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A survey of current methods: Piano Discoveries

This issue continues Clavier Companion's survey of piano methods.1 Each article in the series has several sections. The first section is a synopsis written by the Associate Editor. This synopsis covers the basic content, scope, and approaches of the method. The second section contains articles by two teachers who have used the method extensively in their studios. These authors will evaluate the method and offer opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the method. The third section presents 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 current methods! 

Piano Discoveries: by Janet Vogt and Leon Bates (with Advisory Board members: Gail Berenson, Martha Sherrill Kelsey, Rebecca Shockley, Scott McBride Smith, and Nancy Telfer)

Publisher: Heritage Music Press (a division of The Lorenz Corporation)

Levels: Off-Staff Starter, On-Staff Starter, Levels 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3, and 4

The core books throughout the series are the Piano Discoveries Explorer (through Level 1B); Adventurer (Levels 2A - 2B) and Voyager (Levels 3 and 4) books; and Theory Discoveries. 

Alpha

A unique characteristic of this series is the option of beginning with an On-Staff or Off-Staff Starter book. The first two-thirds of the Off-Staff Starter book are devoted to pre-reading notation and exploring the range of the keyboard. The On-Staff Starter begins immediately with finger numbers, names of white keys, and on-staff notation. These books contain many of the same pieces. Most of the pieces have lyrics and some have teacher duets. 

While I strongly recommend pre-reading experiences for aff beginning students, the On-Staff Starter book could be useful for transfer students who have had pre-reading experiences in another book; it could also be used concurrently with the Off-Staff book. Although the Off-Staff book devotes a majority of its pages to pre- reading, both books end with the same notated pieces; this necessitates a very fast-paced introduction to Grand Staff notation in the Off-Staff book. 

Reading

This series begins with a Middle-C approach to reading, with all of the pieces in the On- and Off-Staff Starter books written in Middle-C position. Level 1A briefly introduces intervals through the fifth, utilizes various hand positions, and continues a Middle-C approach with a strong emphasis on learning note names. Levels 1B through 2B take a more Multi-Key approach; many of the pieces are written in a prescribed hand position and make extensive use of primary chord accompaniments

Rhythm

Note values are introduced with Metric (1-2-3-4) and Syllabic (Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta) approaches. Bar lines, quarter, half, dotted half, and whole notes, quarter rests, and time signatures (2/4, 3/4, and 4/4) are all presented in quick succession in the pre-reading portion of the Off-Staff book. Eighth notes, dotted quarter-eighth patterns, and syncopation are introduced with syllables and metric subdivisions (1+2+3+4+) in Level 1B. Level 2B introduces triplets and 6/8. Sixteenths and 3/8 are taught in Level 3, with Level 4 exploring thirty-second notes, dotted eighth-sixteenth patterns, and 5/4 and 6/4 time signatures. 

Lesson Books

Most of the original pieces and arrangements are written by Janet Vogt, Leon Bates, and Martha Sherrill Kelsey, with a few pieces composed by Nancy Telfer. Some easy classics in their original form begin appearing in Level 2B. A wide variety of genres and styles are used throughout the series. Lyrics, when used, are generally clever and/or humorous. Some teacher duets are provided in the early levels.

"Discovery Corner" boxes occur throughout the series and suggest a variety of activities including analysis of chords and form, listening for musical elements, improvisation, transposition, and playing by ear.

"Check-off" boxes provide suggestions which are generally not present in other methods (see Excerpt 1). These include preparations for performing for others, positive performance thinking, maintaining a piece for performance, and discovering practice techniques - these are undoubtedly contributions from Gail Berenson's work in performance anxiety.

The concluding pages of Levels 2B - 4 contain brief biographies of the classical composers whose music occurs in each of these books. 

Excerpt 1: "Bagpipe Song" by Janet Vogt. From Piano Discoveries, Lesson Book Level 1A. Copyright © 2001 Heritage Music Press, a Lorenz company. Used by permission.

Theory

The Theory books consistently support and reinforce the reading and rhythm approaches of the Lesson books, with the early levels emphasizing note naming, and the later levels giving strong emphasis to cadence chords and analysis of Lesson book pieces. 

Level 4 takes the student into intermediate level theory with extensive work on chordal and formal analysis, the major and minor Circle of Fifths, and figured bass. Jazz notation and non-dominant seventh chords are not included.

The Starter books through Level 2B have extensive instructions on mapping pieces for practicing strategies and memorization, reflecting Rebecca Shockley's contribution to this series (see Excerpts 2A and 2B). 

Excerpt 2A: "Isle of Green" by Janet Vogt. From Piano Discoveries, Lesson Book Level 1B. Copyright © 2001 Heritage Music Press, a Lorenz company. Used by permission.
Excerpt 2B: Map example for "Isle of Green." From Piano Discoveries, Theory Book Level lB. Copyright © 2001 Heritage Music Press, a Lorenz company. Used by permission.

Technique

Beginning in Level 1A, "Building Technique" boxes appear throughout the books. These technical snippets are drawn from the pieces they support, and they provide warm-ups and practice strategies for new concepts or physically challenging sections of the pieces. 

Teacher's Guide

There are no separate Teacher's Guides for this series; however, each Theory book concludes with a valuable section titled Teacher's Corner - Optional Lesson Extras and Learning Enrichment for Your Student. The activities in the Teacher's Corner are varied and imaginative, and would work well in private and group lessons.

Software and CDs

MIDI disks and CDs are available for selected pieces in each of the Lesson books. They offer attractive accompaniments in a variety of styles. 

Omega

The final book in this series contains original pieces in various styles by the method authors and standard repertoire selections at the early- to mid-intermediate level. Included are: Kabalevsky's Toccatina Op. 27, No. 6; Chopin's Prelude in B Minor, Op. 28 No. 6; and Haydn's Allegro in F Major.  

Excerpt 3: "New Worlds" by Janet Vogt. From Piano Discoveries, Lesson Book Level 1A. Copyright ©2001 Heritage Music Press, a Lorenz company. Used by permission.

Note:

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 Pano Quarterly series. 

A new approach to Middle C

 by Paula Harrison

An intriguing workshop

In August of 2001 I attended a workshop presented by Janet Vogt. During this session, Ms. Vogt explained that when writing Piano Discoveries she aimed to place all the important skills into just a lesson and theory book format. She assured us that there would be plenty of review pieces so that teachers would not have to buy a performance book just to have enough pieces to review basic skills.

I found this material to be very interesting and began using it in my piano studio with great success. My students loved the graphics and the variety of the pieces. I liked the updated look of the material, the fact that it had both "boy" and "girl" pieces in each book, and the variety of musical styles from the very beginning. I also loved the "note-namer" exercises that occurred periodically in both of the Starter books and Level 1A. These were a great help in spot-checking reading skills. 

Old fashioned but outside the box

Three things attracted me to this series from the very beginning. The first was the Middle-C approach to learning. As an "old fashioned, but outside the box" teacher, I had never been especially pleased with the off-staff approach to teaching. I prefer that my students begin work on reading skills from the very first lesson while learning to find notes using the black-white key relationships. I had used several of the newer off-staff methods, but I always felt that those students never developed reading skills as well as students who worked with the older David Carr Glover Method. Piano Discoveries gave me the opportunity to teach the Middle-C approach while using a new and attractive set of books. 

The second thing that attracted me was the fact that this method included both On-Staff and Off-Staff Starter books. This meant that the younger beginner could start off the staff, yet still not have to learn all the notes that other off-staff methods were teaching. Both starter books end at the same place, with the student being able to read up through Treble G and down through Bass F. All students then progress to Level 1A.

The third attraction related to my "outside the box" teaching personality. I have never been a believer in teaching everything that one teaching method has to offer. I prefer that my students play music written by a variety of composers and that they not be limited to one type of writing. I compare this to a child who only reads books written by one author. We need a balanced diet, even in the early stages. I prefer to use one teaching method for the basic lesson book and integrate a different group of technical exercises, scales, and supplementary materials. I was delighted to discover that Janet Vogt shared this same belief She used a team of composers to write the material for this series, and their pieces appear in each level. This approach fulfills my need for a variety of writing styles, while still satisfying teachers who like to use a method as a complete teaching package.

I enjoy the flexibility that this method offers. Some students might need to study every piece in every book, but I find that many students can occasionally skip pieces. Towards the end of a book, my students love having an occasional "sight-reading" lesson: any piece that can be correctly sight-read (notes, rhythms, dynamics, phrasing) receives a sight-reading sticker and we go on to new material. Students love the feeling of accomplishment that goes with this exercise.

Supplementing technique and theory

This series does not include separate books of technical exercises, so I have continued to use a different technique series. I tried the theory books and found that the layout was excellent and the content was supportive of the corresponding material in the lesson books.

Piano Discoveries is thorough in its teaching of note-reading skills, intervals and triads, analysis, and mapping. I like the way that it uses several of the pieces in each lesson book to teach these concepts. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many other theory methods, this series by itself does not adequately prepare students for the MTNA state theory exams or the Federation of Music Clubs Gold Cup theory exams. A great deal of supplementary material would need to be added to this method to successfully prepare students for these exams. 

Some suggestions for improvement

My years of teaching have taught me that there are many different learning styles. One piano method is not going to be able to address all of these differences. Although I like the Piano Discoveries approach, I do not use it exclusively for several reasons.

This method does not lend itself to the older beginner because of the graphics found in the first several levels. These graphics begin to lessen by Level 2B and are gone by Level 3, so they are generally appropriate for average-age beginners. I have also discovered that the pages of the first books are too "busy" for children who have problems with focusing. Additionally, the beginning books through Level lB have brightly colored backgrounds; some children have a very difficult time reading on a colored background, and I have found that this method is not successful with that type of child.

A colleague who has also used this series had several additional observations and suggestions for improvement:

An early piece requires students to hold one hand down on the lowest (or highest) group of three black notes while playing all of the remaining groups of three black keys with the other hand. Some children have difficulty reaching that far.

There should be more emphasis placed on hand position, technique, and ear training.

The material moves too slowly, and the teacher parts that accompany some of the early pieces are too bland.

After struggling with the theory books, she discovered the "Teacher's Corner" in the back. It would be more helpful to have these notes scattered throughout the books instead of being placed at the end.

Overall, I think that this is an excellent teaching method. The pieces are fun to play and very accessible for most students. 

Paula Harrison began giving piano lessons in her mother's studio while still in high school. She opened her first studio in Independence, MO, in 1975, then relocated to Houston, TX, in 1982. She is a past-president of the Huntsville MTA, the Conroe Federated Music Club, and Houston Chapter Choristers Guild. She currently serves as the treasurer of the San Jacinto Federated Music Club. She administers the Fine Arts Academy at Cedar Bayou United Methodist Church in addition to serving as the church's director of music and fine arts.

Taking a more classical approach

by Christine Wolf 

Appealing composers

I first became interested in Piano Discoveries when I noticed that Martha Sherrill Kelsey and Janet Vogt were two of its authors. Their music has always appealed to me-it is interesting melodically and harmonically and contains lots of musical details to introduce to students. Their pieces are quite popular with my students, who readily grasp the music's engaging and imaginative spirit.

I first began one of my students in the middle of Piano Discoveries because a Festival piece was chosen from the series. I then explored the starter books with a beginner and was impressed with how quickly and effortlessly he progressed. Was it the student or the method? I continued to use Piano Discoveries with other new students and I have not been disappointed. 

A more classical approach

My studio is based primarily on traditional classical repertoire, with an emphasis on performance, technique, and theory. In addition, I introduce students to collaborative piano, hymn playing, jazz, and composition. Piano Discoveries works terrifically well in my studio, encompassing many of these aspects.

The music in Piano Discoveries has greater depth and is more classically driven than the lighter, more pop-culture repertoire of some other series. The books include timeless pieces that serve as an introduction to the standard teaching repertoire, so the series is a good match with my studio's teaching philosophy.  

Beginning the reading process

I used both the On- and Off-Staff Starter books with a beginning kindergartener last year because some of the same songs appeared in both books. She purchased the On-Staff book and I kept the Off-Staff book at the studio. We had a "light bulb moment" when she realized that she knew how to play the music on the staff, having already learned it off-staff at a lesson. She took both books home for a week, and devoured the music, excited by her realization that the patterns were the same. She returned a week later and per- formed all the songs she had learned to read that were published in both books. I believe that she has already become a strong reader because she could see the relationship of the notes on and off the staff. Although the repertoire in the Primer book can be somewhat challenging for small five-year-old hands, it is appropriate for seven- to nine-year-olds.

There are only so many ways composers can write in "positions" and Piano Discoveries does use 6ths and an occasional leap out of traditional five-finger patterns. I am a strong believer that music is not in a "position," and these books reinforce that idea. Many transfer students come with the question, "Where do I put my hands?" I rephrase the question and ask, "Oh, what key is it in?" This prompts intelligent conversation about how to figure out the key of a piece.

I encourage singing along with the music in this series, for it is voice-friendly and tonal. Students are tickled when they notice that the "D" and "E" they are singing are also the notes they are playing. Because it is so close to the end of the Starter book, I surprise students with a Dairy Queen token when this piece is "Delightful" and memorized. As seen in Excerpt 4, the series regularly uses pieces in 3/4 - a meter that is not well represented in today's pop music. 

Excerpt 4: "Make Your Own Sundae" by Janet Vogt. From Piano Discoveries, Off-Staff Starter Book. Copyright©2001 Heritage Music Press, a Lorenz company. Used by permission.

Preparation for intermediate literature

I think that one of the strongest attributes of Piano Discoveries is its integration of good repertoire with solid pedagogy, successfully moving students towards the standard intermediate teaching literature that will serve them well as independent pianists. Level 2B, for example, includes Muzio Clementi's Arietta in C Major, as well as excellent folk song arrangements and pieces written in New Age and Blues styles.

When using other methods, I sometimes find myself writing in phrasing, dynamics, or articulations. I do not need to add to the score in Piano Discoveries because once these elements are taught they appear regularly in the rest of the pieces. 

The art of graphics

Sometimes students and teachers judge a book based on its graphics, and they may dismiss the music before the first note is ever played. The artwork in Piano Discoveries is colorful and attractive for the average seven- to nine-year-old. Although the pages are warm and engaging, current trends in other publications are toward more vibrant, neon colors with much more "hip" characters than the elderly explorer used in this series. After about the third grade, my students have been known to raise an eyebrow at the drawings. The characters do bring out the imaginations of students, however. One student turned the page in the method book and remarked, "Let's see what Grandpa's doing this week!" Stickers are available that match the note characters. Concepts are clearly laid out; new information is located at the top of the page (see Excerpt 5), and there are additional "Discoveries" in boxes near the bottom of the page.

Excerpt 5: "Yankee D oodle Variation" by Jan et Vagt. From Piano Discoveries, Lesson Book Level 1A. Copyright © 2001 Heritage Music Press, a Lorenz company. Used by permission.

This series moves!

The pacing of PianDiscoveries is fast. A concept is presented, a piece or two is given to reinforce it, and then we are off to the next term, symbol, or idea. Some students finish their current Level 3 books in another series and then start Level 3 in the Piano Discoveries Series. 

Reinforcing concepts

The Theory books are true workbooks that reinforce note reading, rhythm, and ear training in the early levels. They work in conjunction with the Discoveries books, and they are not fluffY or particularly game or puzzle oriented. By Level 1B, students are already using mapping techniques to solidify memory and form - a brilliant building block for their later classical studies.

The "Teacher's Corner" pages in the back of each book are especially useful. They offer great extra drills and ideas to reinforce concepts and attentive listening. Although the ideas are often taught in pedagogy classes in college, these pages are a shorthand list of reminders and suggestions for growing strong musicians (see Excerpt 6).

Excerpt 6: From Piano Discoveries, On-Staff Starter Book. Copyright © 2001 Heritage Music Press, a Lorenz company, Used by permission.

I am a tremendous fan of the Master Class series, which is offered as a supplement to the core Piano Discoveries books and is a gem of a collection. The concept of the Master Class books - experts in their field sitting with you as you polish a piece - is exemplary. The practice tips and the discussion questions with these pieces reflect inspired teaching. Even when my students are using a different method book, we use the Master Class series rather than the companion method performance books.  

Accompanying software

I purchase a method's CDs and MIDI disks for student use in the studio and to distribute through a lending library. One advantage to using the disks is evident when students want a "do-over" or "stutter play" as they back up to correct a mistake. A CD accompaniment does not wait for them, and the art of always moving for- ward is reinforced. Also, students love to sound professional and impress their friends when they perform with the disks at home.

Each piece on the CD has two tracks - one at a practice tempo and one at a performance tempo. The performance tempi are sometimes very quick, so students in my studio occasionally perform using the practice tempi. The tracks were recorded using high-quality electronic sampling. One of my students noticed that the instrumentation used for "The Whistle Song," sounded a lot like my Clavinova keyboard settings.

The CD accompaniments are recorded so that the piano part is on the right channel and the accompaniment is on the left; however most CD and MP3 players only have a volume control and cannot soften or mute just one of the channels. 

A challenge fulfilled

In the 1980s, when the original reviews of methods were first published in Piano Quarterly, I was in college. Our class used them as an opportunity to think about what style of teacher we might become. Contemplating a personal teaching philosophy can lead to proactively choosing one method over another, rather than just following a popular trend. It was a challenging and exciting revelation to experience this so early in my career. For me, Robert Silverman's observation that "piano teachers [should] come out after reading the series with a point of view," was fulfilled.

Piano Discoveries has proven to be an excellent match to my philosophy. It is an exciting amalgam of traditional teaching methods and the tremendous pedagogical advances made in recent decades. It is a careful blend of folk, pop, jazz, and classical repertoire that will suit a variety of student backgrounds and develop excellent ears for style. Piano Discoveries masterfully juggles the many elements that produce a well-rounded pianist. I am hopeful that this series of articles in Clavier Companion will lead a new generation to take some important time to ponder their unique pedagogical attributes.
 

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