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Some thought on different piano methods and cultural context

There are a lot of traditional methods to teach piano: Faber's and Alfred's books, Suzuki method, Russian piano school (Artobolevskaya, Nikolayeva) and just some of them. The strength of traditional methods is that they give a solid foundation about music concepts and develop piano technique (in other words, you play a lot of exercises to make your fingers move faster in order to play more complicated repertoire later, mostly classical). Also these methods develop patience, diligence, attention to details, and other good work habits.


The problem with this approach is that for most students the repertoire is not very exciting. If you go by the book only, most students get bored not because of the concepts, but because of repertoire. However, young kids under the age of 8-9 often don't really know what they want to play, and this is when methods books become very handy. But for older students it is very important to know what music they want to play. Often it is not classical -- it can be something from movies or their favorite rock bands or other pop culture. Sometimes student's choices do not seem interesting for teachers, but it is actually the best tool to keep them motivated and make them practice more. You can use it as a leverage to spark their interest in piano and music, and you have to at least include pieces of their choice in their repertoire.


Here is one recent example. Our friends visited us last week. Their son has been studying piano for a few years using Suzuki method. He enjoys playing piano, self-motivated, plays his favorite tunes by ear, and now he wants to learn the 1st movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata! But his teacher did not assign him this piece. Technically it is not a hard piece, it is slow (but beautiful!), and it is a beginner's repertoire. And there is so much artistry you can learn from this piece: voicing, tempo, tempo stretches and dynamics to emphasize some interesting harmonies, and even the history behind the piece (Moonlight is not Beethoven's title, he never gave a name to this piece, and in fact it is way more deep and tragic than just a music about the moonlight... compare it to Debussy's Claire De Lune!) But the main thing is that he wants to play it all the time! 

I think one of the reasons teachers don't let students play certain pieces is in the mindset of a professional concert piano player. They are used to master every piece to perfection, meaning that you have to move gradually and gradually increase your technical level. If you don't have enough technique to play a piece, you continue with exercises and easier pieces. But the only technique you need to have for Moonlight sonata is fingers long enough to reach an octave. If you have that you can play it!

Is it that important to master every piece to perfection? I think that staying motivated, keeping practicing and enjoying your own performance is way more important. 

There is a famous quote of Beethoven: "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable". 

Even if a piece has a few bars that are too hard, but the student is passionate to learn the piece, there are a few things you can do. Of course you should try to learn the hard moment first. Start your practice not from the beginning of a piece, but straight from this hard moment. If after some time you realize it is still too hard, you can either:

- simplify it (chose which notes are less important and throw them away... e.g. if the chord is too big for your hands, play only that part that you can reach)

- find away how to "cut out" that moment and transition to the next one

- find an easier arrangement of this piece (there are a lot of them on internet)

Now a few thoughts about Suzuki method.

I actually like a lot of things about this approach, and this is how most professional concert piano players start at the young age.

This method is based on "mother tongue" approach. Children are taught music as if they were being immersed in a foreign language. They are exposed to music, learning to listen to the piece before any attempt at reproducing the song is made. Sight reading music is not taught until the child is successful with reproducing music by ear. Since children learn to play music “by ear,” they learn to play music with feeling. Music does not sound mechanical or halting as a child tries to decipher sheet music.​

Then later children learn sight reading, though.

The only problem with Suzuki method is that significant parent's involvement is required. If parents treat piano lessons just as a day care for their child, then Suzuki method is not for them. At such young age (3-7) children need help with their piano studies. If you want your kid to actually start playing at this age, your should attend lesson with your child, and the teacher is going in fact to teach both of you, so you could help your child practice at home. Parents should also sing to the child frequently – even if the voice quality is off-key, children learn by listening and will develop a basic ear for music. Singing is the most important first step in training the ear for music. Parents should pay attention to a hand posture and how their child sits at the piano: it is something young pianists often forget and end up with the wrong posture and tension in their arms. Parents are also expected to playback music assigned by a teacher for their child at home. These will be not only songs but also piano and orchestral classical pieces so the child is exposed to this kind of music from a very early age. 

As you see, it is a lot, and it is understandable that not every parent has time and energy to be involved that much. The children of professional musicians usually grow up in such environment where music is their primary language, and this is how they become world famous concert soloists. That's why most world class musicians are actually at least a second-generation musicians in the family.

However, historically Shinichi Suzuki's main goal was not to create professional musicians but to create better citizens of the world: “If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart." So the method is designed for any kid who wants to learn.