Music Teacher's Helper Blog

I Will Not Teach Piano Without These Books: A Review of Piano Partners

I can’t even imagine starting a new student without using Bernard Shaak’s Piano Partners series. This set of three books helps me lay a solid foundation for everything that is to come.

The Piano Partners books were initially developed in the studio of master teachers Bernard and Carolyn Shaak, in Denver, Colorado, as they team-taught for many years until Bernard died unexpectedly. Carolyn would teach the children, while Bernie would teach the parent the same lesson in an adjoining studio, enabling the parent to continue the lessons throughout the week at home, thus truly becoming “piano partners.” The wopianopartners3 pianopartners2 pianopartners1nderful parent/child duets throughout the books made this an exciting experience.

Right from the start, book one, the “pink” book, interests the student in the geography of the keyboard. They learn very quickly how to navigate around the black key groups. Peter, Peter on the black keys sends them home from their very first lesson with a real song under their fingers. Soon they are learning verses to I Love Coffee and they are hooked on piano!

Nine rhythm patterns throughout the first book give students not only the opportunity to get these rhythms in their head and fingers, but also provide the perfect opportunity to develop hand and thumb position, work on strong finger joints, learn to feel the arm behind each note, use their wrist appropriately, practice with a steady beat, and listen to their tone quality. All the beginning pieces use a non-legato touch so that arm weight can be fully experienced.

I feel that this time to develop solid foundational technique apart from the reading process is critical. I find myself more and more moving away from the piano briefly to teach technique when possible, so that the focus is solely on one skill at a time. It seems like kids don’t like to stop playing sounds long enough to care about the angle of their thumb, but if there is no sound to be made, they can focus on my instructions.

The first lesson also includes a black key improvisation exercise. Students learn right away that they can speak and create their own thoughts in music, not just repeat the creations of others. All of the black key improvisations are set up as parent-student duets, with a very simple secondo part any parent can easily learn. The parent is not only taking the part of a metronome to develop the sense of pulse, but also getting involved directly in the learning process. As the student progresses through the pink book, the duets become more sophisticated, and incorporate the language and tools of composition.

The most motivating thing to any person is success! With the Piano Partners books, every student, musically talented or musically challenged, feels a great motivating pride in what they have accomplished. Students who pick up things more quickly, move through the books more quickly. Students with special needs or those with difficulty learning patterns or controlling fine motor actions with their fingers move more slowly, but they get there! And they get there feeling great about themselves and what they were able to accomplish.

Moving into book two, the “blue” book, students are well into understanding the basic structure of music, based on scales and the chords of each scale, starting with the primary chords. Scales are fun to play when they are disguised as a song. Five finger scales are used to start. This book also gives students much opportunity to work on balance between the hands. The melodies and accompaniments are so well conceived that students can use them to model their own compositions and improvisations. The strong patterns also make all of these pieces easy to memorize and transpose. This ease of memorization gives the student confidence in their ability to memorize, so critical in the coming years.

There is no fear of becoming fixated on “middle C” with the Shaak books. In the blue book the first song learned is later transposed into all 12 major keys. The students find this easy because they have the pattern under their fingers. All the major and minor chords are taught, having the student play them around the circle of fifths. In my studio we have a book to record the fastest times to accomplish this feat. By the time students have practiced these enough to be competitive, they have the feel of these chords strongly under their fingers, can use them in their own compositions, and are not afraid to meet them in other music. I can never understand how a transfer student can have had three years of piano lessons and look at me blankly when I ask them to play a G chord. That would never happen with a Piano Partners student.

The pieces in the blue book are easy to use with the metronome and I like the fact that students develop a strong sense of rhythm before they have to read it in notation. (Carolyn Shaak is also a genius at developing games and activities that reinforce the mood and rhythmic pulse of a piece away from the piano.)

The Piano Partners books compliment any teaching style and any method book series. The Shaaks have developed Reading, Writing and Rhythm books to start the reading process, but I usually just transition the student into a method book, such as Faber or Alfred. I like to introduce reading at the end of the pink book, as the student is starting the blue book. Strong readers will just take off at this point. Weak readers and those with vision problems can keep going strong and feeling confident in the blue book while they take the time they need in the reading books.

Toward the middle or end of the blue book you can also branch into the Shaak “Events” books which contain exciting recital pieces. “Spanish Dance” in the red Events book is an all-time favorite with every student.

A foundation in the Piano Partners books is great preparation for learning to play any style of music, from classical, to jazz, or pop. It is also wonderful preparation for learning to play with lead lines and add improvisation to other pieces. Once you know your keyboard geography, scales, and chords so well, it gives you a giant boost in any direction you want to go.

I am encouraging Carolyn Shaak to make a DVD series about how much can be taught with these books, because you can’t always tell from the few markings in the book how many ways the piece may be used, for example teaching rotation in Inch Worm, or hand independence in Hoe-Down.

The final book in the series is the “purple” book, where songs are transposed through the 12 minor keys, chord inversions are introduced, and some more exciting duets are included.

I had the unique opportunity of watching both Shaaks in their studio as they taught these pieces, then attending many workshops by Carolyn Shaak, and also spending time with her in her studio. There is no end to her creativity or the depth of what she can put into a single lesson. I have no financial interest in the sale of these books, I just can’t imagine teaching without them! You can check out http://www.shaakpianomusic.com for ordering information and to see more of the Shaak materials.

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1 Comment

  1. Jean

    I like reading what materials others use and why. Thanks for sharing! I will check out these materials as I agree that scales and chords should be taught early and some truly wonderful series do not.

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