Recently, I had the experience of teaching piano to children. I was filling in for their regular teacher. Most were in their first year of lessons. For the most part, they were learning primarily from piano books. This is how I was taught piano as a child and how a lot people I know were taught piano. The teachers mostly rely on the books and use very little ear training and outside sources. When I first started teaching piano a number of years ago, this is how I also taught. But this recent experience has me questioning the effectiveness of this method of teaching, especially within the first year of lessons.
The first thing that caught my attention was how the book ruled over the instrument and learning music in general. Sometimes I felt like the kids were punching the keys on a computer keyboard and the book was the computer screen telling them what to do. Even in the pieces that they had practiced, their playing felt very mechanical. Most of them had never learned anything by ear before and never had the chance to express what was inside them. Their only experience was just to punch out what was on the written page. For the most part, the songs contained in these piano books were composed for the book, and didn’t represent anything that was recognizable. This can be frustrating for some children since they can’t relate to any of the music they are playing.
In the first book of many piano methods, the fingering patterns used for the songs tend to be very similar, usually always playing the thumb on middle C. I understand the value of consistency, but the kids did not know any other way of playing. I diverted from the book sometimes to teach a simple tune by ear and would use fingering appropriate for that tune, but so many of the kids would exclaim “but you have to play C with your thumb!”
What also struck me was how much the kids did not understand what they were playing. Many of the songs in the book use chords. But many of the kids did not know they were playing a chord. They would just read the notes, C-E-G but not understand they were playing a C major chord. Many had not even heard of the word ‘chord’.
One of the most interesting experiences occurred when one of the students was learning Row Row Row Your Boat, a song that everyone knows. The student had been working on it for a week. When the student played it from the book, the notes were there but the rhythms did not resemble the song at all. He would hold the the first three “Row”s for a long 3 beats but when it came to “Row your Boat”, the rhythm was twice as fast. I knew he understood how many beats each note is supposed to receive because he counted as he played. But he did not understand the concept of the ratio between the notes. He would count 1, 2, 3, but each beat would not receive the same amount of time. After he played the song through with the book, I took the book away and we learned the song by ear. I had him sing it first and then we played it. His sense of rhythm was perfect when he played the song by ear. But when we went back to the book, that sense of musicality had disappeared.
This post is not to discredit books entirely, although some methods are better than others in my opinion. Learning to read early on is important, but it should not be the only way we learn an instrument. Ultimately, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to not rely on the books entirely to give beginning piano students a good foundation in music. When I look back on my experience learning piano as a child, some teachers relied entirely on the books. I was lucky enough as a teenager to have a piano teacher that used a variety of different methods to teach piano technique. As teachers, we cannot assume that the students knows what a C chord is just because they play it from the book. Also, many of the books do not teach any technique exercises, not even scales. So it is up to the teacher to provide these supplements. It is the teacher’s responsibility to make learning the piano not just about learning how to read music, but to make the experience about learning music, alongside the technique required to play the instrument well.