Category Archives: method books

Culinary Snobbery & Teaching Flexibility

Confessions of a Culinary Snob
I like to cook. If an ingredient is missing – no worry-improvise! My daughter does me proud by following in my footsteps. We may improvise but we would never, I repeat, NEVER use put cottage cheese in a lasagna, use anything but real butter and avoid Cheese whiz like the plague. My daughter-in-law made the mistake of asking me how to cook “burnt carrots” – a name that does NOT do this vegetable justice. I had to tell her the “real” way. FYI:

1.Peel (or wash) 1 lb carrots (for 2-4 people) and cut length-wise thick roots
2.Cook in a little water 8-10 minutes until tender-crisp. I do this in my pressure cooker and it only takes 1 min under
3.Drain. Pour into an oven-proof dish and toss with 1½ Tbsp butter to coat.
4.Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes (or whatever temp you may be roasting at for something else). Carrots are done
when edges are turning brown. The darker the brown, the sweeter the carrot. Serve warm.

This is such a simple recipe with a big WOW but like my dad would say, “No sugar.” Well, the memories of sage culinary wisdom flooded my mind. I would be sitting in a room while my dad and his brothers were visiting and their verbal parries of cooking comparisons would intensify. But none brought more ammo to the debate than how to cook  the humble yet signature dish of any respectable caterer to Polish weddings – the “Pork-Cabbage” recipe. “You add just a bit of brown sugar” was countered with “Never, it would ruin the balance and you would have to add vinegar!” That discussion once exploded into such deep convictions that my father picked up a loaf of bread (homemade by his mother no less) and threw it at his brother. They all hitched up their pants, and strutted out of the various exits from the dining room. As I grew older, I realized there was little hope for me, for I, too am a culinary snob.
So, garlic bread on my table bears no resemblance to the soggy, artificial loaf wrapped in foil from the store. My breath will bear witness to the authenticity of the garlic in my house!

Flexibility in the Studio

So I am not very flexible in the way I want to cook, but what about the way I teach?

Method Books

Every teacher has his/her pet method books. For some it may be the newest pedagogy backed by trials in teaching studios. Other may prefer the “tried and true” oldies. Some teachers still use the Thompson and Aaron courses of old. I use John W Schaum’s series of “A” book, “B” book, etc. for the majority of my students and lean towards Hal Leonard’s basic course when there are siblings learning in near enough time that learning-by-ear poses a threat to the beginning student’s progress. The Middle C approach seems to fit most students and they develop independence in learning skills and materials that I found lacking in Suzuki transfer students. I give myself credit for standing hours in the music store pouring over materials only to reject most of them for one reason or another. This is usually not because they are bad, but I know how and why I teach Middle C approach. Some progress too slowly and have more eye appeal than progress for me to imagine myself being excited about teaching 5 weeks of one element though it may be perfect for just a certain student needing reinforcement. It’s hard finding the perfect method but that’s why supplemental material abounds.

An aside: Why Middle C is so effective
1.   Most of my first grade students can start in the Primer (Beginning) book and learn staff reading after 2-4 weeks.
2.   It starts with one homing point. It doesn’t matter pupils are playing off of any “C” on the keyboard, they are all still “C”. I have my
students playing hand-over hand “C” arpeggios by the second or third lesson.
3.   Relationships between “C” and other notes are quickly established both visually and mechanically.
4.   The eye has a chance to gradually read an expanding Grand Staff.
5.   Many familiar songs can be introduced with this method.

It might be good to discuss my encounters with other approaches in future visits.


So, where I teach has been very flexible. Like many new piano teachers, I traveled to the student’s homes like Mr. Ernest St. Jacques taught my sister and myself. The advantages were I didn’t have to disrupt our family in our teeny tiny house and I got to see what my student were practicing on. This, at times, was very enlightening. There was one place, though, that few of my peers can say they taught. One of my students wanted to learn the organ but on the instrument she could practice on and would be called to play on. So off I went to teach her in a cemetery/crematorium. There we would be, reviewing her foot drills and one of the staff would roll another cardboard box up the chapel aisle in line to be cremated. I was hard put to assign her some of the music that normally came to my mind.

There were a few other times I was flexible in my approach in the studio but I’ll save it to another day. Until then, Be Flexible!

Do more with Chords, Time & What to practice

Using Chords Differently in Improvisation.

It’s the last day of February and I left my readers in Impro Limbo. So check out the next step in my Improvisation pages.

Time and responsibility

A dear friend of mine, Sandy, lost her husband. JD’s heart gave out and he went to be with his Savior Saturday. Though they are in their 80’s, there was no age barrier – no matter what the age of the person they spent time with. Time. We all have it. We all have a limited amount of it. The “trick” to making the most of it is to know when it runs out. The trouble is, you never really know when life stops here and we become accountable to our Creator. These are sobering thoughts, but we must have been bad enough for God to send His Son to pay our sin’s penalty on the cross. The only uplifting thought in all this is Christ arose! And because of that, we too can live for eternity with Him – or without Him. It’s our choice. The freedom of choice. Freedom always brings responsibility. So, how will you use your time and responsibility?

What to Practice
So as a piano teacher, one of the most important “jobs” I have is to teach each student how use use their time effectively when they practice. Students are different and learn in various ways, but I usually find the following formula to work for the majority of pianist:

Warm up with a favorite. You would think it would be scales and such, but
playing favorites improves pianistic expression and puts the player ion the mood.

Play drills, scales, etc. Play them 3 or more times each to improve dexterity (quickness and accuracy). Play them in various ways like loudly, staccato, crossed hands, octaves apart, with either a crescendo or diminuendo, ritardendo or accelerendo. Think of them as as foes to conquer or friends to enjoy, but play them!

Play the method book assignment. Learn the new skills in these books and the repertoire will be easier to learn.

Play other repertoire. If a song is really disliked, I would probably suggest you play it before the method books. Nothing like getting the spinach of the plate and ending with the brownie.

Play other keyboard assignments and more favorites. Explore interval sounds and chord progressions. Make up a tune. Have fun!

Do written work whenever possible. Theory and Harmony assignments help the student understand musical construction and read notation quicker.

Does your teacher assign from the four areas (drills, method, repertoire, written work) plus favorites? Do you as a teacher use these groups? Try it and let me know what you like to do.

When Do You Dump the Method Books?

Michael Peterson Going to State!

I lie in bed fighting off the bronchitis that followed my case of flu and suddenly the phone rang. It was Michael calling to tell me he placed a rating of #1 at the KSHAA District Competition at Winfield, KS. I wish I could have been there. He said he was rather nervous, but he pulled through with a fine performance of Chopin’s E flat Nocturne. It may be a bit overdone, the piece, but he wanted to do it and he learned it well, so I figured experience is sometimes more valuable than running with the strategy for trophies. So Michael encountered his first judge. I await to read the comments. We both prepare for the next level.

Love vs Tradition (and Method books)

Michael came to me two years ago. The shy, soft-spoken young man whose mannerisms try to hide a good intellect and the uncommon sensitivity rarely seen today almost hid his love for music. It took me a few months to see the awe and joy on his face created by the mystical sound of a deceptive cadence. As a beginning piano student, I was determined to get him to read and play the grand staff notation and grow in hands-together coördination, but his love for music and the drive to move on made me finally abandon the method books. When is it wise to set aside the “normal” curriculum?

The more experienced teacher will be sensitive to cues of boredom and frustration and quickly adjust materials to keep interest up. This is common and I did as much when I showed my grandson some level 3 jazz to bribe him to continue lessons. (We should probably explore teachers’ motives in the future). Michael, however, was wanting to play classical and specifically Mozart’s Alla Turka with less than just one year of lessons. So I decided to only use original versions and went with the following:

Hanon                  selected exercises, arpeggios and interval runs

Chopin                 A minor waltz

Joplin                   Maple Leaf Rag

Clementi              Sonatina in G major

Mozart                 Alla Turka Rondo

Burgmueller       Ballade

Bach                       Musette in D major

Beethoven           C sharp min (Moonlight) Sonata, 1st mov.

Bach                        Invention in F major

Rachmaninoff     Op 3. No 2 (C sharp min Prelude)

Chopin                   Op 9 No 2 (E flat Nocturne)

So after he did one movement of Clementi, I let him play the original Mozart and he did it well. He played it with the Maple Leaf Rag for the studio recital and did just fantastic. He is a senior this year, so you see we were up against the clock, so to speak, and he wanted to try at least one competition. So in addition to some lessons in improvisation, drills in sight-reading a lot of technique and theory, and a couple of fun songs (Super Mario’s soundtrack music), I’d say he’s building a well-rounded repertoire and still maintaining his love and interest in music in spite of the lessons in Common Chords and Harmonizing a Melody. If I had more time, maybe some Schubert or Debussy and more Baroque…..

I am interested to hear from other teachers who had to throw out the method books very early and really customize the lesson plan.