Sally Cathcart’s 5 Step Guide for choosing your next tutor book.
It’s always lovely to hear piano teachers say ‘I like to keep up to date with the latest books and materials’. These days we are spoilt for choice, especially where piano tutor books are concerned. But how do we choose the right books for our pupils given the selection available? Here are five important questions you can ask to help you decide.
How are musical skills and concepts introduced?
How many new, school-aged beginners have you come across that can’t keep a steady pulse, or don’t know what rhythm is? Or how about pupils who can’t hear the difference between higher and lower sounds yet? These, and others, are fundamental skills for all musicians and it’s our jobs as teachers to ensure that these are developed before any pianistic development can take place. Ask yourself, ‘Is the book going to help me develop musical skills such as pulse, rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tempo, structure, texture in a systematic and logical way?’.
How is technique presented?
We want our pupils to develop a sound technical foundation so this is a really important aspect to consider. The best books are the ones that introduce technique systematically and logically, with imagination and sense of playfulness. The healthiest way to start is with whole arm movements and a non-legato touch before moving towards the more detailed and refined finger work required for legato playing.
One way to find out is to sit down with your book of choice, a pen and piece of paper and go through listing the order and manner of introduction.
Ask yourself – ‘Does the tutor book introduce technique systematically, logically and in a healthy way?’
How is reading introduced and developed?
I have done a lot – and I mean a lot – of research into music reading. As a result of this, I discovered that learning to read notation is often the primary focus in many tutor books. Moreover, the approach taken in the majority of the most popular methods in the U.K. is the ‘middle C approach’. This is characterised by:
- a fixed hand position around middle C at the start
- a focus on reading from notation from the first few pages onwards
- the introduction of notes as individual elements
- the use of metrical counting (1234) from the outset
Now whilst this works for some pupils for many others it really isn’t a good fit. Developing confident and musically literate pupils takes a long time – a really long time!If you’re puzzled and a little frustrated by how some pupils never seem to ‘get’ notation go and watch SPARKLE my short, free 7- part series over on YouTube. Here’s the link to the first video: https://youtu.be/zvnS-FyAFC
It will give you something to think about as you consider how tutor books introduce and develop reading skills. Ask yourself – ‘Does the book use a middle C approach and if so, will this suit all my pupils?’
Does the book encourage expressive playing?
As pianists and musicians, we engage in musical activities partly because it engages our emotions and it helps us to think about things in different ways. If we want to nurture our emerging pianists, whether child or adult, it is important to connect them to the music as soon as possible.
So have a look at the book and consider how this important aspect is developed. Are there opportunities to go ‘beyond the notes’, beyond the dynamics even, towards really experiencing and engaging with music and the piano? This might mean putting note reading to one side for some pieces allowing students to really focus on the sound and storytelling aspect of the music.
Ask yourself – ‘Am I going to be able to really share my love of music and the piano with my pupil through the tutor book?’
Are there opportunities for genuine music making?
As has already been discussed many books focus on teaching notation. This often means that playing is limited to what can be read and real musical encounters are few and far between.
When you look through the book consider whether there is any guidance or activities that allow you and the pupil just to make uninterrupted music for a couple of minutes. Some books have really lovely, musically interesting accompaniments and have ideas for how to incorporate simple but effective improvisation.
Ask yourself – ‘Are there musically interesting accompaniments to the pieces and ideas to help me improvise with the pupil?’
Once you have been through these five main points you will feel far clearer about what you are looking for in a piano tutor book.
There are just a few other, secondary considerations which also have to be considered. First, the design and overall production quality. I think this is really down to individual choice but personally, I avoid any book that has too much on one page. For me, less is more as younger pupils, in particular, are easily overwhelmed. I also prefer books that can be covered quite rapidly rather than one book that will last 2 years.
Secondly, there is the matter of price. I salute anyone who has taken the time and thought needed to write a tutor book! Some books are more expensive than others but if you see almost everything you want in a book then for me it’s worth the extra cost. If you are convinced about its value as a learning tool then you should be able to persuade parents accordingly.
Finally, there is the amount of free support that is provided. It’s so helpful to be able to watch demonstrations of how pieces might be presented and taught to pupils. Some series of tutor books provide a really extensive service in this respect with videos and explanations all freely available.
I do hope you have found this guide to choosing your next tutor book useful. You can find out lots more about The Curious Piano Teachers over on our Facebook page, our YouTube channel or visit our blog.
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