Piano Studio of Lola McIntyre

Piano Methods Explained

"What Piano Method Do You Use?"

A question often posed by inquiring parents of potential piano students, is: "What books do you use?". What the parent really is asking, is: "What pedagogic method do you use?" Another inquiry which follows is: "Tell me about your approach with your students" - an entirely different intent to the question.

First, the job of piano methods introduce, develop, & combining skills so the musician can merge into the great concert piano repertoire (early advanced). In other words to establish an intermediate skill and artistry level. On a scale of 1 to 10, when a student completes Faber level 5, their skills are at about a 5. Concert level repertoire is from about 6 through 10.

Here is a list of skills my students usually have in place by the end of Faber 3B (6 books down, and 2 to go) to achieve a solid intermediate skill level. I list, below, the skills I have in my head as I listen and watch prospective students as they audition to transfer into my studio. Many students who start with me before the age of 7 have completed Level 5 before entering middle school. Ideally, students have completed Faber 2B by the end of the 5th grade in school.


Piano Skills Check List

Technique (IMTA Acheivement In Music Festival Level 5) - Posture, Hand Position (bud, bloom, perch), Firm Nail Joints, Wrist releases, 5 Finger Patterns in All Major/Minor Keys, Mixed Articulation, 2 Octave White Key Major Scales & Arpeggios with dynamic shape, Forearm Drops, Consistent Legato, Wrist Staccato (early independence between the hands), Phrase Shaping, Voicing/Balance Between the Hands, Voicing a Chord at End of Piece.

Elements of Music
Melody - Consistent legato/voicing one hand over the other/shaping phrases/ strengthening nail joint (trim nails). Applying 5 Finger Patterns to Fingering Principles
Harmony - Cite/name chords through improvisation & repertoire. Connecting chord names, qualities, and inversions to classical repertoire. Cite/name/aurally anticipate and feel chord shapes in all major and minor keys. Cite/name/feel/hear quality, root & inversion.
Rhythm - Cite/name main beats and subdivisions (eighths, triplets, sixteenths)/physically feel beat 1 as most important/even sixteenth notes with consistent tone and fingering. Accomplished passage playing. Connecting scale studies to repertoire and sonata form.
Counting aloud (a separate skill!)/metronome practice techniques (common time, cut time, 3/4 = 1)
Timbre - Accented pedal technique/Syncopated Pedal/Soft Pedal (Una Corda/Tre Corde)
Texture - Citing & feeling different chord shapes/identifying contrasting textures as thin (i.e. contrapuntal) and thick (Brahms voicing of chords and exploitation of the entire keyboard)
Form - Identify the Elements of Music (Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, Timbre, Texture, Form), Basic analysis to aid interpretation and beginning memorization techniques (Primary Chords, Dominant Sevenths), Aurally identify and name cadences (Plagel, Perfect Authentic, Imperfect Authentic, Phrygian, Half, Deceptive) within repertoire, memorize them hands separately, and use that skill to identify the 'skeleton' of the piece, and utlimately the form. Simple cadential analysis to mark sections in Binary (Continuous & Rounded Continuous), Ternary, Sonatina, and Sonata-allegro forms. Regarding the Sonata-allegro form, demonstrate the job of an exposition, development & recapitulation.


Once a student is in the later books of most methods, more than likely they are beginning to play teaching pieces composed by masters such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Kabalevsky. It is common for one to see pieces like, Bach's Minuet in G, in any number of method books. The adage, "Many roads can lead to Rome", comes to mind.

So what are the most commonly used methods, and how are they categorized? What are their strengths and potential drawbacks? Which piano method(s) is (are) used at the Piano Studio of Lola McIntyre?


Faber & Faber Piano Adventures

Currently, my method of choice. When I started using this method, I was delighted by the musically gratifying repertoire in every book. I attended a workshop with Randy Faber at the World Piano Pedagogy Conference, after having successfully used the series for a while. One workshop with Randy Faber, and one clearly sees the foundation and hallmark of the method are the technical skills creatively introduced through the Technique & Artistry Books. Where some methods base the curriculum on reading, and others on theory, happily Faber & Faber Piano Adventures sets out to develop technical skills through incremental steps, with the ultimate goal: ARTISTRY! It draws from the strongest contributions by prior methods (worthy of a separate future article), plus offers well-written and gratifying solos and duets with digital ensemble accompaniments on compact disks and diskettes. Reading skills are incrementally built and systematically combined at a satifying pace. Intervallic reading is integrated into early books, and positions moved to encourage actual reading of notes instead of finger numbers. Ensembles are well written and well-recorded. A unit is devoted to catabile playing (visiting our Russian influence), later books contain rewarding pieces filled with moments of bravura (Thompson). Of all the methods, Fabers' Piano Adventures develops pianistic artistry well into the intermediate level. The series is well-rounded with a minimum of 4 books at each level: Technique & Artistry (the basis to the method), Lessons (instructional objectives defined and drilled with good repertoire), Theory (written drill, sightplaying, and ear training reinforcing the objectives in Technique and Lessons of the same unit), and Performance (wonderfully satisfying solos to feature the technical efficiencies, reading skills, and theoretical skills in the other books).


Middle C Methods:

(Michael Aaron, Leila Fletcher, John Thompson). Score reading is introduced with the full staff, one note at a time, beginning with both thumbs on middle C. Since the John Thompson method progresses rapidly, it is often supplemented with Aaron & Fletcher. Some of the repertoire is very musicially satisfying. Potential weakness: students' eyes begin to read the finger numbers instead of the notes. No pre-reading and incremental, systematic layering of rhythmic skills, step/skip intervallic reading, and eye-tracking.


Multi-Key Piano Methods:

Robert Pace (considered the Father of the Multi-Key Method), Bastien (studied with Pace), and others followed like, Piano Town by Keith Snell. Bastien Method is still very popular and slowed down the rapid 'pace' of the Pace method. Various 5 finger patterns are introduced through theory and pieces, then transposition is encouraged. Reading is introduced through a pre-reading rhthmic reading and skills are built and layered one at a time. The Pace/Bastien influence to the development of piano pedagogy is profound. Although the multi-key approach is noble and highly influential to subsequent piano pedagogues, more supplemental material is required for multi-key reading and transpositional skills to stick. Some question theory to be more important than techique, and the pieces are not particularly musically satisfying.


Hybrid Piano Methods:

Frances Clark's Look & Listen featuring the two characters Chip & Bobo, had a strong, positive influence on piano pedagogy. Reading is introduced one line at a time, and intervallic reading is paramount. The pieces draw from the folk idiom and good independence between the hands can develop. Good supplemental materials partner with the Clark methods. Potential weakness: students are taught to count 1-1-1-1 for quarter notes 1-2 for half notes; transfering counting to one which will be effective in late intermediate repertoire is often overlooked.


Russian School of Piano Playing:

Considered one of the most systematic methods to develop artistry at the piano, this series is used throughout Russia in Children's Music Schools. A quick immersion into note reading by learning many short pieces in a short period of time, with emphasis ultimately on tonal production and beautiful cantabile playing. Pieces are charming and duets are interspersed throughout the books. Books are large and 'graduation' from one book to the next is a challenge to some students who are not practiced at delayed gratification. Stong independence between the hands are well-developed from this program. Russian born teachers understand and use this method best. I have used it to improve reading or cantabile playing for particular students. (However, it's important to note, it is not teaching one piece in a book that determines if a teacher 'uses' the method, rather utilizing the entire method from beginning to end, with its clear instructional skill objectives at the forefront of every activity. Potential weakness: Technique is paramount, which is a good thing, but easily at the expense of theory, ear training. Supplementaly theory and ear training methods are necessary to round out the musician.


Suzuki Piano Method

An early childhood method, originating from Japan to teach violin. Suzuki's philosophy is that talent can be taught and with enough effort and coaching, anyone can play the piano. Violins can be scaled down for small fingers, and larger sized violins replace smaller ones, with the growth of the child. All pieces are introduced by listening to a good recording, and a parent helps practice with the child; they attend lessons together. Later this method progressed to other stringed instruments, and eventually piano. I had the privilege of studying this method in a masters degree course at the very place Connie Starr brought Suzuki Piano to the United States. Ear training and technique are taught by listening and rote teaching. Note read is introduced after several months (and sometimes longer) of study. Sightreading supplements and highly skilled teaching is required to avoid later sight reading difficiencies. The positive influences to the development of piano pedagogy are proper posture, beautiful tone production, finger dexterity and strong independence between the hands. Each piece is memorized early, since it is learned by ear and imitation. Endurance is developed by adding one memorized piece to the next, in order, until the student finishes the book with a solo Book 1 Recital. Teachers can earn certifications to teach each book. Book 1: Folk Songs with alberti bass, Book 2 Bach teaching pieces from Notebook for Anna Magdalena, Book 3 Sonatinas. Potential weakness: It can take 2 years to complete the first book, and at that point, they still may not be reading music. Important caution: I have personally seen research photos showing deformed fingers in small children, who have diligently practiced the piano - an instrument which can not be downsized like a violin. Great good can come from the method when well taught by a master pianist/teacher, but as much harm can result from determined ignorance of both the teacher and practicing parent.