When Matt Jones began studying the piano in the first grade, he had a knack for improvisation and imitating songs by ear. But traditional teaching methods insisted that he learn to read music – a task he struggled with for years.
“My teacher would make me learn songs I didn’t know and would never play them for me,” Jones, a Kalispell native, said. “That way I was stuck with reading the music as my only resource for learning a song.”
The process was frustrating and tedious, and Jones says it was “a miracle” he continued playing. It makes sense that as a teacher now Jones shies away from the conventional.
He is one of only two Flathead Valley instructors teaching students at Simply Music, a unique program that offers a drastic shift from traditional methods. The other teacher, Sarah Burdick, a bassist with the Glacier Symphony, is a friend of Jones’ and introduced him to the method.
“It aligns with my personal experience and struggles with reading music,” Jones said.
Australian Neil Moore developed the Simply Music teaching method in 1998. The program teaches students to play before they get into complicated systems of learning to read music. Students learn a variety of styles all at once, including blues, classical, jazz and contemporary pieces.
“Traditional methods”, Jones said, “insist that students learn to read music as the means of learning to play. This is why learning to play, for so many, is slow and frustrating.”
Jones starts by teaching students patterns on the keyboard and then teaching them songs with those patterns, before they learn to read notes.
The idea is to get people playing songs on the piano early — as fast as learning at least one song after the first lesson. That song is then the first building block to learning other songs, and so on, until the student has a repertoire of dozens of songs, has learned various chords and even written several of their own pieces.
From there, the collection of songs that the student learns becomes a tool into learning theory and eventually reading music.
Jones likens the process to his children, Ashton, 4, and Cedar, 2, learning to speak. “Cedar is just learning to talk and Ashton, she’s at the age where she never stops,” he said, “but they don’t read, yet. It’s the same with piano: It doesn’t make much sense to make students learn to read music before they play it.”
Seven-year-old Haven McMillian has spent the past six months under Jones’ tutelage. At a recent lesson, she switched easily from jazz to blues tunes, watching Jones play a song and then imitating his movements on the keyboard. On one song, she even switched her hands, crossing her right arm over the left to repeat the music and prove that she had mastered the lesson.
Her own song of the day – a 30-second snippet written on a small piece of scratch paper – was a spooky version of “Dog,” a sequence she had already learned in class. “I think it sounds real, real scary,” she told Jones.
For Jones, who started teaching lessons full-time about six months ago, it’s rewarding to see his students, ages 5 to 70-plus, enjoying the process of learning the piano. He can also frequently be found continuing his own music education, performing jazz, funk and rock in the Flathead area with his band Bluestone.
“Your ability to play music shouldn’t equal your ability to read music,” he said. “The best part of this is that it makes it easy to learn piano.”
To learn more about Simply Music or Matt Jones’ music lessons go to www.bluestonepiano.com.
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