It’s always pleasing to discover a new piano method, especially one for adults. These days there are only a handful of relatively popular adult methods, and teachers of adults know well that using the same method for months and years can become tedious. Therefore I’m pleased to offer this review of Book 1 of Gail Schoen’s Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+.
The biggest strength of Schoen’s method is its many creative exercises, many of which I have never seen before. Weaknesses include the visual presentation, some of the too-familiar repertoire choices, and – at least in Book 1 – negligible explanation of how to read intervals, which is important for becoming a good sight reader. There are also no teacher accompaniments. Now let’s get to the details.
Strengths of the Method
Upper Hands Piano contains numerous interesting and creative exercises to help older adults learn music theory and improve their reading skills. Many of the exercises are simultaneously oriented towards maintaining or improving the cognitive capacity of the older adult, which is potentially a big selling point for students 60 and older in particular.
Upper Hands Piano uses the pentascale approach like other popular methods such as Faber’s Adult Piano Adventures. A particular strength is that there are a number of pieces in which the left hand plays the melody with the right hand accompanying. (Too many methods default to using the right hand for nearly all melodies.) This seems especially beneficial from a brain training perspective.
Brief historical information is given for many of the pieces, which can help students to better appreciate them. This can also provide a larger context for the learning process, which is important for adult learners.
Another strength of the method (which could also be considered a weakness, depending on a student’s aptitude for learning piano), is that eighth notes are introduced fairly early. In my opinion, orienting a method towards the slowest learner (like Faber does), while advantageous in some respects, can frustrate faster learners.
Suggestions for Improvement
As I believe Upper Hands Piano is still under development (because it is apparently “printed on demand”), rather than calling this section “weaknesses” I will suggest some ideas for improvement.
I found the layout, font choices and sizes, and color choices distracting and confusing at times. As the book has smaller pages (standard 8.5″x11″ size) than other methods, the layout seems crowded at times. There are too many fonts used in the typography, which according to basic graphic design principles should be avoided. The fonts sometimes seem too small or too large. Finally, while it is nice to use color in a method (and I imagine this added substantially to the book’s cost), the colors could be used more consistently.
I appreciated the inclusion of numerous folksongs, many of which are not found in other adult methods. That said, the choice of repertoire overlaps too much with other popular adult methods. For example, like the Faber method, Upper Hands Piano includes Ode to Joy, the theme from the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Taps, For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, etc. Granted, the average student won’t care, but many teachers might.
Related to the choice of repertoire is that the method includes more than one arrangement of several tunes. This might not be an issue if the second version were substantially harder and/or more interesting than the first. But I fear that students might get bored with only a slightly more difficult version of the same piece, rather than being able to play something new altogether.
The author has decided to minimize theoretical explanations that some adult students might like to have. For example, the key of F is introduced without any explanation of its relationship to the F major scale. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s better for students to do something before learning the theory behind it. Since I have only reviewed Book 1, it may very well be that more extensive explanations of theory are provided in the later books.
One occasional weakness is fingering. For example, in the arrangement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on page 74, the student is instructed to cross over the thumb multiple times, which then necessitates a hand position change. A much easier and more typical fingering would avoid these cumbersome crosses and position changes altogether.
Finally, the lack of teacher accompaniments, at least in Book 1, is regrettable. Accompaniments are fun for both teacher and student, and provide a harmonic foundation and greater musical satisfaction when the student is not yet playing hands together and/or not yet playing chords.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Writing a piano method is obviously difficult work. Despite the above shortcomings, Upper Hands Piano has enough positive aspects that I can recommend that teachers of older adults give it a try. Many students and teachers may find the less-common folk tunes and creative exercises and activities to be both inspirational and educational.