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Method reviews return! A review of Piano Safari


Method reviews return!

In 2009, Clavier Companion began a series of reviews exploring all of the major piano methods published at that time. Two years later, the series concluded and we had covered twelve major methods! (You can access these articles collected into a special digital issue on the website.) Since then there have been no new methods premiered by any of the major publishers. There are now, however, several popular self-published series. These methods may have a new system of publication, but they are interesting and pedagogically worthwhile. In this ongoing series, we will explore some of these methods. The format will be the same as the 2009-2011 series: each review will begin with the Associate Editor's overview of the core books, providing basic information about the method's approach to reading, rhythm, theory, and other aspects of pedagogic interest. Following the overview, two independent teachers who use this method extensively will give practical insights into their day-to-day use of the method with their students. The series' authors will also be given the opportunity to respond in the following issue. So…let's get started! 

Piano Safari

by Rebecca Grooms Johnson

Written and published by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr

Additional contributing composers: Wendy Lynn Stevens and Christopher Fisher 

This series currently includes Repertoire Books 1, 2, and 3; Technique Books 2 and 3; Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards Levels 1, 2, and 3; and Listening CDs for rote pieces Levels 1 and 2. The authors recommend the series for beginners age four through ten. There is an enormous amount of information on the website that includes

• An extensive online Teacher's Guide with sequenced teaching suggestions for each page of Books 1 and 2. (The Teacher's Guide for Book 3 is not yet completed.) Not all students will need all the steps—they can be adjusted to each student's age and pace of learning. Suggestions are given for additional age-appropriate learning activities. Occasionally, the Guide recommends how many teaching steps to cover in each lesson on a piece. Some group lesson activities are also provided.

• Video clips provide help for rote and technique pieces in Books 1 and 2. Some contain reminder videos for the parents' use at home, some are instructional videos to review concepts introduced in the lessons, and some have performance videos with children playing the finished piece. Videos also present instructional sample activities using the Sight Reading and Rhythm cards for Books 1 and 2. Several performance videos are presented for Book 3.

• Twenty-two Mini Essays explain the authors' philosophy on various pedagogical topics, along with Knerr's session, "152 Strategies for Effective and Efficient Teaching," from the MTNA 2016 National Conference. 


Meticulously sequenced, this series reflects the teaching philosophies of Frances Clark, Marvin Blinkenstaff, Suzuki, Kodály, and other influential past and current pedagogues. Rote pieces and improvisational activities are interspersed throughout Books 1 and 2. All technical exercises in the first two levels are taught by rote. Supplementary "Sight Reading and Rhythm" cards reinforce concepts and are correlated with each unit of all three levels. There is an extensive online teacher's guide for the cards in Levels 1 and 2. In Level 3 there are questions or suggested activities printed at the top of each card. The art work throughout the series is minimal and always in grayscale.  

Level 1

• Introductory staff reading is strongly intervallic, with guideposts. (A quasi-multikey approach is utilized later in the sequence.) Following two units of pre-reading pieces and activities, one interval is introduced per unit—Unit 3: seconds; Unit 4: thirds; Unit 5: seconds and thirds. Reading pieces are not on the accompanying CD (the CDs are for listening to the rote pieces), but the teacher is encouraged to play each piece before the student sight-reads it.

• A modified rhythmic Kodály syllabic system (ta, ta ti-ti, etc.) is used.

All technique exercises are by rote and played with a bouncy non-legato touch for the first two-thirds of the book. Many early pieces move up and down various octaves to keep the arm free and flowing. Technical approaches are called "Animal Techniques" and given names such as Lion Paw, Tall Giraffe, etc.

Folk songs are interspersed, with the student reading by finger number.

Hands play separately in all the reading pieces, but some pieces have a "challenge" suggestion of adding the other hand in parallel motion at the octave. Teacher accompaniments are provided.

• Improvisation is by rote, and all have teacher accompaniments. Beginning twelve-bar blues is presented at the end of the book.

The authors predict that Level 1 will take approximately one calendar year to complete. 

Level 2

Divided into separate Repertoire and Technique books, supplementary materials include the "Sight Reading and Rhythm" cards, and a Listening CD for Level 2 rote pieces.

• Staff reading introduces fifths and fourths (in that order), note names on the staff, and accidentals.

• Students begin hands together playing in two-part and parallel motion. Some duets have equal-level student parts in primo and secondo.

Metric counting is introduced (on a single page early in the book) for whole notes through eighth notes.

• Challenge pieces are beginning repertoire taken from traditional Classical composers (Reinagle, Köhler, Gurlitt, Czerny, and Beyer).

Rote pieces continue at a more difficult level than the reading pieces. Improvisation activities are also included.

Syncopated pedaling is introduced and incorporated.

• The Technique book interweaves theory (scales, triads, whole steps, and half steps) with continued work on the "Animal Techniques" introduced in Level 1. All of the pieces in the Technique book are available in the online videos and Teacher's Guide. 

Level 3

Divided into separate Repertoire and Technique books, supplementary materials include "Sight Reading and Rhythm" cards. There is no CD for this level because there are no rote pieces in the Repertoire book. No Teacher's Guide is currently available online.

• Online performance videos are available for some of the Repertoire pieces, but there are currently no videos of materials from the technique book.

• Several original classical repertoire pieces are interspersed throughout this book, each with a very brief biographic paragraph on the composer. Some teacher accompaniments have been added, and simple form is discussed as appropriate. Many pieces have questions for the student at the end (i.e., What key? What chords are used? Which hand has the melody?). Level 3 takes students to a late elementary/early intermediate level.

• Introduces intervals of a sixth, seventh, and octave.

• Introduces sixteenth notes (ta-ka-ti-ka and 1-e-&-a).

• The Technique book continues to interweave technique with the student's developing understanding of theory (i.e., how to build and finger scales and scale exercises). Pages are marked at the top as "At the Lesson" (introduction of concepts) and "At Home" (exercises for practice, often with grids for students to record their progress). Technical preparation for each upcoming repertoire piece is presented in the preceding unit. 

What's next?

According to the authors: a Teacher's Guide for Level 3 and more videos for Technique Book 3; supplemental theory books for Levels 1 and 2 (Fisher writes: "We do have some theory in the Repertoire Books, but feel students could use more."); an older beginner version; and a pre-school version. 

A pedagogical journey of discovery

by Lizbeth Atkinson

Finding Piano Safari was a pedagogical journey that awoke in me a sense of discovery. When I started reading about the method, I realized that learning to teach Piano Safari would take time, but would be worthwhile. Having never taught pieces by rote, at first I didn't understand all of the benefits. I soon discovered the two fascinating people who had devoted massive amounts of time not only writing the physical books but also providing students, parents, and teachers with a method and style of teaching that would reach many different personalities and abilities.

Spiral bound with a spectacular zebra sporting the keys of the piano on the cover, the inner pages are black and white with minimal artwork, making them clean and uncluttered. The website has helpful articles and offers all of the constantly updated materials for purchase. 

Rote teaching

A multisensory experience awaits the beginning student. Rote pieces provide the opportunity to explore the sound of the piano, develop listening skills, memory skills, and technique without having to worry about notation. "I Love Coffee" is a particularly popular rote piece among Piano Safari teachers. It is the longest, but students learn this piece very quickly and absolutely love it!

Some rote pieces are to be played in different positions or keys, and students are taught to transpose their pieces early in the method. My favorite example of this is "Hungry Herbie Hippo." I love creatively teaching transposition within a few weeks of starting lessons. Students have fun placing items on the keyboard (we use erasers) to remind them which notes to skip. In my studio, they get to choose the erasers and then take them home to help them practice. Teacher duets are provided in the back of the book for each transposed key. 

"I Love Coffee," from Piano Safari, Level 1.

Eclectic reading approach

Learning to read right along with developing rote skills is a feature of Piano Safari that caught my attention. Students begin with pre-staff notation on black keys using finger 2, and eventually add fingers 3 and 4. They gradually begin to play on the white keys, adding intervals of a second and third, and work their way to staff reading about halfway through Book 1. I enjoy having a variety of fingers on C3 and G4 by the time we reach the end of the first level. Reading pieces include a variety of well-known folk songs such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Frère Jacques." Also included are original works such as "The Mosquito and the Hippopotamus" and "Invasion of the Ants," composed by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr.

Duets often have the teacher's part imitated in the same hand as the student's part. The student sees correct technique and hopefully imitates this as the teacher and student play together. One piece I particularly enjoy for this purpose is "Zechariah Zebra." This piece is important because it introduces fast repeated notes, and the student must have a loose, bouncy arm with firm fingertips. When I play this piece with my students, they are often watching me out of the corners of their eyes and making adjustments to their technique.

There are a few improvisational pieces and activities in Levels 1 and 2. This gives students an opportunity to be creative and explore sounds of the piano in a structured setting. Students enjoy this break from reading and rote pieces to have fun with their expressive and playful selves. 

Attention to sight reading

Sight reading cards are a large part of the curriculum and vital to developing reading skills. Students are instructed to complete two or more cards per week, with each card including a line of reading in the right hand, a line of reading in the left hand, and a rhythm exercise. Specific instructions on how to use these cards are given in the instructor's guide. Teachers who use these cards with their students will see tremendous growth—I use them with all of my students whether or not they are using the Piano Safari method books. It is an outstanding way to reinforce rhythm and sight reading on a weekly basis. I had my cards spiral bound across the top, and I use small sticky notes with each student's name to indicate what card the student will need to start with in the lesson. I have my students do the same with their cards and keep their sets at home.

Fisher and Knerr have provided specific instructions in the teacher's guides for Levels 1 and 2. I like the room on the cards and in the books that gives teachers the opportunity to use their own ideas if they choose. Although I understand the system of counting provided, I prefer the syllable-based system I have used since college. The cards and books allow me the option to use my own system, and I appreciate that.

Piano Safari has some theory pages scattered throughout the series, but since I am a teacher who loves to teach a lot of theory, I like to add more theory work. The authors are working on additional theory books, and that will be a wonderful supplement! 

Sight Reading and Rhythm card from Piano Safari, Level 1.

Approach to technique

Technique is a strong focus from the beginning, and animals teach each technique. Basic technical exercises include:

Lion Paw: arm weight

Zechariah Zebra: fast repeated notes

Tall Giraffe: non-legato

Tree Frog: legato with bouncy arm

Kangaroo: fast repeated notes

Soaring Bird: legato, smooth arm

Monkey Swinging in a Tree: rotation

Each technique has a piece taught by rote to reinforce the gesture. The authors recommend having a stuffed animal to accompany these pieces.

A separate technique book is added at the second level and is a fun way for children to learn the different touches and motions their hands and wrists can make. Students begin to learn correct legato, staccato, non-legato, double thirds, repeated notes, two-note slurs, and many more techniques. Each is described using an animal, insect, or object to give the student something to remember or visualize. 

Journey into creativity

Because Piano Safari is a multisensory approach, students of different abilities and ages are successful in this method. I have started students as young as four years of age; however, I would probably not put a student older than nine in Book 1.

Teachers from all over the world come together to share stories and ask questions on the "Teaching Piano Safari" Facebook page, and the authors are very quick to respond with a helpful tip or a congratulatory comment on a successful story. If you are ready for a journey with a creative method that will spark your imagination along with that of your students, I recommend this method. 

Piano Safari will delight both students and teachers

by Sylvia Coats

After years of teaching piano and piano pedagogy to college music students, I retired and began teaching five, six, and seven-year-olds. Not only did I change direction with age level, but I became a pedagogy student by learning from my former pedagogy students and Piano Safari authors Kathrine Fisher and Julie Knerr. I threw myself into learning this new method with their helpful website and Facebook group. I also used music and materials by Wendy Stevens and Christopher Fisher, and Eik Siang Mar's Sproutbeat app of music worksheets. I also turned to Natalie Weber's wise advice for teaching my young transfer students and her practice incentive program. Carefully planning each student's lesson, I was rewarded with their love of playing and the fun we had at lessons.

I am now very comfortable with the excellent pedagogy of the method: good music, a well-organized reading approach, and consistent technique. Their innovative organization of materials is genius.The authors have the pulse of what appeals to young students, and teachers will appreciate their creativity and musicality. 

Technique through rote studies

 Rote pieces are key to the method's success. Technical studies are taught by rote and easily remembered because they are named for safari animals. Small stuffed animals (lion, zebra, giraffe, tree frog, bird, monkey) sit on the music rack in my studio and delight the students while they are learning arm weight, fast repeated notes, non-legato, legato, slurs, rotation, etc. Titles of the studies engage their imaginations and give them cues for good technique such as "Zachariah Zebra" for fast repeated notes and "Monkey Swinging on a Tree" for rotation. Supplementary cards with colorful illustrations for each piece can be awarded as an incentive to review pieces.

The rote songs are very patterned, incorporate the technique exercise, and use the full range of the keyboard. Some sound very impressive and others are quite expressive, thus providing more advanced performance pieces while the students learn easier reading pieces. The first rote song in Book 2 Repertoire cleverly incorporates every technique learned in Book 1.

Students' experiences

After three years of teaching Piano Safari, my students and I are still having a great time. I would like to share my experiences with two ten-year-olds who have studied with me for a couple of years.

Elise transferred to me with a year of previous lessons and immediately loved the rote and technique pieces. She was very expressive in her playing and graceful in her movements; however, she was reluctant to read. In Level 1 of Piano Safari every piece begins on treble G and bass C. No other notes are used for the first note, thus limiting the student's decision to whether it is right hand treble G or left hand bass C. I think it reassured her that she knew the beginning note of each piece and then she could read by direction and intervals. Her confidence grew, and she moved quickly through the reading in Level 1. The Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards continue to reinforce concepts thoroughly, and provide daily reading practice for Elise. My weekly assignments include at least four cards, each with a short four-measure reading exercise and four-measure rhythm exercise. The cards are a regular lesson activity and the rhythms can provide structure for improvisations.

Brady came to my studio after having completed Book 1 of Piano Safari. He loves to play and was delighted to spend the year in Level 2. Although he excels at tapping and counting the rhythm patterns each week in the Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards, he has trouble transferring his rhythm knowledge to the pieces. Teacher duets that are provided for most pieces and classical duets such as Diabelli's "Scherzo and Trio" help him hear and feel the pulse.

Level 3 was not yet available during Brady's third year of study. Although I chose music that would continue the curriculum of rote, technique, classical, folk, and reading pieces, along with the Level 3 Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards, the material was not as cohesive as Piano Safari, and neither Brady nor I were as engaged in the lessons. Level 3 arrived and he is again excited about playing and loves the primarily classic music in Book 3 Repertoire. 

Interspersed levels of difficulty

One of the reasons Brady and Elise have been successful with Piano Safari is that pieces of varying levels of difficulty are interspersed throughout each book. Fisher and Knerr explain that this is:

• To provide appropriate levels of reinforcement.

• To provide both the challenge and motivation necessary for students to progress.

• To generate the mental and physical connections among the ears, eyes, fingers, and imagination that comes from playing pieces in a variety of textures, types, and levels.

• To provide variety in how students learn pieces in order to accommodate different learning modalities.

I have been pleased that the method has prepared Brady and Elise well for the Kansas Music Teachers Association syllabus program with few additional materials needed.

Teachers may be concerned that only three major and three minor keys are introduced in the series. However, the theory presentation is thorough and other keys could easily be introduced. Technique Book 3 includes scales, primary chords, and chord inversions in the keys of C Major, A Minor, G Major, E Minor, F Major, and D Minor, with a unit devoted to each key in the Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards. Students build technical fluency in the six keys through playing Alberti bass, waltz, stride, and broken chord accompaniment patterns. 

"Safari Friends" from Piano Safari, Level 2

Spiral curriculum

I met Fisher and Knerr when they consulted with me as they wrote the method. This series meets and goes beyond my expectations of the pedagogy I want in the perfect method. Jerome Bruner's spiral curriculum is evident in the use of sophisticated musical concepts throughout the method and the appropriate challenge for motivation. Dynamic levels, tempos using Italian terms, and articulations that include pedal are incorporated into the pieces. Opportunities for transfer of learning are built into the method.Brady, for example, was learning primary chords in root position and inversions, and chord progressions. He had an "aha moment" when he discovered a chord inversion in his repertoire. 

Young students

 Piano Safari is adaptable for very young students needing a slower learning pace. I thoroughly enjoy teaching five- and six-year-olds as they "teach me" to enjoy each moment of making music together. They often want to play their own compositions using patterns they have learned from the book and each student is eager to play five or six songs for the studio recital. Knerr's supplemental composition "I Like Bananas" is a hit. "I Like Coffee," a rote duet in Book 1, has been an entertaining ensemble piece for many Piano Safari teachers' studio recitals.

Please join us in using this method and energize your studio as we have! 

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