Nov 10, 2012

John Thompson Review

I highly recommend John Thompson as a method.  There are a lot of piano teachers that ultimately recommend the piano series they were taught with as a child, and, well, I guess I'm no exception.  However, when I first started teaching piano lessons, I told the parents that I would use whichever method they wanted to use, it didn't matter to me.  I knew that a lot of parents already had piano books, and I wanted to help them save money.  I figured that I was the same teacher, and it wouldn't really matter which method I used.  Well, that was a good learning experience for me.  Because of that approach, I got to see and use a variety of different methods, from Bastian, Alfred, Thompson, and Schuam.  For some reason I never did use the Faber piano method, which I have heard great things about.  After a few years of teaching like this, I realized that method books really do matter.  (surprise!)  I also realized that if a parent is willing to pay a teacher to teach their student, an extra $7-10 for the right piano book is just pennies in the bucket.  Ultimately, most parents will need to buy more piano books anyway, as their students progress.

So with that introduction, here are a few reasons I love John Thompson:

  • He doesn't shy away from key signatures besides C, F, and G major.
  • He doesn't shy away from requiring the hands to move out of "home base" position.
  • He uses primary sources early on in the series.  Soon, if it doesn't specify "Arranged by J.T.", you know it's the original music by the composer listed.
  • There really is something new every lesson.  For students who actually practice (we all know there are plenty who don't!), the John Thompson method will be an accelerated course.  "Grade 5" for John Thompson is much harder than "Level 6" in Alfred (the last book in each series)  There is less busy work.
  • I like the history blurbs that many of the pieces have. (I admit other methodologies have this perk too)
  • J.T. has endured the test of time.  I'm old fashioned like that.
  • I really like the duet book for the primer, "Teaching Fingers to Play Ensemble".  The local stores didn't carry this, so I ordered it online.  This is a fantastic resource if you play!
  • (Most importantly) I really like the songs in his books.  They are cute and often clever.  They are real music.  I loved them as a child, and as an adult who taught for a few years from several other methodologies, I found that charm lacking.

I also want to address some of the criticisms I have heard of the John Thompson method.  Some say his books are too hard.  Boo hoo. 

Some are rightly concerned of the excessive fingering in his books, stating that the student will develop a dependency on finger numbers.  Well, that really is the case sometimes.  Some students get very comfortable with the finger numbers in the Grade One book, and have a rude awakening when they get to Grade Two and they can't rely on the finger numbers anymore, since there is a lot of thumb-crossing under, etc.  Even so, the First Grade book does introduce a lot of different key signatures, and it helps the student play proficiently sooner.  I'm using a color-coded method for my 3-year-old to help her play proficiently sooner, so obviously finger numbers isn't a big issue for me.  I think this concern can be avoided by starting flash cards when they start the "First Grade" book.  I didn't just require my students to say "A", they had to say the name, and play the correct "A" on the piano, whatever the octave.  I personally never developed a dependency on finger numbers as a child, and I credit my teacher for her consistent use of flash cards at every lesson, as well as sight-reading exercises out of other books.  Besides, being able to follow fingering is important. 

The other concern some have with J.T. is that the theory lessons incorporated in the book are sparse.  This is true.  I think Music Theory is very, very important.  I don't think I had a lot of theory in the beginning grades, but when I was older, my 3rd piano teacher had me go through a course and it was extremely helpful to me.  I will probably find a separate theory book for my children when they finish the primer.  I highly DON'T recommend Alfred.  Unless you know music theory well yourself and can correct the errors to your students, stay away.  I had some very interesting discussions with my students when, again and again, I had to tell them why the book was wrong, and why the authors might have tried to explain things the way they did.  Thankfully, I am confident that my students weren't scarred by Alfred.  I'm not ready to offer a better solution yet because I haven't done my shopping, but I assure you, Alfred isn't it.  I was sorely disappointed that such a popular series could get away with having so little scholarship.  95% of what Alfred teaches is correct, but if you don't know better, that 5% that is wrong can come back to haunt you later.   I'm pretty sure the Bastian books are good, but I haven't taught with them past the 1st grade level.

Currently, I am simply requiring my children to practice every day, but I am not requiring them to sequentially work through the book.  Yet.  They have skipped around a lot, playing the songs that tickles their fancy.  They can choose to practice from the primer book, or the nursery rhymes from The Solfege Train.  I am starting to require that they play songs with both hands.  The songs in this primer book are already familiar to my children because I have been playing them for them for years, and we have a separate piano book upstairs with our story books.  It's one of their favorite bedtime story books because they know I'll sing to them.  Because of this early exposure, they are playing the rhythms correctly on their own, so I haven't addressed rhythm as much while we are at the piano.  We have separate rhythm exercises that we do away from the piano, independent of piano practice, so I am letting them focus their piano practice on the mechanics of playing the piano.  I require them to practice with the fingering in the book, and in the key the music is written.  (that's a side effect of having the "movable do insert" and the color-coded notes.  My son wants to transpose everything back to "C".  Too bad!  Oddly enough, my daughter will play the songs in keys like F# major if the insert has been left there, without batting an eye.)  Separate of the "Do, Re, Mi", my children are learning to identify and play "C, D, E" for me.  I always preface a new song by pointing out, "This song is in F major, so we need to move the "Do" behind the "F".

Anyway, this is our piano program.  I am planning on getting them finished with the J.T. primer by the end of the school year, and then mastering one of John Thompson's grade books every year after that.  If they move faster than that, great, but I'm not going to require more than that.  I've decided that the Grade 4 book is what I am going to require of each of my children, as if they finish that book, they will have the basic piano literacy I want them to have.  I will supplement John Thompson's books with my church's published music, such as the Primary book and the hymnal, as well as popular music my children may be interested in.  I bet if I bought "Tangled" music, my daughter would eat it up!  Note to self.

Overall, the John Thompson series is a great course.  Alexander Schreiner, world class organist (and my great-great-uncle) recommended this series, and his advice gives me more confidence in recommending this series to you.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've always liked Thompson, too. But I also like Leila Fletcher and Michael Aaron. These 3 were the books I learned with and the ones I prefer to use with my students. I to heavy on Fletcher in the bginning. HATE Alfred!

You might check out Fletcher Theory papers. They're my favorite. http://www.amazon.com/Music-Sales-America-Fletcher-Theory/dp/B003AFTIZA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352691075&sr=8-1&keywords=fletcher+theory+papers+book+1 Of course, you can go to The Book Table to look at them in person. -Sasha

Tamsyn Spackman said...

Thanks for adding your two cents, Sasha! I'll definitely check Fletcher out when I get the chance. :)

When I mentioned this post on facebook, there was also some positive mention of "Simply Music", which is a different approach altogether, based on ear training first.

Anonymous said...

The JT is the best, I have checked most methods. I also love the JT supplements, studies etc. I hate the Alfred too, the pieces are trash for the most part, cannot hold of candle to JT s pieces, no question. I have studied advanced harmony, Alfred pieces are weird in many ways. The current "popular piano" series, supposedly by JT, has nothing to do with his Modern Piano course, I.e. the popular piano books, although nice, are WAY easier, for example the JT popular piano third grade is way easier than JT modern piano second grade

Anonymous said...

I also think the JT modern piano course is definitely more challenging than the Alfred and others. The JT is a complete piano course, goes from zero to hero,NOT a beginner book, unlike the Alfred. JT has many great supplements, for example the young recitalist has easy recital pieces that sound and look more difficult than they are. As some one else, I too like the Leila fletcher course, but more for the music than the technique. The JT is more difficult, as you wrote it introduces crossed hands etc from start, also many keys. Not a piano method for slackers.

Kathy said...

I'm an adult trying to brush up and improve my skills. I took lessons for 11 years as a child/teenager. I've continued to play, occasionally in church, lots of traditional hymn playing etc. I'm currently going through old books, such as JT book 4, trying to go through them sequentially (my teacher let me pick and choose too) to fill in holes in my learning and skills. The arrangement From the Overture Romeo and Juliet in book 4 is kicking my butt! The 5 flats, ledger lines and accidentals - tricky for my fingers to follow.
Any tips from a teacher to facilitate mastering this piece?

Kathy said...

I'm an adult trying to brush up and improve my skills. I took lessons for 11 years as a child/teenager. I've continued to play, occasionally in church, lots of traditional hymn playing etc. I'm currently going through old books, such as JT book 4, trying to go through them sequentially (my teacher let me pick and choose too) to fill in holes in my learning and skills. The arrangement From the Overture Romeo and Juliet in book 4 is kicking my butt! The 5 flats, ledger lines and accidentals - tricky for my fingers to follow.
Any tips from a teacher to facilitate mastering this piece?

Tamsyn Spackman said...

Hello Kathy! Unfortunately, my more advanced books are in storage right now, so I don't have access to look at it. The biggest thing I could suggest, then, is to get a copy of the book with a CD so you can listen to the music and get a solid feel for what it should sound like. Also, don't be afraid to mark your piece up- it's not cheating, it's great practice! Label the notes with ledger lines and circle the accidentals that are giving you trouble. Take the trouble spots and work them through slowly and then work up speed. I'm sorry I can't be more specific- good luck! I think it's great you are brushing up! Never to old or young. :)

Kathy said...

Thanks!

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