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Why Black Ivory Piano Method™ Book One?


When I went to college back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I started out as a behavioral psychologist at Arizona State University. Little did I realize how helpful this would come in many years later when I began teaching little fingers how to play the piano. Just like teaching a pigeon to peck a key or a rat to press a lever. Cool. It was called successive approximation and I even developed learning routines for animals referred to as "errorless discrimination." Yep, we even taught animals to make the right choice without making a mistake. Too bad I can't do that with humans!

Ok, back to reality. So after a couple of years being a Skinnerian whiz kid, I decided I didn't want to be God anymore, but instead, I wanted to be a composer. I mean a serious, out of your mind serious, composer. You know(or maybe you don't), like Roger Sessions, Paul Hindemith, William Schuman, Elliot Carter, Morton Subotnik, Luciano Berio, out of your mind serious composer. I could go on forever but lets get back to piano music.

So when I showed up to the music department they gave me an entrance examination which I failed miserably. I told them that's why I wanted to take the classes. They said I was crazy and I told them I already knew that. Then they told me I couldn't just study composition, I had to have a major performing instrument too. Well, I discovered pretty early on that they expected me to play all kinds of theory examples at the piano, so I decided to kill two eighth notes with one finger. Piano Minor! I quickly found out that I was way behind and began practicing every spare moment I could find. Didn't help that I didn't have a piano. I would unlock the practice room windows just before they locked up the music building so I could break back into the rooms late at night and on weekends. This was back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.

After several years of music theory, several years as a draftee(Vietnam vet), several more years of theory, two more years of instrumental music education k-12, I was graduated and re-graduated out into the real world. I've been in shock ever since. :-)

I'm always amazed at how my life is like a leaf. Sometimes lying on the ground, sometimes rustling around, sometimes caught up into great whirlwinds, blowing down alleys, eddies of time and space, into the most unexpected place. So it is with them that are born of the Spirit. So it is with me.

The wind blew me from Tempe to Yuma, to Revco Drug Store, to Sierra Vista, to Karen Stahl, to teaching private piano lessons. She provided me with a piano method called LoKnoPlay by Ruth Alling Stevenson. But, she actually wanted to make a Suzuki disciple out of me. I told her to keep the Suzuki method, I liked the LoKnoPlay. I used this method for several years, but it presented music in non standard notation for the first year or two and I decided that the longer a person waits to read standard notation, the longer it takes to learn how to read it. Makes sense, doesn't it? That's what's wrong with Suzuki method for piano. Now dear old Shinichi used the Mother Tongue approach to teaching the violin. Works great if you are teaching students under the age of five or six, and , oh yes, if they play violin. So why would anybody force this method onto piano students over the age of six when their brain is processing information in a totally different manner? And why would anybody force little children into playing little five finger Alberti bass patterns when they should be learning large muscle movements. I'm so glad God gave me a brain.

I met Shinichi Suzuki once at the University of Arizona at a, you guessed it, Suzuki violin workshop. He was great. I played violin when I was a kid, but we used Tune-A-Day. Today, I use Essential Elements for Strings 2000. It's great. Combines reading and listening into every piece, and allows for tempo changes too. The software is wonderful, except for the annual renewal. Why would anybody use anything else? You can have your Suzuki and read it too. :-)

I hated the look and the sound of the old Bastien method books so I began composing my own pieces and teaching them to beginners. I did try out several other piano method books, and I had played out of Schawm and Thompson when I was a kid, but I wasn't happy with any of them. After the LoKnoPlay approach to teaching beginners, the actual physical movements, the hand crossings, the black key pieces, and the fun music, everything else paled in comparison.

The wind had blown me into teaching music at Cochise College, in addition to my 25 private piano students, and being president of Cochise Music Teachers Association, and CMTA Honor Recital Chairman, and local chairman of the Arizona Study Program, as well as becoming a piano tunier, portrait painter, Pentecostal church pianist, and Korean church pianist. How did I get myself into all of these things? I hadn't done much serious piano composing for about ten years, but at age forty, I found that I had a captive audience of young piano students, some of which were getting pretty good, and I began composing intermediate piano pieces, in a tonal/modal vein, which they could play for recitals and local talent shows. 1986 was a very productive year with about twenty pieces being composed. I took tuneful ideas I had had back in 1967, when I first started composing in earnest, and turned them into piano pieces that fit right into the hands and experience of my best students. They really enjoyed playing my pieces and we were invited by the Fort Huachuca Entertainment Branch to perform my original piano pieces in the Parade of American Music concert series for three years running. I had composed a fairly elaborate piano piece when stationed at Fort Huachucha in the spring of 1969. I had taped the piece shortly before going to Viet Nam, and had intended to get it down on paper some day in the future. Well, I got sidetraked with life and here it was, almost twenty years later and I still hadn't gotten it down on paper. I had tried a couple of times, but the piece was simply too complicated and thick with chords and changing meters, very rhapsodic in nature. Well, the time had finally come to get it down. Since I had now been tuning pianos for about four years, my ears had developed enough to listen inside the most complicated harmonies and pull out each note. Wow! Within a couple of weeks I had the piece down, practiced it day and night, and gave its second world performance in the spring of 1987, at Fort Wegotcha. I dedicated it to the Fort, and titled the piece, "Huachucha Rhapshody." It was very well received.

From 1986 to 1990 I was still using the LoKnoPlay materials for my beginning private students, but had already composed about twenty five pieces of my own for a beginners packet. I made out a star sheet and a table of contents page and packaged them in a folder for sale. I used it for my Cochise College class piano. In 1989 I decided to go back to school, the University of Arizona, in Tucson, and get a masters in music composition. Daniel Asia thought my harmonic style had gone too lame and wouldn't accept me. Dr. Johnson thought I would make a good graduate student, but maybe concentrating in music education. Dr. Fitch, and especially Dr. Steven Hedden, got me headed in the right direction. I studied all aspects of Music; piano with Rex Woods and Dr. Billie Raye Erlings, played in the opera orchestra two summers, studied historical, philosophical, and psychological foundations of music education. Took classes in administrative techniques, conducted scientific music research with Dr. Steven Hedden, studied violin with Dr. John Ferrell, the Music of Mozart with Dr. James Anthony, and Twentieth Century Music with, yes, with my old buddy, Daniel Asia. Dan had two parts to the final exam. If one got a high enough score on the first one, one did not have to take the second one. I missed half of the classes because I was commuting from Sierra Vista to Tucson every Thursday, but still only had to take the first final, and received a very high "A" in his class. No minor achievement. I watched a Doctoral candidate, who was almost in tears, argue about his failing grade from Daniel Asia. Professor Asia was explaining to him that he thought his arguments in defense of his last paper were specious. He had great grades in everything else, but Roger Sessions, Paul Hindemith, William Schuman, Elliot Carter, Morton Subotnik, Luciano Berio, Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Xenakis, Pendereski, Crumb, and Olivier Messiaen took him down, down, down.

Well, one cannot get a master of music degree without a master's project or thesis. Now we're getting to the crux of this article. I decided I would take advantage of this opportunity to produce my Black Ivory Piano Method™, Book One. So, as you can see, I had to come up with a Master's project proposal, do a ton of research, create my own method book based on the results of that research, and defend it before a committee of my professors. This took about a year(1991-1992). I created a tool, or set of criteria, for examining all of the beginning method books I could possibly find. I also created a questionnaire from this tool which was mailed out to many nationally certified private piano teachers. After carefully gleaning every good thing I could find from such methods as Robert Pace, James Bastien, Schaum, Gillock, Glover, Noona, Palmer, Clark, and many, many more, I began creating my own book. Since I was the local chairman of the Arizona Study Program, I incorporated all of the theory and technique that was required for level one into my book as well. I taught piano for about five years at Sierra Vista Piano and Organ, later renamed Music Max, so I had access to many of the method books I needed as well as comments on the methods by the very experienced owners of the store, Ludy Pokrant, and Maxine Sullivan. Leonard Bernstein once commented that writing easy music was hard. He may have also been the one who said, when commenting on the melodies of Schubert, there is a difference between simple music and simple minded music! I miss Lenny, what a brilliant man. He was a great communicator.

It turns out that the first book that I had created and was using at Cochise College, really covered about threes levels of difficulty. So I took the first five Black Key pieces and spread them out from beginning to end of what would be a fifty page book. I added another five black key pieces which were evenly spaced throughout the book, and then began filling in the gaps with mostly white key pieces presenting new pitches in an intervalic manner. The first ten pages presented new white keys in relation to the groups of two and three black keys. The next ten pages focused on the concepts of stepping and skipping to introduce pitches up to a fifth apart. The next ten pages introduced a number of six eight pieces, emphasizing compound duple. The next ten pages presented the word ACE as a means of identifying the lines and spaces of the staff. Finally, the last ten pages introduced many pieces with dotted rhythms and more demanding technique. Once one Black Key piece (Funny Bunny) and one White Key piece (Black and White) were introduced, every subsequent piece grew out of them, containing something old, and something new. Every piece introduced at least one or two new concepts. Never was a new piece totally new. This insured the student's success and helped with overcoming the fear or resistance to learning a new piece. I composed all of the words to the pieces to contain pedagogically sound ideas, not just funny bunny stuff.

My tool for evaluating the method books contained a set of twenty-three relevant questions. I rated each of the criterion on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest score. I then rated each book according to the ttwenty-three criteria and averaged out a score for each method book. The new James Bastien "Piano Basics Primer" received the highest score of eight. The scores trickled down from seven to two. E. M. Burnam's "Step by Step" and Noona's "Mainstream" received the lowest scores. Even with Bastien's high score it still did not provide me with the pieces I felt were absolutely necessary for good fundamental technique.

My method book does not have many pictures and it is in black and white. Some might frown on this. I myself like color photos in the method books I use. They give an upbeat quality to the page and are a source of dialogue about the nature or character of the performance of the music. But I have found that what a beginner doesn't know about, he or she doesn't miss. I never had a student complain about the music being boring or the page layout being boring or confusing. I've had a parental complaint either! I have had students tell me that they really liked a certain piece. Many times my students will keep me apprised of their current favorite piece.

You can see for yourself from the screen shots what a partial page looks like. I just reviewed my book according to my rating scale and I give myself a solid Nine out of ten. The book is intended to be a front end replacement for all other primers or beginning level method books. My book is by far the best entry level book there is for children, and I have also used it with many adults. I follow my Black Ivory Book One with Bastien's Piano Basics book one or book two depending on age and ability.

Dr. Billie Raye Erlings used to say, "you're either part of the problem or part of the solution." If you don't use Black Ivory Beginning Piano Method™ book one, you're probably part of the problem. Either your method book lacks hand crossing pieces to develop large muscle movements, or black key pieces to develop good black key recognition and hand placement into the keys. Your book probably lacks a variety of meters to help develop a good sense of Metric Pulse, and major, minor, and modal pieces for good ear training and variety of moods. It probably does not provide many opportunies for students to fill in answers to meter, tempo, and dynamic questions. It probably does not have many hands together pieces either. Try Black Ivory Piano Method™ Book One. You'll like it.:-) There is no money back guarantee because there is simply no better book. It is also great for supplemental material if you want to stay with your limited Alfred or Bastien books. BTW, I just reviewed the latest Alfred primer. Bad news.


© 2008 by Charles G. Marlowe


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