Posted Sep 2, 2016 by Brian Jenkins - 9 Comments

Piano Safari: Teach Piano Playing Not Just Reading

Piano Safari: Teach Piano Playing Not Just Reading

When I began teaching piano, I was adamant that the method books that were available were not as good as something I could teach on my own. After a few months, I realized I was wrong. Trying to create my own method was not complete enough, and I ended up all over the place with my students. I finally gave in and experimented with the big three: Bastien, Alfred, and Faber.

The Problem with the Big Three

I finally settled on Faber, and I have been using it ever since. I’ve never been overly excited about teaching from it though. Something seems off. The music is not fun, and students seem to have a hard time learning to read from these books. I’ve worked a bit on trying to incorporate some of my own style and ideas into these books to help supplement them to the point of being usable, but I’ve always been rather unhappy with the results. I try to get the students out of the method books and on to simple classical music as soon as possible. For me personally, this is where I thrive as a teacher.

Where Piano Safari is Different

Recently I came across a method book that is different from the rest. Most method books start and end on reading alone. That’s exactly how most of us learned the piano. It makes sense that that is how we should teach it to our students. Piano Safari does teach reading, make no mistake, but it has perhaps more of a focus on getting the child to play the piano first. I’ve found this to be much more effective than just learning to read in isolation.

Teaching By Rote

One of my favorite first students when I began teaching piano was a young child with Autism. His name was Alex. Communication was difficult, and since I had not had any experience with children with special needs, I assumed that most of what I was teaching he could not comprehend. I learned later that he was plenty smart enough (perhaps at a prodigious level) to understand what I was teaching, but I thought it best to start teaching him by rote. If you’re not familiar with teaching by rote, it just means that the student imitates what the teacher plays for them.

As I taught Alex by rote, he quickly learned music that would have been many levels higher than a student would have learned with his level of experience by reading. He memorized the music we learned, and he played it extremely well. He was excited about it, and he played it for his parents all of the time. His parents were impressed, and I kept teaching this way for months and months. He learned a lot of music and he played it all pretty well.

Piano Safari and Learning by Rote

When I found that Piano Safari taught music by rote, I was immediately interested. Piano Safari focuses teaching by rote in conjunction with reading music. Learning by rote keeps the kids interested, because immediately they are playing music that is actually interesting! It’s so hard to get kids to practice when they are playing horribly boring music. Piano Safari really shines through with their well composed and interesting music.

Learning by rote doesn’t just help the students have more fun playing, they develop a better ear, memory, and technique than they would by reading alone. Too often all we focus on as teachers is reading the music. We sometimes forget that learning an instrument should be about playing music.

Learning to Read is Easier through Piano Safari

Although playing pieces by rote is emphasized with this method, that does not mean they exclude reading altogether. Piano Safari first introduces reading the black keys without a staff, it then adds the white keys, then white keys with letter names, and finally intervals on a staff. I’ve found that students that work through the rote pieces have a more stable foundation of technique and familiarity with the keyboard than students who do not. This familiarity lends itself well to learning to read music. It seems to come much easier to students who learn through this method.

The pieces that are taught by reading are much easier than the pieces the student has already learned by rote. Because of this, the students seem to be less frustrated and they seem to work harder on the music that teaches them to read.

How Do Students Practice Rote Pieces?

When I first got the book, I was a little concerned on what I would have students practice throughout the week. The people at Piano Safari have thought this through. They created videos available at their website that go through each rote piece in the book, so that students can practice at home. Students can even move on to learn other rote pieces that you haven’t worked with them on. It’s fun, and I’ve found that kids really love it.

Improvisation

If you are a classically trained pianist, you probably haven’t worked a lot on improvisation growing up. I never learned to improvise or play by ear, and it’s actually pretty sad. I’ve devoted my entire life to music, and yet sometimes I find myself coveting the freedom a jazz musician has at the piano. I don’t want my students to have this same deficiency, so I’m personally working on becoming a better improviser. Piano Safari includes some exercises where the student can improvise as well. For a lot of my students I have found this to be one of the funnest parts of lessons. They are written as duets, with the teacher’s part written out (luckily for me). After playing a lot of pieces by rote, I’ve found that students thrive with the improvisations as well.

Use Two Methods

I personally don’t see any reason why you would need a different method other than Piano Safari for any beginning students, but if you really don’t want to give up the traditional method books, I would urge you to look into Piano Safari’s supplemental technical exercises & rote pieces. This book contains just the rote pieces and technical exercises from the repertoire book. With this book, you can continue teaching using your preferred method, and still add in some rote pieces. I bet you’ll find that they work so well, though, that you’ll buy the main repertoire book and stop using your old book moving forward.

Conclusion

If you’re a professional piano teacher, and you haven’t looked into Piano Safari, you should. It will open your eyes to a new way of teaching. It will make you and your students better musicians. If you’ve used Piano Safari to teach before, let us know about your experience with it in the comments!

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