Lawrence instructors sharing intuitive piano lesson technique

Piano students practice playing with their left hands June 23 at piano instructor Karla Grether’s home. Grether is using a teaching method called Simply Music, which teaches students to play without first having to learn how to read music.

From left, Drew Bond, 11; Olivia Bond, 9; and Taylor Morstorf, 10, watch as piano instructor Karla Grether demonstrates which notes to play during a piano lesson June 23 at her home. Grether uses a teaching method called Simply Music.

The piano has existed in various forms since the Middle Ages, and the teaching method has remained relatively the same over the years. However, there is a relatively new method being taught in Lawrence called Simply Music.

Olivia Bond, 9, practices a song at the piano as Taylor Morstorf, 10 and Drew Bond, 11, sing along June 23 at piano instructor Karla Grether’s home.

Piano student Olivia Bond, 9, points to her head as instructor Karla Grether tells her students what they need to remember for the next lesson.

Simply Music is a playing-based method where students learn to play the piano first before they learn to read music, which is the opposite of traditional teaching methods. It is a relatively new program, launched in the United States in 1998 by creator Neil Moore, who is originally from Melbourne, Australia.

Twenty-three-year Lawrence piano and voice instructor Karla Grether calls Simply Music life changing. She is one of about a dozen teachers in the greater Kansas City area who are accredited and licensed in this method.

Grether described the method as multisensory: It involves sight, hearing and touch. A Simply Music teacher has students watch the movements on the keyboard and listen to the notes. The instructor will also touch which fingers are being used in a chord.

Simply Music was put into practice on a hot June day at Grether’s studio, called Karla’s Konservatory, at 3121 Trail Road. Spencer Burmingham, 8, sat down on the piano bench and opened his sticker-covered notebook to a page with handwritten notations written across it. It was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, also known as “Ode to Joy.”

With Spencer, Grether said to use fingers one, two and four, instead of C, D and F.

Simply Music also allows students to create their own composition early on, Grether said. After 10 months of lessons, Spencer is composing his own piece. At his lesson he played a new section to his song about Monster Bob, one of the monsters on the achievement poster hanging near the piano.

When his lesson was over, Spencer’s 12-year-old sister Rebecca played an original composition called “Dolphins,” a delicate but also swift piece that sent her fingers whirring across the keys.

Parents are also very involved in the student’s learning, Grether says. Spencer’s mother, Dea Burmingham, stayed for the lesson, taking notes about what Spencer should practice while at home.

When Grether made the transition from traditional teaching methods to Simply Music, the Burmingham family made the transition with her. Burmingham says she noticed the difference between the two teaching styles.

“I call it functional music,” Burmingham says. Rebecca has become more creative and is able to play songs by downloading lead sheets from the Internet, she says.

Simply Music allows students to play real songs sooner, rather than just scales, Grether says. She also says the method was great for people who want to start a band. Students learn accompaniments, arrangements, improvisation and composition.

Paige Hunter, 19, and her brother Evan, 22, are licensed Simply Music instructors who will open their own studio, Keys of Joy! Piano and Keyboard Studio, in September.

Evan Hunter described the reasoning behind Simply Music: A person learns to speak before they learn to read and write, he says. Simply Music is similar because students learn to map out songs on the keyboard before they learn to read sheet music.

Paige Hunter described a limitation of the traditional approach: “When you take away the sheet music, the song won’t be locked in.”

The student gains the ability to reconstruct what they saw or heard the teacher play instead drilling the piece into his or her head by playing a section over and over again, Evan says.

Simply Music is good for people of all ages and for special-needs children, Grether says. It is her goal to teach someone to play the piano who always had a dream of playing but never believed they could.

“The attrition rate is so high with people not sticking with piano,” Grether says. “Many children get discouraged with the traditional teaching method.”

She says her colleagues have seen significantly better retention rates with Simply Music.

“What’s a better reward for a teacher?” Grether says.