Monday, September 24, 2012

A Livid Argument against the Bastien Piano Method

"Miss Kaley, why is the camel wearing a turban, and why is he riding a magic carpet?"

I grimaced a bit. Really? I am preparing this six-year-old for a life of musical pioneering, and this is the kind of question I have to answer in music lessons?

 "I don't know, John. I think because this song is about a Persian market, and, well, apparently there are both turbans and camels in or around a Persian market." He looked confused. "And magic carpets do not exist."

"Why is there a magic carpet if they don’t exist? Why is this song Persian? What's Persian?"

Oy. Is there any way I can answer this question without encouraging him to eternally associate the complex, artistically magnificent, ancient culture of Persia with camels, turbans, and magic carpets? And how do I justify a displeasing tune with a flatted second that is both difficult for him to play and sounds like death on an equally tempered keyboard? Neither of these things are AT ALL like Persian music, and I’m sure that James Bastien didn’t intend for it to be authentic. So I struggle, because, I believe it’s a positive situation for the child to be asking about other cultures, but the music in the Bastien method that encourages these questions is so terribly written, simplistic, and offensively illustrated that it reminds of a 19th century child learning about African-American culture from any one of Eurocentric, misguided avenues. (I should mention that dumbed-down versions of racist Stephen Foster tunes, such as “Old Black Joe,” with extremely unpleasant, racially stereotyped drawings appear in the earlier editions of the Bastien method).

John fidgets, inventing some story about the camel and the magic carpet. I am selectively listening (as usual with six-year-olds). He asks again what Persian means. “Persia is a part of the middle east, now including Iran and Iraq. Persian music often uses scales and sounds that we don’t have on the piano, but in this song, the composer tried to make it sound Persian by adding a D-flat in C-position! What do you think of the sound?”

John huffs. “I think it sounds BAD!”

Well, there you have it. It DOES sound bad. In fact, flatted seconds are no more a characteristic of Persian music as they are of late Schoenberg; sure, they appear, but they aren’t definitive. So what we have from Mr. Bastien is a lazy musical forgery. See the piece below:

I have witnessed many of my students struggle with pieces like this and others in the Bastien method. Each student proclaimed wildly that the music sounded terrible and they had no motivation to practice. Sadly, I’m sure if I played little John a piece from one of my favorite albums, Faryad by the Masters of Persian Music, he would be enthralled at the beauty and skill of the performers and their content; but, to play, he gets nothing more than a dumbed-down, insensitive noodling around C-position with an added “weird note.”

This and similar events occurred about a year ago, and this was the time I pledged to do away with all James Bastien materials, and move exclusively to my own methods or the Piano Adventures method by Nancy and Randall Faber, which I will defend in detail.  Because children absorb their early musical influences like a starving sponge, paralleling the path of language acquisition. A child who is exposed to native Spanish speaking at an early age may not retain fluency in the language, but will almost definitely retain the ability to recall Spanish phrases and, most importantly, will retain a superior accent.  Music is the same: by exposing our children to different musical languages at this young age, they will exhibit more musical flexibility later on. It is important to expose children to authentic musical content and not forgery; and equally important to expose them to authentic musical context and not arbitrary cartoons. This is essential for the future of our art, as we need to train open-minded, genre-crossing composers and performers. Most teachers today will defend this ideology – but they must be active with it, purchasing method books or “going rogue” in a way that honors the idea. Method books are much, much, much more influential than we expect. It is a child’s first exposure to self-created musical expression and organization.

Let’s examine some Bastien material in detail. In the Level 1 Piano book, there are 41 short pieces. Only one – “Fiesta” – exhibits an inkling of syncopation:

Problems abounding; an anthropologist’s nightmare. We have the Spanish guitar dressed like a Mexican Mariachi player, wearing a sombrero and playing maracas. He is playing alongside a Spanish Flamenco dancer, complete with skirt, shoes, and castanets. Immediately, some form of arbitrary, lazy cultural grouping. Will this child ask about this picture? Most definitely, because of its colors and prominence. The teacher then has the responsibility to explain that Mexico and Spain are actually completely different places with completely different musical cultures, but in this song, they’ve been smushed together, presumably because they share a common language, but most likely because James Bastien thought American students didn’t need to distinguish one way or the other. (Lack of distinction between Latin Ameican and Spanish culture is a lingering problem in American youth). Musical analysis shows the use of triple meter and an unaccented downbeat, which can be common to both styles; diatonic harmony with a prominent dominant seven, evoking the Mariachi; and the flatted second (apparently Bastien’s preferred and only method of evoking an alternate tonal system), which is typical to Flamenco music in this case. Also typical to Flamenco is the ending exclamation “Ole!” The most unsettling thing, however, is the conscious choice to illustrate the two styles at once in the cartoon, showing a complete indifference on the part of the publishers as to whether or not the child deserves accurate musical and cultural knowledge.

Similarly, of the 41 pieces, only one utilizes non-diatonic harmony (“Morning Prelude,” an exercise in smearing notes together with the pedal). I have taught from all four levels of the Bastien books; each level contains the same pathetic ratio of square rhythm to syncopation, diatonic harmony to modal.

I say this not only for the sake of disparaging Bastien for a job poorly done, but because Faber and Faber’s Piano Adventures series is an infinitely better way of introducing children to authentic sounds. There is no reason to choose Bastien over Faber in today’s world, yet so many teachers do. This example from the Level 1 Piano Adventures: Performance book shows an interesting modal melody with odd phrase lengths:

Not only is the melody satisfying to play on its own, but, conscious of the need for musical satisfaction in the young player, the Fabers have provided a harmonically and rhythmically rich duet part for the teacher. In my experience, duets at this young age are incredibly inspiring to young children; they begin to learn essential “chamber music skillz” (my term for starting and finishing together without counting), and are also treated to a satisfying aural experience. Bastien offers no duets in any level. Further, this piece provides an interesting and relevant fact at the top, putting this authentic melody in historical and cultural context. Upon discussing this with the teacher, the student now has an understanding that music is not just notes to be read, but rather a vessel of cultural meaning.

Essentially, I find the selection of proper method books incredibly important based on my personal experiences as a young student and, now, as a teacher. Raised on Piano Adventures, I can recall vividly the satisfaction of learning “Erie Canal,” “Summer Blues,” “Malaguena,” and “Song of Kilimanjaro.” I credit my affinity for blues scales and Flamenco rhythms entirely to the piano method books of my youth: I came from a completely non-musical American family, and had no predetermined preference for certain scales or rhythms. But thanks to my teacher’s chosen method, non-Western sounds rest inside a deep part of my heart and my brain, cultivated from age three, now ready to be expressed and interpreted in combination with my classical training. The Fabers – trained composers and performers - have continually expressed the importance of multi-cultural pedagogy, particularly after the adoption of their Mandarin daughter, who is now the inspiration for several new pedagogical pieces utilizing Mandarin musical characteristics.

Since this incident with young John and “Persian Market,” I have switched my entire studio, regardless of level, over to Piano Adventures. The results have blown my mind. I now have students learning difficult pieces in two weeks; who practice daily, simply because they love their new songs; and who beg to play duets over and over again for the satisfaction of hearing a complete musical piece. They crave knowledge about their music’s origins; I regularly assign research projects, which entail looking up facts about their piece’s style and origins. Some of them even compose now, overwhelmed with the rich musical vocabulary they’ve acquired. This is a stark contrast from confused questions about weird cartoons, unpleasant and misplaced accidentals, and struggling with practicing because the pieces “just don’t sound right.” Bastien’s pieces are arbitrarily composed, with no inherent musical meaning to encourage the child along a path to expression. The typical American child sincerely comes from a musical melting pot – they are hearing new languages, new ideas, new tunes every day.  Musical inspiration can only come from harnessing their inherent, beautiful, American affinity for multiculturalism. Take advantage: choose Piano Adventures over Bastien!

Oh, before I forget, here is a really, really, really racist piece in the Bastien book, Indian Life, which I think should be boycotted and taken off all websites and shelves:


Bastien, James. Bastien Piano BasicsLevel 1. San Diego, CA: Neil A. Kjos Music Company, 1985.

Faber, Nancy and Randall. Piano Adventures: The Basic Piano MethodLevel 1. Vol. Second Edition. Faber Piano Adventures, Hal Leonard, 1996.


Chris Kaufman Author/Composer said...

You're a moron!

Chris Kaufman Author/Composer said...

You're a moron!

topitmunkeydog! said...

Thank you for making people aware of this. I've been perturbed by the rampant racism by the pieces in piano recitals so thank you for raising awareness.

Leah said...

Interesting analysis. Thanks for this. I learned piano on the Bastien books through about level 3, then had another teacher who used Faber and Faber, which I loved. I know am teaching my first students and am using F&F. It's been great. He went through Primer and is now starting Level 1. There is no comparison between the two series. Faber and Faber, hands down!

Lydia Soroosh said...

While I certainly appreciate the Fabers, knew them personally, took two of my children to their studio, and have bought hundreds of their books for my students over the years, the Bastien books can't be beat for teaching young children in small groups. I have used them for my small groups of very young students for almost three decades and wouldn't trade the enjoyment they brought for anything in the world.
PS IRAQ IS NOT PERSIAN !!! Do your homework before you spout off such a reviling diatribe!!!
Lydia Soroosh (Persian)

Lydia Soroosh said...

While I certainly appreciate the Fabers, knew them personally, took two of my children to their studio, and have bought hundreds of their books for my students over the years, the Bastien books can't be beat for teaching young children in small groups. I have used them for my small groups of very young students for almost three decades and wouldn't trade the enjoyment they brought for anything in the world.
PS IRAQ IS NOT PERSIAN !!! Do your homework before you spout off such a reviling diatribe!!!
Lydia Soroosh (Persian)

ganyaman said...

I have been usig the bastien method for a few years. I don't complian, but yes, I have see some rare stuff. Thanks for your suggestion, I'll check them out.

Nikki Ty said...

I can't imagine any child being overwhelmingly interested in the accuracy of the drawings. For the most part that is mere caviling . A few little sketches brighten the pages of a primer and the Bastiens aren't afraid to print in color, which is nice.

However I do agree that the original compositions by the Bastiens are almost uniformly dreadful. I cannot believe that a professional would produce such poorly written music. And to encourage beginners to use these pieces is incomprehensible.

However included in the higher levels are nicely formatted and easy to read classics. If a teacher simply weeds out the Bastien works from the classics, the series can be used. "Intermediate Repertoire" is well laid out with a good proportion of easy classics. And has an added benefit of several "Theory" and "Technical" pages.

I think you're fretting too much about illustrations ... the real problem is a simple one ... it's the poor compositions by Bastien. Weed those out and you set to go.

I have a site which offers free downloads of easy neo-classical music. And it is good music written expressly for beginners with no trendy dissonance or irregular rhythms.

Mary Wade Wright said...

I have taught from several piano methods, and while the Fabers have some some interesting songs and emphasize tonic and dominant early on, my experience has been that the Faber method tends to dumb a student down. I had two sisters in the different methods, and the sister in the Bastien method beat the sister in the Faber method in sightreading and other concepts hands down. Students who I taught Alfred also read better, although the early Alfred books bore me to tears and I don't use them unless there is nothing else available. Alfred Masterworks is another story altogether; I like both the Bastien Classic-beyond-the-primer books and Alfred Masterworks, although I don't think Alfred has a single particular book to compare with Bastiens' Intermediate Book with Bach, Ellmenreich, and others.
I agree with Nikki Ty that you're fretting too much about illustrations, and am curious as to how Fiesta is supposed to be racist and lazy, as the characters look lively, not lazy.

Ben Gessel said...

I've taught out of Bastien, Faber, Alfred, APPC, and John Thompson. I have a BA in Music, and have been teaching piano, French Horn, and composition for several years. I am also a composer. My skill level as a composer is professional, as a hornist, a semi-pro or regional level pro player, and as a pianist, I am at an advanced level, and have accompanied other musicians here and there as well. I have other credentials, but this should give you a bit of an idea about my qualifications and level of expertise.

It doesn't really matter that much what method you choose for beginners. What matters is WHAT you are teaching them. Heck, I can fill in the weak links on any method myself. Intermediates and advanced students all need the standards, etudes, scales, etc. obviously. Whatever gets them there, works. I really focus on theory for beginners, then add in more and more technique, etc. as students get older. So what if the Bastien series has some corny or somewhat stereotypical illustrations? They are still great folks, and the intent was probably something quite a bit more light hearted than you took it. Nobody believes them to be anything but great folks, teachers, and great musicians.

Honestly, you should probably pay far more attention to the methods and materials used by students at more advanced levels, esp. IF they want to be professionals. I can clearly understand that kind of dialogue, without a doubt. Wow...

Harpdiva from Ann Arbor said...

Have to agree with Chris Kaufman on this one!

Koke Laast said...

First of all, I am not a musician. And English is not my native language as anyone can see.
A simple search on google brings me to this link which says this scale is used in middle-east music. How can you be teaching piano when you ignores the Persian Market is not C major but F minor? A flattered second? You are teasing us saying you teach piano.
Your pupil John, if he is real, must be a very sad child if he has to question why a camel flies in a carpet. Better his parents don't take him to the cinema.
Second, I am Spanish and only a weird person can see a problem in the Fiesta song. Are you using this book to teach other cultures to your pupils? Please forget about it and motivate them to learn piano.
I don't know the Faber's but Bastien is the book that teachers are using in music academy near my home (Madrid, Spain) and they prefer it over Faber beacause it does not tie the hand to the C position for so long.

D said...

I've been teaching piano for 18 years and have used Bastien, Alfred, and Faber. I have students in all three right now because when I get students from a different teacher I don't make them switch to my preferred method if their family already owns a particular series - but I'm considering it. I definitely see more success with Bastien than with Faber. My Faber students struggle more. I have yet to have a student in all these years worry about the artwork on the page .

Shayna Jewell said...

I learned out of the Schaum series myself and it bored me to tears. I couldn't stand it. Fletcher? As beloved as she was, her series is also boring as heck and, in my opinion, introduces some concepts a bit too early on.

I do like Faber but my preferred series is Bastien's. Yes, some of the original compositions aren't very creative but they're typically very simple which I've found to be quite good for beginner students. I've found that those simpler songs are mastered quickly which increases confidence and makes the student want to continue on.

I think that at the end of the day the most important thing is HOW you're teaching each child. Different kids require different approaches to the learning process and it's up to us as teachers to recognize it and respond to it. I strongly believe in a child-led approach to music and it has worked for me for years. It's more about the attitude we have in teaching them than in the books we choose to use.