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A survey of current methods: Alfred's Premier Piano Course

This issue continues Clavier Companion's survey of piano methods1. Each article in this series will have three sections - an introductory synopsis by the Associate Editor, two articles written by teachers who have used the method extensively in their studios, and a response from the authors of the method surveyed in the previous issue. We hope that you find these articles to be an interesting and helpful overview of all the most popular methods currently on the market!

Alfred's Premier Piano Course - by Dennis Alexander, Gayle Kowalchyk, E.L. Lancaster, Victoria McArthur, and Martha Mier

Publisher: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. Levels: Levels 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3, 4, 5 The core books throughout the series are: Lesson, Theory, and Performance. Technique books are available for Levels 1A and 1B. The final Level 6 Lesson, Theory, and Performance books are scheduled to be available by mid-2010. Level 2A and 2B Technique books will also be published by mid-2010, with Levels 3-6 following in 2011.



The pre-reading pages span the first half of Level 1A and introduce quarter, half, dotted half, and whole notes; quarter and whole rests; and 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures. A strong pedagogical foundation is laid in the pre-reading section with:

Suggestions that students first play the pieces in their lap, on the fallboard, or silently touching the keys before actually sounding the keys.

Reminders for the student to play across the bar lines.

An introduction to the damper pedal with brief information about beginning pedal technique. Early use of the pedal is limited to the "put it down and keep it down" type so beloved by children. It might, however, be difficult for a younger or smaller than average beginner to reach the pedals without a pedal extender.

An excellent beginning emphasis on steps, repeats, and recognition of notational direction. 



This series uses an eclectic reading approach with a strong emphasis on landmark notes and intervallic reading. Occasional snippets for sight reading are included in the Lesson books. While the early pieces stay within five-note positions, they are not restricted to typical Middle C or other fixed hand positions, thereby avoiding the problem of students associating a particular finger with a particular note. Intervals of a sixth are introduced towards the end of Level 2A. Most of the songs in Levels 1A, 1B, and 2A have lyrics that are consonant with a child's life experiences. Because there is very little Middle- C emphasis, most of the early level songs are not singable. 



Pre-reading pieces begin with unit counting, then quickly move to metric with the introduction of the 4/4 time signature. Sections titled "Rhythm Review" and "Rhythm Workout" occur throughout the Lesson books and always present the rhythms in groupings to be tapped or clapped. Eighth notes are presented in Level 2A with metric counting, and the dotted quarter-eighth note pattern is introduced in Level 2B. New rhythmic groupings are often presented with words that mimic the rhythm. Syncopation, 3/8, and 6/8 me signatures appear in Level 3, while triplets and sixteenths are introduced in Level 4. Level 5 continues with more complex rhythmic groupings, and Level 6 will conclude with mixed meters. 

Lesson Books


In addition to boxes introducing new concepts and the aforementioned sight-reading snippets, these books have a number of activities that appear throughout the levels:

Workout activities provide short technical exercises that address specific issues in a given piece, rhythmic exercises, and blocking suggestions for efficient practice.

Premier Performer suggests additional, more challenging activities for the piece.

Imagination Station offers creative activities including playing by ear and improvisation.

Closer Look draws attention to aspects of the piece that will enhance sight-reading and analysis.

Levels 1A and 1B also have Practice Journal suggestions in a checklist format. 



Along with original teaching pieces, arrangements of classical tunes begin in Level 1A of the Lesson and Performance books. These are accompanied by a short biographical introduction to each composer. Genres are varied and include Broadway show tunes, folk melodies, jazz, and in the later levels, original classical pieces. 



These books support and enhance the concepts of the Lesson and Performance books and contain the following boxes:

Fun Zone: written games and puzzles.
Imagination Station: additional creative opportunities.
Learning Link: interesting extra-musical information about the subject of a piece in the Lesson books. For example, in Level 2A there is a song about using the QWERTY keyboard-something that all computer savvy children use. The correlating page in the Theory book gives a paragraph of information about the development of the QWERTY system.

Now Hear This: ear training exercises.
Now Play This: sight reading snippets.
Five-finger positions in various keys are introduced in Level 2A, cadence chords and major scales begin to appear in Level 2B, and harmonic minor scales are taught in Level 4. Concepts in Level 6 are projected to include two octave black key scales and, ii-V7-I progressions. 



Technique Tools covering topics including relaxed shoulders, arm weight, and strong fingertips are introduced in the pre-reading portion of Level 1A. These are followed by exercises and Artistic Etudes with titles such as "Playing Across the Bar Line" and "Playing Evenly from Hand to Hand." Level 1B presents four more Technique Tools, three "Hands-Together Workshop" exercises (including "Contrary Motion" and "Parallel Motion"), and additional Artistic Etudes. The Technique Tools are currently only available in Levels 1A and 1B. 

Teacher's Guide


The only material currently available is a video of Gayle Kowalchyk demonstrating Nine Technique Tools from Alfred's Premier Piano Course, Technique Book 1A on-line at Teacher's Guides for each level will be written after the publication of all six levels of the core books. 

Software and CDs


CDs and MIDI disks are available for each Lesson and Performance book in the series. The CDs provide performance and practice tempi for each piece. These disks are unusual in that the piano pieces and written duet parts are beautifully performed by Scott Price on an acoustic piano, giving the student an excellent aural model. The MIDI disks contain an attractive variety of digitally generated orchestral sounds and styles of accompaniments.

As mentioned earlier in this series, the disks that most publishers use for MIDI accompaniments are unusable for teachers who do not own an electric piano or keyboard with a floppy disk drive. Kudos to Alfred for now offering these accompaniments as a download from their website. Visit and click on "Piano" on the left sidebar. The cost for each downloaded book of accompaniments is currently $7.95. 



The Level 5 Lesson and Performance books contain a wide range of appealing genres and include a generous amount of mid-intermediate classical repertoire. Level 6 will conclude with Beethoven's Ecossaise in G Major and the Burgmiiller Ballade in C Minor. 

Motivating to practice

by Sharon Ard

 With the right combination of teacher and student, most piano methods can be successful. Alfred's Premier Piano Course works best in my studio with students who are seven or eight years old. Six-year-olds move more slowly because of the quick introduction of rhythms, time signatures, and the early use of alternating hands on the same line of music. The Lesson book with CD and the Theory book from my students' core curricula. I also Performance book 1A with all beginners and the other Performance books as needed.

Teaching rhythm in patterns

The method begins with unit counting and then moves to metric counting. Inside the front cover of each Lesson book is a list of all the rhythm patterns covered in that particular book. The emphasis on reading rhythms in patterns is my favorite aspect of this course. This rhythmic approach enables students to develop good sight-reading and memory skills. I make flashcards of these patterns and have my students clap, tap, or play them. I always introduce a new pattern before it is used in a piece.

One of my favorite syncopated pieces to teach is ''Argentine Tango" from Lesson Book 4 (see Excerpt 1). When teaching this piece, students and I listen to the CD recording of the piece and swing our arms like a clock pendulum to the beat. We then isolate the measures that might be difficult to play, for example mm. 2-4 and mm. 9-12. Using rhythm instruments, students play the straight rhythm patterns while I play the syncopation counting aloud. After a couple of repetitions, we switch parts.

Excerpt 1: "Argentine Tango" from Lesson Book 4.

To help students prepare for their first experience with the CD, we begin by tapping a steady beat while listening to the piece. Next I have students tap a steady beat while I play the accompaniment, then tap the rhythm of their part using the appropriate left or right hand with the accompaniment. Students are then ready to play the student part with the accompaniment. In subsequent pieces, the tapping of a steady beat with the CD and tapping while listening to the teacher accompaniment is omitted. 

A beginning intervallic approach


Students have many opportunities in the Lesson and Performance books to explore the registers of the piano while learning pre-reading pieces. In the beginning, students use only the long fingers on black key groups. The book segues nicely from black key to white key pieces using the black keys as guides. C, D, and E are introduced together, G and A are introduced next, and F and B are presented last. This seems less confusing than introducing FGAB together, as many methods do.

Premier Piano uses an eclectic reading approach by combining elements of intervallic, multi-key, and middle C. Intervallic reading is emphasized in the beginning, and the music has a linear texture that leads to musical playing. The music is also more melodic than some of the pieces found in other intervallic based method books. Students are introduced to the bass clef before the treble clef in hopes of making the bass clef easier to comprehend.

I have found that more drill is needed with stepping up and down in the music alphabet than is provided in the book. My students choose an alphabet card and play that key and a step up and down from it. The students also play "Around the World"-I call out a letter of the alphabet; students then find the key and move up and down by step, saying what key they have ended on. This helps with note reading when transitioning to the staff, and I continue drilling while introducing landmarks C, F, and G. I would like for Premier Piano to introduce pieces in different keys earlier. I have, however, wished that about all methods and I just use supplementary materials to meet the need.

After introducing all the notes in the C major five-finger pattern in Level 1A, I begin teaching all five-finger patterns by rote. The method formally introduces major five-finger patterns in Level 2A after covering half steps and whole steps.

Another positive aspect of this course is that many opportunities are given for students to experience playing the same note with different fingers, and no fixed-hand positions are taught. As a result, I am noticing that my students feel freer to improvise in different registers using different dynamic levels and articulations. 

Developing technique and musicianship


The Technique books Level 1A and 1B are well written with careful directions for the student and teacher and a strong correlation with the Lesson books. I also like to supplement with exercises from A Dozen a Day by Edna Mae Burnam. This keeps students from becoming accustomed to the appearance of a certain book while offering a broader technical knowledge.

From the beginning, the method develops a good musician with a commanding technique. In early pieces, the rests between groups of keys allow students to think about a loose wrist and help them learn to prepare for the next musical idea. The use of different finger combinations in both hands helps develop the strong muscles essential for a good hand position.

The two-note V7 chord is used more extensively in this series than in some methods, and students are given many opportunities to play other two-note intervals as "chords." This helps avoid the tendency to let the hand collapse when moving to the three note V7 chord.

The workout ideas that precede each piece help isolate potential trouble spots and make students aware of the concept being taught. This can be seen in "Moonlit Snow," which has a blocking exercise (see Excerpt 2). 

Excerpt 2: "Moonlit Snow" from Lesson Book 4.

More than just theory


The Theory books correlate nicely with.the Lesson books and have adequate activities for the average student. If the student is struggling with note reading, I supplement with note spellers. Some students are able to comprehend more than the method is covering, and with them, I substitute Theory Time by Heather Rathnau.

My students enjoy the Learning Link paragraphs from the Theory books and they never let me skip them. For example, in Theory 2A the Learning Link on page 12 is about boogie boards and is followed by the "Boogie Boarding" piece in Lesson 2A on page 15 (see Excerpts 3A and 3B). This can provide an interesting relaxation point in the lesson.

The ear training activities are not as predictable as in some method books. For instance, in Theory 4, the chord progressions do not always begin on a tonic chord. 

Excerpt 3A: ''Learning Link" from Them) Book 2A.
Excerpt 3B: "Boogie Boarding'' from Lesson Book 2B.

Motivating repertoire


The trophy on the cover of the Performance books and the titles of the compositions motivate my students to practice. My beginning students call the Performance book the "trophy book" and are thrilled to play from it. The repertoire in the Lesson and Performance books incorporates a wide variety of styles including folk tunes, pop tunes, classical, and well-written original pieces that students enjoy. By level 5, students are playing Sonatina Op. 36, No.1 by Clementi and the minuets of Cristoph Petzold. 

Limited time, accessible music


My students and I are happy with Premier Piano. In today's society practice time is limited due to all the students' activities; therefore, it is important that the assignments they practice for piano are accessible, fun, and sound good. The Alfred's Premier Piano Course meets those criteria. 

Sharon Ard, NCTM, maintains an independent piano studio in EI Dorado, Arkansas, where she was named ASMTA Independent Teacher of the Year in 1998. Her students are consistently among the leaders at state and local piano events. She holds an M.M. in Piano Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Oklahoma and a B.M. in Piano Performance.from Henderson State University. Sharon is currently serving as an MTNA National Certification Commissioner. 


1 The aim of this series is to review the core materials of piano methods that are either new or substantially changed since a similar series of articles appeared in Piano Quarterly in the 1980s. Please see the September/October 2009 issue of Clavier Companion for more details on this project. For reviews of methods that are older or have not been revised recently, we invite you to revisit the original Piano Quarterly series. 

Solid preparation with outstanding results


by Betty Sutton

Four years ago I returned from an MTNA Conference feeling very excited about a new piano method I had seen–the Premier Piano Course by Alfred Publishing Company. I decided to begin using the new series for a number of reasons, including the fact that all of the authors and composers were highly respected in the field of piano pedagogy. 

Good sequencing and pacing

The concepts are presented in a logical sequence, and the series does not move too rapidly for my students. Every new concept is introduced at the top of the page with beautiful graphics and stories about the piece. (This is especially nice when the classical pieces are introduced.) After new concepts are presented, they are followed by several pieces that reinforce them. The Theory books also reinforce the concepts and have page numbers that correlate to the Lesson book. These Theory books are fun, and my students earn extra points for perfect pages. We must not neglect the ear training these Theory books provide! 

Introduction to note reading


I appreciate the pre-reading songs in Lesson Book lA that help beginners learn to move their hands all around the piano. This helps students avoid becoming too attached to keeping their hands in one place on the keyboard. It also works well with ear training-- this year I made a game of playing black keys in different positions and having students try to match me. It was a fun way to train their listening abilities, and the students loved getting Tootsie Rolls for prizes.

I want a method that stresses intervallic reading, and this series does. In Lesson Book 1A the thumbs do not always play Middle C. The pieces continue to use different fingers on new notes, so my beginners really learn to read the notes and intervals. 

Accompaniment options


Compact disks are included in each of the Performance and Lesson books, and this is one of the things that attracted me to the series. Each CD is recorded at two tempos-first the practice tempo, then the performance tempo. Some of the students have a difficult time reaching the performance tempo, but it is a goal to work for! When they are ready, I use the MIDI disk and we listen for the dynamics, ritards, and all the other expressive markings. I also have the students try to identify the different instrumental sounds that are used. The artistic creativity of the MIDI disks is amazing! 

My students love playing with the MIDI disks because it sounds like they are playing with an orchestra. I let them choose their favorite pieces in the Performance and Lesson books to play at small recitals for parents. If they do not have a CD player at home, the teacher accompaniments are also delightful. If you have access to a MIDI-player or laptop computer, I highly recommend that you listen It! to the disks. I am sure that you will be delighted with them, too. 

Appealing repertoire, prepared rhythms


I am always searching for some exciting pieces with fresh appeal in the Lesson and Performance books. Our students are growing up in an ever-changing world, and we must move with the times. Repertoire includes blues, boogie, jazz, Spanish music, folk songs, and classics. The variety of music used makes this method quite appealing to middle school students. To prepare the student for the rhythms in these pieces, quarter notes and a steady beat are well. developed in the early levels. Eighth notes are not introduced until Lesson Book 2A, when they are easier for the student to understand. An introduction to syncopation is given in Lesson Book 3. 

Excerpt 4: Jazz in the Park" from Performance Book 3.

A couple of rough spots


There are two places in this series that have been difficult for some of my students. First, I think there should be more pre-reading pieces in Lesson 1A on black keys before moving to the white keys. This can depend on the age of the students, but my class of seven-year-olds had problems this year during the transition from black keys to white keys. My students also struggle in Lesson Book 1B when the left hand moves lower on the staff. This happens in many methods when students begin to move the left hand lower on the staff and play two notes at the same time.

I would recommend that if your students have a little difficulty moving from Level 1A to 1B, just keep using supplementary music until they have a solid foundation in the first book. We have all seen students struggle when they reach a plateau, and this is when many students quit piano. Don't give up because the rewards are great! It is awesome to see the bright glow of understanding on students' faces when they are successful! 

In retrospect


This is my fourth year of using Premier Piano with students at all levels, and I think my studio has the best sight-readers ever! The music is still as delightful and exciting as the first time I heard it. If you have not yet tried the Alfred's Premier Piano Course, I hope you will examine it carefully and perhaps try it next year. I feel this is a method that will stand the "test of time" and be with us for many years. 


Betty Sutton, NCTM, holds a B.A. from the University ofOklahoma, Edmond and a Masters degree from the University of Arkansas. A member of MTNA with Master Teacher Certification, Betty is a member of the Federated Music Club and has judged National Piano Guild auditions for 20 years. She is a published composer for Warner Bros. (now Alfred Publishing Co.) and recently studied piano with Carolyn Hickson at the University of Arkansas. Betty is the owner of Carousel Piano Studio in Rogers, AR, where she teaches class and private piano with three other teachers. 

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