Don't Try to Be A Superhero: Use a Method
“She just can’t play a C major scale hands together. I’ve told her to practice it hands alone. I don’t know what else to do!” said Megan, exasperated.
When Megan emailed me to get back in touch after a few years, I figured she’d started teaching and wanted some referrals or maybe a little teaching advice. It was the latter. She had only one student and no idea what to do with her.
Megan coached with me on the side while she was doing her undergraduate at Stanford. She's just finished a graduate degree in piano performance in London. She plays beautifully. A friend of hers wanted a teacher for her child, so Megan agreed to teach her.
We had dinner together. It’s hard to put all my years of experience into one dinner no matter how good the food is. Even with dessert.
There’s a rich and snobbish tradition that says that if you’re a good teacher you don’t need to use a method. It's a Catch-22. No one wants to identify as a bad teacher. Even the worst of us. But perhaps even the best of us can admit that we'd like some help to be our best?
I remember the look of disappointment on the face of Mrs. Miyamoto (my pre-college teacher) when I told her I was writing a method. She looked like I'd just told her I'd join the Hell’s Angels. Or maybe I was dating Charles Manson. In her eyes I was keeping the company with the devil.
I confess that until Keith Snell and I wrote Piano Town, I'd never used a method myself. I’d used a smattering of Music Tree Books and that was it.
In Piano Pedagogy class at the University of Southern California, we'd done a survey of methods. It didn't seem like it would ever apply to me. After all, I was going to be a performer. Yeah. Right.
My decision not to use an organized curriculum undermined my teaching. I couldn’t keep track of what I was doing and often assigned pieces that were completely inappropriate. I skipped important concepts and forgot to teach basic skills. Being a naturally gifted pianist myself didn’t help. It made things worse.
This was what Megan was experiencing. When she was a young student, simply playing a passage hands alone was all the preparation she needed. She had no idea how difficult piano playing is for an average student. She'd never been one herself.
As Keith and I were writing Piano Town, I started using it. Imagine my surprise when my students started to learn things in a logical, well-paced order! Keith, my writing partner, is particularly skilled in the leveling of musical concepts. (This may have something to do with why his theory books are bestsellers.)
I made Piano Town playful. He made it orderly.
Would I love it if the method everyone chose was Piano Town? Sure. But my best advice to a beginning teacher is to use a method. (If you teach siblings it's a good idea to have more than one that you like to use.) I think my method is the best because we wrote it the way we wanted it. Smart, thoughtful people have put a lot of time and energy into making your job as a teacher easier. Each method has its own strengths and weaknesses, but using one will help you be an organized, better teacher.
And if that makes me a "bad" teacher, I'll gladly take the rap.