The problem with piano methods
If you are a piano teacher – or a piano parent – from the 1980’s on, chances are you have been using one of many piano methods that are circulating in great abundance. No matter which one you pick up, they are colourful, full of pictures, teacher suggestions, practice suggestions, they come with a variety of supplemental books for ear-training, technique, duets and so on. They look appealing to young students; they seem to be everything you need to provide a well-rounded music education and they are filled with little compositions written in 5-finger positions to make it easier for your students to learn their notes and play their songs. So, what’s the problem?
I, too, was drawn in by such methods when I first started teaching. And, at first, I couldn’t see the problem with them either. When my students’ hands were stiff as a rock, no matter how much I pleaded, showed them how to relax their arms, I began blaming myself. When their sound production was poor at best, I thought it was a problem with my way of explaining what they needed to listen for. When they couldn’t sight-read the simplest of material, I thought it was because they simply didn’t understand what I was telling them. I completely lost my confidence in myself, so when the financial crisis hit Cyprus and parents just couldn’t afford lessons any more, as they quit, so did I. I went into a different line of work, thinking that I couldn’t cut it anyway.
When a friend asked me to teach her daughter, I went back to the familiar 5-finger position teaching method. I knew this child. I loved her and she loved me, and we had spent countless hours playing together, talking, I was her “auntie” and she would do anything to please me (as children do). Still, she was unmotivated, didn’t want to practice at home, and I struggled with imparting a good, healthy basic technique. But I was not giving up on her, no way. There had to be something I was missing. And then it hit me: the 5-finger position was working against me!
When playing, we need to adopt a natural hand position, one that is aided and aid the relaxation of the whole arm. But there is nothing natural about trying to make five fingers, all of different length, sit relaxed on five keys of the same exact length and height. The hand, wrist and arm need to learn to move to accommodate relaxation; I was asking these children to lock their hands in a fixed position and then relax. In essence, I was giving them conflicting instructions. That was when I decided to give up on the methods instead of giving up on my students and myself.
I had decided I was going to create my own method. I was going to go back into the teaching styles of Beethoven and his students, free the hand of any sort of positioning and allow it to flow freely, using only the third finger to begin with, the longest, strongest finger which sits squarely in the middle of the arm. I had decided that I was going to turn it into a fairy tale with different characters all related to the different concepts I wanted to teach so I began a long research for inspiration. That was when I came across Tales of a Musical Journey by Irina Gorin.
This book seemed to be everything I was planning to create. I ordered it, and that was the end of my research on the matter! Now, my students have free, relaxed hands and arms, they can focus on the sound quality and they can sight-read, as they never learned to associate number fingers with notes, making reading them “too much of a hustle to bother trying”. They progress more slowly in the beginning, as they need to learn all of the components of the music which they see in front of them. But once the initial stages have passed, they are unstoppable! This method has worked wonders for my 4-year-old as well as my 9-year-old beginners. It has also worked wonders for my self-esteem. I now know that the problem was not in me, but in the tools I had tried to use to get the job done.
Disclaimer: this is in no way a paid endorsement. I believe deeply in this piano method, as well as its author, who has made it her mission to rid the world of damaging piano technique and superficial piano teaching, providing a much better alternative for teachers all over the world.
It is said that music is the mother of all arts. It is also said that the piano is the king of all musical instruments. I have dedicated my life to the music of the piano. I have studied -and practiced- how to play it, how to teach it, how not to teach it, as well as the physical, mental, emotional and cognitive effects it can have on the human brain. I now feel it is time for me to share all I have learned. I am Eleni Zeniou and I am a piano teacher.