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Review of Bastien Piano Books
The Bastien piano books series bring fond memories to me of my early lessons using these books. I would examine the colorful pictures of children and notes, play the "Chocolate Cake" song with my mouth watering, and practice my songs for longer than I was required just because I enjoyed them. My sister and I were fascinated by the colorful pictures that often took up over half a page, and we would make up stories to go along with the illustrations as we practiced. One of the stories involved a kind-hearted mother baking a delicious chocolate fudge cake for her beautiful daughters because they played music that stirred her soul.
Later, when I graduated from illustrated piano books, stories would still fill my mind as the melodies captured my imagination. I never stopped to think about the teaching methods being used on me or the fact that I was learning something new and possibly difficult; I wasn't fatigued by learning finger coordination and scales. The fact is, the Bastien books were an adventure to me-- like reading a book, or practicing soccer, or drawing a picture. But the skills I now have are a result of my teacher's encouragement and direction, and the intrigue of these colorful Bastien lesson books.
Piano and Theory Workbooks
Each level of the Bastien Piano Basics series includes a theory book (titled "Theory"), an exercise book (titled "Technic"), a general lesson/song book (titled "Piano") and a solo book (titled "Performance"). From the Primer level to the Fourth level, these books took me from having absolutely music knowledge, to being able to play in nearly every key with pedal, tempo, and dynamics, and brain/hand coordination all at work. My sister and I both went through the entire Bastien series and eventually onto more difficult, original pieces, and now my sister is teaching piano using the very same books she learned on. Her perspective has matured, though it hasn't changed. She finds these books as easy to teach from as they were fun to learn from; and now she tells me about her own little students who practice more than is required in their own Bastien books.
The "Piano" book could almost be used by itself, as we found it contains the basis of each lesson's new skills. Songs are given that vary from exercises to fun folk in this book, and every new key is first practiced as a scale, then introduced in simple songs. New skills to be learned are explained using pictures and examples, and the student is given an opportunity to play a song or two to supplement the teaching.
The "Theory" workbook was helpful and extremely important in our understanding of how music worked. We had fun pulling out a pencil and eraser to tackle the games and composition assignments. Those lessons were easily learned. One suggestion we have found helpful is that the teacher should not make the theory assignments any easier than they already are (unless the student needs outside help) because each lesson is self explanatory, and necessary for the student to self understand so that fully he learns each concept and can move on to more difficult levels confidently.
The Techinc book is full of exercises to get the fingers in shape for the songs they will play in the other books. There are a few "Hanon" exercises given, but mostly the book consists of it's own slightly repetitive scales, chords, and agility drills. I remember having fun competing against myself to get the drills faster and faster without any pauses to get my fingers untangled! Though this book was my least favorite of the four in the Bastien series, I realized after I had moved on to other exercise books in more advanced levels that I would have loved to continue having Bastien's "Technic" guide my fingers through their drills --it had made the challenge fun.
The Performance book is the one I enjoyed the most as a student. It contained songs that I recognized and had long wanted to be able to perform. These songs were designed to show off old skills, and sneak in new ones while captivating the student with the excitement of what he is finally getting to play. This book generally contains the more difficult songs of each level, but I don't remember being irritated by this, as the pieces in here are often well known and well composed to bring enjoyment to the listener as well as the player.
Summary of Levels: Primer and First Level
For a younger child, the first (primer) level will move at an easy pace; for an older child, the level will be completed quickly, and he will be ready to move on to the next. The Primer level starts with basic introductions to the keyboard, fingers, posture, and hand positions. Notes are first introduced as numbers that coordinate with each finger, then they are printed as the seven letters of a scale, then finally they become notes on a staff. To begin with, the student plays songs on the black keys, finding position with the sets of threes and twos, and playing by using finger numbers. Next he moves to the "C position" and finds notes using letters. As the book progresses in difficulty, the letters get placed on staff lines, and he finds each note in the songs at the end of the primer books. Time and tempo values are acted out by clapping and counting, then by playing. An easy introduction to the C chords is in the middle of this book, and by the end, several two-note chords are learned and used. I remember being thrilled that I could already play chords, and that fact motivated me to want to learn more in the next level.
The next level, Level One, begins with a review of the intervals discussed in the primer level. Level One then moves on to the I, V and V7 chords in the key of C. The sharps and flats first make their appearance in this level and they are used as accidentals, then in two new key signatures. Staccato marks, tempo marks, and the accent sign are also taught as the student moves to new hand positions, the F and G keys. There are a few note naming games throughout the book, but my teacher was smart to supplement these with flash cards and incentives, as it would be easy to get far in the book by guessing finger numbers in the set hand positions rather than actually learning the notes. The student is taught to change hand positions by moving to the different primary chords in these first three keys.
Several people have commented on my sister's and my ability to sight read almost anything. I don't think it is any particular innate talent of ours, but I believe it was developed through my teacher's faithful flash-card drills --with the reward of having our picture taken and taped on the "One-Minute Club" poster when we could find all the notes on the cards in one minute-- as well as the great variety of songs she assigned each new week that forced us to recognize many different chord and melody structures and be flexible to key, tempo, and dynamic changes.
Levels Two and Three
Surprisingly, scales are not introduced in the technical sense until the second level. Even though this takes the learning of a new skill (finger tucking), the book mostly uses scales to teach about different keys, and has the student practice the scales only when a new key signature is being taught. I realize now that many other methods put great focus on perfecting scales in the early levels. I don't feel that I have suffered as a result of not learning scales early on, but rather that I was more motivated to practice (and this is a big thing for little tots) because I could practice "real" songs. Bastien does, however, have the student memorize the fingering and practice finger tucking for each new scale, but it is not overly emphasized. Davy, a two year student using the Bastien Piano books admits that he thinks "there should be more practicing to do for the scales. I am not very fast at it, but I can do it. If I practiced it more, I could do it faster.“ A few scales are included in songs after that, but the majority of scale playing is required of the student when he is being taught a new key.
This level contains the new keys of D, A, and B Major, and teaches the order of sharps. The main focus of this level seems to be getting the student comfortable with reaching notes outside of the set hand positions, as well as introducing many new chord types. I don't remember ever being frustrated with the way new notes were introduced, and I was ready to reach out of my set hand positions for new variety to my songs! Two new time signatures introduced are the 4/4 and 6/8, first taught easily as the student is clapping and counting in "Theory", and then shifting into real songs as the student is given a chance to practice songs in each new time signature. I remember the Level Two books being filled with more "fun" songs than either of the previous, with the familiar "English Country Gardens" tune and the a simplified version of the Entertainer." These were pieces I was motivated to perfect and memorize.
Level Three first teaches about the relative minor scales, and the difference between Major and Minor triads. The student learns pieces using the new chords, and using the new rhythm of the triplets. In the middle of the book the new keys from Group Three are presented using the scales, chord progression, and then simple songs in each new key. As the pieces get more difficult, there are more accidentals, more flats in the key signatures, more movement on the staff, and more variety in the songs.
After learning all the new skills and facts condensed into the first three levels, level four seemed like a chance to catch my breath and review, refining the skills. The small bit of new information was presented with many songs and pieces for practicing more note/finger movement, ledger line notes, sixteenth notes, new chords, grace notes, augmented and diminished triads, and finally the new key signatures. Along with these technical aspects, this level also introduces the student to the Sonatina form of music, several simplified minuets, and some favorites such as "Turkey in the Straw", and a jazzy version of "When the Saints Go Marching In". Many fun pieces hone and refine previously learned abilities, and looking back from Level Four to the Primer Level, I realized I had come a long way.
As a graduate of the Bastien Piano books, I would have to say that, although there are a few weaknesses in the methods, in all it is a valuable teaching tool for the musical education and motivation of any student. The vivid pictures, the variety of songs with intriguing titles, along with the friendly way each new lesson is presented, makes this series appealing to children. Not only is it fun, but with the efficiency that the student moves through the levels, and the productive teaching methods used, these books are a good choice for any teacher's curriculum. As a child learning from these books, I was involved, motivated, and entertained: essentials for any learning environment. Or perhaps it was the chocolate cake...
© 2009 Jane Grey
- What You Need to Teach Piano Successfully
The essentials that make a piano teacher successful and effective. Written by a great friend of mine, who I can highly recommend as an accomplished pianist and intuitive teacher!