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22 minutes reading time (4304 words)

A survey of current methods: The Music Tree

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

The Music Tree - by Frances Clark, Louise Goss, and Sam Holland. Additional material by Steve Betts and Craig Sale. Educational Consultants: Steve Betts, Linda Christensen, Amy Glennon, Peter Jutras, Mary Frances Reyburn, Yat Yee Chong, Ted Cooper, Monica Hochstedler, Elvina Pearce, and Craig Sale. 

Publisher: Summy-Birchard Inc., exclusively distributed by Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.
Levels:  Time to Begin, ThMusiTree Parts 1, 2A, 2B, 3, and 4.

The core books throughout the series are the Text and Activities books. Parts 3 and 4 also include Keyboard Literature, Keyboard Technic, and Student's Choice books. 

Alpha: First published in 1955, this revised, updated continuation of the pioneering method by Frances Clark and Louise Goss is one of the series that sparked a revolution in pedagogic thought. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Timto Begin text and Activities books. The look of the series - clean and unadorned, with no extraneous or distracting graphics, reflects its pedagogic philosophy throughout. This method is built on meticulous attention to sequencing, with careful and extensive preparation for each new concept.

Reading: I hesitate to classify Time tBegin as a pre-reading book because of the early integration of intervallic reading concepts. Pieces featuring off-staff notational direction and movement across the entire keyboard are quickly interspersed with beginning intervals presented on only the lines and spaces needed for each interval (partial staff notation), with no clef signs. The series is the epitome of an intervallic approach to teaching reading. Clefs, landmark notes, and the grand staff are introduced in the final unit. 

Rhythm: Rhythms are initially presented by feeling quarter notes as one arm swing, and half notes as two arm swings. Unit counting is introduced (1, 1-2), and students are encouraged to make sure that half notes are as long as two quarters, dotted half notes as long as three quarters, etc. Part 1 reviews quarter, half, dotted half, and whole notes; later it presents their rests. Eighth notes and dotted quarter- eighth patterns are introduced in Part 2A. Triplets and compound meters begin in part 2B, with sixteenths, "swing," and syncopation taught in Part 3. More complex rhythmic groupings are explored in Part 4. 

Textbooks: The textbooks are divided into units, and each unit is divided into two sections: "Discoveries" features pieces introducing new concepts to be taught in the lesson; "Using What You Have Discovered" presents pieces for synthesis and home practice.

Sidebars on each page of Time to Begin ask questions and offer suggestions for additional activities. Each unit concludes with warm-up exercises, rhythm drills, interval drills, and suggestions for creative activities. The friendly characters Chip and Bobo (a chipmunk and a dog) encourage the students to see the concepts and hear how they sound.

The textbooks throughout the series include warm-ups and various creative activities, including composition, improvisation, and harmonization. As classical repertoire is introduced, "Focus on Style" paragraphs give brief biographical and stylistic information. 

Repertoire: In addition to pieces written and arranged by the authors of this series, there are a number of works by pedagogical composers such as David Kraehenbuehl, Lynn Freeman Olson, and Jon George. Many early level songs have teacher duets. Genres are varied, including folk songs, written jazz, ragtime, and soft pop. Continued revisions and the addition of popular song arrangements by Sam Holland help this series maintain a contemporary sound. Keyboard Literatul'e books in Parts 3 and 4 contain standard repertoire with a short introduction to the compositional era and a brief biography of each composer. Student's Choice books 3 and 4 add recital favorites at these levels.

Activities: In addition to supporting and enhancing the theory presented in the textbooks, the Activities books sustain an unusually consistent emphasis on sight-playing and ear-training throughout all levels. The games and drills are clever, varied, and age- appropriate. 

Technique: The warm-up drills in Time to Begin and Parts 1, 2A, and 2B offer short, carefully sequenced technical exercises, but instructions on how to play the notes with a relaxed and well- shaped hand are generally left for the teacher to provide. Parts 3 and 4 include separate Keyboard Technic books containing pedagogic exercises arid standard repertoire etudes. These books provide more information about how to prepare and play each piece.

Teacher's Guide: Two handbooks for teachers are available in hard copy. The first covers Time to Begin and Part 1, and the second discusses Parts 2A and B. These Guides are strongly recommended for pedagogy students, beginning teachers, and instructors who are not familiar with an intervallic approach to reading. 

Software and CDs: Although I support teaching reading with an intervallic approach, one of the drawbacks is that early pieces are not lyrical and certainly not singable. To help maintain student (and parent and grandparent) interest during this early, formative period, it is important to use the accompaniments provided on the MIDI disks and CDs. T ime to Begin and Parts 1 - 2B have MIDI disks and CDs with accompaniments. The CDs for the Part 3 Text, Literature, and Technic books are unusual- if they are opened on a computer, they contain a free downloadable version of Home Concert 2000 Special Edition. With this software, the Part 3 CD accompaniments' tempi and tracks can be manipulated like a MIDI disk. 

One can only hope that, with Alfred's recently acquired distributorship of this series, similar disks for Part 4 will soon be published. It would also be very helpful to have all of the accompaniments available for downloadable purchase on their website, as they are for Alfred's Premier Piano Course

Omega: Part 3 marks the beginning of early-intermediate literature in the Text, Literature, and Technic books. Part 4 concludes at an early to mid-intermediate level with Leopold Mozart's "Burleske," and "Soldier's March" by Robert Schumann. 


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. 

A Growth Process 

by Sara M. Ernst 

The Music Tree is an ideal method for me, suitable for both individual and group study. It has a solid progression of skills and musical concepts, preparing students for what they will see, hear, and play in early intermediate repertoire. 

Clarity and pacing 

The organization of units around "discoveries" is quite effective. I can easily plan my lessons, presenting new concepts to be practiced at home this week, while preparing others for the coming weeks. My students never feel overwhelmed by this method, with its clear layout and uncluttered pages. Although my young students enjoy Chip and Bobo, the music (not graphics or pictures) is the focal point. The concise "discovery" pieces clearly highlight new concepts through their music, lyrics, and titles. For example, the lyrics of "Eighth Note Parade" describe the note patterns and use short words on the eighths. I assign the "Using What You Have Discovered" pieces immediately or one week later. "Big Ben" is perfect for discussing the damper pedal as students hear the bell-like ring on the fifth beat (see Excerpt 1). The quantity of pieces lets me tailor the learning pace to the class or individual and allows for mastery of a concept before the next related concept is presented. 

Excerpt 1: "Big Ben" from The Music Tree, Part 2A.

I particularly like the introduction of intervallic reading in Time to Begin. Students begin on a partial staff in Unit 4, playing melodies constructed of seconds and repeated notes. Unit 5 introduces thirds and repeated notes. In Unit 6, "Pumpkin Eater" is the first piece to combine seconds, thirds, and repeated notes; we always sing and play it along with the teacher duet (see Excerpt 2). With this progression of concepts my students have a solid grasp of seconds and thirds, so the fourths and fifths in the upcoming units are quick discoveries. The intervallic and landmark approach to reading develops good readers in my studio. It allows my beginners to explore the whole keyboard immediately, and they quickly learn to read the full staff. Occasionally, pieces jump ahead in difficulty, and I either omit these or use them to prime the student for a challenge. 

Excerpt 2: "Pumpkin Eater" from Time to Begin.

Student generated discoveries 

One of the most compelling reasons to use The Music Tree is its authentic presentation of musical concepts through discoveries. I feel a pang of guilt whenever I have to re-explain a concept because of an imprecise introduction, and I usually avoid this through valid and honest discoveries. For example, when introducing G major, I could tell my students to sharp all the F's because F-sharp is in the  key signature; however, I would much rather explore how major scales have an intervallic pattern and why the resulting sharps or flats are shown in the key signature. I feel that this method, more than others, encourages depth of understanding.  

Small rhythmic steps 

Rhythmic values are presented deliberately, and students are given time to develop automatic responses to the symbols before new patterns are presented. For example, students have five units in Part 3 to master groups of 4 sixteenth notes ( xxx ) before patterns with eighths and sixteenths are introduced. Students are given several units to master the next pattern, xxx, and additional patterns are introduced in similar increments. While this approach may feel slow to some teachers, I find moving in these smaller strides builds success and requires less backtracking. Because a counting system is not strongly imposed, I enjoy the flexibility of using a mix of systems among my students. 

Finding a balance of literature 

This method uses a linear writing style into Part 2B with creative and expressive lyrics. Once the partial staff is introduced, the melodies are tuneful and singable. Adding the teacher duets is a thrill for my students that makes the linear music come to life. My students love playing popular pieces such as "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Batman Theme" (see Excerpt 3). The Music Tree has more popular music than Classical themes, and I might prefer more balance.

Excerpt 3: "Batman Theme" from The Music Tree, Part 2A.

 My students have a variety of music in their piano assignments. To provide more exposure to finger technique, note-name reading, and tuneful melodies, I often supplement Time to Begin with pre-staff folk songs or with books from the Hal Leonard Piano Student Library. Parts 1 and 2A contain only basic pedaling (as in "Big Ben"), and when my students are ready, I incorporate solo collections by various composers, choosing longer pieces with blocked sonorities and pedal changes. Since students are comfortable with the full grand staff by Part 2A, additional solos are easy to include. I continue supplementing during Part 2B, including pieces of greater length.

Building upon the warm-ups 

When I began teaching this method, I found the teacher's guides helpful for understanding the warm-up patterns at the end of each unit. The warm-ups in the first two levels are presented to help a student master a new "feel" in the hand before it appears in the music. Because it features a full-arm approach that carefully introduces each finger, I have used this method successfully with four- and five-year-olds. I also include my own exercises along with those from Nancy and Randall Faber's Piano Adventures technique books and Edna Mae Burnam's Dozen a Day. Often, my average- age beginners can develop finger technique earlier and are playing five-finger patterns, some scales, and chord patterns before they encounter them in this method. 

Generally worthwhile activities 

The Activities books include a wide variety of ample materials, and the concluding puzzles are student favorites. The interval and staff reading drills are excellent, requiring students to think in multiple ways (see Excerpt 4). I use the rhythmic chants to prepare a new rhythmic concept, and the two-handed rhythms help my students develop hand independence. I do not consistently use the sight-read- ing exercises; I find that for some students the new concepts are added too quickly. I only assign Time to Begin Activities to very young students because I feel they are simplistic for seven- to eight- year-olds. This beginning Activities book could be improved by increasing the variety of drills and quantity of staff exercises. I think that students in the elementary levels could also benefit from the addition of ear training drills such as those found in Part 3 and 4.

Excerpt 4: Interval and reading drills from The Music Tree Activities, Part 1.

I value composition and harmonization for reinforcement, variety, and creativity. The composition and improvisation activities in The Music Tree are great for all students and an amazing creative outlet for some. The harmonization melodies in the Activities books include a vast repertory of folk songs, which many students do not learn elsewhere. The method uses open fifths and sixths to harmonize melodies through the middle of Part 3. If my students are playing triads in their warm-up routines, the open fifths and sixths can sound incomplete, so they also harmonize the melodies with full triads. 

The growth process 

The title The Music "Tree" contains a profound metaphor for learning the art of musical performance. A sapling, if given sunlight and water, grows one leaf at a time: a student learns week by week in piano lessons, and, with a good foundation, matures into a strong musician. The Music Tree is a staple of my curriculum because it helps me provide that solid foundation, and my students are motivated through its creative discoveries of music making. 

Sara M. Ernst, NCTM, is on the piano faculty at the University of Missouri and at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, and is currently researching her dissertation on the pedagogy and philosophy of Marvin Blickenstaff. Ernst has maintained independent teaching studios in Columbia, MO, and Norman, OK In 2005, she was the recipient of the MTNA Studio Fellowship Award. 

It suits me! 

 by Victoria Johnson

A year and a half ago, I married, moved to a new city, and opened an independent studio. As a result, most of my current students are six- to ten-year-olds in their first or second year of study. Since I'm a fan of variety and change, this has been a wonderful opportunity to revisit methods I used in the past, as well as tryout others that are either new to the market or new to me. As a result, my fourteen beginning students are learning from five different series! I'm happy to report that all are thriving. We piano teachers are fortunate to have so many outstanding teaching series available to us. However, The Music Tree, which has been my go-to method for several years, remains my favorite. Why? Simply put, I teach best and my students learn best when using this series.

The Music Tree is the most effective method for me because it suits my teaching philosophy. I strive to develop happy, healthy young pianists who enjoy themselves and who are well-rounded musicians and independent learners at every stage of learning. I seek to cultivate fluent reading skills; teach attractive, high-quality repertoire; promote a fluid, well-coordinated technique; and give instruction in music theory and functional skills such as harmonization, composition, and improvisation. The Music Tree helps me achieve these aims. 

A strong intervallic approach

For me, The Music Tree's greatest strength is its reading approach. My strongest wish for my students is that they will enjoy playing the piano long after lessons are over. Proficient reading ability makes this possible. The Music Tree uses an intervallic reading approach: students learn landmark notes and then use them to find other notes by direction and interval. This allows students to read and play comfortably all over the keyboard very early in their study. Because so many concepts are presented during the pre-reading stage, when students graduate to the grand staff, their responses to the basics of notation are automatic. I recently assigned Robert Vandall's Blue Jeans and Boots, in which both hands are written in the bass clef, to a second-year student. Many students would have difficulty finding this position, but this second-grader was situated and playing within seconds. This happens all the time with Music Tree students! I also find The Music Tree very effective in rehabilitating some transfer students' poor reading skills. The guide note/interval system gives them a new and logical approach to reading.

A danger for me in teaching an intervallic method is that I become focused on individual intervals rather than the big picture. Fortunately, the "yellow box" activities in Time to Begin and the questions preceding each piece in subsequent volumes ask students to mark the form and recognize patterns. Students love this interactive aspect. 

Constant reinforcement 

I believe that Music Tree students read so well not only because of the intervallic reading approach, but also because new concepts are clearly presented and constantly reinforced. When a new guide note, interval, note value, or other concept is presented, it is done through several short pieces.This allows students to experience the new concept repeatedly and in a variety of contexts. It is also found in the warm-ups, composition and improvisation activities, sight- reading exercises, and written work in the Activities books, as well as many, many pieces to come. 

Good repertoire motivates practice 

Another strong point of The Music Tree is its repertoire. Attractive literature is the best motivator of home practice, and the pieces in The Music Tree are musical gems. Take Offis perhaps the most impressive first piece in any series (see Excerpt 5). Beginners love the big sound and the feel of playing all over the keyboard. Descriptive titles (e.g. "A Secret," "Thunderstorm," "Dinosaurs," and "Skating") and sweet lyrics encourage musical playing. Terrific additions to the most recent revision include many familiar tunes such as "Batman Theme," "Morning Has Broken," "Star Wars," and "Pink Panther." These are pieces that students love to play and parents love to hear. A first-grader's performance of "Over the Rainbow" on a recent recital brought ooh's and aah's from the audi- ence (see Excerpt 6).

Excerpt 5: "Take Off'' from Time To Begin.
Excerpt 6: "Over the Rainbow" from The Music Tree, Part 1.

Because of the intervallic reading approach, Music Tree pieces aren't just in major and minor five-finger positions, so students' ears are opened to a variety of sounds. Many styles are represented as well, including classical, pop, jazz, blues, rock, and folk. Parts 3 and 4 of the series have separate Keyboard Literature books containing pieces from the Baroque through late Twentieth Century eras, including works by contemporary composers such as Dianne Goolkasian-Rahbee, Linda Niamath, and Nancy Telfer. These books take the guesswork out of correlating standard repertoire with a method book. 

Achieving an easy technique 

I find that The Music Tree is the most effective method for developing an easy, well-coordinated piano technique. The ample supply of pre-reading pieces on black keys helps beginners achieve a natural hand shape before being required to use all five fingers. I also like having warm-ups in each unit of the core book, many of which are repeated in two or three different octaves to prevent a build-up of tension. Parts 3 and 4 have separate Keyboard Technic books in addition to the warm-ups in the core book. These books are especially good for more serious students. Short exercises address issues such as rotation, legato thirds, and chord inversions and are followed by multiple etudes incorporating each technique. 

Much accomplished in few books 

The Music Tree truly helps me in my goal of training complete musicians. I am especially pleased that this is done with just two books in each level. Within the core and Activities books, transposition, harmonization, composition, improvisation, sight-playing, rhythm, and written theory are addressed. Composition and improvisation-daunting areas for many teachers and students, are presented in a very accessible fashion. Sight-playing exercises are found in each unit of the Activities book, and I assign one a day for home practice.

A sense of pulse and fluent rhythm-reading are crucial to good sight-reading and performance, so the rhythm drills-including movement exercises such as arm-swinging, walking the rhythm, and drawing dashes under notes-are a big plus. The Activities books are student favorites. These books are fun (beginning students particularly love getting to use their crayons), manageable, and very effective in reinforcing concepts from the core books. They also workwell in partner or group lessons. 

Plusses and minuses

When I speak with teachers who don't use The Music Tree, they inevitably cite reasons such as, "It moves very slowly," and "There are so many black key pieces." I agree with both points. It does move slowly, especially Time to Begin, and for that reason I don't use The Music Tree with beginners older than third grade. However, for younger students, I find the pace appropriate and necessary for adequate reinforcement of concepts.

The time spent on black keys is crucial to achieving a good hand shape, a sense of pulse, and an understanding of basic concepts before dealing with the complexities of the staff. When time is taken to ask students about the mood of the piece and subsequent dynamics and tempo choices, sing the lyrics, and play the teacher accompaniments and/or CD accompaniments, the black key pieces really come to life. If anything, I believe that The Music Tree is more challenging than other series: it requires that I carefully prepare upcoming concepts and that students really trunk and figure things out-there is no mindless following of finger numbers or note names in this series!

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay The Music Tree is that when I taught undergraduate and graduate piano pedagogy, it was the one method I wanted my students to get to know in-depth. To me, The Music Tree is a timeless classic, now updated and fresh. 

Victoria Johnson, Ph.D., NCTM, lives in Hattiesburg, MS, where she is an independent music teacher and part-time faculty member in accompanying at the University of Southern Mississippi. She holddegrees from the University of Oklahoma, Bowling Green State University, and Luther College. She has presented at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy and the National Group Piano and Piano Pedagogy Forum, and has written for Keyboard Companion and Piano Pedagogy Forum. Prior to moving to Hattiesburg, Dr. Johnson was Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Piano Pedagogy at Louisiana State University. 

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