In 2002, when Joseph Hoffman began his piano teaching career, he set out to find a teaching method that would help students to get the most out of their music lessons. He found several good methods, but none of them designed to develop the kind of “whole musicianship” that he wanted for his students. He liked the basic philosophy of the Suzuki method, which teaches students by ear first, but wanted something that also emphasized total fluency in music including note reading, music dictation, and composing from an early stage. Unable to find the method he wanted, Mr. Hoffman decided to create it himself.
The Hoffman Method, based on research in child development and learning theory, teaches students to play both by ear and sight. It engages a child’s natural curiosity and creativity using a multi-sensory approach while providing the kind of training needed to reach a high level of musical proficiency. Its child-friendly teaching tools make deep, meaningful learning both easy and fun, and it creates well rounded musicians who will love making music throughout their lifetime.
Ear Before Eye
The first principle of the Hoffman Method is Ear before Eye. Music is an aural art form, and learning it should be rooted in actual sound, not in symbols on a page. When students start with a visual approach, playing the piano is little more than decoding written notes and “typing” them into the keyboard. Music has a flow, a rhythm, a pulse, and if children begin their music studies by experiencing music before being forced to decode it, they will always have sense of the way music should sound and will enjoy their music studies from the very beginning.
No child would be made to learn English by forcing them to learn letters before words. Children speak in full sentences before they learn to write and music students can learn songs before they begin to read notes. The Hoffman Method begins with listening. Students hear a new song, and then they are asked to sing it. As they sing, the student naturally learns the rhythm, the notes, and begins to memorize the song. Having words to go with a tune adds to the fun and makes it easier to learn.
Once the student is familiar with the musical shape of a song, then the teacher guides the student to discover the patterns in the music. The Hoffman Method uses solfège (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti) to help students learn the relationships between different notes in a musical scale. Beginning students also sing rhythms and finger numbers to prepare them to play the song on a keyboard. Then when the students go to the keyboard, not only do they know what kinds of sounds should be coming out, they have a very good chance of making those sounds on their first try.
Experience before Explanation
When students learn a new musical concept in the Hoffman Method, first the teacher introduces a song that uses this concept. For example, to teach how to count half-notes, a teacher using the Hoffman Method first introduces a song with a half-note in it. The student learns the song by ear, and only then will the teacher point out the half-note. That way the student already has a context to frame what a half-note is, and will understand what it means musically to “give this note two beats.”
Developing the Whole Musician
Parents are often concerned that a child who learns to play music by ear will never learn to read notes. With the Hoffman Method, students do learn to play by ear first, but within a few months they are learning not only to read notes but to write down the music they already know using traditional staff notation.
Traditional letter names for notes on the staff are introduced in a fun and interactive way, with story memory aids to help children put together a note’s name, its place on the keyboard, and its position on the staff. The Hoffman Method uses songs a student has already learned to teach not only how to find individual notes on the staff but to see shapes of melody lines and chords, just as children who learn to read written language are taught to read whole words instead of just individual letters.
Most music students aren’t asked to do any music dictation until college, but there is no reason to wait to develop this important skill. When a child writes their own sheet music for songs they know and love it is a much more effective learning experience than if that child is handed a book with songs already written down.
Another thing the Hoffman Method emphasizes is improvisation. Just as someone who can only read or recite from memorization wouldn’t be considered fluent in a language, someone fluent in music should be able to improvise. With the Hoffman Method, students are asked to improvise from the beginning. This promotes musical exploration and discovery, and leads to developing composition skills. It’s also a lot of fun.
The Hoffman Method also asks students to transpose all the songs they know into each new key that they learn. This is another skill that is usually delayed until much later in a music student’s career, but that can be mastered more easily if introduced from the beginning. It strengthens a student’s ability to play by ear and to comprehend that music is all about the relationships of sounds.
Real Music Making
In most traditional piano methods, students are marched through a book, learning a few songs a week and then forgetting them as they move on. Another unique thing about the Hoffman Method is that students review all the songs they have learned within a certain level as they practice every day. This allows a student to become confident enough with their playing to achieve a high level of musicianship that isn’t possible with a piece that is practiced for a week or two and then left behind
By using traditional folk songs from around the world to teach beginning music students, the Hoffman Method ensures that children are experiencing melodies that have stood the test of time and that have inherent musicality and appeal. These are the kind of songs that never seem to wear out as students practice them.
At the end of each level, which takes from six to twelve months to complete, students of the Hoffman Method give a mini-concert and perform eleven or twelve songs from memory. This also builds greater memorization skills than a traditional book-based method.
Efficient and Relaxed Technique
From the beginning, the Hoffman Method promotes technique that will allow a student to be the most comfortable and get the best tone out of their instrument. First there are “finger power” exercises that strengthen the fingers and develop agility. Students are also taught to play the piano with correct posture at all times, seated at the right height and with a foot rest as needed. With these good habits in place, students are always ready to play their very best.
Challenging and Inspiring
Every child is capable of excellence. It is a matter of how much the adults in their life challenge them and show them what is possible. An important component of the Hoffman Method is a teacher that respects students, motivates them, and holds them to a high standard of performance.
Students of the Hoffman Method are amazing musical achievers. Hoffman Academy of Music students have won local piano festivals in Portland, and several parents have seen their children learn more from Mr. Hoffman’s online lessons in a matter of months than other siblings have learned in years of lessons elsewhere. But the best evidence for the success of the Hoffman Method is the way the students play.
With its foundation in both the science of learning and Mr. Hoffman’s love of music and teaching, the Hoffman Method is an innovative and well-rounded approach to music instruction that enables students to enjoy becoming the best musicians they can be.