A survey of current methods: Bastien Piano Basics
This issue continues Clavier Companion's survey of piano methods. Each article in this series has 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!
Bastien Piano Basics- by James and Jane Smisor Bastien
Publisher: Neil A. Kjos Music Company
Levels: Piano, Theory, Performance, Technic- Primer through Level 4; A Line a Day Sight Reading- Levels 1-4.
Alpha: Originally published in 1985, this series begins with pre-staff reading black- and white-key pieces. The black key songs are carefully fingered for the small hand size of most beginners. All of the white key off-staff pieces have note names inside each note head with minimal finger numbers. All of the Primer level songs have words and some have teacher accompaniments. One of the first series in the 1980s to use large, extremely colorful graphics; the pages tend to be, to my taste, visually busy.
Piano: The lesson books present a strong multi-key approach. Intervals are introduced and five-finger hand positions are emphasized from the beginning. Moving at a lively pace, the Primer introduces the three-note tonic chord, eighth notes, sharps, flats, legato, and staccato. Rhythm is presented with nominative counting.
Level 2 introduces dominant sevenths and the full I-IV-I-V7-I chord progression. By the end of the series, pieces are written in key signatures of up to six flats and five sharps. Throughout the books the left hand plays a variety of chordal accompaniment styles; however, there are very few two-part contrapuntal textures. Many of the original pieces and folk song arrangements have a pop/rock/jazzy sound, and simplified transcriptions of classical themes are also presented. Due to the multi-key emphasis throughout, students are given many opportunities to transpose the songs.
The multi-key approach has many strengths—a thorough knowledge of the theory and technique of primary chord progressions and seventh chords, the ability to transpose and harmonize with ease, and a strong physical connection with the keyboard topography of the five-finger positions. Teachers should, however, be careful to supplement this approach with pieces that extend beyond five-finger positions at a fairly early level and literature that offers two-part writing and non-chordal accompaniment styles to prepare their students for the reading and technical requirements of intermediate music, particularly in the left hand.
Although the pictures become smaller in the upper level books, the graphics do not become concurrently age-appropriate.
Repertoire: Written by Jane Smisor Bastien, the Performance books are filled with original pieces and arrangements of folk songs in a variety of styles; they provide additional pieces to support each new concept in the Piano books. No teacher duets are included in any levels.
Theory: Correlated with the Piano books, a variety of drills and games support and reiterate the concepts presented. Upper levels offer various melodies for harmonization with theory and jazz chord symbols, and some compositional activities; there are, however, very few activities for improvisation.
Technic: Consisting of etude-like pieces that explore and expand the technical challenges of the pieces in the Piano books, the upper level books include exercises and etudes by Schmitt, Hanon, Schytte, and Gurlitt. No information or analogies are given at any level concerning the correct physical approach to playing these pieces.
A Line A Day: Beginning with Level 1, each page offers a Daily Note Search and three four-measure phrases for practice. Each phrase has boxes for recording the day it was practiced and number of times played. The first page of each book gives helpful preparatory and evaluative suggestions for the student. A grid on the back cover provides the opportunity for progress reports with specific criteria.
Teacher's Guide: No teachers' guides are available in hard copy or online.
Compact Discs: Each level has a two-disc set of attractive, well-written orchestral accompaniments by Paul Sheftel for the Piano, Performance, and Technic books. Each piece begins with a two-measure orchestral introduction, and the piano part is played by different non-piano instruments. The accompaniments are synthesized instrumental samples and (unfortunately) given at only one tempo. They would make even scales and Hanon fun to play!
Omega: It is somewhat difficult to give a level to the final books in this series. Although the key signatures are advanced, the repertoire varies between late beginner and early intermediate.
This series, with its strong multi-key approach, probably works best with students particularly interested in keyboard skills and perhaps playing in a jazz or rock band, rather than students (or teachers) who are more repertoire-based in their interests and goals.
Developing facility and musicianship at the keyboard by Elaina Denney Burns
When I first began teaching piano, I accepted students of all ages and levels and tried to familiarize myself with as many methods as possible. I kept transfer students in their original materials and started young beginners in Bastien Piano Basics, The Music Tree, Alfred's Basic Piano Library, or Piano Adventures. That first year of teaching served as my own "methods evaluation assignment" before I pursued graduate studies. Now, nearly a decade (and five states!) later, I can look at the successes and challenges presented by each method from a new perspective.
I currently teach using a large variety of educational materials, and I continually ask myself these questions when I accept a new student: What method would work well for this student? What method best suits my teaching style? What method would work best for both of us as we strive to make music together? The right combination of student, teacher, and materials generally yields the best results, and therefore it makes sense to have knowledge of as many different approaches as possible.
I find that Bastien Piano Basics works well for 7- to 8-year-old beginners. I have had less success using the method with older students (such as 11- to 13-year-old transfer students who are still at a beginning level), since many of the illustrations are clearly designed to be enjoyed by younger children. With my older students, I tend to use a series designed for the older beginner in order to refresh and review concepts in a way that is appropriate for both the age and level of the student. The Bastien Piano Basics method, however, is a wonderful choice for the average-age beginner, since concepts are clearly introduced and thoroughly reinforced throughout the series in a way that is meaningful to children. Over the course of the series, students begin to develop a natural way of playing due to the emphasis on musicality and phrasing.
Advantages of the multi-key approach
Bastien Piano Basics is a gradual multi-key method in which students are introduced to all twelve keys over the course of the series.
For teachers who prefer to give students a faster paced introduction to all twelve keys, Bastien's single-volume Pre-Reading Experiences can be used as a supplement or replacement. I find that the successful completion of a method using the multi-key approach offers students access to a great variety of works by standard classical and educational composers because the students are considerably less fearful of key signatures littered with sharps or flats.
This familiarity with all twelve keys makes transposition, which is experienced at various points throughout the series, much easier for students to grasp. Although the multi-key approach is sometimes criticized for confining students' hands in strict positions, the implications for early transposition provide a distinct advantage that outweighs possible limitations of the consistent use of five- finger patterns. Piano Basics introduces transposition in Level 1, and by Levels 3 and 4 students are transposing two or three pieces in each key up or down by a half-step.
Since some pieces in the beginning of the Primer Level require students to use all five fingers on the black keys, the teacher should watch closely for proper hand position and encourage parents to monitor their child's positioning at home. In my own teaching, I use a great deal of supplementary pre-staff reading material and I enjoy pieces from Alfred's My First... series as well as solo sheets by Mary Leaf. Practicing this material alongside Piano Basics offers students a variety of composers while still exposing them to the multi-key method.
A strong technical foundation
The front cover of Bastien Piano Basics is easily recognizable, with its three brightly colored building blocks for pianistic success. A strategically placed metronome on the Technic books reminds students to practice their technical exercises with a strict, steady beat at multiple practice tempi. Jane Bastien is a strong promoter of slow practice, and this valuable strategy helps students develop proper technique from the very beginning of their studies.
Clean layouts in the Technic books allow the teacher to introduce technical approaches that best suit the teacher's style and philosophy. A lack of superfluous instructions offers a much less cluttered look than can be found in some other early technical approaches. Teachers must interpret the music and determine the best way to convey the concepts to individual students. I find this approach, which lacks highly specific instructions, to be more conducive to creative teaching.
The Technic books are especially valuable because they expose students to more challenging passages at early levels. Multi-key methods are often considered overly position-oriented, but exercises such as "Hear the Wind Blow!," "Dragon's Den," and "Dolphins at Play" help students to move out of standard five-finger patterns (see Excerpts 1-3).
Chords are introduced in the Primer Level, and I find this to be a distinct advantage of the method. Students enjoy the rich sound of chords as they accompany traditional folk melodies such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat. I must admit that I had a difficult time teaching chords to beginning students during my first years as a teacher, but, over time, I have had more success with helping students to accomplish this task. I find that if students are sitting at the proper height at the keyboard, and the hand is formed with a high bridge and gently rounded fingers, students can usually master chord playing fairly quickly. Teacher accompaniments are included with about half of the pieces in the Primer Level and with very few pieces in subsequent levels; perhaps because students learn to provide a thicker texture by adding chords so early in this method. Teachers who enjoy the rhythmic and motivational benefits of accompanying students should improvise an accompaniment or supplement with additional materials.
The Bastien philosophy
Since I am currently conducting my doctoral research on Jane Bastien's teaching and methodology, it is difficult to give a synopsis of her materials without appearing somewhat biased. I can, however, offer a unique perspective on her philosophy and on the Bastien Piano Basics method in particular, because I have observed her teaching and interviewed numerous students from various stages of her career. Bastien writes pieces that she enjoys using in her own studio, but she does not exclusively use her own materials, nor does she expect others to do so.
When using any method, it is helpful to seek out opportunities to observe the teacher or teachers who created it. Many well-known teachers and authors have created DVDs or online tutorials explaining key aspects of their methodologies. In addition, exhibitor showcases at MTNA events often feature authors demonstrating their techniques, and these can provide valuable insights into each unique pedagogical approach and the numerous ways in which to teach the given materials.
Comprehensive musicianship with fun, motivating activities by Kristi Helfen
Bastien Piano Basics became a part of my piano studio in the mid-1980s. Since then I have completed graduate studies in piano pedagogy, analyzed many other methods, and used various materials brought in by transfer students, and I still choose Bastien Piano Basics for my elementary-aged beginners.
A timeless classic
Even though Piano Basics was published twenty-five years ago, students still enjoy the colorful, entertaining illustrations and fun- to-play repertoire. Headings are in large, bold print, so they can quickly see when new musical terms and symbols are being introduced. Explanations are clear and to the point. The pages are uncluttered and exhibit a good balance of music, explanations, and illustrations. New concepts are well-paced and follow a logical sequence.
A solid beginning
The Primer level starts with several black-key pieces using quarter, half, and whole notes. When students are introduced to the music alphabet and learn how each white key relates to a black key group, I find it helpful to call these the "CDE" and "FGAB" groups.
The C position is introduced with letter names written inside each note; finger numbers are also indicated. Soon afterward, finger numbers are removed and time signatures 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 are presented. Staff reading begins before the halfway point of the book, and intervals are introduced shortly thereafter. Except for the beginning note for each hand, finger numbers disappear once students are on the staff (although some are added later when sharps and flats are taught). This early removal of finger numbers and the introduction to intervals of 2nds through 5ths helps ensure a strong foundation in music reading.
"What's at the end of the book?"When they get a new piano book, many students like to look ahead to see where it is going to take them. They are especially delighted to find arrangements of The Entertainer at the end of Level 2 and Für Elise closing Level 3. I appreciate the variety of styles that the Piano and Performance books include throughout all levels of this series. Students are exposed to classical types of compositions such as the march, waltz, minuet, prelude, etude, tarantella, rhapsody, barcarolle, and sonatina. They are introduced to the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorˇák, Offenbach, Sousa, and others. Styles also include blues, boogie-woogie, rock 'n' roll, hymns, Spanish and Middle Eastern music, and pieces with dissonant harmonies often depicting outer space.
Technic and accompaniment CDs
Reinforcing concepts presented in the Piano books, the Technic books often follow a theme such as the jungle, sea, or circus. The CDs have accompaniments for everything in the Piano, Performance, and Technic books. What a fun way to learn technic! The orchestrations are always clever and the tempos are reasonable. When students are ready to play with an accompaniment CD, I ask them to guess what kinds of sounds they might hear to fit the piece they are working on.
Meeting the challenge
Bastien Piano Basics, with its curriculum of Piano, Theory, Performance, Technic, and A Line A Day, encourages complete musicianship. I do, however, have a couple of suggestions: It would be helpful if the Primer and Level 1 cover colors were more contrasting; and I would love to see companion classical repertoire books correlating with each level of the series.
I am grateful to have encountered Bastien Piano Basics in my early years of teaching. In using their method, I have gained greater insight as an instructor, while my students have been given a solid base for musical growth. As I reviewed materials for this article, I happened upon an exercise in Level 2 Technic titled Hanon, the Robot and couldn't help but notice a strong resemblance to Conan, the Barbarian (see Excerpt 7). Learning to play the piano is not for the weak or fainthearted, that's for sure. May we encourage students each and every lesson to rise up and meet the challenge. Thank you, Bastiens, for your expertise and guidance in this process.