Today’s question is from one of our Patreon supporters, Fred Jones. He asks,
“Your opinion on using outside songs with workbooks. For example, I am using Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course #1 as my workbook. I also bought a book of level 1 Christmas music because the songs seemed like they would be fun to work on as winter approaches. How much time should be spent on specific songs vs. progressing through a workbook?”
How long method books take
The obligatory simple answer to this is that different students progress at different rates through their books.
That being said, I always have a timeline in mind when I’m teaching students. For kids, that timeline is 2-3 years of “musical kindergarten” before reaching level 1. The amount of time this takes depends largely on their age, their adeptness, and their practice habits.
I like to follow a similar trajectory for adults. Most committed adults can get through “musical kindergarten” in 1 year. Using some popular method books as examples, this means:
Alfred for Adults 1: 6 months
Alfred for Adults 2: 6 months
Piano Adventures Adults 1: 6 months
Piano Adventures Adults 2: 6 months
In real life teaching, it’s seldom this cut-and-dry. Maybe the student has a really motivated first 4 months, and we power through the first book. But then maybe life gets in the way during the second book, and it takes 8 months.
But in general, this timeline is my starting point.
After the method books
After a year of these method books (or similar), you can then move into the main series of either book. For Piano Adventures, it moves into level 3a after the second adult book, and I think it’s similar for the Alfred series.
You can also choose to discard these method books and just get into some of the Grade 1 books instead (like the RCM Celebration Series, or the equivalent ABRSM book).
Supplemental books and music
So that answers the question of how long I typically like to spend with these books. However, it’s almost never an exclusive thing – meaning the student almost always has other books, or at the very least other pieces I provide them.
This is so important. The method books are great for giving guidance, but don’t usually make for the most exciting pieces to play. Some of them can be really fun, but few are what I would call “performance pieces”, or “show off to your friends pieces”.
So supplemental books and music are great. I would recommend having 1-2 pieces on the side while you’re doing your regular method book practice. These pieces will almost definitely take longer to learn. A method book piece can usually be learned in 1-2 weeks, but I like to spend more time with supplemental material – often a month.
On a weekly basis, it might look something like this:
Method book piece #1
Method book piece #2
The next week, you would move on to learn 1 or 2 new method book pieces, but keep the same supplemental piece around for longer.
How much time to spend on supplemental music?
Now as far as how much time to spend on supplemental pieces versus method book stuff, I would go anywhere from half-and-half to 2/3rd to 1/3rd. So your weekly playing might look like this:
Method book piece #1 (10m)
Method book piece #2 (10m)
Supplemental piece (20-30m)
This is just a general guideline, but it’s more or less what I’d recommend for my own students. The one caveat is that sometimes supplemental pieces end up dominating the method book pieces, because the students like them more.
This is problematic, because the method book helps build basic skills. Try not to lose balance and spend most of your time on the “fun” supplemental stuff.
Exceptions to this are when certain events come around, like Christmas. In the last couple weeks leading up to a Christmas performance, for example, we’ll almost entirely abandon the method book in order to really polish the Christmas piece. Same thing happens for music festival.
So if certain things are coming up in your life – maybe you want to share a Christmas piece or two with your family – it’s not a big deal to tip the scale for a few weeks to have adequate preparation time. But in general, you want to give the method book at least as much attention as you do to the supplemental stuff.