I have a Master of Music degree and a 30+ year performing career. I watched many other musicians fail, and I figured out the difference.
Many people want to learn how to play piano. There are two basic methods of teaching classical piano: the European method and the American method. (This article refers only to the way piano methods are generally taught in the United States, and the way they are generally taught in Europe, not to some academic distinctions; this article is intended as a general guide for parents and students, and should not be construed as academically rigorous. This distinction results from my own private observations, from having studied with a number of different teachers in both Europe and the United States of America. I have no experience with Asian teachers, or African teachers.) The styles of teaching piano come from entirely different philosophies and historical backgrounds, and usually have different goals. These two also produce startlingly different results, so if you are considering beginning piano lessons, whether for an adult or a child, it's vitally important to learn the difference between the two, and pick the piano method that best suits your needs. Otherwise, you may end up being disappointed with your results, and wasting your money.
The European Method
The European piano method developed in, as you might guess, Europe. At the time the piano was introduced in the 1700s, Europeans had already achieved a remarkable standard of performance and, as time went on, the number of teachers available could hardly meet the demand for training beginning piano students. Therefore, the Europeans had a need for turning out highly-skilled musicians in a very short period of time, and over the centuries had perfected their pedagogy for that very purpose--to produce performers to fill the overwhelming public demand for concert pianists.
The American Method
The American method of piano pedagogy was developed in the 1800s, and had an entirely different purpose. At this time, there was little demand in America for skilled concert pianists, outside of the large cities. However, there was an urgent demand for entertainment--without radio, TV, newspapers, or access to books, the Western frontier was ripe for amateur musicians, who could play a simple tune on a piano, with some accompanying chords, to keep people amused after their day's work. So there was a need for piano method books where someone with a little knowledge could teach others, and provide a large number of different pieces of music quickly, even if those pieces were much simpler than the sonatas and concertos demanded of European pianists. In addition, there was a large demand that "progress" be shown, as this was part of the American character, especially in the time frame of approximately fifty years on either side of the Industrial Revolution.
What is Sightreading?
Sightreading is much more than knowing the names of the notes and where to find them on the keyboard. After all, reading text is knowing more than the names of the letters!
At a high level of sightreading, the musician should be able to look at a piece of music with understanding, and even be able to "hear" it, just as when you read text, you can "hear" the words in your head.
Typical "European Method" Books
"European Method" Repertoire Books
A good first book for beginners in the European method is Bartok's First Term at the Piano, also known by its catalogue number, Sz. 53. Taught properly, the pieces are arranged so that a beginner can understand some of the basics of sightreading and begin to play with both hands in just one half-hour lesson.
Once a student works through that book, typically teachers work with sets of dances, sets of variations, or other pieces which comprise short pieces, to help students understand development and work towards longer pieces. Some typical second-year pieces might include Beethoven dances, Mozart variations, Schubert waltzes, or similar pieces. Again, the skill of the teacher will be essential in determining the student's progress.
Details of the European Method
The European piano method concentrates primarily on those skills needed for performance: sightreading, an understanding of the basics of theory and analysis, the finger skills needed for playing difficult passages, and the practice of scales, chords, and arpeggios at a high level of execution--for almost all "Western" music--the kind familiar to most people--is built upon some core combination of scales, arpeggios, and chords. Therefore the more familiar pianists are with these three technical skills of playing, the faster and more skilfully they can play almost any piece of music written for piano.
Whether someone intends to play piano professionally or not, the European pedagogical piano method achieves a high level of competence very quickly, and although there is a lot of emphasis on the core technical skills of playing, much emphasis is given to the proper interpretation of music from the start of lessons. Sightreading may be taught as early as the first lesson, even for very young children (every professional pianist and most piano teachers agree that good sightreading is one of the most valuable--and least taught--skills). Sightreading makes the difference between someone who has taken lessons a long time and can't remember how to play anything, and someone who has taken lessons and can play most pieces of music after some practice.
Most teachers who teach the European piano method require only a few pieces of repertoire per year, although these pieces may be several pages long even in the second year. Students are not assigned a new piece of repertoire until they have mastered the expression of the composition: tempo, dynamics, phrasing, expressiveness, and musicality of the current piece.
Typical "American Method" books
Details of the American Method
The American piano method is usually very simplified when compared to the European piano method. A foolproof way of identifying a primer book in the American method is to see if there is a piece where the student plays "Middle C" repeatedly. This is a uniquely American practice and never takes place in serious European-style piano teaching, no matter how young the student.
The American piano method ignores technical exercises in scales, arpeggios and chords for the first few years, and concentrates on note recognition (naming the notes), simple, easily-achieved songs, and an emphasis on "progress" by performing one simple piece after another.
Which is the "Right" Piano Method?
The right piano method depends on your goals. If you intend for you (or your child) never to be serious about the piano, the American piano method (which is the most popular in the United States) will probably be best. If you intend only to learn the names of the notes and to kind of get an idea about the piano, this piano method will probably suit you. Also this piano method may be right if you don't want to develop the patience necessary for mastering the necessary technical skills for classical music and just want to be able to play something.
However, if you intend to have the possibility ever to play seriously, you will achieve faster and better results with the European method of piano pedagogy. Although this requires a concentration on technical skills, which may take several years to master, the mastery of those skills will give you the ability to play almost any piece of music easily after a few years' instruction. If you have any hope of playing classical music, ever, you should seek out a teacher who specializes in the European piano method.
Learn How Your Body Works, and Prevent RSI
A Note about Repetitive Stress Injury
Repetitive Stress Injury, or RSI, develops in 98% of piano players after five years or less of playing. This is caused by a common misunderstanding about "curved fingers" at the piano. It is not enough to have curved fingers--a piano teacher must have a thorough understanding of the biomechanical aspects of hand function in order to teach students to avoid RSI.
If you ask a prospective teacher about RSI and the teacher does not talk about anything other than "curved fingers," please keep looking. I have known pianists whose parents had, between lessons, private schools, summer camps, university, etc. spent over $200,000 on their children's music education, only to develop RSI and not only were they not able to play piano, they were not able to hold a fork, open a door with a key, write, type on a computer, pick up a piece of paper, or use a mouse without enormous difficulty and pain. Curved fingers are the result of proper technique, not the means to it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2010 classicalgeek
classicalgeek (author) on September 26, 2012:
I usually refer those who want the American method to another teacher. I find that there are plenty of people who want the more traditional (18th-century) methods to keep my studio as full as I can manage. Remember, too, that the European methods require much more of the teacher, as well, because of the patience and discipline, as well as extensive knowledge of the repertoire, required to teach it.
jamila sahar on September 18, 2012:
fascinating hub. as a pianist / educator i would say i generally encourage and teach the european methods as that has been the backgound of my first teachers. however, i have found most american piano students do not have the patience and discipline required of mastering the technique, repertoire and musicianship of european piano methods. they want to 'hurry up' and learn the most easiest 'song' possible and if a piece is more than one page they quickly loose interest and patience in taking the time to learn, really learn the classics. for me, piano performance is an art and i try to share this art with my students. but after reading this hub, i realize i need to be flexible and offer the simple american method of teaching for those who just want to learn to play simple easy songs, are not interested in developing a strong technique. perhaps one in every ten students has the interest in learning and studying piano through the european methods. so, i will continue to share the joy of music with all of my students and help them enjoy their piano lessons regardless of whatever their goals and expectations are, as each student is very individual in that respect. thanks for sharing great eye opener for me!
minnow from Seattle on October 21, 2010:
This is a very insightful article. I looked for a piano teacher for my son for several months, but I wasn't comfortable with the recommendations I received from other parents. Now I know why--I was looking for a teacher who used the European method and all I found were very nice people who used the American method. Great job! Thumbs up!
classicalgeek (author) on July 13, 2010:
I start almost every student on Bartok's First Term at the Piano (the older ones start Hanon, if they need sightreading training, or Czerny, if their skills are already fairly good, at the same time). Usually by the time they are about 2/3 of the way through, I add some simple Baroque pieces as they are ready for them (some of the Bach preludes come to mind).
I agree that for professionals this is oversimplified, but I meant it for a general audience, to give people information to make a distinction between the two methods. Most people (and many piano teachers) don't know that a difference exists, and that is all that this hub is meant to address. A thorough technical explanation would require an entire book! :)
daddyjb from North Carolina on July 13, 2010:
Hi ClassicalGeek. I'm a classical geek, pianist, and teacher and I liked your article. Kudos to you for mentioning RSI. A problem with a lot of method books is that they mention curved fingers and that's it! You really need a teacher who understands healthful piano technique to avoid injury as well as to reach a high level of playing.
I think the distinction between American and European methods is useful, but somewhat oversimplified. For instance, I use method books with my younger students to get them started and then transition them to the classical literature (as soon as possible for my own sanity!). Any advice on how to start beginners without using method books?
Nice article. Vote up for you!
classicalgeek (author) on February 13, 2010:
Sorry, I tried to use hubpages to contact you but you must have that disabled. If you'll contact me I'll send you a link to an article I've published on another site that might help your daughter. Or if you don't wish to do that, look on my blog/website (listed in my profile page) and look for the "Other Resources" page, which contains a list of (I hope) useful articles, including effective practice methods.
IMHO, a piano teacher isn't successful unless their students know how to practice effectively (and sightread easily, and many more things that distinguish good teachers).
WildIris on February 13, 2010:
I would be most interested in your discussing what practice method you teach that enables one to master a twenty-page sonata in two or three months with twenty minutes of practice a day. How to practice effectively is a point many successful piano teachers never discuss with their students. For example, how does one begin a new piece? Hands separately, hand together, how many lines, where and when to stop, dealing with difficult passages and turns, etc. I have a twelve-year-old playing advanced repertoire, mastering eight pieces a year. She could use more advice on how to practice.
Thanks for the reply; I look forward to reading your hubs.
classicalgeek (author) on February 13, 2010:
Part of what is wrong with music pedagogy today is teachers attempting to be all things to all people, and offering everything from accordion to zither, rather than specializing in a recognized method, and educating prospective students on what method will serve their needs. As for my own experience, I find that there are plenty of ten-year-olds (my own studio has been full of them) in the United States that have the will to master a twenty-page sonata and play it from memory. The problem lies in the fact that children are often taught the wrong way to practice, which makes their practice completely ineffective. Most of my students find that twenty minutes of practice per day, when used correctly, means that they can master a sonata in two to three months--that's four to six major pieces a year, the same as the requirement for piano majors at college. This is along with their soccer or other sports and other extracurricular activities. In any case, the scope of this article is limited to educating people about the two different methods. The rest will have to be saved for another hub.
WildIris on February 13, 2010:
I have never heard of American and European piano methods. More than differentiating between methods, it would be better to find a piano teacher that offers a wide variety of methods to students. Some piano teachers can meet the needs of serious students by offering recital opportunities beyond house recitals. These teachers can encourage participation in music exams which require not only sight reading, but theory, performance and ear training. These same teachers can also meet the needs of less ambitious students by working with them at their own level. Pedagogy aside, learning to play piano beyond advanced levels requires a kind of commitment few American kids can muster. The number of hours to master a sonata and play it with artistic intent can daunt the average twelve-year-old.
classicalgeek (author) on February 13, 2010:
Rather than have the European method alongside the American method, it might be better to teach your daughter from Bartok's "First Term at the Piano." It will not help, though, if your daughter's piano teacher has not been trained in European methods of pedagogy. Unfortunately, the European method is extremely rare in the United States (I had to move to Czechoslovakia to get a teacher). I know that my students drive up to 200 miles because I'm the only European-method teacher they can find in a large metropolitan area.
Aya Katz from The Ozarks on February 13, 2010:
Thanks for this information about the difference between American and European methods of music pedagogy. My daughter is ten years old and has been studying piano for a year. She is still very bad at sight reading. We live in the rural Ozarks, and we are lucky to have a good piano teacher within easy driving distance. She uses the American method, of course, and the books my daughter is playing from are Bastien and John Thompson, first year. Would there be any way to introduce the European method alongside the American?