Why I love Piano Safari for beginners

I've been using the Piano Safari method for beginning students for three years now. I don't have a very busy studio, so that doesn't add up to a lot of students, but I still love it all the same. Here's what I like:

Rote Pieces: 

The Rote pieces worked into the method allow students to play harder music before they can read it. It encourages good listening and observation, good musicianship, and lots of movement. I don't worry about my students thinking they will always play in C positions. These pieces also get both hands involved right away!

No Hand Positions:

All the songs in the first book start on landmark notes. However, that doesn't mean they stay stuck in C position. The students play all around those notes, learning to identify and remember them first, and finding everything else by interval. They also move by octave relatively quickly. I've found that for beginners, all octaves are the same to them, so it is easy to move around the keyboard.

Intervals! 

There is a strong emphasis on learning to read by interval (the distance between two notes), instead of just by note name. This is HUGE because this is how they will continue to need to read for life. I don't name notes in my head as I play, but I automatically connect note names and lines and spaces together, paying more attention to how far away things are than what the actual note name is. 

8th Notes:

Some methods wait to introduce 8th notes for way too long. Piano Safari introduces them right away, allowing students to play more complex rhythms right from the beginning. They count using modified Kolday syllables, which are very similar to what most students are taught in school. This allows students to be able to understand and play rhythms without adding more numbers (numeric counting) into the mix.

Technique Book:

There is a technique book that accompanies the repertoire book. This book teaches how to approach the playing piano, using fun animal movements to help memory. I have my students do these exercises over and over each week so that they become comfortable holding their hands the right way, and learn how to make different kinds of sound with different kinds of motions. This is NOT something that is included in all beginner books!

Sight Reading Cards:

There are also sight reading cards that correlate with each unit in the book. These are a way for students to work on being able to play melodies and rhythms accurately the first time.  Sight reading is a skill  that is difficult to teach, but hugely necessary as a pianist down the road. These sight reading cards will set your student on the right path from the very beginning. 

Playing in Lots of  Keys:

Once you get into the second Piano Safari book, students are introduced to many different keys, both major and minor, and do technique work in all of them. This is an excellent way to teach them 5-finger scales, and to have students become comfortable playing in almost any key.  

I could go on, but those are the highlights for me as a teacher. 

The only cons I have found so far are these:

The Skips Alphabet

The only thing I have found that regularly confuses students is the skips alphabet. In Piano Safari book 2, the note names for the whole staff is introduced as the skips alphabet (GBDFACE...) repeating all the way up the staff. This makes sense to me, as a seasoned musician, but I find my students have a hard time handling that many note names at once.  I teach it using the method that authors outline in their blog, but my students always have a hard time with it. In more than one instance, my students revert to the more common mnemonics (FACE, All Cows, Eat, Grass, etc) without me ever teaching them those mnemonics. I'm not sure who introduces them to alternate methods, but they all seem to prefer them. In the end, it doesn't really matter how they are taught all the names of lines and spaces, as long as they eventually learn them. 

No Ear Training

The amount of ear training in most beginner books is dismal. It is thrown in as part of the theory book, but not really enough to do anyone much good. Piano Safari does not have any included in their method, though a teacher could easily add it on their own. The best book I have found for including ear training (and singing intervals) so  far is Celebrate Piano!, which is my second favorite overall beginner method (but my favorite for Pre K and Kindergarten beginners) .

Summer (finger exercise) Games

I've been noticing poor hand technique in some of my younger students for a while and trying valiantly to help them fix it. However, there are only so many analogies I can give and so many times I can remind them in each lesson and during each song to lift their wrists and bend their pinkies. After all, there are other things I am trying to teach them as well!

Good hand technique is something you have to consciously work towards until it enters your sub-conscience and your muscles remember what to do. It also means students need to spend a decent amount of time watching their hands to see what they are doing and correcting it if necessary. "But you told me not to look at my hands!", my students say when I ask them to watch what they are doing. I have to remind them that there is a time and a place for both looking at their hands and for looking at their music.

So to help them spend some quality watching their hands, I decided to dedicate this summer to just that: hand technique. And because the summer is a time that most students are less likely to practice and tend to miss lessons, I made it a game and added an incentive.   

(If this looks like a rug as a background... it is. The walls of the studio are covered with rugs, so I try to work with what I have.)

I've compiled eight exercises that they will play in four different keys. We'll cover all 12 five-finger scales this summer while they work through the eight exercises. They get two tries for each key and must play them perfectly (in all four keys) without any yellow card infractions (World Cup, anyone?) to complete the exercise. The infractions are:

  • flat fingers (especially pinkies)
  • heel of hand on the piano
  • incorrect rhythms
  • incorrect notes
  • inconsistent tempo

If that sounds a little tough, it is on purpose. This is my chance to demand excellence and get them to really think about what their hands are doing. 

Here's a look at the first exercise:

The circles under each key correspond to white keys and black keys. I have the students color in the circles that will be played as black keys. (I got this concept from Piano Safari and find it really helps the younger students to have another visual). The exercises gradually get harder, but every one of them is written in C major and is short enough to be easily memorized. 

While I intend to go over every key with my students, the last exercise is a review of the seven white key five finger scales:

Their prize is one homemade rice krispie treat for each exercise they complete by Sept. 4th. That's 10 weeks of lessons to finish eight exercises! I'm excited to see how they do this summer.  

Making a Music Whiteboard

I made this whiteboard a little while ago for my students (based on a blog post from Pianosafari.com about learning notes on the staff). The letters are magnets with sticky cardstock (yep, that's a thing. No more glue!) I used stamps to make the letters since my handwriting isn't always that neat.

I drew the lines on with permanent marker and hoped for the best. Well, about two months later, this is how it looks: 

The lines disappeared little by little as the white board markers went over the permanent marker lines. So I went to Staples to try a new solution. Art tape:

(AKA white board tape)

I just applied this over my existing lines...

It is slightly raised, so I hope it doesn't ruin my markers. But since I can't find a white board like this (magnetic, small enough to fit in a messenger bag, with staff lines...) I guess I can buy new markers when I need to do so.

And here is my new board in use!

Ready for more student ab... use!!

And if you are wondering if you should make one too, I'd say ABSOLUTELY! 

Since I teach in several different locations, I have to take all my materials with me. This cuts down on photocopying staff paper just for little exercises,  makes playing games easier, and allows students to practice writing notes, and so much more. Plus, it is the perfect size to stick in my messenger bag. 

Technique Review

My hands-down favorite method for beginners (right now) is Piano Safaricreated by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr. Two years ago, I started teaching some beginner students, and kept running into the same problems with all of my beginners. (Now, some of it might have been my teaching... but not all). Most of my students struggled with remembering notes names on the staff, playing hands together, and just in general their music moving ahead too quickly. Since they were (and still are) young and impatient, they did not want to spend weeks learning music, but if I moved on too quickly they would soon get lost.

(Disclaimer: I think piano lessons are great for teaching patience and diligence, but that wasn't the ONLY thing I wanted to teach!)

One method book that I was using expected them to memorize a few new notes each week and it just wasn't happening, even with lots of review and games in their lessons, flash cards at home, and other incentives. So, I was on the search for something new. I read articles, blogs, looked into books, and somewhere during my quest to find the "perfect" method book I found Piano Safari. Everything I read about it made so much sense that I loved it without even seeing it. Then I found out the authors were re-writing the books and I had to wait almost a whole year to get one in my hands!

Fast forward to now, and I am happily using this method with my students. The students who had problems with rhythms love doing the sight reading every week with modified Kodaly syllables. The students who came to me week after week not remembering their staff now accurately identify their starting notes with confidence. Most of my students enjoy learning to play pieces hands together by rote and watching the reminder videos  during the week. (As a general rule, I'm not too into rote teaching, but this method is changing my mind a little). And the techniques represented by safari animals are great!  However, I've found that my students get tired of practicing them week after week to get them just right.

Now, I'm sure Piano Safari's teacher handbook (which has great teaching ideas, by the way) has something to say about this, but here is my solution: technique remixes. I've been writing technique review sheets so students can play through them as a warm up each day and in their lesson. This way they are still practicing the same thing, but have it presented in a new way, and have a piece of paper to take home to remind them what they are doing. It's a win-win!

(The Piano Safari authors are working on their second book right now. I hope they finish in time for me to continue using their books!)

UPDATE 4/23/13: After trying this with a student, I found that the alternating hands (on the first and last line) was difficult for students to understand as it moved back and forth more quickly than most of their music does. Since this is meant to be a review, and not super hard, I edited those lines to make it a bit easier.

UPDATE 6/12/2014: I've actually moved away from using these review sheets, despite the popularity of this post. I tried a new approach with a few students and it worked much better. I treated each technique as a warm up that we did at the beginning of each lesson.  I continued to do them and assign them until they were perfected. This way the student got into the habit of playing a warm up every time they practiced, and since we treated them differently than songs they weren't as antsy to move on.