My New Teaching Method An In-Depth Look at the Method and Philosophy Behind It

After years of accepting transfer students who wanted to learn classical, jazz, popular music and composing; I realized that much of the information they wanted to know was in the music they already knew how to play. Somehow the information they had accumulated paralyzed them when it came to “creating” their own sounds – even when playing written music. They were either overwhelmed by all the options or going through their mental checklists of everything they were supposed to do to play “correctly”.

teaching metho

This experience with my advanced students and the changes in my approach with them led me to teach beginners differently. I would write pieces for them each week that aimed to help them to see patterns, shapes and devices that made up the music. In my mind, I was thinking about all the concepts they would need to know to play classical music, jazz, pop, hip hop, country and everything else I could think of – at the highest level possible… And create their own versions of that music with their own creative voice when the time came.

After 10+ years of writing and testing music and coming up with games during the lessons based on current brain science and education psychology research; this method is the result.

It was obvious I couldn’t solely release this particular group of pieces as sheet music or traditional method books. I had to create a support system for teachers so that they could learn the concepts and build a foundation that may not have been established in their own musical upbringing. Soon there will be a membership website that includes 10+ hours (as of today) of training videos that literally take teachers from one piece to the next, five hours of accompaniment tracks for each piece at various tempos, 20 written pages of learning activities that can be used along the way, instructions for games, a database to enter assignments and keep track of the progress of each student or class and a way to share our successes or problem areas with other teachers. The site will always be expanding as I create, test and edit new material.

This method can be used with any instrument as the main method or a supplement. It can be used in private lessons, small groups, school music classes, non-profit music programs – including band, orchestra, beat making, production, composition or choir. Despite the book covers and song titles being very playful, there have been adult students who have benefited from the content as well as kids from ages 4 and up.

The basic idea behind this method is that it’s about playing. Students learn to play first and foremost. This method is about experiential learning. There will never be paralysis due to analysis. There is only one book per level. The books only have music in them – there is no written instruction. The music is written in a way so that they can always “get it” on their own after a lesson. Even when they’re four years old and have only had one lesson.

They are asked to move quickly through as much music as possible – playing the music in as many ways as possible for their level. Students are always practicing four pieces at a time. Along the way they accumulate concept upon concept that they can apply as they get more engaged in listening to various types of music.

This method merges ear training and sight reading. It is designed to keep students becoming either strong ear players or sight readers – they can and should be strong at both to enjoy playing music to their potential. There are a series of games specifically developed and tested for the purpose of merging ears and eyes based on years of integrating brain-science research and education psychology.

Card Game Image

Here are the nuts and bolts (if you’re getting this via email and can’t see the images or embedded videos – click here)…

Let’s say a student has taken a certain amount of music lessons and this was the piece they were working on. Scale concepts, phrasing, dynamics, balance, articulations are a few of the main learning targets involved. (Press “Play” and take a listen)

We’ve all been the student or had students who learn a piece like the one above and pause between line breaks or when we play something we don’t like. We don’t listen to ourselves at times and lose track of our own sound, tone and groove – playing too fast or slow along the way.

After much experimenting, I realized that students listen to themselves way more when they have to also listen to other people. I decided to always have layers happening in the lessons and pieces. Students would be asked not to just learn the “piece” above, but three other pieces that could be played simultaneously. These other “pieces” are actually parts to a bigger picture. And they introduce and reinforce concepts that are unique to their part (most of the time).

Take a listen to all four (or eight parts on single-note instruments) at the same time:

You can hear and see how one part works on chords and arpeggios, one part is mostly unison between the hands, one part has left-hand chords and right-hand melody along with the part you first heard – which is pretty scale-heavy. In private lessons, students and teachers should always be trading parts. In group lessons or classes – everyone learns all the parts and are always trading parts around the room.

This sample is from the sixth and final book of the method. It will be released in 2017. We’ve found that piano students can easily transition to Bach Inventions and Sonatinas after this group of pieces. Sometimes if students started really early and are still really young when finishing all the pieces, we have transitioned them into the late-beginning piano repertoire or early-intermediate. Band, choir and orchestra students can apply the concepts to repertoire from Baroque to jazz to theater to pop.

This is how we got to the piece above starting in Level 1 – “Musical Monsters”:

Illustration by Rebecca West

Illustration by Rebecca West

Everything in this method begins with relationships. The student, teacher and parent relationships are covered in multiple training videos in the membership site for teachers. But the musical relationships between rhythms and notes are what makes this quick to grasp for the students. Imagine being a band teacher and never having to talk transposition because every student knew what tonic was in concert and how to find the notes on their horns because of that context. This is what this method is about.

A 1/4 note means nothing isolated. It only means something when it’s in the context of other 1/4 notes, or 1/8th notes, 1/16th notes or whole notes. To teach a 1/4 note and how it relates to a 1/2 note is the exact same thing as teaching a 1/16th note and how it relates to an 1/8th note. There is no reason for a student to struggle with a dotted-1/8th-1/16th-note rhythm if they can play a dotted-1/2-note-1/4-note rhythm if we approach everything from a relationship perspective.

This works the same for pitches. If tonic is “do” – then “re” means something to both our eyes and ears – it has it’s own personality because of it’s relationship to tonic. Instead of it just being “D” or “G” or “Bb” or any other pitch.

Level 1 moves the students quickly through melodies and harmonies using 3-note melodies – do, re and mi. They eventually learn counterpoint pieces using these 3-note melodies to develop their independence and 2-staff reading (when applicable to their instrument). 1/4 note, 1/2 note and whole note combinations are used throughout.

A 1-line staff is used throughout this level so they can be making music as quickly as possible. “Do” is below the line. “Re” is on the line. “Mi” sits above the line. This excerpt is from a two-page spread in the student book:

grumpy lump 1 grumpy lump 2

 

Here is the full score with the practice tracks. The melody here is “The Grumpy Lump” part. “Page 8” on the score refers to the page number in the students’ books. This is in concert F# (press “Play” to listen):

Notice that all four “pieces” above can be played simultaneously – it’s this way through all six books.

Here is a set of pieces that help students play and identify harmonic intervals within the “do, re, mi” groupings:pass aroundpass around 2

Here is the teacher score with the accompaniment for “Pass Around” – also in F# concert:

This is a training video that accompanies the “Pass Around” ensemble above. The membership site has at least one of these (and often many more) for each group of pieces in the method:

Just like when young children begin to color, we encourage them no matter what they create. We have “Compose a Little” blank staves through the books. In the beginning we support whatever they bring in. Then we eventually start asking them to stay within a time signature, or have the stems go the correct direction, or write pieces that have two or more parts at the same time. Here is an example from Level 1:Compose a Little Book 1

bOOK_2_insert

In Level 2 the palette of notes is expanded to 5-note melodies using “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol” combinations. There are more advanced rhythms including 1/8th notes and rests. There is more involved counterpoint between the parts and independence between these parts is emphasized. A two-line staff is used so teachers have maximum amount of flexibility to push students into musicianship elements that are typically reserved for more advanced players. For example, this is a four-page sample of pieces in the student book:Working Together Ens

Cool Cats

oom pah

step and dance

As a teacher, you may have them learn this set in C Major. This is the practice accompaniment for “Working Together” with the score – take a listen:

Now let’s say that you wanted your students to change all the “Mi’s” and lower them by a half step to make their parts minor… They can look at the same music and not have to be bogged down with key signatures and symbols. The goal for this method is for them to have students experience and feel everything first and then “put a name to the face”. This is what it would sound like with four pianists playing this ensemble in C-minor:

Many students over they years started calling these passes the “Halloween Version”. So sometimes in lessons or in a class of little kids I’ll simply say, “Play it first time as written, then we do a repeat as the “Halloween Version”. They all can do this on the first try.

Here is another piece in Level 2. They learn all four parts or pieces in one week and it would sound like this in C Major (this is the “Bouncing” part):

Then you simply ask the student or class to change “Do” to Eb. Once they find what that means (this is in the training videos), “Bouncing” now sounds like this:

Jurassic_Rock_7.15.15

Level 3 introduces more musical elements and symbols to the page. Students are expected to focus on tone, balance, phrasing, articulations, dynamics while continuing the work they did in the previous books on reading, technique, rhythm and melodies.

Here is a two-page excerpt from the student book:

squeaky queen

squeaky queen 2

Here is the accompaniment for “Squeaky Queen” in C Major:

Once again, students are learning about notation, theory and many other concepts by writing their own pieces on included staves:

compose your own bk 2

B4-Insert

The music in Level 4 can get really advanced for young students. The transition to late beginner and early intermediate repertoire could possibly happen after this book for older students or more advanced students. Although Levels 5 & 6 help the transition to be more thourough.

Students are asked to become more adept with phrasing, dynamics, balance, tone and technique in this book. The counterpoint becomes more advanced as well.

Here is a group of pieces from the Level 4 student book:Looking both ways 1

looking both ways 2

Here is “Looking Both Ways” in C Major with the accompaniment track:

As a teacher, the sky is the limit as far as how we utilize the material. The only limit is our creativity. Let’s say you wanted the students to be able to do the “trills” on “The Little Machine” and “Jump and Run” with half steps instead of whole steps to expand their technique.

Let’s change all the parts to C Phrygian:

Now let’s have them play it in C Lydian so that the 1/2 steps are between the 4th and 5th scale degrees (I always make them sing this first by the way):

Now they should practice their transposition… Let’s do this in G Major:

Now they know the G Major scale… By combining G Major with C Lydian, they now know the nooks and crannies of the G Major scale. And they can make music with different parts of the scales so when they play a Beethoven piece in G Major, or get in their jazz band, or begin to compose more seriously or play the latest Taylor Swift song – they will have played music in those note groupings and shapes before and the experience of learning the pieces in various modes and scales will save them a ton of time.

This gets really fun and creative as a teacher. The openness of this allows you to essentially be the conductor, arranger and composer at each lesson – using the music on the written page as a conduit to your musical and teaching goals.

Level 5 (coming soon)

Level 5 starts with four easy ensembles so we can transition as quickly as possible to the treble and bass clefs. The transition from two lines to five lines is really easy – the training videos address this in detail with activities and points of emphasis. But in short, we keep all the verbiage the same as the previous level. We simply find “Do” from the key signatures – and then they’re off and running. They are very much at home with extreme ledger lines, all 12 keys and all the musical concepts and variations they’ve already played.

Here is a piece from Level 5 called “Fiddler’s Tune”:

Here are all four parts at the same time:

 

By learning all four or eight of these parts, students become confident on many fronts as players. And it’s really fun for them to see their hard worked rewarded by playing through the parts with other players their age or ability or simply trading parts with their teacher.

The method is now available through this site. Click here to purchase materials.

  • Sue

    So Michael what would this look like if you don’t teach group lessons? Lots of recording parts/teacher duets.. ? 🙂

    • Hi Sue. It was never really intended to be a group piano method. It works great for that since each student can be on their own part. But each part is a different technique. Teachers will play one of the other parts or condense the score to make a new part or simply improvise a part to play along with the students. The practice tracks work great too. I’m not sure if you’ve done the membership site yet, but there are a lot of details on how to link the duets/teacher duets to the games built in to the lessons based on brain science research. Once they hit level 2 and beyond, each part can work as a short solo piece. It’s actually been used a lot more in private lessons than groups over the past couple of years. Personally, I feel the key is the set of games used to keep the students on their toes and seeing/experiencing new and challenging ways to play the pieces. I’ve even used these with my most advanced students. The training videos in the membership area get into it pretty in depth. I hope this answers the question.