Turning Points in The History of Piano Instruction

by Mark Almond

Here is a full written answer to a music educator’s question dealing with the main turning points in the history of music education. This explains why piano teachers and music educators continually jump to false conclusions about the Piano for Life program. It also explains why at least two Juilliard graduates and dozens of other piano teachers use our program as a supplement that provides concrete practical materials that lead to a more efficient and a more complete mastery of the instrument.

I have included his e-mail to me first:

Dear Mark,

I first came across your Piano for Quitters video when I was living in New York about 10 years ago. I was just getting started as a piano teacher back then, though I had played and taught drums for many years before that. I had also trained as a music therapist, and my experiences in that field had already shown me just how limiting and stressful the conventional approach to music teaching is. I found your video absolutely riveting, and I still use some of your techniques today (with appropriate credit to you and recommendations that people should buy your DVD!)

I am now writing a book on music teaching and I remembered your words about the history of piano teaching, how Beethoven and Mozart would have been taught the rules of harmony and told to improvise using these, before they would have learned scales and studied piano literature. You also made some very telling points about the proliferation of written piano methods and the subsequent decline in enthusiasm for piano playing. I am wondering where you found this information. The limited research I have done in this field so far has shown me that there is no actual comprehensive history of music teaching in general, or piano teaching in particular, and I wondered if you could point me towards any reference sources that you have found helpful in this area. I’d be grateful for any help you feel able to give.

Once again, congratulations on your method and your DVD. Keep up the good work.

Best wishes, and thanks in advance,

Paul Cavaciuti


In a more complete answer to important questions about the history of music education, here are some of the main turning points in the history of piano instruction. While reviewing these points, I have decided to add some clarifications as to how I have hinted, in brief, at some of these things on my web site. My site certainly must appear to be too radical for most music educators.

Many years ago, while reading Schonberg’s history of pianists, I well remember the impact it had on me to learn that virtually all pianists, young and old, in the 18th and 19th centuries had the ability to improvise and compose, in addition to the fact that they could also read music. Until the 19th century the tradition in performance was dominated by the practice of performing only music that the performer had written. This is conclusive evidence that harmony was taught on a much deeper level. This is easier to explain than most educators can imagine. I do believe that it has been a tradition all along to teach harmony using the classical system (which is in fact overly complex once you analyze the underlying elements). But I do not believe that it was just Jean Philippe Rameau alone who threw light on the subject by pointing out that all harmony was based on only two primary building blocks – – major and minor thirds. Others must have also had effective ways of breaking down the nature of harmony based on the results of that period. Rameau, however, was the very first to reduce all of the complexity in music down to its simple essence in the most concise and practical way possible. This changed the entire world of music education at the time. The much harder thing to explain is how this tremendous insight into harmony could possibly be buried by instructional methods that do not work nearly as well.

Teachers and the students at that time lived in very different circumstances minus all of the distractions we live with now in the modern world. They had a level of dedication and focus which is harder for people to achieve today. This is one of the reasons they mastered the subject and materials of harmony even though the theoretical and text book material was overly complex. In addition, all of the children who showed promise, when the family could afford it, were given two teachers – a piano teacher and a composition teacher. We must believe, based on the results, that a percentage of the composition teachers had the ability to introduce students to the massive and convoluted “scales first – then the chords” classical approach in a creative manageable way. It is also true that sustained concentration over a long period of time will lead certain individuals to the place of being able to see the design of music even if the classical “scale analysis” of music is too indirect and too detailed to be of much help in the early stages.

The main problem I have with the traditional classical system of teaching harmony is that it is a horrible introduction to harmony for students at an early stage of development. For more advanced students, it is helpful and even necessary to see the relation of the various chords to the layout of the scales, so I have no problem with the classical method at that point. My contention is simply that everyone is much better off by first understanding that there is a “trunk” and also “larger limbs” to the design of music. I believe that it can be demonstrated that diving quickly into the detail of the “leaves” in disregard of the actual underlying design of music is significantly damaging to students and has many negative aspects that will lead to a variety of problems.

Even in recent years, I have run into a few teachers who insert very helpful insights into harmony, apart from the influence of the Piano for Life material. We found one teacher who breaks down the chords by counting from the root note: for playing major chords he says Play tone 1 – Play 5 – Play 8 when counting by 1/2 steps (too complex, however, for a simplification!). A few other teachers I have run into have seen, on their own, I presume, that all of the basic chords are simply combinations of the major and minor third intervals. I maintain that this has been happening all through history, like the example of Reisenauer’s mother being able to explain the essence of harmony in one lesson, one of the quotes we feature in the DVD lessons.

The biggest factor in moving away from effectively teaching harmony was the gradual and major shift in the attitudes and beliefs of influential musicians in the late 1800s. This worldwide trend was questioning whether the rules of harmony had any validity at all. This crescendo mounted until the early 1900s when the vast majority of composers were openly breaking free of  the “old fashioned rules of harmony” by criticizing how primitive, limiting, and nonsensical they were. This was a much larger factor than most people realize and it became pervasive to the point that teachers were ashamed to be “old fashioned” and ashamed to teach in a way that was perceived at that time to be unenlightened. This more than any other factor explains why to this day the main emphasis is on learning to read notes almost to the exclusion of everything else. Method books were dramatically influenced by this trend and mass produced on this philosophy which was summed up in Piano for Quitters simply as ” the mass production of teaching systems” since there is no time in a short intro to deal with this controversial subject. The method books after 1900 claim to teach harmony – but they do it only through, and limited by, a note reading approach. Harmony in fact is not taught in these method books because it is not explained or illustrated adequately. It was not explained or properly taught for decades because valid rules of harmony were believed not to exist! The old system was viewed as archaic and simplistic. It was described not just as unnecessary, but actually as damaging to students! Part of this was for sure a reaction to the unnecessarily complex way that harmony was being taught, but overall this is one of the most extreme historical examples of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

What needs to be recovered and demonstrated is the reality that music does in fact have a clear substructure that is tied directly to the emotional reactions of human beings. What the “enlightened” composers of the 20th century produced in terms of “the new music” never took hold in terms of popularity with the public because it was clever and intellectual only while at the same time emotionally empty. Even today these pieces and works, called 20th century atonal music, are performed only as novelties and curiosities. Rachmaninoff, while criticized relentlessly at the time as a relic of the past, is a great example of a composer whose music has endured. He is today nearly worshiped as a master of the “subtleties of harmony.” Liszt also had this ability to stretch dissonance to its limit in a musically effective way, but in the case of both of these composers, practically everything they did was built on the foundation of the traditional rules of harmony. In the Liszt B Minor Sonata, for example, even the most dissonant sounds are usually a single tone temporarily added to, or put against, one of the common chords – but there is always a resolution to traditional harmony in these phrases.

My goal over the years, since I could never find it anywhere, was to flesh out a step by step demonstration of the nature of harmony. Harmony has always been understood by at least a small percentage of teachers all throughout history. If their breakdowns and explanations exist, I have only been able to find small snippets and individual descriptive comments about their teaching. Liszt’s students have said that he emphasized certain insights like “all complex structures in music have simple parts.” This is a great statement and I am sure Liszt had many effective illustrations to back it up. However, I have never been able to find detailed practical illustrations by any composer or composition teacher that would help to introduce these concepts at a realistic pace. Even Rameau failed miserably to illustrate his basic insight about thirds – as far as his book is concerned. What he may have done by way of illustration in lessons at the time did not survive. What we can find in countless theory textbooks is a grueling introduction to complex scale structures that in effect hide and mask the simple design of every basic harmonic structure. The real crime is that the underlying design of music, the basic tonal relationships that create all music, actually make sense immediately to everyone who sees a proper demonstration, including very young children.

In my view, ironically, a clear introduction into the nature of chords and chord progressions is a perfect introduction for learning all of the scales – and for becoming more skilled as a sight reader. Chords and scales can even be taught at the same time. This is always what I do when I work with piano teachers. It may not seem like it, but I view all of the various scales as extremely important in their proper place. But I also believe that reversing the natural order has been a devastating disaster from an educational standpoint. This always sounds extreme except to the very few people who are in a position to make the comparison. Anyone with a solid background in composition would certainly agree that mastering a classical piano piece is at a minimum ten times easier if the harmonic structures, or chords, are fully understood at the outset. Seeing underlying patterns helps in all aspects of practicing.  We should see every piece of music as a creative display of how chords can be used – chords that we already know before we start learning any particular piece.

Another great irony is that students introduced to the art of aggressively playing chord progressions can actually become the best sight readers! This will happen provided they are also given practical tips and effective drills for improving their note reading. The patterns they master mentally and physically while playing chords are the same exact patterns they will find while reading music. Fully half the battle has been won – while playing very powerful music, without reading notes at all. Not to mention the obvious fact that people who can play inspiring music, starting in their very first piano lesson, are much less likely to become discouraged and quit.

Paderewski tells of how they could not find him a “real” piano teacher as a child. They did find a man who could only explain the layout of the notation system since he was not a “real” piano teacher. Paderewski became a great note reader and I believe this was a big part of it. Most often, the one thing that most teachers don’t do is explain the layout of the staff as a whole – which should be the very first thing we do! Sadly enough, a constant recurring theme through history is how the “outsiders” with no access, or limited access, to traditional instruction became the top pianists. I have some pointed things to say about that phenomenon! I can’t remember who said it, but one author commented that Chopin’s originality would have been destroyed by a traditional piano teacher – with which I completely agree. How many “Chopins” have been destroyed? Perhaps more important, how many can we help rather than hurt if we just have the courage to question, analyze, and make needed corrections to an entrenched tradition that operates like a giant ship with no one at the helm.

The Piano for Life approach will always be perceived by piano teachers and the general public as just another “chord method,” some kind of plan B alternative in contrast to the established, traditional, “correct” way of learning to play the piano. The actual goal and mission of Piano for Life is to give full weight and due respect to the true masters of the piano who have always warned about the consequences of any approach that is not complete. Music has clear structure and design. This can be demonstrated in a very short period of time – minutes not hours. This has momentous implications for brand new beginners. For those who have built their pianistic ability primarily  through the skill of reading music, a deeper knowledge of harmonic structures has a dramatic impact. This is true especially when the knowledge goes beyond the theoretical to the physical mastery by the means of playing chord progressions aggressively.

There is a sensitive subject that is almost never dealt with. Almost all piano teachers insist that students do not look down at the keyboard when they are reading the music. By itself, this really is a very important thing to develop as much as possible all throughout your life. However, something radically changes when students are asked to memorize and perform a piece from memory. What are we looking at while we play from memory? We are now doing something that we have never done because we have been told it is a very bad habit. We are looking directly at the keys while we perform. Students trained through a strict note reading method are at this point out of their element on a deeply subconscious level. History provides perspective on this subject. The vast majority of the very top pianists, when it comes to explaining their success in live performance, had a broad background of experiences that went far beyond just sitting at the piano reading notes. They all spent significant time at the keyboard improvising, composing, and creating their own technique exercises independent of music notation. It should be no surprise that they had a tremendous advantage when it came to performing from memory. This is strong historical evidence that a deep understanding of harmony is also the central key to performance skills. Even if some individuals only want to play for their own enjoyment, they desperately need to know that there is a realistic and practical way to reach their goals. The mastery of harmony can and should be both mental and physical. Seeing and understanding the design of music and then pushing this through our fingers by aggressively playing chord progressions is one of the central building blocks for overall success.

I hope some of this is helpful in your extremely important work of writing about music education! I hope you are wildly successful at reaching many people and leading them to a deeper understanding of music.


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