Teaching 101: Choosing a Piano Method

First of all, it’s not cheating to use a Piano Method! It just makes sense to use materials put together by experts for teaching beginners. For best results, use the Method the way the authors intended. If there are multiple books at a level intended to be used together, try it the way it was meant to be used.

Consider these things when selecting a method for a student:

  • Age of the child: Most methods have art and lyrics and these need to be age-appropriate. Check the ages suggested by the authors. For instance, Piano Town was written for children aged 7-10 years.
  • Reading Level: Can your student read? Does the child need to be able to read to use this method?
  • Starting on or off the staff: Does the method start teaching reading on or off the staff? Which will work best for this student?
  • Teacher Accompaniments: Are these included? For me this is important. Beginning pieces are so simple, it’s helpful to be able to play along with the student. If you’re not able to improvise accompaniments on your own, it’s great to have them written out!
  • How reading is taught:
    Memorizing note names? (Not Recommended)
    Intervallic reading (Recommended)
    Landmark notes (Recommended)
  • Art and Lyrics: An interesting story line can draw children into the world of making music. Look for art and lyrics that are gender neutral, and show children doing interesting things and exploring their world. Make sure that the images are ones you would want to show a child.
  • Design Features: Are there any extras that will make your job easier?
    Here are a few from Piano Town that are unique and helpful: Questions that help students (and you!) prepare for a new pieces. Teacher Tabs at the top of the page help you keep straight which information is new.
    Call-outs present the information in the music where it’s easiest to understand.
  • There are lots of great downloadable materials, but I highly recommend using a printed book as the backbone of your teaching. Loose sheets are easily mixed up or lost. Be cautious with downloadable methods. You’ll save yourself a headache. Besides, kids feel important when they get a book that’s especially for them!


You’ve decided to teach piano. And if you’re going to be a piano teacher you’re going to have to figure out what you’re going to use with your students. First, I’d suggest that you use a piano method. The reason? It makes your job easier as a teacher. It’s not cheating to use the method. It’s just using some of the best materials out there to make your job easier.

If you decide to use the method I encourage you to use it the way it was designed to be used. For instance, Piano Town — the method that I co-wrote with Keith Snell, is created with four coordinated books at one level. Try using all four books. Don’t try to scrimp and just use part of it because it’ll never work as well as if you use it the way that it was designed.

When you choose a method for a given student, there are lots of things that you need to consider. I’d like to go through them one by one.

The first thing you need to consider is the age of the student. The reason that’s so important is that most methods have both art and lyrics. Lyric choices have age implications so you’ll want tochoose a method that will work for the student that you have in mind. For instance Piano Townis designed for ages 7 and up. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it with a 5 year old or you couldn’t use it with a 12 year old. (I’ve personally used it with a wide variety of ages) But in general you’re going to want to look for something that was designed for the age range of the student that you’re teaching. Another thing to think about is whether or not your student can read yet. Some methods are designed to be more interactive in the sense that your student will be asked to write things or to read things. You’ll want to make sure you make a good match for the reading level of your student. In Piano Town most of the Primer Level questions have choices that can be circled. For instance, questions at the beginning of this piece ask “Which hand plays first?” The student can circle “Left” or “Right.” They can read the question themself or you can read it to them. But either way, they can just circle an answer. Look for things that will match your students for reading and writing ability level. Remember in that as your student progresses they’re going to get more and more skilled, so you don’t want to start with a method that’s on the very low side what your student can do. You want to start a method that matches what they’re just stretching to do. If you have to give them all extra help at the beginning that’s totally fine.

Think about whether you want to use a method that starts on or off the staff. For instance, Piano Town starts with pieces that are off the staff. It starts on black keys — this is a pretty common way for methods to start because the easiest to find the black keys. It’s helpful to just start with a few notes.

Another thing that I think is important is having a method with teacher accompaniments written out for the teachers to play with their students. When students are just getting started, they’re playing pieces that are so short and so simple that if there’s nothing else going on it’s very hard for them to feel like the pieces are substantial.

Another thing that’s really helpful about accompaniments is it helps the students better experience rhythm because you can fill in the long notes. The Piano Town accompaniments are always printed at the top of the page because for young students are short and they’re looking at the bottom of the page. We put the accompaniments out of the way at the top. We even printed the student part above the accompaniment. That might sound like kind of a minor consideration, but you don’t want to have to be looking up and down and back and forth to figure out whether or not your students playing the right thing. A simple consideration like the student part being written over yours can make a big difference in the late afternoon when you’re feeling kind of tired. Small differences like that make big differences and whether or not you’re having success with a given student.

Think about is how is readings is taught. My least favorite way starts off with one note middle C. There’s a piece that goes “C C C C C C C C C C C.” Ugh. But that’s the way some methods work and they might sit on C and then finally move to D after awhile. What I personally prefer is a landmark approach where a student learnsa few notes and then learn to read intervals away from those notes. Learn to read by seconds and thirds skipping and stepping up and down is the best way to learn reading.

Consider the art it’s in a method. Art has been implication of age because different children at different ages are interested in different things. In Piano Town I wanted to have art that was gender neutral that didn’t show all the boys doing interesting things while the girl sat around looking at the boys doing interesting things! I also wanted to show the children exploring their world and learning real information.

For instance, if you look at a lot of methods you’ll see by maybe the fourth page, (if you’re lucky sometimes you can make it as far as page 8) the children will be “having fun.” There will be a song about how much fun they’re having doing something fun. What kind of drove me crazy was they weren’t actually this is really doing anything very interesting.

Let me just show you a simple example of my solution for that this. This piece is from Level One Performance of Piano Town.

Here are the lyrics:

Tadpoles start as tiny eggs, then they start to wiggle.
Hatching from their jelly shells, free to swim at last.
They grow legs till they’re grown four,
They aren’t tadpoles any more!
Tails are gone, they hop to shore,
Free to swim at last!

There’s actually something that you can teach about science. There’s a picture of the four stages of development. The single time we used the word “four” I made sure that it landed on the fourth finger. Sometimes tiny details like what word that can make or break your day. Watch for them.

The songs were it’s not just about kids just sitting around but actually learning things like maybe something about tadpoles or about science or about art. Writing lyrics with very simple rhythms is extraordinarily difficult. There’s a reason that somebody like Cole Porter or at the great lyricist like Stephen Sondheim can write great lyrics —they can use whatever rhythm they want! If you’re starting off with the simple rhythms that we teach to children, writing good lyrics is really challenging. When you evaluate lyrics but remember that it’s also important what they say.

Evaluate the design features of any given method. In Piano Town town for instance we did a couple things that I think that certainly make my job easier when I’m using. I’ll show you how that works.

One of the things is the questions at the beginning of each piece in the lessons book. If you answer these questions, you will have presented whatever is a new concept. You don’t just turn the page and then think, “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.” You’re actually guided through the process of teaching this particular piece. I find that helpful because it’s easy when you turn a page and not quite be able to remember what you’re supposed to do.

I like the idea of a student looking at a piece of music and interacting with it before they start trying to play it because any good sight reader always takes a moment to look at the piece, glance through it and see what’s going to be coming up. If you can start that good habit right from the start you’re really going to be in better shape.

Another small detail that I really like in Piano Town is the teacher tabs. It’s a small colored tab in the corner of the cage that it tells you what’s new on the page. Tthere are two reasons that I like teacher tabs. One is because it tells me what’s new on the page. The other reason s it tells me what’s not new. For instance, if I’m on a page and a concept is not in the teacher tab, I know that isn’t new. I know that that was introduced earlier. That might sound like a small detail, but when you’re teaching lots of students it’s a really challenging to remember who knows what, and what you’ve already presented. Details like teacher tops and a few extra hints can be very helpful.

A unique feature is our call outs. You can see on this particular page, my student answered the questions over here and then highlighted the slurs. What’s new on this page is called out on the music itself. the music and actually highlights and calls out what a slur is and explains it in the music where you actually see it. I like to have my students highlight whatever is new. In the process of highlighting the slur they sort of start to understand what that curve line means.

I’m suggesting using a little bit of caution about downloadable methods It’s not that I don’t use downloadable materials. I have downloadable materials on my site that I’ve written and I think they have lots of uses. But unless you have the ability to download things and bind them yourself, you’ll have a lot of loose pages and it can be very difficult to manage. I think it’s kind of nice for students to get books. A book that feels like they’re special.

I’d like to show you the first page in piano town. As you first get started there’s a welcome page. Here the student can fill in their name (or you can write it for them if they’re having a hard time) you can include information about how old they are, with the date and what grade there. That’s kind of a little snapshot for them of where they were when they first began piano lessons. It can be a sweet memento as they go through their piano journey. They can go back and see some of the things that they started off with. There’s a certificate at the end of the book which you can fill out if your students are into certificates and they can graduate to the next level.

There are many things to recommend using a method and I really encourage you to find one that works well for you!