by Jacy Burroughs
Piano teachers, have you ever wondered about the creative process that goes into developing a piano method? In September 2015, I had the privilege of interviewing Morty Manus, former president of Alfred Music Publishing and co-author of the popular piano method series Alfred’s Basic Piano Library. He and his wife, Iris, shared with me the story of how the popular piano method series Alfred’s Basic Piano Library was born.
I was deeply saddened to hear of Morty’s passing early in 2016. He was so charming and full of life just a few short months earlier. How lucky I was to have participated in this interview and, with the support of Alfred Music’s fine recording studio staff, publish these videos in honor of him. The interview is separated into thirteen chapters, each of which is summarized below.
In memoriam: Morty Manus (1926-2016)
Morty was influenced by his parents both of whom were musicians. His mother played piano in silent movie theaters and his father played violin in a traveling opera company, until he turned to music publishing. Morty began studying the piano around the age of six and took up the clarinet in high school for marching band, because as he says, the girls seemed to like the guys in uniform. At the age of 16, the United States had joined the Second World War and Morty decided to quit music and join the service.
Morty studied business in college after he served in World War II. After he finished school, he joined his father at Alfred Music Publishing as the fifth employee. He developed a knack for taking bad manuscripts that were rejected by other publishers and fixing them up.
Iris was the daughter of Alfred Music’s bookkeeper, Rose.
Inspired by Elvis Presley’s popularity, Morty decided it was time to write a method for guitar. After struggling to find a composer, he took it upon himself to write the method. He bought a guitar and a couple method books and taught himself to play the guitar. He laid out his method book page by page, song by song. Alfred Music’s freelance editor, a violinist, helped flesh it out. Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method was born and it achieved immediate success.
After the success of Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method, Morty felt it was time to tackle a piano method. He had been collaborating with Willard Palmer, a well-known piano arranger, for years. Together with Amanda Vick Lethco, an extremely successful piano teacher out of Houston, Texas, they decided to develop a piano method.
Morty admits that he found the first drafts of Alfred’s Basic Piano Method dull and that there were already so many methods like it. After a heated debate, Willard Palmer came back with a unique idea. Each song in the piano method was named after the interval the student would be learning. The lyrics aligned with the intervals so that every time the student played a second (or third, or fourth, etc.), they would sing the name of that interval. After this initial revision process, Willard and Amanda Vick invited Morty to become a co-author.
7. Big Al
Morty talks about how the Alfred’s Basic Piano Library books “developed a personality of their own,” which he called Big Al.
Alfred’s Basic Piano Library is a logical progression, moving at a rate that is challenging, yet suitable for a young child.
Amanda Vick tested the method with her students and Morty even tested it with his own children. They found there was a great difference in the learning stages between six, seven, and eight years old. So they decided to tailor the method to different age groups and learning speeds. Thus, the Prep Course, an elongation of the books in the Basic Course, and the complete level books, a combination of levels 1a and 1b, 2a and 2b, etc. were born. These different courses are interchangeable. If a student begins to learn more quickly, she can switch from the Prep Course to the Basic Course without having to repeat any material. The goal was that by the time a student finished the course, she would be at a stage where she could begin working on the masterworks.
“Do you think we’ll ever amount to anything?” Why yes, Morty, you certainly did.
Alfred’s Basic All-in-One Method Books combine the lesson, theory and recital books at each level. They are sequential so that the theory exercises and recital pieces follow their corresponding lesson.
Morty wants teachers to approach this course with enjoyment, pleasure and laughter.
Morty tells a story about a piano teacher who taught him how to play with emotion.
Jacy Burroughs is the Program Marketing Manager for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area.