TTTV071: Exploring Piano Safari with Dr Julie Knerr and Katherine Fisher - Creative Music Education

TTTV071: Exploring Piano Safari with Dr Julie Knerr and Katherine Fisher

By Tim Topham | Creativity

Dec 16

piano safari

When I started to explore Piano Safari I was excited. I’ve looked at many piano methods and none made quite as much sense to me as Piano Safari does. The books include rote teaching, intervallic reading, technique and improvisation all in one method. What’s not to love?

Dr. Julie Knerr

The way they approach technique is truly inspired. Julie and Katherine have distilled the essential movements needed by pianists down into animal themed exercises.

Not only do kids love this animal theme, but it makes the exercises more memorable. And when they remember the technique exercises better, they practice them more – and more accurately.

Katherine Fisher

Today on the podcast the creators of Piano Safari, Dr. Julie Knerr and Katherine Fisher are talking technique, sight reading and inspiration. They also give their top five piano teaching tips, and you’re not going to want to miss those.

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Please find a full transcript of this episode at the bottom of this page. If you are an Inner Circle Member, you can download a PDF of the transcript in the Member Resources AreaNot a member? See below for how you can get $1o0 off your membership today. 

In this episode, you’ll learn

  • How the Piano Safari method came about
  • The thinking behind the progression of the technique exercises
  • Why legato playing should be delayed longer than you think
  • What Julie and Katherine mean by the term rote teaching
  • The benefits of learning pieces by rote
  • How Piano Safari approaches teaching reading
  • How to get started with the Piano Safari method
  • Katherine & Julie’s top 5 teaching tips

Links Mentioned

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Thank you for Tuning In!

There are a lot of podcasts you could be tuning into today, and I’m grateful that you’ve chosen mine.

Being a full-time teacher myself, I know how busy teachers are and how much time, effort and passion we put into our students. Sometimes, the last thing we want to do in our time off is listen to more piano teaching stuff! So, well done for using this time for self-improvement.

Whether you’re at the gym, on the bike or in the car, I know that you and your students will get lots out of what you learn in the long run. Just make sure you try out some of the ideas before they get lost in the business of your next lessons.

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Full Transcript

Click here to read a full transcript on screen

Tim: Katherine and Julie, welcome to the show today.
Katherine F.: Thanks for having us.
Julie Knerr: Yes, thank you.
Tim: It's very, very cool to have you guys on the show, because I think you already know, but I'm a massive fan of Piano Safari, so I'm just going to say it right out and put it out there. It's a little bit star struck meeting with you guys today. Look, I've got to hand it to you, I reckon out of all the beginner methods I've tried, and I've tried a lot in the last six years, in order to blog about it and talk to my community about them, Piano Safari wins hands down, no question at all. Thank you for creating such a great resource for us piano teachers.
Julie Knerr: Thank you so much.
Tim: Let's find out a little bit. I want to dig into how it came about and a little bit about you guys. Firstly, can you tell us what your studios look like at the moment. Do you guys still teaching? How many kids do you teach and that sort of thing, these days?
Katherine F.: [00:01:00] Sure, well ... this is Katherine speaking ... I teach at Athens Community Music school at Ohio University. It is a community music school programme where it's for children and adults in the community to come in and take lessons with students and faculty at the university. I currently coordinate the Piano Safari programme for beginners, and these are group classes. I also have about 15 private students, ranging in age from very young through adult.
Tim: Fantastic. Julie what is your studio look like?
Julie Knerr: I teach at my home in Windsor, Connecticut, and I have about 23 students. That includes kids from ages 5 to about 60. I have a couple adults. Mostly kids. Then I have private lessons and also a couple partner lessons, which is lots of fun. Then in the past I also taught some group piano.
Tim: Obviously together, you work on the business of Piano Safari. There must be a fair bit going on in the background with books and publishing and printing and goodness knows what. When do you get the time to do all that?
Julie Knerr: It all happens out of my basement.
Tim: Oh, does it?
Julie Knerr: It comes from my basement, yes. We meet on Skype. We meet on Skype, and then I occasionally visit Ohio so that we can work together.
Tim: Yeah, I was going to say, you're in two different states, right? Julie, in Ohio, Katherine where abouts are you?
Katherine F.: I'm in Ohio actually, and Julie Connecticut.
Tim: Oh, sorry, okay. Yep. Right. I understand that the create of Piano Safari ... I can't talk today. I think it's coming up to the end of the year, it's a Saturday morning at 7:00 am, I'm struggling today. I should have had a coffee. Excuse me. I understand that the creation of Piano Safari came about as a result of Julie's PhD. Correct me if I'm wrong. I'm just interested to knowing what research you did as part of that, and how that shaped your understanding of teaching.
Julie Knerr: [00:02:57] Piano Safari actually it came a little bit before my dissertation. Katherine and I met at the University of Oklahoma. I was doing my PhD and she was doing her masters degree, and we met in pedagogy class and both realised that we had always wanted to write a method. Which seems a little strange, but that had been one of our dreams. We found out that we had very similar philosophies and had tried many different methods in our own teaching, so we just started sketching things out.
Then when I went to do my dissertation, I wanted to do something practical. I did not have very good technical training in my pre-college years, so I wanted to make sure that I was teaching my students technically correctly at the beginning of studies; so I made that my dissertation topic. Ended up being about 11 teachers, well known for the pre-college teaching around the US. About how they teach technique. I would interview them, and then spend an afternoon video taping and observing their lessons. Which changed my teaching in absolutely every way possible. Not only technique, but also the idea of teaching some by rote, along with the reading.
A lot of the teachers I interviewed taught the beginners by rote some. When we started writing a method, we had our system for reading sketched out, and then we decided to add rote pieces to spice things up before we realised that rote pieces have so many other benefits, which I'm sure we'll talk about a little later on.
Tim: Definitely. I'm interested, how did you choose the 11 people that you focused on?
Julie Knerr: I asked my Jane McGraw, my dissertation committee chair. Then, also just looking for teachers that were well known for their pre-college teaching, that had national prize winning students. Then, of those teachers, finding the ones that still taught beginners. Then contacting them and asking them if I could come.
Tim: By pre-college, just so people around the world understand, that means school age or younger? Is that what you mean by that?
Julie Knerr: Yeah, before you go to college.
Tim: Which is university, right?
Julie Knerr: Right. Like 17 and younger.
Tim: Yes, okay cool, but people that ... You're obviously most focused on people that were actually, although they were teaching high level and very experienced, they're still teaching the very beginners.
Julie Knerr: Right. That's what I was looking for.
Tim: Can you name a couple of those people that we might have heard of?
Julie Knerr: Yeah, they came from lots of different technical schools of thought as well, which is something that also I was looking for. I met Ella [Kurasick 00:05:34] in Cleveland, Ohio. Nina Polonsky in Columbus. Also, Mary Craig Powell in Columbus, Ohio. She's a Suzuki teacher. Then, John Weems and [Tu 00:05:45] Carry in Houston, who are more Taubman, kind of teachers. Marvin Blickenstaff, who uses [Sue 00:05:54] Ellen kind of system. Lots of different teachers like that. Susan [Guy 00:06:00]. I have a list. I'm sure I'm leaving some out.
Tim: No, that's okay.
Julie Knerr: It was kind of a long time ago right now.
Tim: It really goes, now that I know that, it makes so much more sense about how you see these kind of elements of Kodaly, you see elements of Suzuki in the rote. Bits and pieces of everything have been mixed together. I think that's the strength of Piano Safari.
Julie Knerr: Caroline Shock. I wanted to mention Caroline Shock in Denver. Her lessons might have stuck with me more than any others. It was amazing to watch how she deals with the students and just the free flowing way that she did that with the rote teaching and with her technique looking so good from so young. Then all the different props and stuffed animals she used. Mary Craig Powell uses props too. The whole experience changed my teaching forever, which I don't know if a lot of people can say that about their dissertation. I was really happy about that.
Tim: Absolutely, it's like the ultimate, isn't it? Did you have much pushback from teachers going, "Oh, [inaudible 00:07:06]." Having people record and [inaudible 00:07:07] my piano lessons?
Julie Knerr: Well, I don't ... I think I only contacted a couple teachers that said they didn't really want to participate. I really didn't get much of that. They were happy to have me and they were really welcoming. It was great.
Tim: That's so good. This wouldn't be the method that it is now had they not said yes, I'm sure.
Julie Knerr: I know when I have observers, teachers observe me, I always teach better anyway. It's kind of nice to have observers.
Tim: That's true. Even having parents watching, I think, can sharpen you up a little bit. Katherine, I'm interested to know you've decided quite early on to start a method. Which I didn't know this is the order of how it all came together. That's a very busy market to be entering, and there are massive publishing companies behind some very, very big methods. Did you ever kind of wonder whether you were both a little bit crazy to try and [inaudible 00:08:14].
Katherine F.: We definitely did. We really started it just because we love pedagogy, and we loved debating pedagogical topics. We wanted to improve our own teaching by creating something we could use with our students. That's really where it grew out of, not so much, "We're going to write this method and get it published." That wasn't our main goal when we began writing it. As Piano Safari has gained in popularity, recently we're just so thankful and exciting about that, so we can share our work with others.
Tim: It was great to see you guys present to at MTNA. I think that was another reason that I had to get in touch with you guys, because I saw you in action. Then I tried it out with one of my students. Had great fun. It's really, really exciting to explore it. Let's dive in a little bit deeper now.
One of the things I really love about the method is this connexion you make between animals and technical manoeuvres of the piano; because it really works with kids. They kind of get it. They can remember things. I'm interested to know how you came up with it, and maybe you could give us a couple of examples for teachers that aren't familiar with how you approach this.
Julie Knerr: Sure. That's the part that came most directly out of my dissertation research, because of the teachers that I interviewed with their various technical backgrounds. I boiled that all down to the commonalities among all the teachers. Then, there were a certain set of motions, or what you call technical manoeuvres ... I like that word, manoeuvres ... that pretty much all the teachers used with their beginners.
That we turned into the seven animal techniques, because, for instance, one of the first technique exercise is an arm drop, just to help the student find their arm weight. It's much more fun to call it the lion paw, then the arm drop. Then, once we started calling it the lion paw, then we're like, "Well we should get a stuffed animal that has a floppy arm." Then we used a stuff animals with the really little kids to explain, "This lion has a floppy arm. Is your arm floppy? Can you flop it on the piano and wake the lion up?" I make the lion like really scared when they do a good drop on the piano, and they just laugh and laugh.
It works with all ages, you just have to use the animal with the kids that it's going to work best with. Then another interesting exercise was the Zechariah Zebra one, which sounds like ... has that rhythm. That was a mystery to me, because in my original research study with four teachers, before I did the extra seven or whatever later, three out of the four teachers used that exercise. I had never thought of doing something like that before. Mary Craig Powell, Caroline Shock, and Marvin Blickinstaff, and they all had different names for it. Mississippi hop frog. Colorado mountain. Ebeneezer Sneezer, but it's all the same rhythm, and they played it on one note.
I asked Mary Craig Powell, I'm like, "Why do you do this weird violin Suzuki thing?" She said that, "The reason is, it helps them develop a loose arm to play repeated notes fast." You have to have a loose arm to be able to do that. Then the other reason is, it's much easier to develop firm fingernail joints. Those end joints that tend to collapse if you're playing repeated notes rather than consecutive fingers. Playing on one finger helps really firm up those joints.
That was just a revelation to me. I had no idea. Then work on it one finger at a time, so that they know how to play each finger individually. The thumb is up on it's corner playing, finger two and three are the easiest fingers. Finger four needs to stand a little bit taller so that the elbow doesn't pull it back. Finger five plays on it's outside corner. Gradually the kids will develop their hand shape on each finger like that.
Tim: Absolutely revelationary to me as well. I thought it was great. It's such a simple concept, and a simple pattern that taught them the right way, can have huge impact; because we all know about those kids we get who have the collapsed knuckle. That last knuckle joint. It becomes increasingly difficult to fix as they get older. I often get transferred teenagers with that issue and it's really, really difficult to fix, when potentially if they were taught with using a method like this, they could have had that right from the beginning.
Julie Knerr: When we started writing Piano Safari, both Katherine and I had used many different methods. If you really read through beginning methods, there's not much instruction about technique. There's the notes on the page, but there's not a lot of instruction about whether they should be played non-legato or legato. With the arm, with the fingers. Not a lot there. That's part of the reason I did my research, is to find out the best way.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I found, which maybe should have been common knowledge, but I didn't know, is that it's much easier for children to develop a good hand shape if they play non-legato first. Until they're firmly in control of their forearm, before they try to play legato and connect the fingers.
Once they do start playing legato, they should still have the arm involved on every note, to stay aligned behind the arm, and to produce a good tone; because we have a modern piano with heavy action, so very small children aren't going to be able to produce a good tone with only their fingers. Also, if you play with just your fingers, then it's likely you'll get stiff in your arm unless you have super awesome control, which kids don't have yet. Non-legato first, then legato, then it gradually refining the arm motions for longer and longer phrases.
Tim: I think for people listening, I think this is one of the most crucial things that you have taught me in teaching beginners. Is this non-legato touch. You talk about it a lot in all the ... you've got a lot of resources online about your approach, and reminders for each lesson about how you should teach various things. My natural tendency was always to go and get kids to play legato as soon as they could; because that was the ultimate goal, right? You have made me rethink of that completely, and I could totally see the benefit of having students play it non-legato, and be able to use their whole arm and get the finger shape and everything right, and everything coordinated together early on.
I think, even if teachers are listening to this, and they don't use your method ... totally cool, obviously ... one thing I would say is the thing I've learnt from you guys is, don't get students to play legato early on; because it just doesn't help their technique. I think that's been really great to learn.
Katherine F.: I have a new student who just started last week, but she's a transfer student. She's about to turn seven. She's been playing the piano for two and a half years already. She came playing completely flat-fingered, with no arm motion at all. It took her fully 5 minutes to get on her fingertips and start playing non-legato, so kids, when they're young, will just soak up whatever you want them to do pretty easily. It's much hard to fix technique once they get older.
Tim: Yeah, much harder. Do we need to ... we've mentioned some fluffy toys. As teachers of this method, do we need to suddenly go and buy a whole lot of fluffy toys for our studio?
Katherine F.: You can add them in gradually as you go. It's not a requirement to teach the animal techniques, but it's definitely engaging for young children. We actually have a teacher who just wrote a blog post on where you can find stuffed animals. She gave links from Amazon, so I'm not sure how that will translate over in Australia. It's a wonderful resource, and you can actually find that on our Facebook group teaching Piano Safari. There's a blog post that just posted there this week.
Tim: Can anyone join that?
Katherine F.: Anyone can join. Yes, you just have to request and then we will approve you. If you're a piano teacher. If you're a piano teacher.
Tim: Perhaps you can send me the link to that. We'll pop it on the show notes. Does your method work for older kids? I know it works for younger kids. What about teenagers for example? Adults even.
Katherine F.: I think all of the concepts are definitely important. The pedagogy behind it will work for any age, but obviously our books right now are geared toward the younger student. Our next project is writing an older beginner version, actually, that just has more mature pictures and themes to it, so that we can use that pedagogy, but make it more attractive to an older child. A teenager or an adult. We're hoping to come out with that soon. We always have lots of ideas and projects on our plate, but that one is high on the priority list, because we know that's really needed.
I have three adult students currently, and what I do when they're beginners is use components of Piano Safari, and then other books as well, so I have a kind of a mishmash. All students, whether they're in Piano Safari or not, whether they're kids or adults, go through the sight reading cards. All of them. The method consists of the repertoire book, the sight reading cards, and a listening component, and we're soon writing theory books to go with them also. That's another project coming up. [crosstalk 00:17:50] We feel that the sight reading cards are crucial, and I've had the adults say to me, time over and over like, "I can really feel my sight reading getting better through working on these cards." Because they don't have pictures, so they're ageless.
Tim: Well if I could give you one little bit of advice, one thing I love about the books of the series, is that there is only one book, really. You look at some of the other methods, and it you have to buy the tech [inaudible 00:18:16] artistry, the pop, all that kind of stuff. I would personally, I really like that it's not many books that you have to buy to use it. Just be weary of adding too many things on, because suddenly teachers have to ... and over here in Australia, it's [inaudible 00:18:34].
Katherine F.: Yeah, thank you for that feedback. That's how we feel too. [crosstalk 00:18:40] Yeah, as a teacher I've always been more drawn to an all-in-one type book. [crosstalk 00:18:48]
Tim: Your resources, it does comes with a CD, which has got backing tracks, but you've also go those online too, haven't you? I think. Is that right?
Katherine F.: Yes, so our CD, it comes digitally. In the US you can get a hard copy, but we're trying to move to all digital. At any rate, the CD has the performances of the rote pieces on the technique exercises. Anything that's not learned from notation is on the CD. This is like the Suzuki idea, that the student should be listening to artistic performances of what they're playing, in order to gain musical understanding, and to have it in their ear before they learn it. Students are intended to listen to that CD, so when they come into a lesson to learn a rote piece, they've heard it before and are excited to learn it, and are already familiar with it.
Tim: Katherine, that's a brilliant segue into the rote teaching, which I wanted to ask you about. Why is this so important in the early days of teaching?
Katherine F.: Yes, so I think Julie mentioned earlier, we have been discovering more and more of the benefits over the years that we've been teaching by rote. First of all, I just wanted to find what we mean by it, because I feel like it's a controversial topic in terms of people misunderstand the word somewhat.
Tim: That's a good idea.
Katherine F.: We've always defined it as a systematic introduction of musical and artistic concepts that are best introduced by modelling rather than from a notated score. The word systematic here is very important, because good rote teaching shouldn't be haphazard or just picking something randomly to teach by rote. We always have a purpose behind what we are teaching by rote. Either to develop the student's technique, artistry, or understanding of patterns, so there has to be a plan behind it.
Some things that rote teaching will enhance, one big one is motivation. Rote pieces provide students with musically interesting pieces to play right from the beginning. We've all had that experience of a young student coming into the lesson for the first time, and they're just excited about playing the piano. We want to reward that enthusiasm by not just pulling out a book and saying, "This is what middle C looks like", but by actually teaching them a piece that they can go home and share with their family, right from the start.
Another benefit would be concentration. Our rote pieces are often much longer than the traditional method book reading piece. It's usually about eight measures, I'd say. Right? An early lower reading piece. Some of our earliest rote pieces such as I Love Coffee, are very long for a young beginner. I Love Coffee's in six variations. We work with our young students to be able to play all six variations in order, without losing their concentration in the middle, and being able to perform that. That's just one small example of how it can develop concentration in a young student.
Just moving on, another thing that rote teaching can enhance is technique. Rote pieces enable students to take their eyes away from the score, and focus their full visual attention on what they're doing technically. Then on the other side of that is what they're listening to. Their artistry. A teacher can model, and the student can copy the sound. Which requires intense listening and not just-
Tim: It really does help the students connect with the music, rather than the reading. It's so important in those early days. My little student who I've tried out your method on, Josh at my school, he loved the I Love Coffee piece. We played it so many times. He eventually did it for a school assembly, and everyone loved it. It was just great. It's long enough that a beginner student can perform it, which is pretty rare. Everyone knows the ... for those of you who don't know it, it's a fairly well known variation from a well-known theme. It's just, it was great fun to teach. As a teacher, just to get away from the music reading and just have fun with the student. I really enjoyed it. I think that is such a great part of your method, these rote pieces.
Katherine F.: Well thank you. I agree, it's so much fun to teach these. Students, they just have so much enthusiasm for them. Several of the beginning rote pieces, I Love Coffee and Hungry Herby Hippo, since there are different variations and different transpositions, in the case of Herby Hippo, I've done these with my group classes as ensembles. Those are always a really a big recital hit, especially for each student to take a variation or a different key. We go through and we cycle through and play those too.
Tim: How important for you is helping students understand the concept of transposition? Because it's a little bit of that that goes on early on too.
Katherine F.: Right. The piece I just mentioned, Hungry Herby Hippo, they learn that in five different keys.
Tim: That's going to be a bit of [ongoing 00:24:18] for some teachers to hear that.
Katherine F.: Right. Of course, at this point, they're not this is from their first lesson, so they're not understanding key signatures or exactly what they're doing, but they know they can play it in five different starting locations on the piano. Which is another benefit of rote teaching. They're learning the keyboard geography that way, and just being able to get around the keyboard and use more of the range of the keyboard than just a very limited position, like an early level reading piece would require.
Tim: You guys use the whole piano all the time. Top, bottom, it's all over the place. Which is great.
Katherine F.: The rote pieces are specially composed to capitalise on those keyboard patterns. We don't just pick any piece to be a rote piece. It's specifically a set of white and black key patterns, so that they become familiar with the keyboard geography. I think that also helps their transposition too, because they play around with those pieces, starting on different keys and figure out what works with the different pieces.
Tim: Do you think we're finally getting to a point with piano teachers and pedagogy where the concept of rote teaching is becoming an accepted way to teach? Because it's been ... there are a lot of teachers who are like, "No, it's got to be reading, it's got to be reading."
Katherine F.: Right. I feel like it's more and more talked about. Especially if you read through some of the Facebook teacher forums, this is a topic that comes up frequently. Although, it's still controversial in some ways, I feel like there is more understanding and that understanding is growing. That rote teaching will not inhibit a student's reading, but it can actually help a student's reading in the long-run; because they're going to be playing more musically, more rhythmically, with better technique, and they're experiencing all of these things that they can bring to their reading pieces later, rather than trying to develop those concepts from a reading piece first.
Tim: While they are also working on the reading.
Katherine F.: Plus, in Piano Safari, we firmly believe that they should begin both by rote and by reading at the same time, but they have a different body of pieces for each concept. They have their rote pieces and they have their reading. We don't delay the reading for two years or anything like that, because we don't want their reading to get so far behind. We do them both at the same time.
Tim: I found that when I was teaching, I would have the rote piece in front of me for reference. Maybe that was not how I should be doing it. I'm not sure. I would find-
Katherine F.: We do that too.
Tim: -that Josh would be looking at it, and he'd be noticing what's going on in the music, and kind of where I'm at, and I would show it because he would ask questions. I would show him where he's at, so he's getting in though it's not reading the music. He's getting an appreciation for patterns and what things look like, I think. That was a little side benefit, I thought.
Julie Knerr: Yes, especially in level two. As the students have been growing in their reading, their rote playing level and their reading level are much closer. So they can read huge elements of their rote pieces. It's neat to see how that starts to come together. In the very earliest lessons, they're not looking at the score much at all except for maybe the lyrics.
By the end of book two, they're really able to decode much of their rote pieces. We've also noticed that students aren't scared of a complex looking score, because they've seen that up on the piano all along. We feel that actually helps them even in a reading piece. The reading pieces, comparatively, don't look at difficult. They're like, "I can do this! I can master this and figure this out."
Tim: Let's talk about the Piano Safari approach to reading, and teaching reading. How does that work?
Julie Knerr: We have a very systematic way of presenting reading. Both Katherine and I, when we were teaching all sorts of different methods before Piano Safari existed, we had settled on the music tree, and the intervallic method as being the best way to teach children to read. We found that our students who had gone through the music tree, and learned intervallically, were the most solid readers as a whole. Of course, you can always-
Tim: Just in case there's anyone listening who doesn't know what the intervallic approach is, could you just give us a quick run down what the difference is?
Julie Knerr: It's not reading by note name, note by note, but instead you're reading by interval and by contour. You find your starting note, and then you're reading up, up, up, down, down, down by different intervals.
Tim: Great.
Julie Knerr: We knew we wanted an intervallic approach when we started writing Piano Safari, and the system is super systematic, because the more we teach, the more we realise that teaching reading takes a long time. It takes an extraordinary amount of time for students to become fluent readers, except for the occasional brilliant born reader. I was one of those. I don't say I'm brilliant, but I could always read somehow.
When I started teaching, I noticed that my students were not like that, that they struggled with reading. I was like, "What is going on here?" We really wanted to find the best way to teach the majority of children to read. To read well. If you think about students learning to read and write English, it takes a good four years before they're really fluent. Unless you're Katherine's children, who are just brilliant.
Katherine F.: They just love to read, and learned to read early.
Julie Knerr: In schools, at least in the US, the hope is that all children will be reading at grade level by third grade. At that point, they've had kindergarten, first, second, and third grade. Four years to become fluent English readers. Yet, sometimes at the piano we expect students to become really good music readers right away, within a few months. If it doesn't happen, we're like, "Well, maybe the kid will just never be a good reader", and we give up too soon.
We advocate sticking to a system, and seeing it through over the long haul. Our system, we start pre-staff with finger numbers, because we really feel it's important for children to learn their finger numbers, and to realise that finger twos are your index fingers, even though they're on opposites sides of the hand. Which takes a little bit of convincing for some of the kids. To count your fingers starting from your thumb.
Then, after a period of pre-reading, we go into the staff. We have landmark notes of treble G on a line, and bass C on a space. All the reading pieces and site reading cards in level one, start on one of those notes, but they start on different fingers so that the student doesn't start to think one is G, which is not true. Time.
Then we start with seconds and unisons, and we have them with a coloured pencil mark the unisons. You would be surprised when they're first starting to read, at how long it takes for them to find the unisons or sames, and mark them. It's easy for us, but it's not easy for them. We find that marking the intervals really helps them analyse each piece and card, before they try to play it.
Then they just read from G up, up, down, down, whatever the direction is. Then, in the next unit, so they have an entire unit of just seconds. Then an entire unit of just reading thirds. We do this because we feel that a lot of methods will combine the two too soon. A method might have a few pages of seconds, a few pages of thirds, some note names thrown in there, and then throw it all together and hope that they get it. Which they often don't.
We have an extended period of seconds, an extended period of thirds, before we finally combine the intervals. Then in book two, we add fifths and then fourths. Fourths are the hardest to read, which is why we save them for last. Then in book three, we move into a more multi-key approach, where they're learning their scales, cord progressions, cord inversions, and accompaniment patterns like Alberti Bass. They're finding patterns, which they've been trained to do all along, because the rote pieces are all made of patterns, so they're used to the idea that music is patterns.
Then, we also introduce note names on the grand staffing book, at the beginning of book two, because, of course, they also need to know their note names. They're reading mostly by interval, and then they start getting faster at recognising their note names. That by level three, they're able to put it all together with the cord progressions and read with patterns, note names and intervals, all at the same time. That's the short [inaudible 00:33:18].
Katherine F.: We should also say in book two, they don't always begin on the landmark notes anymore. We also move away from that. After they've learned how to find all of the notes on the grand staff, then they're playing in a variety of keys.
Julie Knerr: Also, I have written a six or seven part blog series on reading, which we're in the middle of releasing each part. I think we've released parts one, two and three on our blog, that explains this concept of reading more thoroughly.
Tim: All right, well definitely, let's get some links for that to share with everyone as well. How did you choose those two landmark notes, and why didn't you choose, for example, middle C or bass F and treble G, for example?
Katherine F.: There was a very specific reason for that. If you think about the treble clef G, and the bass clef C, they're both basically central to the staff, so we could start on a variety of finger numbers, and avoid too many ledger line notes. That was one reason. The other very important reason is that, in our unit with all thirds, we had to have students see that the notes can move thirds, go from a line to a line, or a space to a space. If we had chosen all line landmarks, middle C, treble G, and bass F, for example, they would have only seen thirds going from line to line.
Tim: Very good. They're not going to find ... teachers won't find any 'every good boy deserves' thingy, and those kind of explanations in your books?
Katherine F.: No. At the beginning of book two, we have our system for teaching note names on the staff, which combined the bass and treble staff. Students learn their skips alphabet, which is thirds on the piano, all the way up. F-A-C-E-G-B-D. If they memorise that, that's all they really need to know to find all the notes on the staff. Then we give them flashcards and lots of games and other ways to practise their note names. There is a video explaining that whole thing, which we'll send you, so that you can maybe put that on the show notes also.
Tim: Okay. This is going to be an epic show notes page, I can tell. One of the other benefits of your approach, is the online resources. You guys have put so much time and effort into providing resources for teachers and parents, for that matter, and the students themselves online. I think this is invaluable for beginners, because we expect them to do so much at home. How can we expect them to do that if they've got no resources or references? What kind of things will teachers find on your site for teaching, and how do you encourage them to use those resources?
Katherine F.: Well, first of all, on our website, we do have teachers guides for our repertoire of books one and two. Actually, everything that we have, we also have teachers guides for the site reading cards, and how to use those. These are very extensive step by step guides that will give teachers ideas about how to teach piece. Also, we have some ideas for games such as, in level one, games for finding the white keys on the piano, for example.
Those are quite extensive, and they can be downloaded for free for teachers. We also have three kinds of videos. The first kind is the reminder video, and these are for all of the rote pieces and technical exercises. This is more of a resource for the student and parent. The reminder videos are ordered alphabetically by books, so it's fairly easy for the parent to go on and find the rote pieces students working on. The reminder video is literally just a mini-tutorial, where you can see our hand playing the piece and just some comments along the way.
For example, like Charlie Chipmunk starts on the first group black key in a group of two. Then you'll see the hand play through Charlie Chipmunk. That's a very valuable resource, because one of the questions we get most is, "If I teach a student a rote piece, how are they going to remember it during the week at home?" That's exactly what the reminder videos are for.
We also have instructional videos for a few of the rote pieces. These are just Julie and I teaching a rote piece, so teachers can have a better understanding of how to do that, since it's a little outside the box for some people who have never tried to teach a student without using the score as a reference.
Then the last type of video are performance videos. These are just supposed to be motivational and fun for students to watch. They are just other children playing some of the pieces. Three kinds of videos. We also have a blog, as Julie mentioned earlier. She's, right now, posting about sight reading on our blog. We update that frequently. We also have many essays. Julie wrote these about, they're just basically essays about teaching beginners. All elements of teaching.
Tim: They are great [inaudible 00:38:30]. Thoroughly enjoyed them Julie.
Julie Knerr: My dissertation is on there too, if you have a lot of coffee, [crosstalk 00:38:38] before reading it. It's nearly 1000 page dissertation, so we should just warn everyone right now.
Tim: I've always had the best intentions of reading people's PhDs, but I never get much further than the abstract. [crosstalk 00:38:53]
Katherine F.: That is there, and then of course our Facebook resources. We have a Piano Safari page and the group we've mentioned a few times called Teaching Piano Safari. For teachers who have questions about a certain element of teaching or anything about Piano Safari, they can post those there and there's good discussions that happen.
Tim: If the teachers who are listening and who currently have been following the method of choice for a number of years, they can rest assured that if they try this out, and maybe you advocate just trying it out with one student first ... or two students. I'm not sure. It would be interesting to know your thoughts on that ... they can rest assured that there is a lot of resources online to help. Literally, in level one at least, and perhaps for further, I found that I could find an instruction sheet ... almost a lesson plan ... for each piece that I was [aiming 00:39:48] to teach. Your tip techniques and ideas, how to do it, "remember, do not teach legato this" and all that kind of stuff, I thought that was phenomenal.
Should teachers, if they're going to be trying out your method, would you encourage them to just try it out with one or two students first, and see how it goes?
Katherine F.: I would suggest finding a seven year old or an eight year old. We definitely use Piano Safari with children as young as four, but of course it's a different ballgame to teach a four or five year old, than it is an older child. If you're trying out a new method, it might be good to choose one that's seven or eight years old. Also, to have them do both the repertoire book and the sight reading cards, because they definitely are meant to go together.
Tim: Great. All right, well look, I've got to start wrapping up. I could keep talking about this for ages, still got so many, so many questions. I love the concepts of how you pulled in all this different approaches to teaching into this method. If you got maybe five tips, just for teachers generally teaching beginner piano students, what would they be?
Julie Knerr: One tip is to build a solid foundation, and not rush the early stages. Tim, I actually listened to Irina Gorin's podcast, that you did with her. It was really inspiring, and one thing that I totally agreed with her about, was that every child should be taught properly, whatever their career goals, and that the beginning teacher is the most important; because that's what lays all the foundation. We definitely agree with her on that one.
John Weems, who was in my dissertation research, he had this great analogy about a rubber band. He said that he holds the students back at the beginning, until all their technique is perfect, and all the foundations are there. After he holds them back in the beginning stages, he lets the rubber band go. Then suddenly, as he said, they're playing Procofiev sonatas. I'm sure there's some in the middle there, but I really found that revolutionary. That you should not rush the beginning stages, but make sure you get it right for every kid. Then they can just snowball and progress. We've seen that with Piano Safari too. Especially if they start young. It might take them quite a while to get through level one, and then level two, but by the time they get to level three, they're just sailing through super fast, because all the foundations have been set. Building a solid foundation and not rushing the early stages, is one tip.
Katherine F.: Another one we have is that technical training should be one of the most important components of beginning lessons. I've spoken with many teachers over the years, and sometimes you'll find the philosophy that they don't work on a students technique or hand position too much, or worry about it too much in the beginning, feeling that it will work itself out. Or that the student will, somehow, find the best way to play for them.
Julie and I, very much feel, that we want to train them to play properly from the beginning, so they don't form bad habits that are, as we've said earlier, harder to undo later.
Julie Knerr: Another tip is that students need much more repetition than we might think. Especially in the realm of reading. As I said before, it takes quite a long time for them to become fluent readers, so we need to keep working on that week after week, month after month, year after year, until we see the fruit.
Tim: I liked your analogy to how long it takes a student to learn to read a book. You know, English. Three or four years, and we do expect it so quickly, when it's so much. It's probably almost harder in music in some ways.
Julie Knerr: I think it is, because it's in real time. Reading music is in real time.
Tim: It's not just coordinating your mouth, which you can always do from a baby. It's coordinating ten of these. It's crazy really.
Katherine F.: Several different lines.
Tim: All that we ask them to do.
Julie Knerr: It's complicated.
Tim: That's great. I think that was tip number three, was it?
Julie Knerr: Number four is to meet the children in a developmentally appropriate way for their age. That's where the stuffed animals come in. You would approach them in a playful way, and make piano lessons joyful and playful. I always know that I'm doing things right when the student will say to me, "Oh, can I play that again?" Or, "Oh, wait. I think I made a mistake. Can I try that again?" I'm so happy to say, "Yes! You can." From the beginning I've trained them that piano is a joyful place, and yeah, I'm going to be strict, but we're going to have fun. When I see them taking ownership for that when they're a little older, that is just great to see the progress.
Tim: It was a lot of fun watching you teach your students. I mean your videos. For those who are listening, you'll be able to see actually Julie. Katherine, do you have videos of your teaching on there as well?
Katherine F.: Some of the instructional videos, yes.
Tim: Certainly Julie teaching her little kids is just phenomenal. It's really inspiring.
Julie Knerr: That little student is coming in 15 minutes for her lesson. We named her B, and there's three lessons of her on there. Then she told me one day, she said, "Zechariah Zebra does not like to be video taped." I'm like, "Okay, I get the message." She doesn't want to be video taped for a while, but she's doing great. Those lessons are, of course, not perfect, because children are not perfect and don't do things perfectly every time, but it was just a little picture into one student's training for a little bit.
Tim: I found teachers, certainly in my community, they love watching other teachers teach. It's so fundamentally rewarding to see what other teachers are doing. If not for new ideas, just for back up that we all make crazy mistakes, and we all [spiral 00:45:54] sometimes, and that's all totally cool. That's part of being a teacher.
Katherine F.: Tip number five, is to be patient and enjoy the process. Be patient and enjoy the process.
Julie Knerr: Kind of sums everything up. Just that, with students stating repetition and not to rush the early stages, and for teachers just to feel good about that, if you're doing a thorough job, and a careful job of working with your students, then you can just enjoy the process and let it happen, and have fun with that.
Tim: They certainly will have fun with your method, so I encourage anyone to try it out. I'm certainly, I've got no commissions from you or anything like that, it's purely I really love what you're doing. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for the efforts that you're putting into creating this brilliant method, and I hope other teachers try it out.
Julie Knerr: Thank you, and in Australia, we recently got a distributor there. It used to be that you had to pay exorbitant shipping costs from the US, but now you don't have to anymore because we are in-country in Australia, shipping from Melbourne, so we're very happy about that.
Tim: Does that mean on your website, we can buy in Australia dollars or is that US still?
Julie Knerr: Yes.
Tim: Aussie dollars, great.
Katherine F.: Australian dollars.
Tim: Great. Very, very cool. That's another bonus for us over here. Where should people go if they're listening and they're on their treadmill and they just cannot wait to find out more about you? Where do they go?
Katherine F.: They should just go directly to our website, which is, and you can order from our site and find all of those resources I mentioned earlier as well.
Tim: That's great, and so much of it is free online. Really, the only thing you're selling is the books. [crosstalk 00:47:44] method books. Just go on there and start reading, and I guarantee you'll be pretty blown away by the things that these two fabulous women are giving away on their site, and you'll be wanting to try out one of their books for sure. Look, I do commend it to everyone who's listening. Check it out if you're interested in a great beginning approach. Thank you very much for your time. Both of you.
Katherine F.: Thank you.
Julie Knerr: Thank you so much. Thanks for this opportunity, Tim.
Tim: You're absolutely welcome. Will we be able to catch up at NCKP next year in Chicago? You guys going to be there?
Katherine F.: We will, and we'll also be at NTNA in Baltimore.
Tim: Fantastic. Great, well I won't be in Baltimore, but I'll definitely be in Chicago, so I'll look forward to we can have a little hang out. Maybe have a nice chat. That'd be great fun.
Katherine F.: Sounds good.
Tim: All right guys, I'll leave you to it. Thank you so much again for your time, and we'll speak to you soon.
Katherine F.: Thank you.
Julie Knerr: Sounds good, thanks. Bye

What’s your favourite beginner piano method?

Have you tried Piano Safari yet? How do you approach teaching technique?

What do you think about rote teaching, do you teach by rote already?


About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.