Not your mom’s piano lessons

Adele Dreyer makes learning to play fun and engaging.


Adele Dreyer is well-known to Islanders for her delightful performances of piano classics and popular music in venues ranging from the Anchors to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, to the Cousen Rose art gallery to Peter Halperin’s beautiful new WoodStove performance space in West Tisbury.

What her appreciative listeners may not know is that Adele has given a big piece of her musical heart to teaching piano. Indeed, after her children, grandchildren, and husband, the photographer Peter Dreyer, it is her greatest passion, and she has impressive credentials to match.

Before she became a piano teacher, Dreyer was both a pianist and a teacher. When she was just 4, friends and family noticed her exceptional natural musicality, and her parents got her a piano. “I didn’t have lessons at first,” she says. “I played what I heard, because I could remember tunes.” Eventually she did have years of lessons; she discovered that she “just loved playing duets. By the time I was 15, I was teaching piano to some kids in my neighborhood who heard me play ‘Bumble Boogie’ and wanted to learn it!”

After attending the University of Miami on a scholarship, Dreyer taught science and math to sixth graders in Quincy. Soon she got married; soon she had a little son to care for; soon she took a break from teaching her sixth graders, though she kept one piano student.

A tiny little ad 

One day in 1972, Dreyer saw a “tiny little ad” in the newspaper announcing that “a clinician was coming from Columbia Teachers College to present a whole new way of teaching piano,” sponsored by the National Piano Foundation. “I’m a piano teacher,” she thought, and off she went, driving from Westwood to the Steinert showroom on Boylston Street for eight Saturdays — 24 hours of intensive piano pedagogy that changed her whole outlook.

“The course was a revelation,” she says. “A new method of teaching had been developed by Dr. Robert Pace, the head of the music department at Columbia Teachers College. Dr. Pace had seen that students arrived in the college able to play an advanced repertoire, yet lacking a basic understanding of music. So how could they teach it? He thought he could teach the fundamentals of music theory to 7-year-olds by making it fun. His approach can be best described as ‘applied music theory.’ I ‘got it’ immediately.”

“Music theory is there to help you play music — not to drive you nuts for no reason!” says Dreyer. Dr. Pace, himself a student of Piaget, designed a program for students to achieve familiarity and ease with the important structures of music — keys, intervals, chords, rhythm, scales, the geography of the keyboard — and also the necessary physical facility. Especially important is the holistic integration of tactile experience with sound and visual imagery.

Making learning fun

The Pace method is a system, one with carefully planned steps and building blocks. Students learn the fundamentals of music theory — you could even say they play the fundamentals of music theory — from the very beginning, but they may never hear the forbidding word “theory” as they progress through the levels.

My own early piano lessons consisted basically of playing scales and learning new pieces, mainly in the keys of C and G, which I slogged through note by note until I learned the piece by heart. I never really learned to read music.

Yet the ability to read music quickly and automatically is a valuable outcome of learning by the Pace method. In a significant departure from traditional methods, Dr. Pace introduces all 12 major keys in Level 1. Visual and tactile cues are used to break the 12 keys into four easy-to-remember groups. In a student’s first lesson, says Dreyer, “I introduce the Group 1 keys — C, G, and F — whose major triads all fall on white keys. The student learns the basic five-finger position, called a tune-up, for the first five notes of each of the three keys. Fingers 1, 3, and 5 automatically form a major triad. The shape of this basic chord is easily learned and recognized on the staff. I have the student play ‘The Saints Go Marching In,’ which can be played with these five notes in the three keys.” It is a first step in learning how to transpose — play the same piece of music in different keys. Rather than making students memorize the names of lines and spaces on the staff, the concept of intervals between notes is introduced via “skips and steps” that go up or down and form easily recognized patterns. She also introduces basic finger-building exercises. Improvisation, an important part of the Pace method, starts with the first lesson. “Using just the black keys I play a base pattern while the student makes up a melody to go with it, also on the black keys,” she says. “This also helps bring the black keys into the student’s piano playing right away.”

Homework practice after this first lesson would be to continue with “The Saints” in the three five-finger positions; to practice two basic finger-building exercises; and to make up a piece and bring it to the next lesson. Making music on Level 1 does not require practicing endless scales. Not your mom’s piano lessons!

“I want students to have fun with their music,” says Dreyer. “The most fun thing is group lessons, an integral aspect of Dr. Pace’s method. My students always said, ‘When is the next group lesson?’ They loved to play together, and also compete in all kinds of games, such as ear-training contests. Group lessons also help tremendously in overcoming performance anxiety.”

Adele has invented some teaching aids that she uses like games. One of her favorites is flashcards that show the white-black key patterns of the five-finger tune-ups for the 12 major keys. Quick — can you identify the keys shown? Another is the “note-finder,” featuring a quarter note that can be moved up and down the grand staff, to help students learn to recognize intervals and play them correctly.

“Those who study piano using the Pace method retain the learning forever,” she notes, “even if they forget the specific pieces they have learned.” Many advanced piano students can profit from going “back to basics” à la Dr. Pace. His “applied music theory” can also give players of other instruments a huge boost.

Adele loves to advocate for the Pace method, and welcomes being contacted to discuss how incorporating these ideas can enrich the piano teaching of Island students:, or give her a call at 617-365-3634.