When you first start teaching piano it can feel very overwhelming. Actually, it can even feel overwhelming a few years in! So, how can you find the best approach to teaching piano?
For starters, understand that a method book series is not an approach to teaching. It’s a series of books that contain music & activities that follow a particular approach or philosophy. But, they are not the actual teaching approach.
When I made that realization, the world of music opened up! No longer was I concerned about choosing the “right” method book. I could test & experiment with aspects from many places to find the best approach to teach piano … both for myself & my students. If you’re like me, you want to pull from a variety of music vs. hearing the same songs at the same level ad nauseam.
Is it just for beginners?
You’ll notice below that I include music beyond an early elementary/elementary level. That’s because many of these approaches make the jump to the next level of playing difficulty easier when you employ them.
Years ago I taught Grade 7 – 9 Math. I’m not a Math specialist & my students ranged in ability from kindergarten level through to advanced Grade 9 Math. Thankfully, my husband taught me concepts one week ahead of time. When I taught, I often shared the parts that had made me think a bit & any tips/tricks I used to solve the equations.
When I was on maternity leave with our twins, we went to visit my former students. A few of them commented on how much they missed my approach … which surprised me. It’s not like I was a great Math teacher. But, it was in those moments that I ‘pulled back the curtain’ that it had made it easier for them.
This feedback is something I’ve taken into my approach to teach piano.
Rote (+ reading)
This is one of my favourite approaches! And that bracket around “reading” is for a specific reason. This approach can be used for any level of student & can even work great with special needs students (even when online). It just looks a bit different depending on the level of student.
Beginner & elementary students
The rote part of this approach has several great benefits for beginner students:
- Play more complex music faster.
- Develop their ear right off the bat.
- Better understanding of keyboard geography.
- Develop automatic recognition of motifs & patterns within music.
The reading part of this approach allows you to start having students learn:
- What to filter out visually.
- Recognize what the patterns they hear look like on the staff.
- Recognizing scale patterns (even if they can’t name them).
Rote teaching is quite common for beginner students. But, I noticed that bridging the gap between rote & reading music was a tough one. I tried:
- Alpha notes: letter name is written inside note, no staff lines
- 2 lines: mimics part of the staff
- 1 staff
- Full staff
These are all great options & I would highly recommend exploring them with each student. But each approach inherently requires your student to make a leap of learning. Rote combined with reading can help make that transition a bit easier.
Elementary to intermediate students
For my elementary students I typically use music that has some sections by rote & others that my students are responsible for. For my more advanced students, it’s based on what my student needs in that moment.
Combining rote with reading has several student benefits:
- Develop their ear to hear more complex patterns & rhythms.
- Bridge the gap between the music they are playing & what comes next.
- Demystifies new patterns into small parts so it’s more approachable.
The goal is to point out reading elements that are challenging, but not beyond their capabilities. And, the parts that are too much of a stretch become rote sections. However, the best approach to teach piano this way is to always analyse as well so students make the connection between what’s on the page & what they are playing.
Examples of Rote + Reading
I’m Sam Elite Mouse Hunter is part of the “Sam’s Life” collection. This spy-movie inspired piece is one that is great for absolute beginners & intermediate students!
Almost every member of my family has learnt this song by rote & students love it too. For more advanced students, sometimes it’s the rhythm that seems complex … until they have the first measure taught by rote. Suddenly the song becames a whole lot easier.
The Blizzard was written for one of my beginner students that was disappointed he couldn’t play the complex music he loved listening to. He was happy to wow the audience at our Winter recital! And, it’s the sophisticated sound makes it the perfect piece for teen/adult students.
This elementary/late elementary song is a perfect example of bridging the gap between playing & reading. The intense blizzard section is taught by rote. The rest of the song uses broken chords that can be taught by rote & a simple melody for students to read. By visually ‘pulling out’ the melody line, the pattern can be figured out on the keyboard.
Snow Fairies Under The Moonlight is an early advanced song that you might not consider to be a part of this approach. However, the melody line is quite simplistic for this level. It’s the combination of everything together that can be the challenge.
Some students would do well with rote work for some of the chord sections including blind jumps on the keyboard between chords or into the RH melody. My students often hear, “You have to memorise something when there is that much jumping. Is it the notes on the page or where your hands go?”
Part of a well-rounded approach to teach piano is reading notes. Some students do very well with landmark notes. Others don’t. No matter what you do. Some students do better with an acronym like ACE (for all the A’s, C’s & E’s on the staff) & others just prefer the standby of “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge”.
These days, rather than using one method for every single student, I switch to a different approach when it’s clear my student needs something else.
As an advanced piano player, I’m not picking out all the landmark notes in a song. I figure out my starting note & look at the patterns from there. It got me thinking about how I could get my students to that mindspace of batching visual information quicker.
First Snow is part rote & part note-reading. Students can learn the chords by rote making this song suddenly very accessible. While the RH melody looks very simple, it has some great concepts. Playing a 3-note motif that only steps or repeats notes is easy. Learning that all the other patterns are built on that exact motif … well, your student may just start feeling like a prodigy!
Even beginner students should have music that sounds way harder than it is. Part of your approach to teaching piano should be shining a light on those tips & tricks which make the music sound incredible.
Students often don’t like scales. They’re boring. They don’t seem to be in anything other than the simplest songs. And so they don’t always get a lot of practice.
Jake’s Fishing Adventure is almost entirely written with scales (at least in the right-hand). Whether it’s a straight pentascale or a mixed version of the scale, students can imagine Jake running to & fro as he says “Hi!” to the fish below the ice. Because the story is so vivid, students don’t realise they’re practicing scales for a whole song.
Finding music that “hides” scales makes it much easier to convince students that these important technique exercises really do have a benefit.
Reading by intervals is, in my opinion, one of the things that sets apart beginner students from more advanced students. Think about when you read a piece of music. Other than the first note & perhaps some jumps or ledger lines, you mostly read intervals. Making this a part of your approach to teach piano (along with great music) helps your students develop this incredibly important skill.
Perhaps not where you expected me to start. But, it can be a great place to introduce the idea of intervals to students.
In I’m Not Vain. I’m Just Pretty, part of the “Gizmo: A Quirky Cockatiel” collection, students explore the improvisation from a bird’s perspective. Gizmo is a master improviser & the rhythms within this piece were taken directly from his singing.
While the time signature (5/4) isn’t typical & would require rote teaching, the ‘singing’ sections are all about intervals. Specifically 3rd & 5th intervals. Since these are the most common in earlier levels of music, students seeing them in many formats helps them recognise them later.
All about the intervals
I think at later levels we tend to assume our student know their intervals. Yet, that is when some of your students need the most guidance & practice with them. Especially in those teen “brain pruning” years. What is remembered one week can easily be lost by the next.
I’ve joked with my own teens that they need to inform their brains they need to know more than just their name. For example, their parents names, where they live, & what chores they do each day would be important to save during these pruning sessions. While the chore info tends to get quite fuzzy (I wonder why), I’m quite sure the location of their cell phones & specific video game moves will always be saved as vital information.
Song of Pi is all about intervals. Every interval in this piece is based on Pi, the number. While it was challenging to write in some ways, it was incredibly fascinating to hear what all those 7th & 9th intervals would become! This piece would be the perfect song for someone who likes to geek out (either Math or music theory). Seeing the many locations of each interval can, with guidance, help students visually recognise those intervals in other music as well.
To hear what my version became, listen here or below. To see the music, click here.
Chord reading is something I start my students on quite early & is an integral part of my approach to teaching piano. These forms can be within written music (like the examples above), lead sheets or chord charts. Once students are able to add chords to the music they play, it bumps up the “wow” factor in an impressive way! Rather than give examples of earlier levels (since you’ve already seen those above), let’s focus on later levels.
In Lullaby Of the Snow Fairies, part of the “Snow Fairies Saga”, a feeling of hymn-like reverence is created with 4-note chords. As the song progresses, the chords are explored in a different way.
Lena’s Journey was inspired by a hymn so it’s no surprise that the feel of the piece leans that way. Unlike the previous song though, the chords aren’t presented in a typical hymn format. The chords move quickly & are built between the hands.
Some student may enjoy figuring out what the chord names are. I’m all about what chords feel like under my hands. When I look at music, my hands will often go into the hand position I’m looking at. My students have learnt to memorize hand shapes so they have a hand-eye shortcut for each piece.
When adding chord reading to your approach to teaching piano, see which method your student prefers: analytical, kinesthetic, or a combination of both.
Finding the best approach to teach piano
When I teach week to week, I use each one of these approaches to teach piano to best help my student master their chosen songs.
A master teacher will adapt to the student & the song. I love a chord approach for many songs since it’s part of the foundation of Western music. However, not every song or even every level of student benefits from this. We know that note reading (even focusing on those landmark notes) to the exclusion of everything else isn’t great either.
Finding the best approach is about being flexible in the moment & understanding what will best support your student in that particular song.
Which of the following is your favourite approach to teach piano?
- Rote + Reading (or just rote)
- Note reading with landmark notes
- Intervallic reading
- Chord reading
Let me know in the comments below!
P.S. If you are looking for songs that work well with each specific approach, check out the list below.
Rote + Reading:
- I’m Sam Elite Mouse Hunter: Part of the “Sam’s Life” collection
- The Blizzard
- Snow Fairies Under The Moonlight
- I’m Not Vain. I’m Just Pretty: Part of the “Gizmo: A Quirky Cockatiel” collection
- Song of Pi