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.