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A survey of current methods: Succeeding at the Piano

This issue continues Clavier Companion's survey of piano methods.1 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!


Succeeding at the Piano - by Helen Marlais 

Publisher: The FJH Music Company Inc. 

Levels: Lesson and Technique Book (with and without accompanying CD), Theory and Activity Book, Recital Book (with CD)—Preparatory through Grade 2A. 

Proposed schedule for future releases: Grade 2B—May, 2011; Grade 3A— October, 2011; Grade 3B—April, 2012; Grade 4—October, 2012.

Alpha: This series espouses what the author terms "familiarity training," in which new concepts are introduced in the order of listen, play, see, learn, and reinforce. The first half of the Preparatory books utilizes off-staff notation, with partial staff introductions to 2nds and 3rds. An eclectic approach to reading includes intervals, guidepost notes, middle C, and modified C positions. Rhythmic pulse is equated to heartbeats and initially uses unit counting.

Teachers may consider one of the strengths of this method to be its early inclusion of arrangements of melodies from the classical repertoire. Short paragraphs introduce the composers, and lyrics have been added to most of the themes. A majority of the pieces in the Preparatory books have teacher duet parts. Although the covers of all the books show a group of students in a lesson situation, there is no indication that this series is particularly directed to teaching in groups.

Lessons and Technique: In addition to the author's contributions, repertoire in the Lesson and Technique and Recital books includes compositions by Timothy Brown, Kevin Costley, Mary Leaf, Edwin McLean, and Kevin Olson. Pieces are sometimes preceded by a "Before playing" list of preparatory activities, and occasionally followed by "After playing, ask yourself " questions such as "Did I count all the quarter rests?" Most of the pieces in the Preparatory, Level 1, and Level 2A Lesson and Technique books have lyrics, and continue to include arrangements of themes from the classical repertoire. The graphics are tasteful and age appropriate.

Various composers are referenced on the technique pages (e.g. "Technique with Beethoven—Major five-finger patterns and triads"), but without any overt reason other than, perhaps, to continue the method's emphasis on classical composers. Extensive suggestions are given for the correct technical approaches to the exercises. By combining the lesson materials with technical instruction, a more seamless integration between the two is ensured.

Theory and Activities: Six activities are presented throughout these books:Writing (drills and games), Time to Compose, Rhythm (with an emphasis on steady beat), Ear Training, Follow the Leader (rhythmic clap backs), and Parrot Play (melodic play backs). Pages are correlated with the Lesson and Technique books and are visually attractive.

​Recital books: Correlated with, and continuing much of the format of the Lesson and Technique books, some pieces are preceded by "Before playing" suggested activities and occasionally followed by "After playing ask yourself " questions. A majority of the compositions have lyrics and some have teacher duets. 

Compact Discs: The Lesson and Technique books can be purchased with or without accompanying CDs; however, all Recital books contain the accompaniment discs. These recordings are unique in several ways. In the early pages of the preparatory books a voice counts off each piece (e.g. "one-two-ready-play"). Throughout the currently available levels of this series, this voice gives the title and page number of each piece, and interjects praise, pedagogic reminders, or evaluative questions at the end of the practice tempo rendition. All solo pieces are played unaccompanied on an acoustic piano at both practice and performance tempi. Pieces with teacher duets have the practice tempo duets on acoustic piano, and occasionally the performance tempo duets are played by an acoustic string quartet—a refreshing sound after many years of hearing sampled electronic accompaniments. 

Teacher's Guide: Currently available for Preparatory and Grade 1, this guide contains information about the author's "familiarity training" philosophy and other pedagogic aspects of the series. Ensuing pages provide an overview of the Lesson and Technique books and discuss new concepts, reinforced concepts, teaching suggestions, practice steps, and technique tips for each page. 

Omega: Although the latter half of the series is currently in production, Dr. Marlais indicates that the concepts and repertoire in the concluding Grade 4 books will equip students for the repertoire in Succeeding with the Masters Volume 1, The Festival Collection Book 4, and In Recital series, Books 4 and 5. A concept chart of the remaining levels is available on the FJH website: http://www.fjhmusic. com/piano/satp.htm.evaluative

Artistic performance from day one

My first introduction to Succeeding at the Piano (SATP) was in Los Angeles at the 2010 Music Teachers Association of California convention. There was super-charged excitement in that standing-room only session. I was immediately drawn to the clever cover art featuring an artistic drawing of Helen Marlais teaching a group class seated around the grand piano, and I was anxious to try the new method in my own studio. 

Comprehensive approach

This series presents new, innovative ideas, combined with tried and true piano pedagogy. SATP uses an integrated pedagogical approach: reading is a combined Middle C, intervallic, and multikey approach; rhythm is internalized by the student and learned like a language; technique is incorporated into the Lesson and Technique books, ensuring that correct technique is learned from the beginning; repertoire includes terrific motivational music; and the CDs are both innovative and educational. The mixture of classical themes by master composers such as Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms with FJH composer originals is excellent. Students get to know "Papa Haydn" from day one. What fun! It's all part of a comprehensive music curriculum that not only develops good posture, hand position, and practice habits, but also includes reading, rhythm, technique, theory, ear training, playing by ear, music history, and composition. For a complete approach, students need the Lesson and Technique Book, the Recital Book, and the Theory and Activity Book

Logical learning sequence 

Spanning the first half of the Preparatory book, there are plenty of off-staff reading pieces that introduce quarter, half, dotted half, and whole notes, with 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures. A strong pedagogical foundation is laid in this section with technical work on "Perfect Piano Hands" and warm-ups that address arm weight, strong fingers, and flexible wrists (see Excerpt 1). Emphasis is given to steps, repeats, recognizing notational direction, and intervallic reading. New concepts appear in orange boxes, and green "After playing" boxes offer ideas to develop musicality. From my perspective, the Preparatory Level seems best suited for the five- to seven-year-old beginner, and for students requiring exhaustive reinforcement; it may, however, be too slow for the precocious, quick learner. With many instructions for the teacher included on the page, it seems to be rather text-heavy.

Excerpt 1: “Technique with Papa Haydn” from Helen Marlais’ Succeeding at the Piano Lesson and Technique Book, Preparatory Level.

Lesson and technique together 

It is great to see a method that combines lesson material and technique rather than putting them in separate books. From the very beginning phrasing and artistry are emphasized in every lesson. Students are introduced to the idea of playing beautiful phrases by creating a rainbow in the air. The "Before playing" and "After playing" points develop musicianship, good practice habits, and excellent listening skills. Using a highly effective spiral approach to learning, numerous topics are introduced at once with a later return to each concept. 

Eclectic reading approach

"Guide Notes" and intervallic reading are utilized in a combined reading approach (see Excerpt 2). Students learn on-staff Guide Notes Bass F, Middle C, and Treble G, which are then color coded in red. Early-level pieces remain in stationary positions, but are not restricted to a typical Middle C position. Thankfully, thumbs do not always play Middle C! This integrated approach to music reading avoids problems with students becoming locked into any one position.

Grade 1 emphasizes multi-key work and thoroughly reinforces all of the concepts introduced in the Preparatory Level. The traditional F-A-C-E is presented for treble staff spaces and adjacent spaces are related as the interval of a third; however, the names of the treble staff lines are not included, nor is there any mention that thirds can also be line-to-line.

Excerpt 2: “Learning Guide Notes” from Helen Marlais’ Succeeding at the Piano Theory and Activity Book, Preparatory Level.

Natural rhythm 

Off-staff reading begins with unit counting, and then moves to metric counting when the student is introduced to the 4/4 time signature. Quarter notes are initially related to the natural rhythm of walking and to the beating of the heart. No confusing rhythms are introduced since eighth notes and dotted quarter notes are not presented until Grade 2A. 

More than just theory 

Can theory be "fun"? The answer is YES! Correlated with the lesson books, the theory books include writing and note-spelling activities, rhythm experiences, ear training exercises, sight reading examples, "Time to Compose" opportunities, and other diverse, creative, and fun activities. I especially love the early introduction to master composers (see Excerpt 3). In "Follow the Leader" sections, students listen to and clap back rhythms. "Parrot Play" activities give students an opportunity to play back short melodic patterns of well-known songs. These activities are perfect for my group theory classes.

Excerpt 3: “Hall of Fame—Which Composer Is It?” from Helen Marlais’ Succeeding at the Piano Theory and Activity Book, Grade 1.

Motivating repertoire

Succeeding at the Piano contains interesting and creative original music with fresh appeal, captivating titles, and a variety of styles and genres. The development of hand independence is also a big plus of this method. Melodies are either divided between the hands, or harmonized with intervals or single notes. Genres are varied and include folk, blues, country, traditional, classical, and contemporary (see Excerpt 4). Pedagogically sound arrangements of classical themes encourage students to gain an appreciation for the classics. Katherine, for example, was anxious to play all the pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin, and she has quickly moved to pieces from Kabalevsky, Op. 39; the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook; and a collection of early Mozart pieces. Student favorites include The Merry Farmer (Grade 1), Japanese Pagoda at Night (Grade 1), Hungarian Dance No. 5 (Grade 1), Angelfish (Grade 2A) and Festival in Seville (Grade 2A).

Excerpt 4: “Festival in Seville” by Timothy Brown, from Helen Marlais’ Succeeding at the Piano Recital Book, Grade 2A.

Adding interest

The accompaniment CDs help students to achieve musical, artistic, and educational goals; and best of all, the students love playing along with the recordings. Using the CDs helps students learn, reinforces correct practice habits, and provides students with an opportunity to play many of the pieces with a string quartet accompaniment. Most of the songs have lyrics that young students can easily relate to and fall within an average vocal range. Each piece has a single track in three parts. In Part 1, the students hear their part with the teacher duet at a "practice speed." In Part 2, after the student plays the piece with the accompaniment, Dr. Marlais gives a short verbal instruction or affirmation that is ideal for home practice (for example, "Did you remember to use your Perfect Piano Hands?" or "Playing steadily while counting aloud will help you play even better."). Then, in Part 3, students play the piece at performance tempo with the accompaniment. 

Meeting my goals 

The goal of my studio is to instill a life-long love of music, and I choose methods that will help me attain that goal. SATP achieves this on several levels: the colorful graphics really appeal to students; the generous use of classical themes makes them feel that they are playing "important music"; the short pieces are easily mastered with 100 percent accuracy within one week; students develop smart practice habits; and above all, students develop a love for music. 

Matching the curriculum 

by Sylvia Coats

I tell my university pedagogy class to develop their own curriculum for each student based on what they think the student should know and be able to do, and it really helps when a beginning method matches that curriculum. Succeeding at the Piano is a welcome addition because of its sound pedagogical basis and delightful music. Dr. Marlais is an excellent musician and pedagogue, and she brings her extensive background and creativity to this recently published method. It is written for five- to nine-yearolds and should take six to nine months for each level. I had my pedagogy class use ​SATP Grade 1 with a group of ten-year-olds who had prior piano background, and one of my colleagues uses the method with a quickly advancing six-year-old.

Sound before symbols 

In learning to read music, I want my students to be able to hear and sing melodic movement up and down in steps and skips—to audiate what they see on the page. SATP lets students first experience concepts through sound and feel, and then learn to associate the sounds with musical symbols. SATP combines conventional note reading (Middle C), intervallic reading, and multi-key reading approaches. Some students might find this hybrid approach to reading rather confusing, so the teacher may need to stress consistent reading habits for each new song. For instance, always find the first note from the closest landmark, then say direction, interval, and note name. 

Students learn to read by grouping notes into patterns, hearing the sound, and associating them with the feeling of the pattern in the hand. Concepts are experienced before learning their names. For example, in the Preparatory book students see space and line notes in the introduction of 2nds before the staff is introduced; they clap back eighth-note rhythms by ear before they are introduced in Grade 2A; and they see four beats in a measure with bar lines before the time signature is added. Thus, students will have an "aha" moment when they put a name to the concept that they have already discovered. The music will make sense to them. 

My students who begin lessons in September learn about melody and rhythm first by ear and later with off-staff notation. Then, when given Christmas music during the holiday season, they are very motivated to learn to read these on-staff pieces. SATP enables students to read successfully by using seasonal music to motivate them.

Feeling the pulse 

Succeeding at the Piano teaches rhythm through movement activities such as walking, marching, clapping, or tapping while counting aloud. In learning rhythm, I want my students to use their whole bodies to move to the pulse, while clapping the rhythm. Once they develop a sense of beat, rhythms are easily related to a steady pulse. In the early stages of the method, I recommend choosing one movement from the suggested list of activities to develop a consistent approach to learning the rhythm in each new song. For example, always step to the beat while clapping the rhythm. Lyrics are also spoken and sung in rhythm. The steady quarter pulse is compared to the feeling of a steady pulse of a heartbeat, and clever illustrations picture hearts in quarter noteheads (see Excerpt 5).

Excerpt 5: “The Steady Beat” from Helen Marlais’ Succeeding at the Piano Lesson and Technique Book, Prerparatory Level.

Integrating lessons and technique 

One of the major strengths of this method is the combining of healthy technique with the lesson book repertoire. This integration brings attention to technique so that it is a "must" for student and teacher, rather than only a supplement. "Technique with Papa Haydn" makes the exercises enjoyable, while students learn how their bodies feel when playing the piano in a healthy, tension-free way. Six basic techniques are taught in the Preparatory and Grade 1 books: posture and finger, hand, and arm position; arm weight; flexible wrist; two-note slurs; weight transfer; and rotation. In Grade 2A the basic techniques are reinforced and become more complex. 

Varied genres 

A buffet of folk, classical, jazz, and original music appeals to students and teachers, and the longer pieces in the Recital Book are appropriate for class lessons and recital performances. Many classical themes are included in each book, with music adapted from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Offenbach, Chopin, and Brahms. The theme from Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu in Grade 1 is a lovely arrangement with a teacher duet. Added lyrics and composer histories help students make classical music a part of their daily lives. 

Various styles, articulations, and scale forms, including major, minor, modal, and pentatonic, keep the songs fresh and musically inviting. Pieces are harmonically varied to engage the ear and make colorful sounds. Teacher accompaniments complement the student parts—they are interesting, yet simple enough not to distract. I predict "Maracas" will be a hit with any student (see Excerpt 6).

Excerpt 6: “Maracas” by Kevin Olson from Helen Marlais’ Succeeding at the Piano Lesson and Technique Book, Grade 1.

Thoughtful practice 

SATP encourages students to think during their practice. "Before playing" points are excellent and help students develop good practice habits, while "After playing" assessments encourage students to listen carefully as they play. The illustrations are lovely, often humorous, and support the musical concepts. Text in colored boxes draws attention to helpful tips, and occasional red text in the score gives gentle reminders. If your students are distracted by the amount of text on the page, you can choose from the many good suggestions and highlight what to focus on in their home practice. 

Musicianship skills

Learning to listen is vital in developing a sensitive musician. The theory books maintain this focus rather than presenting the mindless drill of some theory books. Students are asked to listen and clap back rhythm patterns and to sing and play folk songs by ear. By listening and singing intervals and melodies, students associate what they hear with what they see. Composition, improvisation, transposition, and ear training are integrated consistently throughout the method. These musicianship skills reinforce the reading approach with the sound coming before the symbol so that students develop "inner hearing." 

My home state of Kansas holds an event once a year called Music Progressions, during which examinations are given in repertoire, theory, history, and listening. Grades 1 and 2A of SATP fulfill the Level 1 and 2 requirements by introducing major and minor pentascales, white note triads, and tonic and dominant notes. 

Guiding the teacher 

A Teacher's Guide is available for the Preparatory and Grade 1 books. The introduction explains Dr Marlais' pedagogic philosophy and clearly outlines her approach to reading, theory, technique, musicianship, and repertoire. I plan to use it as a reading assignment in my pedagogy class, and I think that intern teachers as well as experienced teachers will appreciate the lesson plans for each unit. The well-constructed curriculum of SATP encourages conceptual instruction rather than merely teaching the pieces. 

I always urge my pedagogy students to prepare students for success with challenges that are attainable. Helen Marlais writes, "The method is designed to create excellent musicians with a passion for music." SATP succeeds in making music learning engaging and enjoyable. 

All excerpts from Succeeding at the Piano by Helen Marlais. Copyright © 2010, 2011 The FJH Music Company Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

Author Response

Response to Music Moves for Piano review 

Editor's Note: Clavier Companion will invite the authors of each method series reviewed to respond to that review in the following issue. The response from the authors of Music Moves for Piano is presented below. 

A huge thanks to Clavier Companion and to associate editor Rebecca Grooms Johnson for this series of piano method reviews. I also sincerely appreciate Barbara and Kristine's excellent personal reviews of Music Moves for Piano. This piano series supports Dr. Edwin E. Gordon's lifelong, research-based Music Learning Theory, or theories of audiation. Briefly, audiation means listening to, performing, and thinking music with understanding. A core belief is that the aural art of music is a powerful human resource and a birthright that can and should be made accessible to and individualized for all. Individualizing instruction is a top priority: every student needs to be challenged appropriately, and this is possible in audiation-based piano lessons. 

A prototype for a sequential-learning, audiation-based piano instruction method did not exist when this series was imagined. Therefore, from the beginning of development (in 1992), my students and their parents served as an experimental laboratory for constructing curriculum guidelines and for putting this aural approach on paper. Enthusiasm was surprising. There was an intuitive sense that music really is a listening (aural) and performing (oral) art, and that developing audiation skill, while developing musicanship and performing skills, provides intrinsic rewards. Robert Schumann's maxim: "The most important thing is to cultivate the sense of hearing..." became a reality. 

Music patterns—their content always in context—build the foundation for comprehending music. Therefore, understanding pattern instruction and the pattern learning sequences, along with how to teach without notation, is necessary for teaching this piano series. Students adapt easily because they are involved in a personal and natural way of learning. However, all of us—teachers and parents— learned music differently. Consequently, a change in thinking and the development of new teaching techniques are needed. MMP workshops are very helpful.We expect changes in technology and medicine, but changing the way music is learned and taught is difficult. However, the rewards are long-lasting.

Tonal and rhythm patterns are created specifically for learning how to audiate. Two- or three-tone tonal patterns are without rhythm and are based on harmonic function: tonic, dominant, and so forth. Tonal patterns are always learned in context, for example, major or minor. Students sing tonal patterns: singing develops tonal audiation. Two- or four-pulse rhythm patterns are without pitch and are based on different categories, such as rest, tie, and upbeat. Rhythm patterns are always learned in the context of a meter. Students use coordinated body movement (moving to pulsebeats in the heels and meter-beats using hand touches) while chanting rhythm patterns: body movement is essential for rhythm understanding. Separating rhythm patterns from tonal patterns follows Lowell Mason's educational principle, 'Learn one new thing at a time.' 

Through sequenced tonal and rhythm pattern instruction and pattern activities, students acquire a personal music vocabulary that they use to learn, remember, create, listen to, talk about, and perform music. Labels, or technical names, learned during pattern instruction further music understanding and communication. Patterns are also used by students to create short "throw-away" improvisations created with the voice or at the keyboard. Like language, students are expected to use what they know: improvisation is similar to conversation. 

The curriculum for Music Moves for Piano provides activities for teaching to the individual student within a group setting in order to challenge students appropriately. Feeling successful is important for student achievement. Rote solos for technical and musical development are essential for the success of this series. MMP students learn to perform with technical ease, avoiding many pitfalls. Students and teachers may select from the many wonderful piano pieces in contemporary methods and in the general literature. Fellowship, student interaction, and common activities enable longterm retention of music concepts that are learned when students engage in contrasting activities of "same/different" sounds. Continual performances for each other provide experiences that relieve or reduce performance anxiety. 

Nineteen years of creating and teaching an audiation-based curriculum has shown some amazing results in my studio. This piano series has been used successfully for all ages, including adults. It may be used one-on-one, but I have found that students like being at lessons with other students: they learn from each other. Activities for learning to audiate are enjoyed by students of all levels and ages and demonstrate proof of research stating that most children and many adults learn best through body movement: body movement cements learning. Most importantly, I discovered that the internal music learning process is a slow one that requires time for absorption and experimentation. It cannot be hurried. 

Lesson time activities and home assignments develop a broad music literacy. And, to top it off, students become excellent readers and writers of music notation. They are able to apply personal audiation and performing skills to the understanding of music notation when they are ready to think abstractly, around age eleven. At this age, students begin to "see with their ears" what is on the page and read/hear patterns and sound shapes in context. It is all a matter of learning style and sequencing: similar to language, students first read and write what they know. 

Hats off to Edwin E. Gordon for his dedicated longitudinal research about how we learn music. He synthesized well the contributions of many music educators to create theories of audiation that are fundamental for developing musicianship, performance skills, and love for music. I am excited about the musical growth observed in students who have studied using this sound-to-notation approach. Current students and "graduates" compose, create movies, play in bands, teach, make CDs, listen to music, attend music performances, accompany, sing in musicals, participate in church and community music programs, and perform for others as well as for their own enjoyment. Creativity and audiation are at work as these students, who are the future of music in our world, continue to make music and incorporate it into their life experiences.

—Marilyn Lowe Author Music Moves for Piano

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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