Piano Method Review: Tales of a Musical Journey


Tales of a Musical Journey, by Irina Gorin with assistance from Olga Lukantsov, is presented in the form of two chapter books for young children ages four to seven. Author Irina Gorin writes, "Books 1 and 2 cover the span of the first year of study and will sufficiently prepare the students for classical repertoire."1 The characters in this fairy tale include King Meter, Fairy Musicalina, Prince Rhythm, and Princess Melody, who all live in the Magical Kingdom of Sounds. Some sections contain extensive story text, and Gorin recommends summarizing this in the lesson and having parents read it to their children at home.

Handbook for Piano Teachers is a slim volume that includes Gorin's teaching philosophy, descriptions of the technique presented in the student books, and suggested plans for the first four lessons.

• Each book has an optional accompanying CD with some music for listening and tracks for most of the songs. Accompaniments are recorded in appropriate tempi, utilizing synthesized sounds and beats.

• The website contains a directory of teachers who use this method, information on workshops, and purchasing information for the series and various manipulatives. A short video presentation on technique is located on the home page. Opportunities for observing Gorin using the materials are available on YouTube, where there are currently 154 video clips of her lessons.

• Reading: Extensive pre-reading provides time for attention to developing good technique. Familiar tunes are picked out by ear on black keys with finger three. After white keys are introduced, the pieces use fingers two and three. For beginning reading, a single line staff is used and then the entire grand staff is presented. Middle C is introduced, then the rest of Book 1 very gradually introduces A3 through F4, all played with a non-legato touch using fingers two, three, and four.

Notes are gradually added in Book 2, and the songs do not remain in static five-finger positions. Although there are some references to Guideposts F3, C4, and G4, intervals are not defined until the last third of the second book. Accidentals are used throughout the series with no reference to key signatures. Grand staff note reading encompasses C3 though C5.

• Rhythm: The first half of Book 1 uses white circles for long notes and black circles for short notes. These circles transform into quarter, half, and whole notes, and unit counting is introduced. Eighth notes and rests are introduced in the second half of Book 2. Gorin recommends liberal use of the metronome "to learn the control of the established tempo as well as the rhythm. Playing with the metronome will prevent deviation from both."2

• Technique: The centerpiece of the series, this Russian approach is thoroughly presented using a variety of analogies and manipulatives.

• Repertoire: In addition to pedagogic pieces by the author, there are many arrangements of Russian, Ukrainian, and other traditional folksongs. Book 2 ends at a mid- to late-elementary level. 

1Tales of a Musical Journey Book 1,p. 4.

2Handbook for Teachers, p. 48.

A pedagogic journey

by Elena Nezhdanova

My research of Russian piano pedagogy began during my graduate studies over six years ago. At that time, the only method translated into English and available in the United States was the Russian School of Piano Playing by A. Nikolaev. (It is still widely used in Eastern European and Slavic music schools.) Although valuable to well-trained piano pedagogues with a deep understanding of physiology and its application to lessons involving young students, there is no written guide discussing how to encourage musicality, tone production, and build healthy technical habits from the start. In my studio, I was using Nikolaev's method along with a popular American series, but the results were not what I wanted to achieve with my students. What a discovery it was when I found Irina Gorin's Tales of a Musical Journey. This method appeals to me because it is entertaining for children and useful to teachers.

Introducing basic principles

In a year or less of weekly lessons, this comprehensive method guides the student from the beginning to a level where she can enter the world of early intermediate piano literature. Tales of a Musical Journey has two books, with each book divided into small, organically organized chapters. The method does not use review chapters, but students are encouraged to polish and enjoy previously learned pieces. The entire series is a magical journey through the kingdom of sounds. Using characters based on musical concepts, Gorin introduces various aspects of playing the piano in perfectly timed succession. The first several chapters of Book 1 introduce basic principles of musicality and physiology with strong emphases on correct tone production. Her teaching does not use the five-finger hand positions that are commonly used in older American methods; instead, she uses the strong second and third fingers playing in non-legato articulation. This approach is physiologically sound and a fundamental principle of the Russian school. It allows young, untrained muscles to retain a correct hand position, relaxed arms, "breathing" wrists, and instills the habit of using firm fingers.

Gorin explains the correct shape of the hand and use of the fingers through colorful and appealing imagery such as a "weeping willow tree," "apple from the orchard," and "rainbow" to help the young student develop freedom of movement. Basic knowledge of the keyboard comes first through graphic depictions of the black key groupings: "small house" and "big house." From the start, the goal is not only learning keyboard topography, but also the correct use of arm, hand, and fingers. 

Tales of a Musical Journey, Book One, p. 36.

Reading and theory

Reading musical notation is incorporated right from the beginning. Gorin combines Kodály's approach to rhythm with her pre-reading notational system, followed by directional notation—teaching students to read notes below, on, and above the line in both directions.

Along with the use of original melodic patterns and short songs, American teachers and students will appreciate the inclusion of familiar tunes such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Hot Cross Buns," "Twinkle, Twinkle," and well-known Christmas songs. By the end of Book 1, students will learn how to read music between G3 and F4.

There are no supplemental theory books. All of the necessary theory knowledge is explained through practical exercises within the method. Piano skills and theory are taught simultaneously. Students will become familiar with 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time signatures; dynamic markings p, mp, mf, f; and they will play songs using fingers 2, 3, and 4 in both hands. At first glance, this might not sound too demanding. The goal, however, is to encourage correct hand choreography and achieve good tone production and musicality on top of all the technical skills. Teachers can then decide whether to use other supplemental materials. 

Tales of a Musical Journey, Book Two, p. 77, "Skating."

More advanced concepts

Book 2 introduces concepts such as staccato and legato in two or more note groupings, eighth notes, crescendo and diminuendo, accidentals, and reading harmonic intervals. Longer pieces require artistic attention to interpretation. Colorful character pieces encourage paying attention to sound production, more complex fingerings, and a variety of articulations. Gorin does not teach chords in these books; however, in Book 2 she introduces the concept of connecting two harmonic intervals where one note is tied and one is changing. This is a physiological preparation for students to build strength to play chords in the future. By the end of Book 2, my students are ready to play supplemental pieces from Faber's Piano Adventures Level 2A and 2B, Preparatory Level and Level 1 books by Keith Snell, and other early-intermediate pieces.

Additional materials

These books can be purchased with or without CD accompaniments for each musical example, and the recordings help students perform their pieces at a set tempo. The method offers a fun "goodie" bag with toys and other teaching tools, and all of the supplemental materials may be purchased separately.

A successful approach

Overall, this method is a successful combination of an entertaining approach to learning and a strong foundation for technical proficiency. Along with its strengths, the books have certain limitations and could use slight refinements:

• The stories which accompany the method could be abbreviated to accommodate the efficient use of shorter lessons—teachers are strongly advised to familiarize themselves with the content of the stories before applying them in the lessons.

• This method is targeted towards four- to seven-year-old beginning piano students; however, despite the fun aspect of the books, it may not be suitable for every young child since it requires a heightened level of concentration. A key element of its success is full parental understanding and participation at home.

• My only important graphic suggestion for improvement is to indicate more clearly the number of each book on its cover. If ordered from an independent online retailer, confusion between the books is very common.

Irina Gorin is an internationally recognized pedagogue and clinician. The video recordings of her workshops and private teaching samples are available on her website (irinagorin.com) and her YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/pianoteaching). These online resources, together with all of the supplemental materials, make this method a valuable contribution to modern piano pedagogy. 

Appropriate sequencing for young children

by Richard Dillon

Despite my degrees in music, I was not a serious student in terms of practice and performance. I was easily distracted—exploring conducting, composition, theory, world music, and synthesizers. Piano was of minimal interest to me at the time. I began teaching piano as a means of supplementing my income as a public school music teacher. I took the easy path and used a couple of popular methods, but was never a fan of either. In terms of technique, both methods included a page or two on posture and how your wrist should look, and then went on to reading music and learning songs. I disliked both of them; by the end of my graduate studies, based on my understanding of the sequence of musical skills acquisition and the cognitive development of children, I understood why. In later years, I developed my own method, which I use in conjunction with Irina's.

I hold the unique distinction of perhaps being the only person who initially returned Irina Gorin's Tales of a Musical Journey for a refund when it was first published. I laugh about that now as I am reminded of how my attitude has changed.

Introductory approach

Irina incorporates stories and characters to add visual interest to lessons. My young students love the pictures and the stories. (I don't read to them in the lesson; I let parents enjoy some quality time reading to their child.)

Pitch is introduced through the concept of steps: either two or three, depending upon which set of black keys students are playing. (Songs are expanded to as many as five steps.) Following this, students are introduced to the single-line staff. Notes are above, below, or on the staff. The Grand Staff appears later, in chapter 16. Students learn Middle C in both clefs, and notes expand upward and downwards until students are playing C4-F4 in the treble clef and A3-C4 in the bass clef.

Rhythm begins with long and short notes. Long notes are empty circles and fast notes are solid; they are placed in steps. Over time, they become whole notes and stemless quarter notes. Bar lines, measures, and time signatures are introduced in chapter 29; stems are added in chapter 22, as are half notes and counting. Dotted half notes appear beginning in chapter 31. Equivalent rests are not introduced until the end of the book.

Technique is taught differently from other methods; this approach teaches how to play the piano first, adding songs later. Students begin by learning how to sit, and the proper position of arms and wrists. They learn how to relax and then play their first note on page 21. The focus is on playing expressively with beautiful tone, not playing songs using finger numbers. This makes perfect sense, as beginning students struggle with collapsing joints and tense muscles in the arm and wrist. 


The pictures and stories limit the method's use to younger students. (I should say limit the use of the book; the concepts can be taught to older students without using the book.)

My left-handed students complain that too many songs start with the right hand and that the right-hand part often has more notes than the left. If that happens to you, I suggest telling them that they are strengthening their weaker hand.

I would not introduce longer rhythms (whole and half notes) until later. Research shows that one's heartbeat is tied to playing—since children have faster pulses than adults, it is easier for them to play faster rhythms than slower ones. (I introduce quarter and eighth notes in my method first.)

Teacher resources

Irina provides several resources for teachers new to the method. She sells a supplemental kit for Book 1 that includes a squeeze ball, monkey, noise putty, and other manipulatives. A teacher guidebook is also available for those who are uncertain where to use the manipulatives. There is also a Tales of a Musical Journey Facebook group where teachers can pose questions and offer solutions, and her teaching videos are available on YouTube. 

Elena Nezhdanova holds a D.M.A. degree in Piano Performance and Collaborative Arts from UNC Greensboro, an M.M. from Ithaca College, and a B.M. from Syracuse University. A Program Director for The North Carolina Bach Festival Inc., her professional engagements include performances in China and the US. She is currently planning a tour of Europe with her professional cello partner.

Richard Dillon's formal education includes A.A., B.A., and Master of Music degrees. While he has taught piano for most of his life, Richard began composing solo piano music five years ago. His compositions can be heard on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and other internet radio stations. 

Unifying techniques in musical compositions
Coping with cross-rhythms

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Comments 1

mike1921ross on Sunday, 19 November 2017 10:49

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