New season/new books/new method?

summer reading

Fall-term piano lessons are starting soon, and with the start of a fresh year, I always like to introduce new concepts into the studio. A couple weeks ago I checked out these books to get me thinking about piano lessons in a different way. I’m in the process of transitioning away from traditional piano methods, the ones that teach reading first; but with this transition comes the dilemma of figuring out what will replace these methods.

I’ve got nothing against traditional reading methods, per se, but I’ve been using the same ones for so long that I need a change. I’m finding that I’m teaching to the method, rather than teaching what I want to teach.

For the past few years I’ve been noticing that most of the young beginners (and older ones too) will memorize a piece first and then continue playing it while looking at their hands, even if the music is right in front of them. This phenomenon is so common that I’m beginning to wonder if teaching reading before listening/hearing, or singing, or playing music fluently, is the best or most natural way to go about teaching piano, or any other instrument for that matter. If we think about how children acquire language, first they hear it and absorb it. Secondly, they begin to vocalize sounds and experiment with their voices. Next, they start saying a word or two; then short sentences turn into full sentences. During this period of hearing and speaking, a parent may read books to the infant/toddler in which they can see these abstract symbols on the page but not know how to decode them. Eventually, with exposure to these symbols, they begin to discover that these symbols have accompanying sounds. But it is only through sound first that they are able to make sense of the written symbol.

How can we translate this into learning to read music?

This concept is what the Suzuki, Simply Music, Music Moves for Piano, and Orff Schulwerk methods are based on. However, these methods are not instantly available to teachers of music like the traditional reading methods. It takes time and money to become certified to teach these methods, whereas the reading methods are inexpensive, easy to find at music stores, and easy to teach from. I’m beginning to realize that there is so much more for me to learn as I start on this new (for me) way of teaching piano.

That’s where some of these books come in. It’s the beginning of rethinking piano lessons.

To help me think through this reading problem, I’ve started reading Teaching Children to Read Music by Charles W. Heffernan. Right away in chapter two he says this:

“Before any attempt is made to familiarize the child with the intricacies of printed music notation, it is absolutely essential that he experience a wide variety of musical activities. It is preposterous to expect a child to be interested in solving the printed score unless he has participated in and enjoyed many aspects of music. Programs of music reading are often begun too early, before the child has gained a sufficient variety and depth of musical experience.”

He goes on to say that, despite being exposed to music through television, radio, and recordings, children won’t gravitate to actively participating in music unless they are raised in a musically active home where such things take place: “The desire to sing, play instruments, dance, and create melodies arises from associating with others who do these things.”

Wow. Yes. (More about the necessity of musical families later, in another post…).

Flipping to the copyright page I see that this book was published in 1968. Then why why why do traditional piano methods permeate the piano-learning experience today, 43 years after this book was published? I’m guessing that, in addition to being cheap and accessible, it is how most piano teachers learned how to play music themselves. This is how I learned to play. I don’t remember how quickly I learned to read music, but I wasn’t exposed to improvisation and chord construction until high school. And, like learning a foreign language, by that time, it’s more difficult to learn and internalize than it is when you are in elementary school or younger.

I don’t think we should chuck out traditional reading methods entirely. After some initial exposure to hearing/singing and playing/improvising music over a period of time, music reading can and should be introduced. There are many benefits to reading music; however that’s another subject for another post. I just want a new way to teach beginners, and expose intermediate and advanced students to functional piano skills apart from method books.

As for the other music books on my summer reading list, more about those next time.

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