We have discovered a marvelous, new approach to learning how to play the piano. As we work with it here in our home, we are discovering not only that Simply Music really does provide a “breakthrough in music education” as advertised but that it also successfully follows Charlotte Mason precepts in a number of areas.
Our 16 year old daughter is a committed classical and opera singer and the oldest of six children ranging in age down to five years old. She has had voice lessons for several years and is deeply immersed in her love of music. However, she has had virtually no training on the piano at all and no music theory. As it is necessary for her training that she be an able pianist, we had to find a way for her to become proficient on the piano. An added factor to all of this is that we moved to deeper country last spring so our ability to go the conventional route of weekly visits with a piano teacher was not even possible. How could she get this much needed piano training?
After puzzling over this for some time, I learned about Simply Music from another homeschooling family online. One morning very early a few months ago, I went to the Simply Music web site. I was very interested in what I saw there so I Googled for any reviews of this fairly new program. I first read this review at The Old Schoolhouse Magazine and then this brief comment by a parent whose child is finally loving to play the piano and is reading music better now through her Simply Music lessons than she ever did before through six years of the usual kind of training. Finally I found the web site You Can Play Piano! in which a long time piano teacher discusses various methods for teaching piano - Alfred, Bastien, Piano Adventures, Suzuki and Simply Music.
This is what she said about Simply Music:
I discovered Simply Music by hearing a student play. Amazing, rhythmically complex music. My jaw dropped. I asked how long the student had been taking lessons. “Oh, about six months!” came the cheerful reply. Other adults were also shaking their heads in wonder.
I transitioned all of my traditional students, over time, to this method. The parents of my students, who were initially very skeptical of a delayed-music-reading approach, are delighted. My students are practicing without being asked. Many of them are composing and improvising on their own.
I encourage you to go read the rest of what she says and particularly read the review in The Old Schoolhouse as well. Glowing, glowing reviews. I went back and looked at the Simply Music site some more. I got so excited that by the time my daughter got out of bed that morning, I was practically jumping up and down in my chair! She had quite a morning greeting from me that day!
Since that time, Carolyn has received both the available DVD’s and is working her way through the first one. As there isn’t a lot of explanatory information on the Simply Music web site, I thought it might be helpful to other homeschooling and particularly Ambleside Online families to learn something of her experience so far so I interviewed her. I should first explain that Carolyn worked on and off through an adult Alfred book for a year or two mostly on her own. Thus, she is also able to compare and contrast her personal experiences between the two approaches. Here is my interview with her:
POTF: Carolyn, can you tell me something about how the playing is taught with Simply Music? We know that it isn’t taught through reading music. But how exactly is it taught?
Carolyn: The Simply Music approach is based upon recognizing and learning patterns both within your fingers, within the keys and within the music itself. Patterns are the building blocks of the method. After learning each pattern, you learn how to combine patterns between both hands and combine them in varying and fresh ways to make music. As you move along, the patterns are elaborated upon, discovered within many kinds of music and then elaborated upon some more.
POTF: Is it paced well? Is it difficult to remember all the patterns?
Carolyn: This program is paced very well. Mr. Moore encourages students to take their time. Of course, when learning from DVD’s, you control how quickly or slowly you move through the lessons anyway. In addition, there are printable sheets - or you can take notes - which remind you of the patterns. Referring to these charts makes playing new music easy. You are reminded of the patterns is a straightforward, easy way.
POTF: You worked so diligently through that Alfred book for so long. How does learning through Simply Music compare?
Carolyn: That Alfred book - and modern approaches in general - teach you to read music and rhythm. Plus you have to read words as well, all at a time when you are new to music and new to the instrument. This is difficult f0r older people and I think would be very difficult for children. Plus what I find in the usual books - and even in the book I was using which was written for adults - is that you play middle C five billion times. Eventually after many lessons that middle C becomes a C chord which only eventually becomes repeated notes held over that C chord. There is nothing exciting about that. It is tedious. All that keeps you going is the vague idea that some day, some day you will be able to play real music.
POTF: So what is the very first lesson like in Simply Music then?
Carolyn: For the first lesson, he tells you, “You are going to play this piece. Let me play it for you.” Then he plays a beautiful, sweet little piece of music called “Dreams Come True.” You hear this and think, “I will be able to play that in 10 to 20 minutes?” I should also add that he sings along while he plays this piece so if you are interested in singing while playing, you are modeled how to do that from the very first lesson.
POTF: Is there anything a student needs to know first before starting Simply Music lessons?
Carolyn: I think it would be very helpful to know the note names and which notes correspond to which keys on the piano. This knowledge is reinforced as you go along through the lessons but I think it would be helpful to be familiar with all of that before you start.
POTF: What kinds of music have you learned about so far on this first DVD?
Carolyn: I have played classical, pop and blues styles of music in just the first couple of lessons! As a matter of fact, I would like to add that the music is so good that it makes me actually want to slow down going through the lessons. From the start, the music is worthwhile enough to linger over. I feel motivated to learn every little thing I can learn from each lesson and each piece. With the modern method and the Alfred book, I zipped along because the music I was induced to play was so artificial. I found this to be the case even with the more advanced pieces. I always wanted to dash ahead with the hopes that soon I would bump up against real music in a lesson. Even a teacher could not have slowed me down going through lessons as effectively as real music has.
POTF: And what is the outcome of going through the lessons more slowly?
Carolyn: Well, I have more confidence. I feel sure that I really know and understand each building block, each component, each piece.
POTF: Do you specifically learn about rhythm? How does he convey rhythm?
Carolyn: He teaches rhythm in terms of ratios of finger strokes between hands. Like two strokes with the right hand for every one in the left hand. Again it is a kind of pattern which makes it easy to remember and easy to feel.
POTF: That is good to have a way to feel rhythm rather than just think about it… How does Mr. Moore (the creator of Simply Music and the teacher on the DVD’s) come across as a teacher?
Carolyn: He is very earnest. You can tell he really cares about anyone watching the DVD’s. He honestly wants every student to succeed and come to love playing real music on the piano. His enthusiasm makes you stop and make sure that you are holding up your end of the bargain. You make sure you are doing what he suggests and take your time doing it.
POTF: How long are the lessons?
Carolyn: The lessons are short. Some are only five minutes. The longest one so far has been maybe twenty minutes at the most. I am not exactly sure. It is a great system, though. You just take the lesson and go. Practice as you will. Feel free to get up in the middle of a lesson, if you are not getting it. When you are ready to go to the next lesson, just do it. It is all very natural and flexible. You might say that it is very student directed rather than teacher directed. Everything is between the student and themselves and the music. I think this is by far the best way to develop an intimate relationship with music. Get to know it on your own terms and in your own timing and with no one telling you how to think about it or feeding you artificial stuff rather than the real thing. There is none of that “twaddle.” I love that word for describing something I can’t stand … twaddle! There is twaddle everywhere, you know? But there isn’t any in Simply Music and I just love that.
POTF: And that is good for the family members who are listening to practice as well! Do you know at what point in the program you start learning how to read music?
Carolyn: I am not exactly sure. I think it is after about a year. After you have learned to play 30 to 40 pieces. You then learn to read something you already know how to play. That will be so much easier than learning to play something you can barely read, don’t you think so?
POTF: Yes definitely. It is the same process we are using for developing language skills with the Ambleside Online curriculum or any truly Charlotte Mason approach to language. First imbibe the richness of stories. Then learn to process stories in your own mind through narration. Then learn phonics and reading. Then learn to write. Then learn other language skills that break down language into component parts. So you move from the richness of the medium to more advanced skill development to an analytical understanding of the medium itself. Likewise in Simply Music, you imbibe the richness of real music. You process what you have heard and felt into a narration onto your keyboard. Then gradually you learn to read music, learn rhythm and other more advanced playing skills and then move on to theory. Is that a fair comparison, do you think?
Carolyn: Why yes, it is just like that. And I think that this same approach to music as what Charlotte Mason taught about the approach to literature or stories is important because listening to music and making music are basic human needs just like listening to stories and making stories are basic human needs. It is important that the foundation for thinking about and making both stories and music is done naturally and with richness and depth. I think these days that individual lives and society in general are impoverished due to lack of real stories and real music and especially due to lack of people creating their own rich stories and music to express themselves and share with others.
POTF: Yes! That is such an important observation. I think it is wonderful, then, to have a system for learning to play piano in which the motivator is the music itself rather than a teacher or a parent or an abstract idea.
Carolyn: I do too. What I appreciate about Simply Music is that it is just that. It is simple. It is not overdone or over processed. Mr. Moore creates a learning environment that is natural. It is like real life in the way that you might hear a friend play something on the piano and you like it and say, “Teach me how to play that.” That friend wouldn’t whip out a formal book that teaches theory and whatnot. They would just show you how to play the piece and then you would try it out while the friend was sitting there with you.
POTF: Only Simply Music isn’t literally casual, right? I mean there is a structure to it and theory behind it? Do you get that sense?
Carolyn: Oh yes. The program is very well thought out and sophisticated. And after a little while it leads right to playing in a conventional way. With a Simply Music type of foundation or introduction, eventually even playing conventionally will be more effective and more enjoyable. I am sure of that.
POTF: What about people who already have some experience learning to play in the usual textbook sort of way? Do you think that switching to the Simply Music approach would represent backtracking for such a student?
Carolyn: No, not at all. Didn’t you tell me about a piano teacher who switched all of her traditionally taught students over to Simply Music? Yes. I think that this approach would be good for people who have already learned some dynamics and fingering and so on because this approach brings so much zest.
POTF: What about for younger children and older people who have never played?
Carolyn: Oh, I think that the Simply Music program would be a wonderful path of discovery for people who have never played the piano at all or really even had a music education at all.
POTF: What about for you as a singer? I know that you think of yourself as a singer primarily rather than as a pianist and we got you this program to support your singing. Are you seeing results along this line for yourself?
Carolyn: Most definitely. Simply Music is simply wonderful for singers who want desperately to accompany themselves but cannot. Without good piano skills, as a singer you can’t play what you are getting at with your singing. This is enormously frustrating and limiting. Mr. Moore has a focus on accompaniment from the very start and it continues as a sort of track throughout the program. Being able to accompany oneself helps singers be in a position to perform in many more venues. It also puts them in a position to make money as a singer and also be able to teach voice to other aspiring singers.
POTF: That is wonderful. And looking towards the future is important too. It seems that Simply Music can help you towards your future goals both in terms of being a singer and in terms of being a music teacher. Right?
Carolyn: Yes, I love, love, love to sing. But I also love to teach. Through Simply Music I will be in a position to teach both piano and voice and be able to work from home at a high hourly rate. I am starting now to move towards a vocation and avocation that I can combine with family life. I am very pleased about that.
POTF: Wow. It is sort of a whole package for you, isn’t it?
Carolyn: Yes. For me it is because I am already so passionate about music. But even for people for whom music may not be an all-consuming life passion (!), Simply Music is wonderful because it opens up a whole world in a beautiful, natural, effective way.
POTF: That is high praise indeed. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Carolyn: Well, just this I guess. I appreciate that Simply Music allows students to reach goals as well as meet an immediate need to create music rather than leaving you to fulfill a teacher’s goal of creating a polished musician before the student has really even gotten in touch with his or her own musicality. I think the need to create music and feel music is universal, even if it is often forgotten about these days. Having this Simply Music program for learning how to play real piano available to me is making me happy. I now have another avenue for pursuing my passion for music. I am happy.
This interview with my daughter was very revealing to me. Although I was listening to her practice all the time, I had no idea how closely Simply Music follows Charlotte Mason precepts until Carolyn and I talked about it in depth. Apparently short lessons, narrations, no twaddle, living music, and not getting between the student and the material is effective for teaching music just as much as it is for every other subject. And now through Simply Music, such an enlivening approach is available to all.
From the beautiful mountains of southwest Virginia,
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