To learn an instrument, whether piano or another instrument does not have one universal approach or method. There are often similarities between teaching and learning methods but no two are the same.
The other key point is that methods are often interpreted or combined by teachers according to the individual or group’s needs. Just as methods differ so, of course, do students and their learning styles. Whilst a more traditional approach may suit a more mature student, the same method may well not be suitable for a younger learner.
It is also worth taking into account what it is that the student wishes to achieve in the lessons. Some students may be perfectly happy to be able to play through the chords of the favourite songs and accompany themselves singing whereas others may have their sights set of the concert platform and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Style is also a determining factor: classical, pop, jazz can all offer different opinions on how to learn the instrument.
Methods of Learning Piano
1. The Suzuki Piano Method
This is one of the most celebrated methods of learning both piano and violin. It was devised by the renowned violinist Shin’ichi Suzuki who was from Japan. His approach was heavily weighted towards the younger child as opposed to the adult, but the method can be adapted to suit most ages. For Suzuki, the concept was based around learning a musical instrument in a similar way to the way children learn a language. The opportunity to learn from the natural environment was also a key consideration in his methodology.
Whilst Suzuki has received generous praise for his work many critics claim that the method is flawed and tends towards producing musicians who are not as responsive or individual in their musical thinking. Suzuki’s emphasis on learning music by ear rather than through notation has also attracted open criticism as this can leave the developing musician unprepared in terms of sight-reading and accurate reading of notation. The Suzuki Piano Method is available in several volumes. Here is a link to the first two.
2. The Alfred Method
The Alfred Method of piano learning stretches back for many successful years. Alfred now offer a huge range of piano methods tailor-made for younger students and adults alike. They also have a complete Music Theory course that complements the practical learning. According to the Alfred website, they have helped “10 million students learn, teach and play music”. The method began in 1922 with the violinist Sam Manus who started a publishing company that distributed popular music of the time. He then bought Alfred & Company and shortened the name to Alfred Music, a name that has stuck until the present day. They pride themselves on having developed piano methods that are innovative, progressive and fun. You can view all their materials and read about the company’s history here: www.alfred.com
3. The Bastien Piano Method
This method of piano learning is a well-established and respected source of piano teaching. Their approach is to divide the learning into performance, theory and lesson. The emphasis here is to introduce students to the theoretical concepts of music in tandem with their practical playing. Bastien weight their pieces towards the Classical and provide a huge range of additional resources that can be purchased as supplements to the methods. This includes an impressive list of repertoire.
Studying the piano aurally is encouraged and students work through the idea of intervals and chord patterns from the early stages of the method. Some of this approach is formulaic but this is not a criticism just an observation as for some this may not appeal. One possible advantage is the speed at which the method progresses. This may well suit slightly older students but unless carefully taught, could be demotivating for younger learners.
4. Faber & Faber Piano Method
There are mixed reviews on the Faber & Faber method but also clearly a large number of teachers and students who are devotees. Similar to the other methods on the market, Faber & Faber have sensibly elected to divide their method into many progressively advanced books. This does mean you need up to four books for each level that can be expensive and is perhaps better covered in other methods more cheaply.
For the younger years, the books provide an appealing range of colourful and engaging graphics alongside useful guidance on posture, fingering and note names. On the plus side, the method includes an inviting range of musical styles and has specific books in the series that focus on Folk, Jazz and even Hymns. There are regular practice suggestions that are helpful to all ages and types of learner and even a book dedicated to musical composition.
This is an area that is all too often neglected in favour of other more instrumentally focused opportunities. For many teachers, the Faber & Faber method surpasses others because of its subject order and innovation. For others, it is overly prescriptive regarding playing position in the early stages rather than pieces and performance.
I am including this series of pieces as I have the greatest of respect for MacGregor both as a pianist and a teacher. These ‘story-based tutors’ are designed to invite and entice the students to explore the piano through characters and narratives that subtly bring to focus on new techniques. The pieces are innovative and carefully chosen to develop the skills and techniques required by all pianists. There are games and puzzles as well that help to break-up the learning and maintain the focus on fun as well as opportunities for revision and reflection. Each book has its own CD that is fully interactive and a long way from the somewhat dry and stale methods that were on the table when I began learning the instrument.
These are a selection of some of the many methods available. In my experience, many students these days opt to teach themselves via YouTube tutorials or simply by experimentation in their own time. The options are almost limitless but finding a teacher you connect to and a pathway for lifelong creative learning of the instrument of your choice, I feel is the way forward.