European and American Methods of Piano Teaching (Pedagogy)
Many people want to learn how to play piano. There are two basic methods of teaching classical piano: the European method and the American method. (This article refers only to the way piano methods are generally taught in the United States, and the way they are generally taught in Europe, not to some academic distinctions; this article is intended as a general guide for parents and students, and should not be construed as academically rigorous. This distinction results from my own private observations, from having studied with a number of different teachers in both Europe and the United States of America. I have no experience with Asian teachers, or African teachers.) The styles of teaching piano come from entirely different philosophies and historical backgrounds, and usually have different goals. These two also produce startlingly different results, so if you are considering beginning piano lessons, whether for an adult or a child, it's vitally important to learn the difference between the two, and pick the piano method that best suits your needs. Otherwise, you may end up being disappointed with your results, and wasting your money.
The European Method
The European piano method developed in, as you might guess, Europe. At the time the piano was introduced in the 1700s, Europeans had already achieved a remarkable standard of performance and, as time went on, the number of teachers available could hardly meet the demand for training beginning piano students. Therefore, the Europeans had a need for turning out highly-skilled musicians in a very short period of time, and over the centuries had perfected their pedagogy for that very purpose--to produce performers to fill the overwhelming public demand for concert pianists.
The American Method
The American method of piano pedagogy was developed in the 1800s, and had an entirely different purpose. At this time, there was little demand in America for skilled concert pianists, outside of the large cities. However, there was an urgent demand for entertainment--without radio, TV, newspapers, or access to books, the Western frontier was ripe for amateur musicians, who could play a simple tune on a piano, with some accompanying chords, to keep people amused after their day's work. So there was a need for piano method books where someone with a little knowledge could teach others, and provide a large number of different pieces of music quickly, even if those pieces were much simpler than the sonatas and concertos demanded of European pianists. In addition, there was a large demand that "progress" be shown, as this was part of the American character, especially in the time frame of approximately fifty years on either side of the Industrial Revolution.
What is Sightreading?
Sightreading is much more than knowing the names of the notes and where to find them on the keyboard. After all, reading text is knowing more than the names of the letters!
At a high level of sightreading, the musician should be able to look at a piece of music with understanding, and even be able to "hear" it, just as when you read text, you can "hear" the words in your head.
Typical "European Method" Books
"European Method" Repertoire Books
A good first book for beginners in the European method is Bartok's First Term at the Piano, also known by its catalogue number, Sz. 53. Taught properly, the pieces are arranged so that a beginner can understand some of the basics of sightreading and begin to play with both hands in just one half-hour lesson.
Once a student works through that book, typically teachers work with sets of dances, sets of variations, or other pieces which comprise short pieces, to help students understand development and work towards longer pieces. Some typical second-year pieces might include Beethoven dances, Mozart variations, Schubert waltzes, or similar pieces. Again, the skill of the teacher will be essential in determining the student's progress.
Details of the European Method
The European piano method concentrates primarily on those skills needed for performance: sightreading, an understanding of the basics of theory and analysis, the finger skills needed for playing difficult passages, and the practice of scales, chords, and arpeggios at a high level of execution--for almost all "Western" music--the kind familiar to most people--is built upon some core combination of scales, arpeggios, and chords. Therefore the more familiar pianists are with these three technical skills of playing, the faster and more skilfully they can play almost any piece of music written for piano.
Whether someone intends to play piano professionally or not, the European pedagogical piano method achieves a high level of competence very quickly, and although there is a lot of emphasis on the core technical skills of playing, much emphasis is given to the proper interpretation of music from the start of lessons. Sightreading may be taught as early as the first lesson, even for very young children (every professional pianist and most piano teachers agree that good sightreading is one of the most valuable--and least taught--skills). Sightreading makes the difference between someone who has taken lessons a long time and can't remember how to play anything, and someone who has taken lessons and can play most pieces of music after some practice.
Most teachers who teach the European piano method require only a few pieces of repertoire per year, although these pieces may be several pages long even in the second year. Students are not assigned a new piece of repertoire until they have mastered the expression of the composition: tempo, dynamics, phrasing, expressiveness, and musicality of the current piece.
Typical "American Method" books
Details of the American Method
The American piano method is usually very simplified when compared to the European piano method. A foolproof way of identifying a primer book in the American method is to see if there is a piece where the student plays "Middle C" repeatedly. This is a uniquely American practice and never takes place in serious European-style piano teaching, no matter how young the student.
The American piano method ignores technical exercises in scales, arpeggios and chords for the first few years, and concentrates on note recognition (naming the notes), simple, easily-achieved songs, and an emphasis on "progress" by performing one simple piece after another.
Which is the "Right" Piano Method?
The right piano method depends on your goals. If you intend for you (or your child) never to be serious about the piano, the American piano method (which is the most popular in the United States) will probably be best. If you intend only to learn the names of the notes and to kind of get an idea about the piano, this piano method will probably suit you. Also this piano method may be right if you don't want to develop the patience necessary for mastering the necessary technical skills for classical music and just want to be able to play something.
However, if you intend to have the possibility ever to play seriously, you will achieve faster and better results with the European method of piano pedagogy. Although this requires a concentration on technical skills, which may take several years to master, the mastery of those skills will give you the ability to play almost any piece of music easily after a few years' instruction. If you have any hope of playing classical music, ever, you should seek out a teacher who specializes in the European piano method.
Learn How Your Body Works, and Prevent RSI
A Note about Repetitive Stress Injury
Repetitive Stress Injury, or RSI, develops in 98% of piano players after five years or less of playing. This is caused by a common misunderstanding about "curved fingers" at the piano. It is not enough to have curved fingers--a piano teacher must have a thorough understanding of the biomechanical aspects of hand function in order to teach students to avoid RSI.
If you ask a prospective teacher about RSI and the teacher does not talk about anything other than "curved fingers," please keep looking. I have known pianists whose parents had, between lessons, private schools, summer camps, university, etc. spent over $200,000 on their children's music education, only to develop RSI and not only were they not able to play piano, they were not able to hold a fork, open a door with a key, write, type on a computer, pick up a piece of paper, or use a mouse without enormous difficulty and pain. Curved fingers are the result of proper technique, not the means to it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2010 classicalgeek