Dichotomies in Piano Pedagogy

One piano lesson is pretty much the same as another, it might be easy to think, other than the style of music being learned and taught. I mean, it’s the same pattern of white and black keys everywhere you go – how much difference can there really be between one piano teacher’s lessons and another’s?

It turns out there are (sometimes extreme) dichotomies at play in the lessons provided by piano teachers around the world. But it’s not a simple divide of “these” teachers versus “those”; in real life it works out that some teachers in profound agreement as regards one foundational approach may find themselves at opposite ends of the divide when it comes to another.

It occurred to me the other day that a Venn diagram representing the views of some of my dearest colleague-friends would be a complicated matter indeed – how to indicate the overlaps while still clearly demonstrating the exclusions?! Next thing I was jotting down a list….

Now, if you’re not a piano teacher this list is going to seem pretty arcane at times – and maybe even if you ARE a piano teacher you might scratch your head at one or two categories, and wonder why anyone would do it any other way than the way you and all your colleagues (in your community) teach and were taught! But believe me, somewhere out there in the world each and every one of these dichotomies is being contested, even if it’s not in your neighbourhood…

Without further ado, for the purpose of discussion, debate, dissent, delight, and possibly despair, allow me to present The Incomplete Dichotomies in Piano Pedagogy.

WHEN TO BEGIN READING: Sound before Symbol v Reading From The Start  

HOW TO BEGIN READING: On-staff notation v Off-staff notation

GEOGRAPHY: Black keys pieces at the start White keys pieces at the start.

RANGE: Playing across the whole keyboard in the earliest lessons Starting in fixed positions in the middle of the keyboard

WHICH FINGERS?: Starting with the 3rd finger v Starting with the thumb  

HOW MANY FINGERS?: Starting with playing only one finger v Starting with playing multiple fingers

TOUCH: Legato touch at the start v Tenuto touch at the start

PITCH LITERACY: Using note-naming and mnemonics to read pitches v Using intervallic relationships and landmarks to read pitches

CHORD CHART LITERACY: Teaching students to play from, and create, chord charts v Not teaching students to be able to play from or create chord charts

RHYTHMIC LITERACY: Reading rhythms by counting durations v Reading rhythm with rhythm syllables

DEVELOPING RHYTHMIC CONCEPTS: First note values taught via subdivision: crotchets and quavers (quarter notes and eighth notes) v First note values taught through held durations: crotchets, semibreves and minims (quarter notes, whole notes, half notes)

TONALITY: Major/Minor only v Modes/Tonalities of any kind

KINAESTHETIC LEARNING: Pieces learned hands separately v pieces learned hands together

LEARNING STRATEGIES: Learning from a score v Learning away from a score 

LISTENING: Listening before learning v Not listening before learning

EXPLORING: Improvising as part of learning v No improvising as part of learning

REPERTOIRE CHOICE: Scaffolded learning v Student supplied 

REPERTOIRE SOURCES BY TIME PERIOD: Mostly Baroque/Classical/Romantic Music v Mostly 20th/21st Century Music  

REPERTOIRE SOURCES BY STYLE: Art Music Tradition (Renaissance to current day) Pop Music Tradition (20th C to now)

RESOURCES BY MEDIUM: Print Music (paper)  Screen-stored Music (tablets)

USE OF TECH IN LESSONS: Screens Used By Student in Lesson Screen-free Learning

ACTIVITY LOCATION: Always sitting at on the piano bench in lessonsActivities away from the piano bench in lessons

INSTRUMENT REQUIRED BY STUDENT: Acoustic Instruments Digital Instruments      OR
                          Acoustic & Digital Pianos v Keyboards

LESSON FORMAT: One-on-one lessons v Group lessons

LENGTH OF LESSON: 30 minute lessons standard v 45/60 minute lessons standard



And there endeth the list of dichotomies (for now).  Some of these may in fact be dichotomies you experience in your own teaching within the same day or week- you take one approach with one age group or demographic and another approach with the rest. The purpose of this list is to encourage us all as piano teachers to not only reflect on our own professional practice, but to consider the possibility that there are teachers in other parts of the world, state, city, or even street, who do things quite differently, and to maybe wonder why…

Please, please, feel free to suggest more dichotomies if you feel there are issues missing from this list! And for those readers who are sitting there wondering what on earth some of these “dichotomies” are on about – I am rather hoping that the spirit will move me to write posts on the individual dichotomies listed above, exploring the ideas, philosophies and teaching strategies involved. But my goodness, it’s a bit of a catalogue, is it not?!

18 thoughts on “Dichotomies in Piano Pedagogy

  1. That was very interesting & thought provoking! How about tonal quality vs. perfect, clean playing – i.e. will I introduce the pedal as soon as possible, because a full tone is high on my priority list – or condemn my student to play for years without pedal – but VERY precisely? (my choice of expression makes it fairly clear which side I´m on!)

  2. Great list! Here’s another one: starting formal lessons in preschool years vs. waiting until grade school years. Also, we had a teacher in our community recently who refused to teach siblings. She would only take one child from a family. So, teaching siblings vs. not teaching siblings!

  3. Wow! Even the first item on the list is very thought provoking. I come down on the side of “sound before symbol”. Purely because this is the way we learn language – speaking before writing. It seems to work well for me. When students are learning new concepts we mostly hear, experience (play) it before introducing it on the notation :). They seem to understand quicker (in my experience of course!) than learning in theoretical terms first.

    I’m sure you’re going to be able to get a very detailed post on each of these items!

    • In Waldorf schools, they teach kids to write first, or perhaps with reading. The argument is that one avenue of learning is kinesthetic. By ‘drawing’ the letters and words, they are adding another channel to the seeing, hearing and speaking words.

      • This is true! Many of the educational movements (Waldorf, for example, Montessori, as another) that came out of the first half of the 20th century were big on this idea of the kinaesthetic, and for very good reason! We believe our bodies far more than we believe our intellects!

      • On the other hand, Waldorf schools do NOT promote writing a word before ever hearing it…. And that’s where the sound before symbol thing really is situated in the learning process – should a student experience the sound of the word in their own ear and body before they attempt to represent that word visually?

  4. You definitely got most that immediately come to mind. Here’s a few I could think of:
    -Beginner Repertoire: Method books or stand-alone compositions from the outset
    -Exercises: Derived from pieces being studied or to-be learned or divorced from repertoire in the form of Hanon, A Dozen a Day, etc.
    -Learning Plan: several month to several year goal setting per student’s own desires or completely handled by teacher
    -Learning Strategy: starting with the difficult measures (or some other deviation) or from the beginning
    -Memorization: from the start or once a piece has been learned (if at all)
    -Memorization continued: systematic or as a matter of consequence
    -Repertoire Choice: pieces selected by the student (and perhaps organized in a way that each facilitates learning another) or wholly by the teacher
    -Repertoire Maintenance: keep learned pieces in memory or let them fall off
    -Repertoire Quantity: 40 pieces a year vs. something nearer to 6-12

    • Yes, yes, yes! By all means, have your own ‘standard’ approach, but work to each student’s strengths/needs at the time.

    • Not sure if singing BEFORE, but definately voice has a role. I’m convinced that being able to sing an interval, being able to identify a played interval by ear, and being able to see an interval in notation all tie together. In addition, being able to sing from a score allows you to eventually (I think) ‘hear’ a score in your head without having to play it. Not sure I’d want to try to sing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor however.

      In my adventures trying to get reacquainted with piano after 40 years away, I find that being able to sing, helps, and some of the patterns re starting to BE patterns, instead of blobs of ink on the page.

  5. Good dichotomies. I devised a method of teaching that uses the staff but explains the clef system as it was originally designed. We say F and G clef first, then call them treble and bass clef later. We also use color so that 4 year olds can start reading with instant success. Our MerrieNan Melodies music code aids students with composition so they aren’t just learning to play what others have written!

  6. I really, really, really love this A LOT. I think too, the problem with being self employed, and being a private music teacher is we don’t have a staff room, or colleagues to consult with (or to challenge the ways we do things). In other fields, it’s quite fashionable to consult with colleagues, my junior doctor friend tells me about how he talks to colleagues in another room, psychologists do group supervision/consultations and as I said before, school teachers have a staff room. Thanks to the internet, this isolation isn’t pronounced, of course there are conferences, seminars, workshops and associations too, to that help serve to mitigate this, but a las, we can totally believe in these dichotomies…

    • Hi Jeremy – check out the Faber Music online store and see if you access Storm in a Teacup as a download there… I *believe* that all my pieces published by Faber are available as digital downloads….

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