Reviews by Kate

Music, curricula and literature

The Creative Director Beginning and Intermediate Levels by Edward S. Lisk

Introduction

During my graduate degree work in instrumental conducting, I had several awesome opportunities to meet and work with accomplished band director and clinician Ed Lisk. I think Mr. Lisk’s genius can be summed up in his abilities to 1) clearly define specific aspects of a good musical performance, 2) break down those large aspects into small, well-defined parts and finally, 3) lead students through dependable, sequential steps toward mastery of those parts. To play under his baton as a high school or college student is to discover that you could do so much more than you ever thought you could. His publications are a great resource for activities and information that will bring your band to a whole new level of thought and performance.

I had originally purchased a copy of Ed’s The Creative Director, Alternative Rehearsal Techniques and found his ideas to be incredibly effective at the high school band level. But when I began working as an elementary band director, the activities in the book were just too advanced to try with instrumentalists in their very first year or two. This year I wound up lending the original book to the high school band director in my district and purchasing the one I am going to review today: The Creative Director; Beginning and Intermediate Levels by Edward S. Lisk. 

 

Purpose of the Book

With refreshing frankness, Edward Lisk begins by pointing his finger right at us, the band directors. We are the ones, he emphasises, that are responsible for whether our students succeed or fail. An awesome weekly practice record, he continues, may get the student a good grade but will not guarantee that the student is acquiring the right type of thinking to be successful. Rather, we must be proactive and thoughtful in how we incrementally train our students to think correctly about the music.

This handbook is a tool for teachers of beginning band with any number of years in the field. Its purpose is to help the director to gain an understanding of their students’ mental process and to provide specific activities and steps to help revamp the instructional sequence toward a better fit for that process. With the citing of various psychologists and authors, Mr. Lisk’s book introduction paints the brain as a noisy place in need of specific task focus. The fascinating facts he presents are enough to convince the reader that the traditional, “Open up to Book 1, Page 1 and let’s begin,” approach falls far short of what a new band student actually requires in order to be successful. I will use the remainder of my post to survey the contents of the book and then to provide an overview of my personal experience with the method.

Table of Contents

This 90-page book is divided into a preface, an introduction and fifteen (15) chapters labeled “Lessons” covering various aspects of the instrumental music learning process in sequential order. Here is a list of the contents:

Lesson 1: Beats and Time: The Discipline of Duration

Lesson 2A: Internal Pulse Connected to Playing an Instrument and the Distribution of Air

Lesson 2B: The ABC’s of Music Making

Lesson 3: Making Connections, Discovering Notes by Moving Fingers, Ensemble Timed-Thought

Lesson 4: The Lesson Book: Teaching Whole Notes

Lesson 5: Teaching Half Notes

Lesson 6: Teaching Quarter Notes, Teaching Silence

Lesson 7A: Introducing the Ruler of Time, Demonstrating Tempo Variations

Lesson 7B: Teaching Eighth Notes

Lesson 8: Speaking Rhythm Patterns

Lesson 9: Tied and Dotted Notes (and why they are a problem)

Lesson 10: Rhythm Patterns: Short Looking for Long

Lesson 11: Dynamics, Dynamic Counting, Color Shifts, Seeing a Crescendo and Decrescendo

Lesson 12: Introducing the Circle of 4ths, Beginner’s Row

Lesson 13: The “Scale Alphabet” for scale mastery, The Importance of Scale Knowledge, Grand Master Scale, The Octave of Reason, Playing scales Without Notation

Lesson 14: Learning to Play in Tune

Lesson 15: Finale: What’s Next?

 

Chapter Structure

In each brief chapter, you will find rationale given for the type of instruction delineated. His writing style is easy to read and understand. There are many diagrams and pictures to clarify his worded explanations and he is great at breaking each concept into step-by-step processes that can be conveyed to students. Diagrams can also be copied and used in your classroom. It is a very user-friendly format that readily transfers to classroom instruction.

My Experience With the Book

Many of his ideas for band instruction are unique to him such as his Ruler of Time–a diagram that can be used to help kids “see” note duration to the exact moment sound ends or begins. (This is also a tool for providing a visual demonstration when students are not playing together. By simply mapping their varying attack points on the ruler, more visually oriented students can see when they are playing their note slightly before or after the actual time the note should sound.)

 

Throughout the book, what he gets at is how to isolate and practice the very basic tasks needed to be successful at playing an instrument. As an example, take the concept of pulse. For this, Mr. Lisk recommends starting students with no instrument in hand. Instead he describes simply having them count out loud at a tempo of 60 beats per minute. Once the students can count out loud steadily, he describes how to train them to think the counting internally by saying some numbers and thinking others until finally the majority of steady counting is happening internally–exactly where it will be happening once the instrument is involved. It’s a matter of training, so he suggests to repeat the activity for several lessons in a row.

The entire book is full of short, well defined mental tasks like this to help students master the individual layers of thinking skills within the large skill–and students LOVE to complete every challenge. What I found so awesome about this approach was that every student had multiple opportunities to enjoy success throughout each lesson. For example, the flutes worked on trying to make a consistent tone for months but they never got discouraged from the instrument because every band lesson included many other activities that all students had no problem accomplishing. One such task was learning to speak the musical alphabet forward and backward (preparing to play scales). Others included isolated rhythm practice and breath control. By the time they are asked to play a song that involves the many tasks they have already mastered, it’s a piece of cake because their brain has practiced how to think about the music.

I might also add that being the teacher in this environment is highly riveting and exciting. We love when our students have those “aha” moments–and this method of teaching results in several during each lesson–especially in the first two months of instruction. One of my mentors in the field, Dr. Adam Brennan at Mansfield University, taught me that success is all important in the music learning process. He showed me that it is our responsibility as educators to set our students up so that their attempts will meet success a majority of the time. This means we need to be careful to prep our students continually so that they are never asked to attempt a task in which they have no prior experience.

I always refer back to one of my own “aha” moments when I think about how to “prep” my students for a new skill. As a kid, I loved to play the piano and would sometimes spend hours making things up at the instrument. I randomly stumbled on some pretty basic chord progressions (think every rock song ever written!). Except, I didn’t know what a “chord progression” was, I just knew I had stabbed around and discovered something that sounded good. Later, in high school music theory, I was introduced to chord progressions–many like the ones I had “discovered” as a child. “Aha” I thought, “That’s what these are called!” I already knew what a chord progression was, I just didn’t know I knew it. When someone showed it to me, I was prepped for success and easily understood the concept. Ed Lisk’s book is essentially about this idea. His theme is getting our students to accomplish tasks without complicating the concepts through a bunch of “gobbledygook” (like foreign words, strange symbols or too many new things at once.) Those things will, of course, be introduced in their time–but only when the final task is to put a name to that thing they can already do. It’s also about allowing students to enjoy the tiniest accomplishments at a time–otherwise known as lowering our expectation. But contrary to what this may sound like, the achievement levels in your band room will skyrocket when the requirements to be “successful” are lower, not the other way around. And so will the fun levels!

Summary

Ed Lisk’s book The Creative Director for Beginning and Intermediate Levels provides a broad and firm foundation for band directors to teach at the beginning level of instruction. It shows us how to narrow down our instruction to the bare essentials of success on an instrument before building up to more complex thinking. For inexperienced and experienced directors alike, this instruction manual will streamline the first few years of instrumental music instruction and raise the ceiling of potential for any large ensemble as a whole. Plus, it’s FUN to teach! I highly recommend The Creative Director for Beginning and Intermediate Levels!

 

 

 

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Jazz Piano Solos: The Classical Pianist’s “Fake” Books

Cocktail Piano CoverI’m writing today about a solo series I have absolutely fallen in love with: Jazz Piano Solos Arranged by Brent Edstrom and various [unnamed] others and published by Hal Leonard. This series contains over 35 volumes of about 25 songs each. It covers jazz styles from stride piano to swing to rock as well as artists from Duke Ellington to George Gershwin to the Beatles.

In the title I have labeled this series “The Classical Pianist’s ‘Fake Book’.” Here is why: If you are an advanced, classically trained pianist who loves jazz but cannot convincingly improvise from chords–this attainable series will make you sound like a seasoned jazz pianist (thus faking the funk, quite literally). Not only that, but it will provide hours of enjoyment both for you, in the privacy of your playing space and for others, in a cocktail/social hour setting if you so choose–and you definitely have that option with this series.

If you love to play for enjoyment and you enjoy jazz, here are some reasons I think you should start collecting the volumes in this series:

  • Ergonomic! Well-voiced arrangements fit nicely in your hands.
    • I have tried out a wide array of jazz piano arrangements over the years. In my experience, they generally fall into two categories: 1. Note-for-note transcriptions from a specific virtuoso such as Oscar Peterson (tending to be too note-y, all over the keyboard and too complex to be enjoyable on a casual basis), and 2. Simplified arrangements by educational composers (tending to have thin, awkward chords and over-simplified rhythms). The common thread between the two is an awkwardness in what the music is asking your hand to do. In the first case, it would take hours of practice to make the music sound natural and even then, you’ll have the quirky, individual style of the guy on the cover. In the second scenario, you will never make the arrangement sound amazing no matter how expressively you play–there just isn’t a great structure to work with. Neither of these types of arrangements give you the basic experience of simply playing “the standards”. HOWEVER, the Jazz Piano Solos series forges a new category of its own! When I play these arrangements, I often feel as though I am “channelling” a real jazz pianist’s performance at cocktail hour. The chords in these arrangements fit logically under the fingers and the voicing is unquestionably “standard jazz”. I have played these books as pre-show entertainment for other performers and received lots of positive feedback (which I had to give back to the arrangers/composers, of course!). I have never been tempted to entertain others with any arrangements before these.
  • Creative, unexpected renditions of familiar songs.
    • Within the series, you may purchase a volume entirely devoted to a single style such as stride piano or swinging jazz but you may also purchase a volume devoted to a performance setting such as the cover pictured above, Cocktail Piano or Late Night Jazz. Within the more general volumes, you will find lots of interesting jazz styles such as ballads, swing, funk, Latin rhythms, shuffle, stride and more. An example of this is Brent Edstrom’s arrangement of Over the Rainbow in Volume 31: Cocktail Piano. He chose a bright funk for his arrangement that proves to be at once classic and edgy while maintaining the song’s wistful sense of otherworldliness. In the nine or so months I have owned the volume, I have not tired of playing Brent’s charming rendition.
  • Variety, variety, variety! 
    • I’m up to eight volumes on my bookshelf already and the good news is I will not run out of options anytime soon! With 37 volumes and counting, there’s something for every occasion (including two wonderful volumes entirely dedicated to Christmas music). When I spoke with Brent Edstrom in an email, he mentioned his work on the Broadway volume (recently released as Volume 36). Previous volumes feature songs of Johnny Mercer, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Disney, Elton John, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane, just to name a few.
  • Chords included
    • Would you like to have a bit of freedom to fill in the music as you see fit? The books also include all of the chords written above the music!

One warning: these books do not contain any lyrics. However, it would be easy enough to find them and put them together if you needed or wanted to and well worth it for the beautiful, pianistically sound music these books provide.

If you are looking for great piano arrangements of jazz standards or jazz arrangements of music you love, look no farther than Jazz Piano Solos arranged by Brent Edstrom and various [unnamed] others and published by Hal Leonard. Advanced pianists will find the rich and satisfying arrangements enough within reach to enjoy hours of sight reading pleasure or to polish in preparation for a cocktail hour of entertainment. If you are looking for a place to start, I recommend ordering Volume 31: Cocktail Piano. I predict that you will not be disappointed.

 

More Christmas Piano Solos published by Hal Leonard

More Christmas Music CoverAshamedly, I admit, I used to cringe at the prospect of teaching holiday music. In disdainful snobbishness, I would limit my holiday selections to one or two–even for my band concerts–in favor of teaching more “educational” and “high quality” music. Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate what the holiday season offers us as music educators and to invite the joy of the season to permeate my band classroom and piano studio. I now recognize that the youthful excitement inherent with Christmas is a gift to our musical goals if we can accept it, encouraging great strides in our students.

Because my students (especially the young ones) will spend a good chunk of their school year working on this music, it’s important to me to provide high quality selections that present an appropriate challenge. I don’t want to be serving frosting for four months, I’m looking for a complete, nutritious meal with just a few frosted cookies for dessert.

Last year I stumbled upon a series of Christmas piano books that I have found to contain lovely, timeless arrangements AND appropriate challenges for a variety of students from beginner through intermediate/advanced level. More Christmas Piano Solos for All Piano Methods is a publication in the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library that contains five (5) levels of music in five volumes. The pieces hold a pianists’ interest and you are sure to find a song that will challenge each one of your students to a higher level of competence while also joining in celebration of the holiday season.

Here are a few things I love about this series:

  • Interesting Chord Progressions
    • Even in the earliest levels of this series, Jazz chords and other interesting harmonies are employed to accompany the worn-out melodies we all know. This brings a renewed interest in the music for students as well as great educational benefit as children learn to play clusters, to read accidentals and even to “swing” eighth notes. All of these might be lost on a child learning a brand new piece, but the familiarity of the Christmas music creates a great baseline from which to learn these extra musical skills.
  • Old and New Music
    • You’ll find oldies like “Up On the Housetop” and “Jingle Bells” juxtaposed with newer classics like “Believe” from the hit film adaptation of the popular children’s book Polar Express and “Where Are You Christmas?” from Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This ensures the relevance of the series for years to come.
  • Great Motivator for My Students
    • In the past, I would choose easier Christmas music that just didn’t motivate my students to spend a lot of time at the instrument. Week after week I truly felt like we were wasting our precious time as students would barely progress in their studies. Within this high quality series, you will be able to find a piece that hits the sweet-spot for any student: enough out-of-reach that it takes a good effort to master, yet enough within reach that a student feels they are almost there–all the while enjoying each increment of the pleasantly surprising arrangement they are mastering.

More Christmas Piano Solos for All Piano Methods in the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library is the answer to the piano teacher’s educational dilemma during the Christmas season. It allows a teacher to choose both holiday celebration and musical challenge while also maintaining the pupils’ rapt attention and sustained effort for the weeks that the Christmas music will be studied. I highly recommend this series of books for every piano teacher!!

Fundamentals of Piano Theory by Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh; A fun and enlightening music theory choice!

Preparatory Level

Preparatory Level

Pianists have a huge advantage when it comes to learning music theory if it is approached correctly. When concepts are presented first on the keyboard, then on the staff, theory can be quite fun and enlightening!

My personal experience with music theory has really shaped how desire to teach it. I worked through various theory books in childhood piano lessons but, honestly, the books were dry and I never ingested the information in a meaningful way. To this day, when I picture a specific brown, paper-cover theory book that my teacher gave me, I remember the animosity and dread that accompanied those assignments. Consequently, as a piano teacher, I’ve been reluctant to assign any random theory book to my students. If there is a chance my kids will learn to hate music theory, I want no part of it. Well, about a year ago, I was reading some online discussions where I heard about Fundamentals of Piano Theory by Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh. I decided to take the leap into this series and I’m so glad I did!

 I love the way these books teach by beginning with the piano keyboard and my students will often tell me how much they enjoy completing their theory assignments weekly. In fact, one student beamed with excitement as she shared that she had ordered her very same theory book for a friend who was trying to learn piano on his own. She explained that, in her view, what she was learning in the theory book was vital to understanding not only theory, but also piano playing in general. Wow, I can’t imagine feeling that way about any of the theory I learned as a kid! Today I am going to provide a run-down of the first six levels of this theory program and explain why I think it’s a real gem of a resource for piano teachers and students.

Fundamentals of Piano Theory

Keith Snell & Martha Ashleigh ; Neil A. Kjos Music Company c. 1998.

Purpose of the books

The purpose of the books is to “provide piano students with an organized course for the study of music theory” in a way that particularly assists pianists to play more accurately and with greater understanding. The theory is broken into a clear, systematic progression to ensure that pianists touch the concepts again and again and become ever more knowledgeable with each new book.

Organization

There are eleven (11) levels in the series: Preparatory Level through Level 10 and each level has a corresponding Teacher’s Answer Book. Each unit sticks to one very specific topic within music theory, providing first instruction and then thorough practice. The number of units varies from level to level for example, Preparatory Level has 14 Units while Level 5 has 20 Units.

Cross Sample of Unit Contents to Level 5:

  • Preparatory Level Units:

Note Values; The Staff; Note Naming; Time Signature and Rhythm (2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, eighth notes, dotted quarters, upbeats and rest signs); Intervals (up to 5ths); Sharps, Flats and Naturals; Half Steps and Whole Steps; 5-finger patterns and triads; Tetrachords and Major Scales; Key Signatures; Signs and Terms; Transposing; Ear Training; Sightreading; Review Test

  • Level One Units:

All as before plus: Preparatory Level Review; Time Signature and Rhythm includes all previous plus triplets, 6/8 and 3/8; Intervals 2nds to octaves with interval practice; Key Signatures Major and minor up to 2 flats and 2 sharps; Primary Triads I, IV, V; Triads and Inversions; Accompanying a melody with I and V; Form in Music; The Four Periods of Music History

  • Level Two Units:

All as before plus: Level One Review; Time Signatures and Rhythm (up to 2/2, sixteenth notes, dotted eighth notes and syncopation);Major Sharp Key Signatures; Major Flat Key Signatures; Minor Scales; Minor Key Signatures; The circle of Keys (Circle of 5ths); Major and Minor Triads; Cadences (Authentic, Plagal and Half); Primary Chord Progressions; Harmonizing and Transposing; Form in Music (including Repetition, Sequence, Binary Form, Ternary Form)

I have yet to purchase the Teacher’s Answer Books for levels 6-10 but I can tell you that by the end of level 5 students are dealing with the three forms of minor, four forms of triads (Major, minor, augmented and diminished), Scale Degrees and Triads of the Sales, Primary and Secondary Triads, Dominant Seventh Chords, the I  IV  ii  V7  I progression, Chromatic Scale, Ostinato, Ornaments, Melodic Phrase Structure, and Sonatina Form in addition to the recurring units on Ear Training, Sight reading, Signs and Terms and the Four Periods of Music History. I would imagine that Level 10 contains some pretty advanced music theory.

What I Love

  1. The Comprehensive Nature of the Course. I am so impressed by the all-encompassing nature of these books! It’s so fun to have this teaching “assistant” that helps the kids learn building blocks of practical piano theory, written theory, aural theory, history and so much more. On a weekly basis, my students are connecting the dots between theory and piano playing (both technique and repertoire).
  2. Self-Explanatory Units. I do take a moment to go over each unit before assigning it, but I don’t need to say too much. Keith and Martha have extremely clear instructions that my kids generally understand right away without any extra help from me.
  3. Reasonable Expectations. These books are set up in such a strategic progression that each increment of learning is totally doable. There’s never more than a student can handle in one week and the activities are such that a student’s normal repertoire and technique practice will naturally reinforce their “new” theory knowledge. Students in these books will never find themselves dragging through page after page of boring exercises.
  4. My Students Truly Enjoy Music Theory! I’m amazed by the great attitude my students have towards their theory assignments. Part of this probably has to do with how excited I get when presenting the concepts but it’s true that completion of these assignments brings a certain satisfaction and an instantly greater awareness of their own music. For them it’s like the difference between walking along the lines of a Nazca drawing on the ground or getting a glimpse of that drawing from an airplane. From the airplane (theory knowledge) the lines (music) suddenly make sense, why they curve here or go straight there.
  5. Teacher Answer Books Save Time! Sure, I could go through each unit and figure out the answers in order to grade my students’ work, but why when the teacher answer book is very inexpensive and saves all kinds of time? I use these often and actually have more answer books than the number of levels kids are using in the studio. That way I can look ahead and see what’s next for any given student.

Conclusion

Fundamentals of Piano Theory by Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh is a well-thought-out series of eleven (11) books that train a pianist, specifically, in written-, practical-, and aural-theory in addition to musical form, history and style. Using short units of practice and instruction along with periodic review pages and tests, the books incrementally guide pianists to a greater understanding of the music they are playing and will play. The series cultivates well-rounded and intelligent piano players who enjoy theory and can apply it in practice. Inexpensive teacher answer books make it easy for the teacher to grade the assignments quickly even if you can do the theory yourself. I highly recommend these theory books for piano students at all levels of seriousness.

Mikrokosmos by Bela Bartok, A great late-beginner or supplementary piano system! Part 1

MikrokosmosToday, let’s focus on a staple of the piano education repertoire: Mikrokosmos; 153 Progressive Piano Pieces in 6 Volumes by a pillar in the music world, Bela Bartok.

From what I understand, not a lot of people have used Bartok’s Mikrokosmos in their actual piano teaching although plenty of knowledgeable pedagogues sing its praises and recognize its importance to the repertoire. I have used individual selections from books 1-3 with various students to address specific skills or weaknesses and I am currently teaching a Jr. High-age beginner using volume 1. Mikrokosmos is full of compelling melodies and satisfying challenges both  for the beginner and accomplished pianist! In this post, I’ll give an objective description of the first couple of volumes for those who may be unfamiliar with the books. For information on my personal experience with the method, check out Part 2!

Section I: Objective Description

Publisher:

Copyright 1987 by Boosey and Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd

Purpose of the Volumes: The purpose of Mikrokosmos, according to Bela Bartokis to provide pieces that can be played right from the beginning in a variety of styles and that increase in difficulty until they reach the more difficult Bach and Schumann works. Bartok wrote these volumes one piece at a time specifically for his son, Peter’s advancing piano education. Under his father, Peter started piano lessons at the age of nine and thus the system lends its value to a slightly older beginner. The books really can’t be used alone by adult beginners unless with a beginning theory book in order to find instruction in rhythm, music reading and vocabulary. Mikrokosmos, as a beginning piano method, works best for more independent learners under a teacher who stays ahead by teaching concepts before they are introduced in the book (otherwise, much slower progress will be made).

Organization:

The 153 progressive piano pieces in Mikrokosmos are divided into six (6) books (in order of increasing difficulty). In each book, there is an appendix containing correlated finger exercises that enhance learning or prepare the student for new concepts to come. The exercises are cross-referenced to the pieces in the book with a song number indicated next to each one. Each book is about the same length so I assume that, rather than organizing by any particular benchmark in the piano progression, Bartok basically took a stack of papers and divided them evenly into six stacks (books).

Description

Bartok begins his Mikrokosmos with simple, stepwise, unison melodies which at first stay in one “five-finger-position” on the keyboard but starting in song #8, change to new positions once, twice–up to four times in one piece. To help the student find the keys they’ll need in each of the first 17 pieces, Bartok includes small pictures of a grand staff showing the five notes that will be used–sometimes ascending, sometimes descending depending on how each piece uses them. If there is a change in hand position, he indicates this by dividing the mini grand staff with a double bar line as many times as is needed and writing out each group of five notes in the order they are needed. This way the student can actually practice placing his hands on the keys or moving them to each new position before attempting the whole song.

  • Song #9 teaches syncopation by having the student perform an extra action on the down beat such as stomping–great fun for younger and older students alike!
  • Song #11 places the hands on different starting notes, although the rhythm and the motion are in unison.
  • Song #12 introduces contrary motion and from there, the student is off and running with sharps, flats, canon form, accents, 3/2 and 6/4 times and various modes and keys.

Rarely is there a song that uses a chord accompaniment in which one hand plays melody and the other is “quiet;” every song has quite a bit of movement in both hands, even the lento or adagio songs. It follows then, that the rigor of rhythmic and hand-independence training throughout Mikrokosmos is unparalleled in any other method. Polyphony will be the Mikrokosmos student’s strength indeed.

I should point out also that Bartok valued singing as a means to becoming a musical piano player and this was due to his excellent sense of phrase and musical flow. Bartok wrote strong melodies that clearly lead from question to answer and teach students to create beautiful musical phrases right from the start.

Check out part two of this post: My Experience with Teaching Bartok’s Mikrokosmos…

 

Mikrokosmos by Bela Bartok; Part 2

MikrokosmosIn my first post about Mikrokosmos by Bela Bartok, I laid out the contents of the first few volumes. In Part 2, I will share some personal experience with the volumes. I hope to illuminate the educational value of these books and to convince you that it’s worth it to incorporate more of Bartok’s music into your piano teaching!

Section II: My Experience So Far

As of this post, I have used Mikrokosmos volumes 1-3 in my teaching with delightful results! Here are some things I love:

  1. Compared to other popular beginning methods, Mikrokosmos offers a more acute intellectual challenge resulting in a higher skill level and “smarter” piano playing. Bartok starts out with hands in unison on each piece–already more of a challenge than average yet not too difficult to master in a short period of time. Shortly afterwards, the student is playing contrary motion melodies and canon forms–much, much earlier than in other methods. He completely skips over accompaniment patterns such as chords and Alberti Bass, so I use Suzuki to supplement but my Jr. High student thoroughly enjoys the level of concentration it takes to master Mikrokosmos, especially since the melodies are well designed, have interesting sounds and are satisfying to play.
  2. Many songs are suitable for supplementing other beginning piano methods. I’ve written about Celebrate Piano! before and mentioned the occasional need for extra practice on a new skill. Bartok has several songs that can be played individually to produce the same intelligent piano playing within students of other methods. For example, one student needed more practice on syncopation and I gave him #9, “Syncopation”. Not only did he love stomping to feel the down beat, he enjoyed a break from his regular book and developed the strength he needed in syncopation. Another student needed some practice on playing a melody alternating between left and right hands; I gave her #10, “With Alternate Hands” with great results.
  3. The sounds of Bartok are unique and intriguing. Bartok was an ethnomusicologist and collected many songs and sounds from various cultures such as Bulgaria and Hungary. These sounds made it into his children’s songs with charming and inspiring results. I am particularly fond of the unexpected modes, rhythms and time signatures throughout Mikrokosmos and I have found that my students regularly enjoy them just as much. Actually, it is interesting to note that boys, specifically, seem to respond with great enthusiasm when presented with Bartok (which is not to say that girls cannot or do not enjoy his music–many do!).

Here are a few suggestions if you would like to use Mikrokosmos as a beginning piano text:

  1. Try this with a Jr.-High age beginner who has great independent study skills and is highly motivated to play the piano.
  2. Couple Volume 1 with a good theory book such as Fundamentals of Piano Theory by Keith Snell & Martha Ashleigh.
  3. Supplement Mikrokosmos Volume 1 with Suzuki Piano School Volume 1 around #18 when intervals greater than a 2nd are introduced.
  4. Emphasize intervallic reading from the beginning by having the student read the songs by interval when they are completely stepwise motion (all 2nds) so that they are ready to visually recognize the 3rds, 4ths and 5ths later on.

Conclusion

Mikrokosmos by Bela Bartok is a fine body of music suitable for the training of a modern pianist from beginning to advanced levels. Marked by strong melodic lines and hand independence, the songs range in sound from familiar to exotic and explore tonalities of pentatonic folk music, chromatics, modes and layering of two different key signatures between left and right hands. Musical forms include canons, inventions, theme and inversion, four-voice songs, theme and variation and more while time signatures range from simple 4/4 time to 9/8, 5/8, 7/8 and alternations of two or more complex signatures in one song. Students commencing the fourth volume will be ready to begin study in Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach and some of Czerny’s studies.

Students of Mikrokosmos will become intelligent, thoughtful piano players with a mature sense of musical line and direction and advanced hand independence. Most  students will enjoy the pleasing sounds and satisfying melodic themes Bartok offers. I HIGHLY recommend Mikrokosmos as a regular part of piano training for any student.

Celebrate Piano! The Most Well-Rounded Piano Series Among Intervallic Methods!

Celebrate Music

The first book in the Celebrate Piano! series, Lessons and Musicianship 1A

I’m so excited to write today about an interval based piano method that I absolutely love! Published by Frederick Harris Music, Celebrate Piano! has come about through a collaborative effort between Cathy Albergo, J. Mitzi Kolar and Mark Mrozinski. This method intentionally prepares a pianist to progress into the Royal Conservatory Music Development Program and thus prepares the student not only to play advanced classical music but also to sing and recognize intervals and melodies by ear, to repeat and create rhythmic patterns, to transpose, to compose, to understand and use music theory and to understand musical form, style and history. If it is taught as intended, students of this method get excited about the piano and have few, if any, weak spots in their musical education!

In this post, I’ll begin by giving an objective description in Section I, and follow up in Section II with my experience-based review.

Section I: Celebrate Piano! Objective Description

Albergo, Cathy, J. Mitzi Kolar, Mark Mrozinski; The Frederick Harris Music Co., Limited; Canada, 2004.

Purpose of the series

The purpose of the series is to introduce the piano, aural music theory, written music theory, musical style and form and related music history and to develop these skills to an intermediate level.

Celebrate Piano 2A

Components and Organization of the Series

There are four (4) levels within Celebrate Piano! and a teacher’s guide:

  • Level 1 includes three (3) books:
    • Book 1A Lessons and Musicianship
    • Book 1B Lessons and Musicianship
    • Solos 1
  • Level 2 includes three (3) books also:
    • Book 2A Lessons and Musicianship
    • Book 2B Lessons and Musicianship
    • Solos 2
  • Level 3 and 4:
    • Book 3 Lessons and Musicianship
    • Book 4 Lessons and Musicianship
    • Solos 3&4 (in one book)
  • Teacher’s Guide

Levels 1 and 2 in this series each contain twelve (12) units of study divided evenly between book A and book B while levels 3 and 4 each have only six (6) units. The Lessons and Musicianship books contain written exercises and activities juxtaposed with the music and skills being taught and this not only eliminates the need for an extra activity book in the series but also provides a much more connected learning experience and explains the higher price-tag on each book. Across the entire series, every unit contains the following elements:

  1. Repertoire
  2. Solos (found in the Solos book)
  3. Finger Gyms: mini finger exercises preparing the student for upcoming skills or providing practice with current skills.
  4. Musicianship: a section that can teach or review new theory, musical concepts or piano skills through written activities, presentations or exercises.
  5. Rhythm: can teach new rhythms or provide practice with known rhythms. 
  6. Ear Skills: a section containing “clap-backs,” “play-backs,” “interval safari” songs through which students practice and learn to sing and recognize intervals, and “pattern detective” exercises that consist of an short melodic or rhythmic example performed by the teacher and recognized by the student who either writes what they heard or chooses what they heard from a set of examples.
  7. Creativity: a section in which the student composes the second half of a four-measure melody (“Question and Answer”) or the student may be asked to create a chord accompaniment for a melody or to change a rhythm or melody in various pre-determined ways.

Description of Method

This method requires a teacher’s guidance for very young beginners but is easily followed by parents of beginners and could be used independently by adult beginners. The drawings of animals are beautiful and tend to cater to young people; in fact, students often find them quite interesting to look at and talk about. An accompaniment cd is also available for purchase.

The very first thing a student learns in this method is how to recognize and keep a steady beat followed by learning the piano finger numbers (complete with a cute and effective game to practice them at home and in the lesson). Like The Music Tree, the method familiarizes the student with the entire range of the keyboard by having the student play groups of two or three black keys in ascending or descending succession.

The method does not introduce a staff right away, rather it starts with clusters of two or three quarter notes (indicating two or three black keys) in a row with some higher than others to show higher and lower.  Since there is no staff, a little picture of a keyboard is given with numbers above certain keys indicating a finger that is to play it.  In Unit 3 of Lessons and Musicianship 1A, a full staff is introduced for the first time and students follow similar directions as before, with a diagram of a keyboard showing two or three finger numbers. Students read up, down or the same in order to play the notes on the staff. Although there are no clef signs, you will find that the staff is always a stealth bass or treble clef, secretly preparing the student to read proper music in the future.  For the teacher’s instructional information there is a small staff showing the location of those keys on the keyboard. The clef signs appear in unit eight (8) although this is a minor event for the student who has already been playing on the grand staff with correct names of lines and spaces–albeit without knowing it. Throughout the entire method, every concept is “prepped” (meaning that it is used in previous lessons without any bravado) before it is actually introduced with its formal musical term and sign.

The method for rhythm learning uses “ta” for quarters and ta-a” for half notes right from page one of book 1A–on which students march and stomp around the room to music with a steady beat that the teacher plays.

The written work is never just busy work or review work but is fashioned as a powerful tool to further the student’s learning. Even as the student is learning to read a musical phrase by interval, a written exercise will have the student writing in finger numbers on one of the practice songs. Or, as the student is learning where the groups of black keys are, they will not only find and play them on the physical keyboard, but also find and circle them on a keyboard diagram. A rhythm maze is no brain-dead activity; in order to traverse the path, a student must do mental addition of note values and pass through only the groups of notes that equal 3 beats. Later in the method, written activities reinforce key signature knowledge or provide note spelling practice at strategic points. Much valuable practice is acquired through these activities.

Each lesson also provides aural training through progressively more difficult clap-backs, play-backs (in which the student is given a specific set of notes and must reproduce, by ear, a melody the teacher plays for him on those notes) and dictation (either by the student writing the rhythm or melody he heard in a blank measure or by choosing the rhythm or melody he heard from two pre-printed options).

Finally, there is a continuous progression of transposition and composition practice (through Question and Answer activities in which the question is given and the answer is blank for the student to write in–guidelines are given for this activity) from the first book to the last.

Piano technique is introduced little by little culminating with playing a C major scale, two octaves hands separately and also hands together in contrary motion in book 4. Major key signatures are boldly taught throughout books 2A and 2B with the student playing pieces in key signatures up to six (6) flats and six (6) sharps! Very high quality music and accompaniments are used throughout the method with Baroque dances, and canon forms introduced in the 4th book. Theory instruction culminates in understanding of triad and chord building with inversions, the circle of fifths, major and minor relatives, cadences and chord progressions using I IV and V7 (not just recognizing these items, but also improvising and composing with them).

Celebrate Piano 3Section II: My experience with the method

The one thing I really love about this method book is how thorough and purposeful it is! The authors of Celebrate Piano! have accomplished supreme efficiency while nailing down an air-tight pedagogical approach to piano instruction.

Like The Music Tree, this method teaches kids to read in steps and intervals rather than beginning by memorizing the G and F clef lines and spaces. But unlike The Music Tree, there are no pointless or destructive steps introduced that will undermine fluent piano playing down the road.

This method does a great job of developing the whole piano player as a musician while at the same time providing a fun experience for the student and teacher. It provides a wide variety of practice, both written and performing practice, and prepares the student to be a competent classical or jazz piano player. Students completing this method will go right into early baroque and classical dance movements and sonatinas with little to no transitional difficulty.

However, not every piano method can be perfect, and there are a couple of things to watch out for. 1) Students can sometimes need more practice with a concept than is provided in the book. No big deal, I use it as an opportunity to pull out Bartok’s Mikrokosmos or Jon George’s beautiful compositions as found in A Day in the Jungle, etc.. 2) Another thing the teacher should watch out for is inadvertently allowing students to depend too much on “position playing” without learning the lines and spaces. “Positions” in this method are used purposefully, to teach keys and key signatures, and this is quite effective. However, well into book 2A, I consistently quiz students about the lines and spaces they have learned to that point and try to make them figure out their starting position without telling them what “position” the piece is in while still helping them to see the connection between the key signature and their hand position.

Conclusion

The Celebrate Piano! method is a highly effective, expertly-designed, FUN piano training course. Students of the method will become fluent music readers with a solid foundational understanding of music theory, music history, musical form and composition and have a blast learning the instrument.  While the teacher must be vigilant for signs of dependence on “position playing” or of a student’s need for additional practice on a skill, the end result of using this course will be fantastic! I highly recommend Celebrate Piano!

Mrs. Stewart’s Piano Lessons, A Good Choice for Group Piano or Jazz Beginners

stewartpianoA little while back, I began teaching groups of two piano students with the idea that I may even teach larger groups in the future.  This led me to start looking for methods that could easily be adapted for two or more pupils.  Never liking to “follow the crowd” I passed over the more commonly used methods in favor of trying one I had never heard of: Mrs. Stewart’s Piano Lessons Book I.  Here, I’ll give you a highly detailed analysis (Section I) and then my experience-based review (Section II).

Section I (Detailed Method Analysis)

Piano Method: Mrs. Stewart’s Piano Lessons; 25 Individual Lessons for Beginners Complete with Music and Studies

Use:  This method is for brand-new piano beginners “Grades I & II.”

General Description:  Mrs. Stewart’s Piano Lessons is a unique piano method aimed at either very young beginners ages 4-6,  group lessons that include varying ages of beginners or homeschooling families that would like to incorporate beginning piano lessons into the daily homeschool studies without needing a teacher just yet.  Like many homeschool materials, the method includes extremely detailed and easy-to-understand instructions for the teacher or parent.

The uniqueness of the method lies in its introductory approach to the piano: the use of numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1′) rather than musical notation for the first fifteen (15) lessons.  Beginners to piano are able to play simple children’s songs almost immediately by using three cut-outs that are placed on the keyboard.  Each card has a numbered pattern correctly spaced to form a major scale, a root triad and a 1st inversion chord pattern when placed on any piano key.  In lesson sixteen (16) the grand staff is introduced and several pages of blank grand-staffs are provided for writing and naming all notes, notes on the lines and notes in the spaces.   From that point on, students read music on the staff starting with the simple songs and chord patterns already known and progressing to more complex arrangements of those and other songs using eighth notes.  Except in the beginning of most lessons when students are asked to transpose songs into various keys, the music stays in the key of C and remains between G2 and G 5 on the piano.

Organization:  This method is divided into two main sections: Lessons I-XV using numbers and cards and Lessons XVI-XXV using musical notation.  Here’s what you’ll find:

Lesson I: Two (2) pages of detailed instructions for parent or teacher to read to child accompanied by extremely clear drawings.  Child names every key from bottom to top on the piano; learns to find C and F; plays C, C# and D major scales and receives two (2) short songs written out in numbers to be played by left and right hands with the scale card on C.

Lessons II through IV: Progressive practice finding and naming piano keys until finding CDEFG all over the piano.  Progressive addition of new scales by sliding the number card up to new piano keys.  One or two new songs added weekly while old ones are reviewed.

Lesson V: Playing ABC all over the piano, new scales and now practicing all known songs hands together.

Lesson VI-IX: Reviewing all previous material and learning to play all-white-key root triads (on C, F and G), all white-black-white root triads (on D, E and A), the C major scale by name, the three black-white-black triads, the final triads (on Bb, B and F#).

–Each lesson from this point on begins by focusing a new scale and asking the student to transpose a few known songs into that scale until all twelve keys have been addressed. At the end of the book, the transpositions include using triad accompaniment.–

Lesson X-XV: Known songs (written out as number sequences) are now “set” with triad accompaniment.

Lesson XVI: The grand staff story is told, several pages of blank staff paper are included and the student practices writing and naming the notes on the staff.

Lesson XII-XIII: The bass clef and left hand are emphasized. The student learns to read various left hand note patterns in musical notation.

Lesson XIX: The treble clef and right hand are emphasized with simple patterns written in musical notation.

Lesson XX-XXV: Songs and exercises for hands together on the staff. The songs originally taught by number sequence are now taught in musical notation. Half notes and dotted half notes are introduced. Eighth notes are introduced and the written C major scale is presented for right hand with left hand broken triad accompaniment.

Section II (My experience-based review):

I used this method for one year around 2011 and have not used it since although I might take it back out for the right student. There are several advantages I found with this method:

  1. It teaches music theory from the beginning. Within the first two months of playing the piano, students understand the major scale, think of it in numbers 1-1′ and see that the same scale in 12 places on the piano yields similar yet changing patterns. This leads to later understanding key signatures. Triads and inversions are a part of their experience from the start and, before reading them in standard musical notation, they are used to accompany familiar melodies.
  2. This method leads to more expressive playing and more enjoyment from young beginners. Before I instituted a youngest age of six for piano lessons, I accepted a four year old transfer student who had started in another popular method. At first, we attempted to continue in the book but it was clearly not happening (I now understand that her age had everything to do with this). Then I switched her over to Mrs. Stewart’s Lessons and the change was remarkable. Instead of the distant look in her eyes there was a spark of interest. She started grinning during lessons and she was finding success. She was finally playing whole songs that she knew instead of the eternally boring abc, cba, aca patterns she was forced to bear in the other book. Even older students play more musically when they start in this book because there is less of an inhibiting process going on in their brains.
  3. It’s a great beginning method for students wishing to play jazz, rock or any other music that is notated in guitar chords rather than musical notation. Mrs. Stewart didn’t leave out the music reading altogether but she chose to position playing naturally and freely by number and shape before introducing those shapes and melodies in musical notation. This has the potential to be a much faster process than the other, more traditional order of things. A student who wants to play by chords will have a solid foundation in that skill with the added bonus of being able to read music on the staff.
  4. There’s a lot of personal, professional support for teachers of this method, including an annual summer workshop.

 

However, I found a few disadvantages to the method (keep in mind that I did not do the official training for the method and only taught it for less than one year):

  1. Bad fingering habits developed. It was hard to specify finger numbers at the same time that numbers were being used to indicate which note to play. This was confusing for a lot of children and led to some crazy, tangled-up solutions.
  2. If the lessons have to end for any reason before completing the method (I had to move to another state before finishing the year), the students might still not be able to read music after several months of lessons. I have felt awful about sending a couple of students to another teacher who probably took one look at the situation and labeled me a crazy, clueless lady from whom they were glad to “rescue” the student. I probably would. Although I’m enamored by the potential end result of this method, it’s pretty radical, unknown to most teachers and will not easily integrate with other piano learning systems in the beginning. 
  3. It’s missing a lot of enrichment that other methods include. The print in this method is black and white and simply looks like a page you printed off from your word processor. There are few graphics to drive home a point and nothing is taught about dynamics, music history, musical style, etc. Also, rhythm practice is lacking. You would have to be conscientious about practicing clap-backs, sight-clapping and other activities that solidify a steady-beat.

In conclusion, Mrs. Stewart’s Piano Lessons Book I is a great beginning method for teaching music theory and, due to the detail in its instruction, can easily be followed by homeschooling families without prior musical experience. It works well in a group teaching setting although it does lead to music reading at a later point than in traditional methods. Some pitfalls of the method such as bad fingering habits, poor rhythmic abilities and lack of enrichment information must be countered by a knowledgeable teacher. However, if this is accomplished, a student of this method can become a very expressive jazz or classical pianist with a solid understanding of music theory. Please share your perspective in the comments below!

Time to Begin, Music Tree Piano Primer; An Intervallic Approach to Piano Learning

music treeIn this analysis of The Music Tree Piano Method primer, Time to Begin I’ll describe the method objectively, in Section I and in Section II I will comment on my experience with the method in piano instruction.

Section I: The Music Tree Series, A plan for musical growth at the piano; Time to Begin

Frances Clark, Louise Goss, Sam Holland; Summy-Birchard Inc, USA c. 2000.

Purpose of the book

The purpose of the book is to introduce the piano to first time learners with no previous knowledge of the piano and no previous knowledge of music reading, theory or rhythm.

Organization

The book is organized into nine (9) units that address specific musical concepts.  Each unit has an introduction to the concepts at the beginning with a simple melody that uses the new concept while incorporating the already learned concepts.  A “using what you have learned” section follows in which the student plays several songs that use the new concept.  At the end of each unit are about 2 pages with daily finger warm-ups, rhythm practice and written work/composing (except for units 1 and 2 which do not include warm-ups).  Many student songs have a teacher accompaniment part as well.

Content of Units:

Unit 1: Higher, Lower, Quarter note, Half note

Unit 2: Piano, forte, repeated notes

Unit 3: Slur, 8va

Unit 4: Dotted half, Interval of a 2nd

Unit 5: Interval of a 3rd

Unit 6: Time Signatures 2/4, ¾, 4/4 and 5/4

Unit 7: Interval of a 4th

Unit 8: Whole note, interval of a 5th, 6/4 time signature

Unit 9: F clef sign, G clef sign, ledger lines, grand staff

Description of Primer

This primer requires a teacher’s guidance for very young beginners but could be used independently by adult beginners.  An accompaniment cd is also available for purchase.

The method begins with familiarizing the student with the entire range of the keyboard by having the student play groups of two or three black keys in ascending or descending succession.  Only one finger on each hand is required for the first two units increasing to four fingers on each hand by the last page of the book.  The thumb is not used in this primer.

The book does not introduce a staff or any line at the beginning, rather it puts the notes in a row with some higher than others to show higher and lower.  Since there is no staff, the keys to be played are given in a little picture of a keyboard.  Arrows point to the appropriate keys and a finger number is also provided.  For the teacher’s instructional information there is a small staff showing the location of those keys on the keyboard.

In unit four (4), a two-line staff is introduced with the concept of 2nds (one of the lines is given a note name and the student is to figure out the rest).  After that point, the intervals and the lines on the staff increase by one per instructional unit until the full staff appears in unit seven (7).

The method for rhythm learning uses physical movement on each beat such as swinging the arm or tapping the fingers.  Units 1-5 include verbal/poetic chants.  When time signatures are introduced in unit 6 verbal counting replaces the chants.

The warm-up sections, which are only a few notes long, focus mainly on finger dexterity and movement up and down the keyboard.

The written work often presents a picture of a full keyboard and asks the student to write something on the keys.  For example, the student may write the names of the keys, or place check marks to indicate intervals.

The composition section consists of a one sentence assignment, usually directing the student to make up a song using the concept from the unit.

Another unique aspect of the method is the two cartoon characters that “teach” new concepts at the sides of the pages by asking the student to fill in blanks, observe and record important facts about the songs and to help the student practice correctly at home.

Section II: My experience with the book

The one thing I really loved about this book is that parents can really easily understand and learn each lesson with their child.  I would quickly go over the new material with parents before the kids left and that was very effective in keeping kids moving forward.

The method teaches kids to read in steps and intervals rather than by memorizing the G and F clef lines and spaces.  If you’re used to a middle C position introduction to the piano, it can seem odd and a bit aimless but  consider that this is how we seasoned pianists are able to read music without even thinking about it and it makes perfect sense.  The book introduces the appearance and feel of octaves right away, then builds visual and tactile recognition of smaller intervals throughout each unit.  The G and F clefs are introduced later–admittedly causing a delay in knowing the lines and spaces compared to other piano methods.  However, you don’t need to know the names of the lines and spaces to read music, you just need to know where to start and then read distances from that point and kids I’ve taught with this method are very good at reading by interval years later.

I have one major complaint about this primer (which has actually driven me to switch to another interval-based method): the fact that the five line staff is not introduced until the end of the book.  By using just two lines for a whole unit (that change names from song to song), then three lines for a whole unit, then four, etc., the students wind up having a really difficult time when the grand staff and “landmark” notes are introduced in book two.  The idea that lines and spaces in a clef correlate with only one piano key at all times is hard to teach students in this method.

Conclusion

The Music Tree Piano Method, Time to Begin is an innovative beginning piano book that teaches instinctive playing through interval familiarity.  The beginning student will learn to recognize patterns and intervals and to naturally seek out the notes according to their visual distance rather than by naming lines and spaces.  It gets at the core of fluent piano playing by teaching a new player to see and play shapes before grappling with the more confusing concept of EGBDF and FACE.

Do you have experience with this book? Please leave a comment below!

Welcome!

1344391612Hi and welcome!  I’m a music teacher who runs a piano and flute studio in Western New York. I have a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from SUNY Fredonia and a Master of Arts degree in Instrumental Conducting from Mansfield University (PA), and I taught band and music in New York public schools for 5 years.

Maybe you’re like me, I’m always on the internet looking up the answer to whatever question I may have or trying to expand my knowledge in a particular subject. I really enjoy reading other peoples’ reviews and critiques on items or books I might want to purchase, and have often been persuaded to action through these personal testimonies. I’d like to do my part among the vast expanse of internet readers in contributing whatever insight and information I can to help others make their decisions as well! I’m especially focusing in the realm of books and curricula as these purchases are difficult to make without thumbing through them or reading a few different personal experiences with the course.

I’m only one person, and so I don’t expect to change the whole world, but maybe my posts can be useful to a few people. I am open to critique and suggestions and will answer any questions you may be left with. I hope you find what you’re looking for!

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