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This is an odd question. But I think I can use some wisdom from teachers and other experienced individuals.

Now, most of the instruments have method books, and many teachers follow them as well. My question is, how are these method books structured? Why do they have exercises the way they do? I'll detail my questions(s) below:

1. Practising exercises

Now, method books seem to have a series of exercises. In Berklee's Modern Method for Guitar, it is said that you should not be "stuck" on an exercise. Just try your best, move on, then come back and review.

My question is, what's the difference between trying to master a particular exercise completely, and improving on it a little bit and coming back later. What are the benefits?

I believe the benefits would depend on the how the book is structured, and the purpose behind each exercise. I, as a student, wouldn't understand that. But I'm curious to know.

One explanation (for guitar) can be that it takes time for your muscles to develop. So it makes more sense to master, say a new chord form, over a period of time. But I don't find this to be true with the Piano. Maybe for major techniques, but not the minor ones.

2. Technique vs. Repertoire

I was following Alfred's All-in-one Piano for Adult Vol 1. I learned a lot of new things. However, as things progressed, the book seemed to move slower. It did introduce a lot of new songs, but many of them were not something I wanted to learn. In the end, I spent my time learning some songs I'll never play again, and didn't learn any new technique too.

So, how is that you guys keep your learning rate constant?

3. Exercises vs. Learning new things

There can be countless method books for, say, guitar. Since I've been playing for about 3 years, I've developed a good foundation of the basics.

Let's say I pick up a random method book and open the chapter that emphasizes the key of C. There is a good chance that I might not be able to play everything perfectly in the first try. There can be things I'd have problem with.

Now, my impression is that every "piece" is different and has to be learned. The learning rate depends on you. So, even if I do master that chapter of the method book, it'd only "validate" my skills, not add to it. (At least that's what I think).

Conclusion

Of course, I'm a bit confused as to how method books work, and how I should use them. Can anyone shed some light? I do agree that this is a long and annoying question, but it's just my curiosity.

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3 Answers

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This should really be multiple questions, because it seems that you want to know multiple things, but i'll do my best.

What's the difference between trying to master a particular exercise completely, and improving on it a little bit and coming back later. What are the benefits?

Practicing different exercises that focus on the same technique serves to prevent boredom, but more than that it gives you a better overview of the many challenges and possibilities of that perticular technique presents. You can't get a real understanding of arpeggios from one piece.

However, covering the broad strokes doesn't improve your technique any more than reading the wikipedia page will give you understanding. You have to do the in depth work on a piece to build a relationship with the technique, and to build up the brain-muscle connection that allows you to play a technique well.

Think of it like building a muscle. If you only do one exercise you only develop one part of it and end up looking weird, but if you do lots of exercises with no real focus you never grow. You need to find a balance, and to begin with that balance is usually more toards single pieces learned well.

So, how is that you guys keep your learning rate constant?

You don't, there are natural growth periods and plateauxs that must be dealt with. One of my favourite quotes from is "The better you get, the harder it is to get better"

Of course, I'm a bit confused as to how method books work, and how I should use them. Can anyone shed some light?

Surviving method books work because they represent the research, learning and practice, often over a lifetime of those who wrote them. If they didn't hold water they would have died out. They work by focusing your effort on the learning that will most benefit it's intended purpose in the shortest time they think they can. There's a video where Horowitz shows the reporter the exercises he uses and the reporter says "they're the same ones we were all taught!"

HOWEVER it's worth mentioning that certain classical technique books work, but cripple your hands over a long time. Hanon is guilty of this I believe, but there are a ton of places online you can find out what books work for what.

Ultimately, the important relationship technique wise is the one beween your ears and your hands. shortening the time between what sound you want to make, and your body and piano making them. Theory books can't watch you work, they can only guide you which is why for most people a good teacher is a valuable asset.

Now as to how you should use them

Ultimately, you need a goal. That will dictate the learning you need to do to make achieving that goal more likely. Write it down, make a plan and research how you attain the skills specific to your goal. For Example with me I'm interested in modes, odd time signatures and polyrhtyms, so Mozart is perhaps not what to play to best get me where I want to go.

What style(s) do you want to play, what playing skills are you interested in? you won't find a blues scale in many beethoven pieces, and every player has their own way on the piano. Answer these questions as best you can and write your answers. Use them to inform your decisions on method books, a teacher, communities and the body of knowledge you immerse yourself in.

You can improve without a goal and see where it takes you, but being comfortable with where you're at is important to keeping motivated, at least it is for me. Perhaps no goal is your goal for the moment! There are a whole host of talks about the psychology of learning in music but that is perhaps better somewhere else.

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+1 I humbly yield acceptance to this superior answer. –  luser droog Jul 12 '13 at 17:24
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It is important to remember that in learning any instrument some skills have to be reinforced on a regular basis, as without constant repetition they deteriorate. These need to be done during most practise sessions alongside learning new repertoire.

Scales and arpeggios are important for key recognition and finger patterns, they need to be practised for ever, you never get so good that you can stop doing them. Method books need to be used along with these types of exercises. Continuously following a method book alone is not going to be successful.

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I kind of feel that all of these issues should be addressed in the text of the method. The author should describe what the point of the exercise is, the trick of it if there is one. And offer some guide to understanding how much of it you might need to accomplish other goals (songs).

One of the great advantages of books focused on Classical technique is that the repertoire selections are the cream of the crop of 400 years of literature.

It is difficult to find a single book that does justice both to technique and to repertoire. My favorite, by Celedonio Romero, is out of print. :(

It's probably going to be more pragmatic to separate these and look for a good technique book, and a good anthology with stuff that looks easy and stuff that looks hard in it, so you can get a sense of what the territory is.

And a third category is etudes. One of my favorites is 24 Studies by Mauro Giuliani.

As far as tackling a single exercise, when to decide you've done enough with it, that's really hard to generalize about. :) You should play an exercise until you are comfortable with it. Until it no longer exercises you.

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