’ve found what works best with your students. We’ll relay your messages to our production staff, and if you have any additional feedback, please feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you!
I have to say that I am quite surprised by some of the previous comments, since my own experiences in the 35 years that I have been teaching are quite different.
I started using the Bastien Piano Basics when full-color books started coming out in the late 1980s because I thought the art was much better than the competition. But I never had a student make it through the whole series. I believe Bastien moves too quickly. The students who used that curriculum all stopped wanting to practice those pieces.
I have had much more success with and confidence in the Alfred Basic Piano Library, particularly the series for the younger beginner. Every concept is introduced very systematically and slowly- just the perfect speed for thorough learning. ALMOST every piece is enjoyable, and the words are clever. I, also, believe that singing along (words, rhythm, and yes, even the letter names in the early stages) reinforces the learning by creating one more pathway in the brain. And you NEVER KNOW whether this student will one day want to be able to accompany him or herself while performing- privately or publicly.
Here are a couple comments about artwork. Although full color pages didn’t arrive until long after I had stopped taking lessons, it was the art that tended to motivated me and often made the page unforgettable. I have never had any indications that a student was embarrassed by the art. But we have occasionally had nice conversations about the pictures. The Alfred series I prefer keeps the pictures proportionate to the age, and they disappear completely by level 5.
My brief experience with the Alfred Premier Piano Course is a very different story! I used it with a new student because her mother had already purchased a set in level 1A. I didn’t care for it at all and moved back to my preferred curriculum at the end of the book. I believe it is because the Premier Piano Course uses a non-position-based reading approach that this student developed an aversion (subconsciously, of course) to using fingers 1 & 5. I struggled for years to get her to use the recommended fingering on her pieces as she progressed to intermediate and then lower advanced music. All to no avail! This bad habit spoiled the potential of a very good and very motivated pianist!
I use the Thompson Modern Course for the Piano, grades 3-5, AFTER I complete Alfred Basic Books A-F, and 3-5. Thompson moves really fast and is not nearly as systematic as Alfred Basic, leaving too many gaps in the sequence. It is better to wait until a strong, thorough foundation has been laid. The books were written in the 1930s. The graphics and language are so archaic that I feel a need to “translate”. But the upper levels broaden a piano education and contain many great classics.
Bottom line is, I highly recommend the Alfred Basic Piano Library, starting with the series for the younger beginner!
Great article. Articles like this really help. I really appreciate. I have a passion for piano and piano teaching. I believe people should know this great instrument.