The author of the Piano By Number series was asked recently about his teaching methods.
“My philosophy is to provide an environment in which the student cannot fail. Too many piano teachers have a rigid program which the student, usually a child, must master or risk disapproval.
Students, especially children, are unique individuals and these personal differences may mean a radical range of motor skills and intellectual abilities.
I can honestly say my students taught me to teach: I watched their efforts and devised ways for them to grasp the next step.
When they grasped the next step, I’d try the next step after that, and if they failed, I’d go back to the last step, all the while entertaining them and informing them, and most of all, playing the piano for them to show what awaited if they kept trying.
Music is either pleasurable or it isn’t, especially to a five year old. If you make music fun, students keep trying. A piano teacher, especially of children, must necessarily function somewhere in between a game show host and a drill sergeant.
A music teacher should never express disapproval to a student who has made an honest effort on the complex problems presented in the average piano lesson book. When a student fails, it is the teacher who has failed to present the material properly or in an interesting manner.
One rule I have discovered is that students learn things when they are good and ready to, and it’s up to the teacher to give them the skills that make them ready to master the next step. Patience to a piano teacher may mean months of strategy.
The student is always right; if the method fails, the method is wrong.
Reading music by numbers, improvising and studying chords is so natural to students that they can do it without exhaustion: they feel a rise in self-esteem. Improvisation exercises allow a student to make satisfying music outside of the crushing limits of conventional music notation. Anyone can improvise music, given certain basic skills.
It is better to have a student with limited accomplishments play a simple tune by numbers or memory, or improvise, and be proud than to have that same student feel defeated by conventional music notation.
The object of piano teaching is not to create millions of Vladimir Horowitzes, even though that would be wonderful, but rather to allow every student the opportunity to speak the great language of music, even in humble dialects such as numbers or basic improvisation.
As soon as a student begins to feel defeated by endlessly studying sheet music in the piano lesson book, the clever piano teacher must quickly shift to more pleasurable studies such as harmony, theory, improvising and ear training. Get the child to memorize songs they love and work on them endlessly. It’s common sense.
There are students barely capable of reading a simple piece of sheet music, but who can play all twenty-four major and minor chords flawlessly because it is logical and fun. These kids can play several pieces they love from memory, and perhaps compose and improvise. Most piano teachers abandon these kids because they cannot read the inane “music” in the Alfred or Bastien or Faber series (common conventional systems.)
A wise teacher plays to the student’s strengths while relentlessly attacking the problem areas a bit at a time.
Deciphering conventional music notation is drudgery, a complex right-brained chore to even the most diligent child. A brilliant, diligent child will memorize a piece of music they love so they can ignore the right-brained deciphering mechanism and engage the poetic left brain as soon as possible. Even much less gifted children do the same, memorizing a piece they love so that the dreaded sheet music is forgotten in the pleasure of playing.
Part of the secret is to loosely divide the lesson time into both a study of the piano (including conventional notation and improvisation) and a study of harmony.
In addition, the teacher must make each area of study a living, breathing experience. The study of chords, for instance, is made exciting by constantly asking the student’s input: is the chord happy, sad, weird? Anything that can be made into a game should be.
A study of chords isn’t dry and boring if the teacher is capable of showing that within that study are the secrets of a great language, the language of music. You can’t just tell a student that a particular “something” is exciting about piano music: you have to sit down and play that “something” for them right there, or it’s not real to them. Students who know what they’re shooting for are always willing to try.
This book is the result of what I saw that worked while I was teaching. I began to see certain patterns of information that seemed to make music theory digestible regardless of the skill level of the student.
And I observed what information was necessary for each student to progress to the next level, and this became the core of the book, the set of steps that will begin to lead anyone to play satisfying music on the piano.
The premise of the book is this: there are certain basic skills that a student will need to begin studying music, and these skills can be self-taught if the information is properly presented in a step-by-step format.
This book is intended for adults and children supervised by adults. An enterprising and intelligent child of six or eight could make their way through this book alone. A child of six would probably need an adult to help them make apply the stickers, but the advantage is that the parent and child can learn together. If your child sees you try to play the piano, they’ll try it right away. I’ve seen it again and again.
You will be shocked at how easy it is to begin to play the piano if the information is properly presented. The steps you go through in the book are almost exactly what beginning students learn in the first few weeks of my private lessons.
The most basic rule is this: if you don’t understand something, go back a step or two and review. Music is so skill-based that you usually cannot progress to the next level unless you have first mastered the previous level. Take the time to try all the steps.
The core problem for most kids is that they need much more time to absorb each level, and piano teachers are notoriously impatient. It is an inherently impossible-to-balance combination of child vs. teacher needs that is lethal to a child’s enthusiasm.
Playing “by number” is a humble dialect, if you will, of the great language of music. You can’t make a better, happier beginning to your study of music than playing piano “by number.”
Your only other option is to struggle through reading music, with the understanding that you will never be allowed to play anything that you cannot read, therefore, you are condemned to playing boring music that is within the grasp of your almost non-existent reading skills. I say this is baloney, that anyone can play music far harder than what they can read. Kids quit piano because the music they are allowed to play is boring, it’s as simple as that.
All the skills you use in this book will be valuable to you later when you learn to read conventional sheet music. It has been my experience that students first taught by number, and who have a solid knowledge of chords, have a far higher chance of learning to read conventional sheet music.
Anyone can teach themselves to play the piano if someone gives them the logical steps. That’s all I’ve done.”
John Aschenbrenner has a BA in Composition from U.C. Berkeley, Trinity College of Music, London, and U.S.C. Film School. He is a leading music educator in Connecticut and New York and is the author of the Piano By Number series. You can contact him for lessons in your home in Connecticut by using our contact form.
From the Introduction to Teach Yourself Piano Step by Step