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Why Most Music Method Books are not good

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The Challenges Of Teaching Pre-literate Preschool Music Students

“Most music method books are confusing, cluttered, and just plain suck!”

If you take a look at the way traditional music publishers present information, it makes little sense. There’s too much visual noise on the page, along with confusing notes intended for different audiences. Nevertheless, this is how so many music teachers begin the first lesson with their students.

Music As A Visual Design Problem

About 10 years ago, my son began to express some interest in learning to play the piano. Even though I had been teaching music on and off since a teenager, I had never taught a young preschooler music. At the time, I was heavily involved as an information architect and web designer. I’d spent over a decade at the forefront of the industry, even co-founding the first digital marketing agency in Asia. So initially I tried to find a teacher with experience in this age group. To my surprise there were none, outside of a Suzuki program which was far too stringent. They wanted me to take two lessons per week, alongside my son’s two lessons. Not to mention, I needed to commit to purchasing an acoustic piano. It just seemed out of touch with the demands of modern parents.  

I realized there was a gap in the market. It’s not very hard to find a “Mommy and Me” type music program for 1 to 3 year olds. But hardly any music teacher was willing to take on a private music student before age 6; and sometimes 8!    

I finally gave in and decide to teach him myself. I began diving back into textbooks from my studies at the NYU music education program. This opened the door to a long acquisition and review process; involving method books from bookstores, neighbors, friends, and of course the library. However, most of what I found was rather disappointing.  

Multiple Audiences On A Single Page

It seems publishers put out books that are trying to communicate different things to different audiences simultaneously: teachers, parents, and students.

But these three audiences have very different needs.

  1. The teacher wants to understand what it is they are expected to explain. Whether it’s a new piece, a new technique, or a new concept.  
  2. The parent wants to be able to understand the goal of the lesson, and be able to help their child practice at home.
  3. The student (as in my case…a preschooler) is simply trying to remember what they were shown in the lesson. The printed page is nothing more than a mnemonic device to bring back the lesson.

To communicate clearly, one first needs to be cognizant of the audience. It is imperative they communicate to them in a clear and concise manner, without any unnecessary distractions. This same rule applies whether you are speaking to an adult audience or preschool age children.  

Because publishers are often trying to save on printing costs, they cram all of this information onto a single page. The end results of these methods are that, no single audience feels completely satisfied.

Example of Confusing Method Book

An example of a music method book where multiple audiences are being addressed. Are you confused yet?  Note: I tried to use this book with my son, so pardon the stickers.

Visual Design Matters

Information designers working in public transportation, have a much higher standard than music publishers. Their communication has to be clear, concise and understandable. Confusing signage can lead to accidents and even death. Luckily, we as music teachers are not in life or death situations with our lesson plans! But the same visual communication principles need to apply.  

As music teachers, we are creative and no matter how bad your handwriting or drawing skills are, you can communicate a lot through a single page.  I often will hand draw a music notation for a song we make up right on the spot.  Because the music is being created right before their eyes and ears, there is a natural curiosity and engagement.  My students love to see my doodles, even if they are just silhouetted stick figures or especially when they come out pretty bad and we all get a big laugh.  Still, they always remember this piece as they experienced it’s creation.

And, if you pay attention to not trying to address multiple audiences, but really hone in on the student in front of you, then you are miles ahead in effectiveness and transfer of knowledge.

Teaching preschoolers and children with specialized learning styles and needs as made me so aware of seeing things through their eyes.  It is okay to leave a lot of blank space.  In fact, it’s necessary.  Keep it short and simple.

Another thing, make it large!  I print out giant scores using Sibelius where only 4 measures are on a page.  Or I hand draw a simple piece in my unique color notation.   A song like Hot Cross Buns is an ideal length for most preschool children’s first or second lesson.

Music Should Be For Everyone

Music is a joy, and the expression of spirit is deep within us. It shouldn’t just be exclusively for those who attend conservatory. Neither should it be a “required suffering” before you get to the good (fun) stuff. So many times, I’ve had parents of my students tell me “I wish I had you as my teacher when I was a music student…you make it seem so fun and simple”.  

What do you think?  Do you experience similar frustrations with method books?  I welcome your questions and comments below.

About the Author

Andrew Ingkavet
Andrew Ingkavet believes that learning a musical instrument builds skills vital to success in life which has led to a thriving music school in Brooklyn, NY. Andrew supports music teachers with the Musicolor Method®, an online curriculum/training as well as 5 star-rated book, The Game of Practice: with 53 Tips to Make Pr... [Read more]

11 Comments

  1. Carla Anderson

    Do you have any YouTube videos or more info on what this looks like exactly? I totally agree with you! I’ve settled on My First Piano Adventure for my youngest students as the best option for the preschooler age group, but would love other specific teaching ideas.

  2. Andrew Ingkavet

    Hi Carla, I am finishing the production of a training course at the moment with my initial group of teaching fellows. The course should reopen again in a few months. Also, I plan on releasing an ebook that offers an overview of the method and will be posting blog videos as well. If you register at the site, you’ll be updated via the email list. Thanks for your interest!

  3. Ariel Lee

    Have you tried before Alfred’s Music for Little Mozarts or Hal Leonard’s My First Piano Adventure for the young beginner? I am currently using those books and feel good about it 🙂

  4. Andrew Ingkavet

    Hi Ariel, I do use other method books, but feel that none started at the true ground zero. I have explored so many method books over the years and am will introduce the Faber’s Piano Adventures Primer in conjunction with the Musicolor Method™ after about 8 weeks. Also note, this is with 4 year olds. With older or younger the timing changes greatly.

  5. Mary Jakovac

    Totally agree with you Andrew! I’ve ended up publishing my own little book for this reason! Better to have more pages with lots of space covering the same amount of content. Information overload for everyone (teacher, parent and student) otherwise!

  6. Sharon Wise Maynard

    I teach Music for Young Children. It is a mommy (or daddy) and child piano based music class for up to 6 child participants per class. I just started with this curriculum this year, but am totally sold on how well it teaches all aspects of music, not just piano. We sing, do solfege, learn melodic and rhythmic patterns and take dictation, have homework and ear training pages and yes, we do learn to play the piano.

  7. Natalie Weber

    Yes, I can definitely relate! After teaching for 15 years and trying just about every method on the market, I couldn’t find anything that was quite right. But then a couple of teachers designed and self-published a new method that has completely transformed my teaching! I love that it starts right in with rote playing to develop technique and musicality while simultaneously building excellent rhythm and reading skills. It’s called Piano Safari. Have you heard of it? It’s not an “out-of-the-box” method that you can just open on the piano rack and start going through with the student. You have to take time to go through the teacher’s guide and watch some of the teaching videos to fully understand and appreciate the approach, but it is SO worth it! The kids (and I!) love the music, they learn quickly, and they build a great foundation to become excellent pianists. I know I sound like an infomercial, but Ineoukd love to see more teachers and students benefit from such a great method!

  8. Andrew Ingkavet

    Glad to hear that you both found something that works Natalie and Sharon. What I ended up doing was creating my own method which is now in beta testing by some teachers. It features 6 stages of unique musicolor notation that brings the child towards learning to read on traditional notation, but in a gradual and very child-centered manner. You can learn more at my website.

  9. Mary Gray

    Here’s another vote for Piano Safari. It’s truly worth checking out. Some other choices for private lessons are: Wunderkeys and Pianofonics. Both of these avoid the problems you have mentioned that most methods present. A very comprehensive preschool piano group class method is “Let’s Play Music”. Visit the websites, and enjoy the discoveries!

  10. Trevor Davies

    I have reached the same conclusion as you about music tutor books. But I have found Piano Adventures meets the need pretty well. The pupil books are definitely for the pupil and there is supportive info on their website. Furthermore, they successfully address the issues of appropriate motor skills for pre-readers.
    I have also written a colour system which worked well until I tried to wean pupils onto conventional notation.
    I get over a lot of problems by using Synthesia which provides pupils with clear guidance on pitch, rhythm and fingering.
    If you think piano methods are pitched over pupils’ heads, try Ukulele books!
    Good luck with it all!

  11. AmandaN

    I just started teaching private music lessons, after teaching elementary music for the last 10 years. I do not like the method books I chose for beginner students! I’m glad to here it’s not just me. Trevor Davies I have taught Ukulele, and feel your pain, I ended up creating my own method book, by cutting and pasting out of other books…and a little whiteout lol!