Functional Piano for Teaching: Imagining a Future Informed by Pre- and In-Service Music Educators' Perspectives


Alden H. Snell, II, Eastman School of Music

David A. Stringham, James Madison University


While National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) calls for music teachers to possess “functional performance abilities on keyboard,” only vocal music education students are expected to possess “[p]erformance ability sufficient to use at least one instrument as a teaching tool and to provide, transpose, and improvise accompaniments” (2014, p. 118). That only vocal music teachers need these skills seems questionable, given policy documents such as the National Core Arts Standards (State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education, 2014), which indicate all K-12 music students should develop skill with processes in which musicians engage. It is logical, therefore, that music teachers of all specializations would benefit from skill using an instrument such as piano as a teaching tool. In this roundtable presentation, we will (a) share findings from a recently completed study regarding pre-service and in-service music educators’ perceptions of functional piano skills, (b) recommend strategies for enhancing functional piano instruction in schools of music, and (c) engage attendees in conversation about imagining future contextualization of functional piano instruction, both within and alongside music teacher preparation.


To improve functional piano instruction, we documented both pre-service (n=340) and in-service music educators’ (n=295) perceptions related to acquisition and use of functional piano skills. To create the survey instrument for this study, we reviewed piano class outcomes from a NASM-accredited school of music in each of NAfME’s six divisions. We identified 32 skills related to technique, accompanying and functional piano skills, repertoire, sight-reading, and generative creativity.


Principal component analysis revealed four components: Scales, Repertoire and Sight Reading, Advanced Keyboard Skills, and Functional Teaching Skills. “Anticipate Using” means exceeded “Learned” for all Pre-Service components; “Using” means exceeded “Learned” for all In-Service components. For Pre-Service participants, all mean differences between “I learned” and “I anticipate using” were statistically significant (p<.0005). For In-Service participants, mean differences between “I learned” and “I anticipate using” were statistically significant (p<.0005) for Scales and Advanced Keyboard Skills, but not statistically significant for Repertoire and Sight Reading (p=.124) and Functional Teaching Skills (p=.155). In-Service teachers reported using all skills less than Pre-Service teachers anticipate using them.


Both sets of participants learned basic piano technique, but anticipated needing more advanced and functional skills for teaching. Participants’ responses related to sight-reading skills did not have a clear pattern; we suspect this may relate to teachers’ specialization. Varied reporting of skills suggests lack of consistency in functional piano course content.


Functional Teaching Skills included “perform chordal accompaniment for folk tunes,” “harmonize a folk song,” “transpose melodies,” “transpose accompaniments,” and “perform simple chord progressions.” Based on these skills, in our presentation, we will: (a) offer examples of how these skills support providing standards-based instruction for music teachers of all specializations, (b) share how improving functional teaching skills may help all music educators better embrace and teach other musics our students continuously engage with, and (c) suggest how functional piano teachers might prioritize these skills in context of providing future music teachers with executive skills needed to play piano.




National Association of Schools of Music (2014). Handbook 2014-2015. Retrieved from

State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (2014). National core arts standards. Retrieved from