Discipline and Repetition Don’t Work

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There is something of the drill sergeant about the piano teacher.

We both issue orders, “Play it again,” and expect our orders to be carried out without dispute.

In my conservatory experience, I have had slave driver piano teachers, but I knew exactly why they were doing it, and I willingly submitted to their judgement.

You cannot possibly expect a six year old to appreciate this kind of commitment.

Most kids are diligent, and will repeat a piece if you ask. But after a couple of tries, they’ve had enough. The reality is that any section of music has to be repeated HUNDREDS of times until it is smooth, whether by a child or a professional.

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You can disguise the repetition with carefully constructed games, which takes some of the sting out of it.

But kids can’t take more than a little prodding. You have to find other ways, like humor and games.

The pushy piano teacher says, “Have you practiced? How much? Why not? You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t follow the exercises and play them every day for 30 minutes.”

What the pushy piano teacher is saying is, “I have failed to interest you in the most interesting subject there is. Therefore,I will fill you with shame and make you hate me and the piano.”

Why can’t this pedant figure out the real answer, “I’m going too fast. What would you like to play? Come on, let’s play something together.”

The older the child, the more they will tolerate militaristic scholarship. The younger the child, the more nurturing and friendship they need, because piano skills are difficult and slow to acquire.

Another downfall of the militarist musician is “the method.” Militarists teach “by the book,” just like in the army. They choose a method, like Faber, Bastien or Alfred, and then let the method do the work, going from page to page.

This is a disaster for most kids. Kids think music is bubbly, fun stuff that makes you want to sing and dance. There is none of that in the standard texts.

You can make the process a pain with discipline, or a pleasure with fun. The difficulty for the teacher is that the pleasure/fun scenario takes 50 times the effort from the teacher.

Most piano teacher hide behind the book: “It’s not me you should please, you must do the book correctly. Play it again.”

Following the book slavishly allows a teacher to remain emotionally uninvolved. But that is the oposite of what the child needs.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

REFERENCES

Inflexible Piano Teachers

How To Make Piano Students Quit

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Every Child Learns Piano Differently

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There is no one-size-fits-all method in children’s piano. Teachers and publishers will tell you there is, but there is not. No one method, including ours, is guaranteed to get your child interested in the piano.

Kids vary in personality, and age has almost complete control of a kid’s brain development. These two variables alone make a “uni-method” a laughable untruth.

Yet the conventional methods are marketed as if you are sending your child to Juilliard, and need to make sure they learn their scales the right way, right now.

Faber, Bastien, Alfred and many more methods are offered as the proper way to start. I’ll tell you the truth about these book methods: kids hate them.

There are traditions two hundred years old to which your child will be subjected, some of them quite logical, and all will be held up to you, the parent, as the only way for your child to play properly.

That’s not going to happen.

What’s going to happen, in a good outcome scenario, is that your child will be lucky enough to find a good, patient teacher, and will thus take an interest in the piano, fueled by themselves, and not fueled by your entreaties to practice, or the iron hand of an unforgiving piano teacher.

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Either teach the child to take an interest in the piano, or begin the force-feeding process of reading music. Guess which works better.

The one factor that I see in kids that holds them back is fear. Fear of failing at some task, fear of not pleasing the teacher.

You should eliminate that fear and replace it with a forgiving sense of humor. Mistakes are inevitable and as numerous as weeds. Laugh and forgive, take notice and move on. Kids are smart. They notice what you say is a mistake, they just fear you getting mad.

What I’m after is a kid who is willing to try anything at the piano, then fail at it, and scrape themselves up again and try one more time. That’s what it takes to learn the piano, not mindless rote discipline. You need a scientist, not a soldier.

So you need to play to their strengths. If they are good at chords, give them pop songs that extend their knowledge of chords. If they like reading music, go from page to page and they will accept it if they know you will stop any time they ask, and just play music. If they want to play with one hand, indulge them and forget about chords for now.

Your job is to remove obstacles to their enthusiasm, not set up more.

Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press

REFERENCES

Slow Starters at Kid’s Piano

Dad Made Me Hate Piano

Freestyle Kid’s Piano

Longevity and Piano Lessons

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Basic Piano Skills for Kids

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The basic piano skills for kids are the same regardless of method. You can go to the fanciest conservatory or a store-front music store, you are going to learn the same skills, perhaps in a slightly different order.

The biggest question is, when will the child learn each skill, and in what order?

Some methods start with reading music, others with note naming, and  still others aim to get the child pushing keys and making music right away.

You will find that reading music is the most difficult way to engage a child with the piano, mostly because the music is restricted to exercise pieces the child is able to “read.”

So let’s find out this basic list of skills.

Please remember that each child will, dependent on age and development, take a differing amount of time to absorb these ideas.

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PLAY THE FIRST FIVE NOTES

The first skill is to be able to read and play, with proper fingering, the first five notes, C D E F and G. In Piano By Number this is 1 2 3 4 5.

Conventional Music Reading Tools
Conventional Music Reading Tools

To compare the two methods, reading music and Piano By Number, look at the drawing above, and compare it to the numbered keyboard below.

Numbered Keyboard
Numbered Keyboard

The top drawing shows the tools a child is given in “reading music:” five horizontal lines above and the keyboard below. No reference points, no relationship, really, between the two vastly differing graphic systems, the lines and the keyboard. To read music, the child must master at least five dimensions to correlate the page to the keys.

Now look at the numbered keyboard. It is one-dimensional: see a number on the page, play the same number on the keyboard.

It’s not hard to have kids make a transition to reading music, but it helps a lot if they have had a chance to gain confidence playing songs by number first.

PLAY THE SIX CHORDS

Chords are groups of three keys, played with the left hand by beginners. I allow kids to play the bottom two members of the chord with their 2nd and 3rd fingers, mostly because it is easier for them to see the construction of the chord when they are not bothering with the thumb, a shorter finger that confuses kids at first.

They need to be familiar with the chords C F G D E and A. Some are all white keys, some have one black key. This in itself can be hard for kids to remember.

But chords are the DNA of music, and will become more and more valuable as their study goes on.

PLAY WITH BOTH HANDS

How far they get with this one depends on their age. Playing with two hands is only possible comfortably when the two brain hemispheres talk easily to one another, and this takes time for child-pianists to develop.

So older kids try a harder piece, and younger kids may simply have to show that they can make both hands play notes at the same time.

For the youngest kids, I limit this to a game where I ays, “Play a C chord with your left hand, and the number 5 with your right hand.”

A SENSE OF RHYTHM

Reading the rhythms in sheet music is the last skill I work on. To add it too early is to overburden the child who is desperatley trying to juggle fingering, notes, chords and many other things.

But there are simpler ways to start a study of rhythm. Essentially, you just want the child to count as they play an absurdly easy pattern.

See the piano game called FOURS.

Every child is different in how long they take to learn the list. Some do it in a few minutes (12 years old) and some take months or years.

It isn’t a race. You are dealing with each different mind, each different age.

Better to go slowly, at the child’s pace, than cram it into their heads quickly to fit some academic schedule.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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Hyperactivity and Kid’s Piano

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Hyperactive kids are very difficult to teach piano, especially using the standard methods. In fact, you will find very few piano teachers willing to take on such a challenge. They almost always refuse to teach such kids.

But some piano teachers like the challenge of teaching a kid who bounces off the walls with energy.

The biggest task is to stay at least ten steps ahead of such a child, or you will be left in the dust.

Some parents warn me that their child is on medication, or is in therapy, and is very hyperactive. Some are called ADHD. I have taught them all and had fun at the same time. You just have to listen to the kid.

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First I observe to what degree they are hyperactive. Are they just fidgety or are they bouncing off the walls?

I had one ADHD kid with a wonderful mom who put the piano in the basement, with about three soft sofas and lots of big fluffy pillows. The kid would bounce off the sofas onto the floor, luckily carpeted.

Your first observation should be their attention span. If it is 12 seconds, you will have to devise games that are 12 seconds long, strung together into a half hour lesson. It can be done.

Games for the Piano Book By Mail

Many piano teachers interpret hyperactivity as “bad behavior” but it is not. A hyperactive kid does not know where to put their tremendous energy, and the piano is a perfect tool for them.

Try the following activities, each 12 seconds long, each followed by a “game.” (Not a musical game, but a game like throwing a ball, or something that expends the child’s physical energy.)

Play a single line of a song:

Numbered Keyboard

Mary Had A Little Lamb

3 2 1 2   3 3 3   2 2 2   3 3 3

Have the child play the above, then quickly start playing ball for a few seconds, keeping a fake “score.” Then back to another song or musical game. As long as there is a non-musical game in between, they will do this activity endlessly.

Another game is seeing if the child remembers what they have just played: do the Mary Had A Little Lamb game and then come back to it later and demand what notes they remember. Give a hint if they falter.

This repetition game builds their memory, which is very necessary since their minds move so fast that they might not even remember what happened 12 seconds ago.

THE REPETITION GAME

Hyperactive and ADHD kids hate to repeat things which seem pointless, so you need to create scenarios which allow their imaginations to go to work:

  • Pretend they are on a television show. They must play for you, the camera
  • Pretend they are in the circus and must enter from backstage to play a song for the ringmaster, you.
  • Pretend they are a scientist and the numbers on the piano actually enter numbers into a secret computer.
  • Pretend they are on the space station and must enter the numbers to upload cookies to the space station.
  • Don’t call it a piano. Call it a Vorplexatronic Floogelator and command them to enter the code 5 3 1 3 5 8 10 9 8 3 #4 5 immediately. (It’s the Star Spangled Banner.)

In between each “pretend game” should be a physical game, throwing a ball, throwing a pillow, running around the room. Find what the child likes. That’s their reward for working at the piano.

I had one kid who rolled a baseball into a shoe every time he got something right. That was his reward!

The conclusion is that hyperactive kids can learn piano, but you have to bend over backwards to create an atmosphere that they do not find stuffy. They have to have action, fun and games.

My experience that these kids are smart, maybe even smarter than most kids, but the wiring of their brain is different, faster, and you, the teacher, have to accomodate it.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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Teaching Kid’s Piano Is Impossible

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I think you underestimate the difficulty in engaging today’s child with the piano. Our competitors are the ipad, the internet, TV, shobiz, celebrity and a thousand other softwares, sites and technologies that hyponotize our youth.

Yet the piano is the world’s oldest “computer,” the first human attempt to digitize and simplify information. The piano keyboard made making music easier than on any other instrument, such as the violin or flute.

So why is it so hard to learn the piano?

Here are some of the problems:

  • Children’s fingers are extremely weak, leading them to believe they cannot play.
  • Both adults and kids struggle with the graphic language of music, an 800 year old language which is so complex that it manages to describe perfectly (if you speak the language fluently) every aspect of a piece of music. For the untrained, it is a nightmare of conflicting planes and dimensions.
  • Learning the patterns of any song takes repetition, lots of it, and human brains get tired of repetition unless they are extremely motivated, such as ballet dancers, athletes and musicians.
  • Adults have a tremendous advantage in learning the piano, because their brains are fully developed. Kids are trapped by the development of their brains, and their skills are dependent on their age.

Try Piano By Number OnlineNext comes personality. Some kids are not suited to old-fashioned repetitious study at the piano, and need a teacher who will bend over backwards to get the child the experience and facility they need. Sometimes they don’t get that sympathetic teacher, but rather a pedant or a slave driver.

Next consider the method used to teach the student, and the teacher. Don’t forget the statistic of 90% failure, and try to steer clear of inflated expectations. You have to select a method exactly suited to the child.

For some kids, the best method is right out of a book. For others, they need the teacher to make up a curriculum that engages and excites the child, perhaps not using a book.

All of the above difficulties are why I developed Piano By Number.

To me, there was a missing step in piano lessons.

It seems foolish to start right out with the difficult language of music notation, without giving the child a chance to simply make music first, using their  brains, fingers and common sense.

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Kid’s Piano Fingering 101

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Let’s look at kid’s piano fingering from the simplest version they offer, to the complex patterns and positions they must learn. You must see it from the child’s point of view, or you will get lost.

IN THE BEGINNING

Kids will offer you their instinctive choice of finger, and you should wait and see what they offer. Usually, it’s the dominant index finger, but I’ve seen everything. All thumbs, all pinkies, backwards fingering, anything an untrained six year old can dream up.

At first, accept whatever crude method they offer. It really doesn’t matter that they just played Jingle Bells with their pinkie, it matters that they played a song. It’s not hard to suggest the index finger, in this example.

FIRST STEPS

Get them to use their index fingers, as they will have the most control over those two fingers (left and right.)

Then get them to use both index fingers. Now, the two sides of the brain are talking. The two index fingers can either play bat the same time or in some order devised by the child.

Make up a mock sad game in which you lament that they “were born with only one finger” to try to make them aware of what they are doing.

The truth is that kids are only dimly aware that they have ten fingers, of five types (thumb, index,third, fourth,pinkie) and that each finger has different capabilities, and must be taught to work together as a team.

Point out that they have a finger right next to the index (the third) which might be useful. Try to encourage them to use the two fingers, index and third. They make a good team, at first.

Piano Fingering Diagram

THE THUMB

Introduce the thumb.

To a child, they have no idea what the thumb does at the piano. It is half as long as the other fingers, and to place it on the white keys requires the hand to be at a rather strange angle, at least to an untrained child.

THREESIES

At this point I play a game called “threesies.” which teaches kids to use the first three fingers as a group (thumb, index, third.)

Numbered Keyboard
Numbered Keyboard

Play the following set of numbered keys, using only the first three fingers of the right hand:

123, 234, 345, 456, 567, 678, 789, etc.

This allows the child to get used to the rather odd angle the hand must adopt in order for the shorther thumb to sit on the white keys.

ALL FIVE FINGERS

It can take weeks or months to get to this stage, and older kids get there much more quickly.

Set the five fingers of the right hand on the keys 1 2 3 4 5.

You may have to play relaxation games like Hobbita Jobbita (shake the hands like a cartoon character, ending in a relaxed position.) Kids do not understand laying the hand flat on the keys, especuially younger kids. They will clench their hands, making it impossible to lay the hand flat. A common position is what I call The Karate Chop” in which the hand is held sideways, pinkie on key #5 and thumkb flailing in the air. Patience.

Now just get them to play 1 2 3 4 5  then 5 4 3 2 1.

SONGS WITH FINGERING

You should have already taught them basic songs on the white keys that lend themselves to five finger positions.

Here’s a short list:

  • JINGLE BELLS
  • MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB
  • BEETHOVEN’S NINTH
  • ALOUETTE
  • POP GOES THE WEASEL

Put their fingers over the keys and press their fingers down for them so their muscles get the idea quickly: this almost always works.

Now, offer them the option of using one finger or fingering. Sometimes younger kids shy away from fingering, so let them: there are many other things to be taught, and if they shy away from fingering, they are not quite ready for it.

Kids should be limited to “C position” in right hand until they instinctively choose groups of fingers, rather than single fingers. But give them the option of no fingering, they know their brains better than you do.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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Preschool Piano Games

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Preschool piano games are usually derived from skills the kids need to learn. Here are the areas from which games must be fashioned.

  • What is left and right at the piano? It has to be second nature.
  • What is up and down at the piano? Up/down and left/right are inextricably mixed on the piano keyboard.
  • What is happy music? What is sad music? What is mysterious music? What is dangerous music? Get the child to distinguish these four crucial emotional qualities. Play it yourself or get a CD.
  • Try to find Middle C on the piano.

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Those are the first four skills to explore. Kids repond to gathering around the piano and playing games with the keyboard rather than listening to a dry lecture or performance. They want “hands on.”

For example, rather than try to start reading music, how about a quick game of finding the groups of two and three black keys, a skill upon which reading music depends?

Keyboard with 2 and 3 blacks
Keyboard with 2 and 3 blacks

Show, don’t tell, and get the kids to try playing things, no matter how simple.

Preschool Piano Book Package

preschool kids smiling

For the youngest of kids, the activities may not even occur at the piano, but around it, and reacting to it.

FUN ACTIVITY 1

Play a jaunty beat, ala Chico Marx, and get the kids to show how you march to a marching beat. This makes rhythm physical.

FUN ACTIVITY 2

Make the music angry and dark, and pretend there is a storm. Do the kids feel the storm? Where can they hide?

MORE ACTIVITIES

Play a glissando up. Sweep your fingers over the white keys as you move to the right/up. Ask the kids what it was like, and if it was up or down.

Now do the same but move down.

WATCH VIDEO: PRESCHOOL ACTIVITIES 1

Now I would concentrate on the two black keys, and get kids to compete to find the most groups of two black keys.

Ask if anyone sees a pattern in the black keys. Ask them to come to the piano and show the other kids.

Now point out the most important note on the piano is called “C” and it is always the white key to the left of the two black keys. Ask someone to find a C. Then ask someone to play every C they can find.

Pretend you’re a carnival barker and have the kids form a line, then each kid has to say “2” or “3” as you point to different groups of black keys. Like a carnie, say, “Hurry up kid, there are other kids waitin'” to speed up the game and speed up their brains.

Copyright © 2017 Walden Pond Press

REFERENCES

Games for the Piano

Teach Your Toddler Piano

Preschool Piano Roadmap

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Piano for Babies

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Piano for babies? People actually ask me if they can start piano with a two year old. It depends on the two year old, and I’m not being snarky.

If your two year old is Mozart, go ahead, but if your two year old is like most kids that age, they will have no idea what symbols (letters, numbers) are.

Only certain skills (there are still some that are purely physical and do not require symbols) can be taught to a child that does not understand symbols, and cannot connect them with real objects like piano keys.

Let’s assume that we are dealing with an average two or three year old, and they have a dim but incomplete view of the numbers 1-10.

Let’s further assume that the child is so young that they have to be taught visually, and cannot use symbols with facility.

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THE MAIN SKILL FOR A YOUNG CHILD

You must find a way for the child to enjoy coming to the piano. It cannot be a place of criticism. It has to be a place the child associates with joy.

You can use candy, money, praise, rewards, toys. But the child cannot feel uneasy or out of control while at the piano.

THE LENGTH OF THE LESSON

Are you prepared for a six minute lesson? The lesson is over when the child says it’s over, no exceptions.

You really cannot go against this rule, or you risk the child not wanting another lesson. Let them lead the lesson, at least apparently.

Games for the Piano Book By MailFINGERING

If you get past the index finger, it is a miracle. Pretend it does not exist.

RHYTHM

It exists in the simplest form: you produce it, and they feel it. Don’t expect a three year old to understand it the way even a six year old does. See the FOURS piano game.

CHORDS

Can you get the child to skip a white key? That is a chord. Forget them being able to name chords, move between chord. Teach them what a chord is, most likely a C chord.

BLACK KEYS

Way too confusing unless the child expresses interest. Try playing all the black keys in a row, going up.

COUNTING

Easy and natural to do, just don’t make it complex. Counting to four is hard work if anything is expected at the same time. Once again see the FOURS piano game.

HAND POSITION

Irrelevant, since they cannot control their fingers. If you insist on it, you will only frustrate them. If nothing else, just make them aware of it. Many kids this age offer the “karate chop” position, the hand on its side. Laugh. Move on.

SITTING PROPERLY

You’re going to have enough trouble getting them not to fall on the floor. Seriously. Little kids this age have trouble balancing.

PRACTICING

There is only one method: THE SONG. Find a song they are crazy about and they will not stop playing it. For a two year old, this is practicing.

ATTENTION SPAN

I would assume five minutes, anything more is gravy. Never force the length of the “lesson.” When their fleeting interest has passed, it’s over. Wait for next time.

Remember, in conclusion, that five minute lessons may take 6 times as long for the child to learn as compared to 30 minutes lessons.

Go slowly, glacially, expect nothing.

You may be pleasantly surprised.

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Best Age To Start Piano

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The best age to start piano is up to you. The classic age is 6. That is when a child’s brain is just beginning to develop the connection between the two hemispheres. At 4, there is less connection. At 8, there is more.

From my experience, there is a slight advantage to starting later, allowing the brain more time to develop.

However, there is the process of instilling habits, which is best begun early.Try Piano By Number Online

Any child who can count to ten is a good candidate for Piano By Number, the best starting platform for kids. Say, four or five.

But counting to ten is only a starting qualification.

Other skills, having more to do with maturity, are necessary as well.

For example:

  • The ability to complete a task.
  • The ability to concentrate intensely for a short period of time.
  • The ability to make mistakes and take constructive criticism.

Make sure that you separate the tasks of playing music and reading music. Kids can play music for a long time, but can summon up the mental wherewithal for only a few minutes of music reading.

Piano By Number

Age 2 to 3

For this age group you simply want to convince the child that the piano is a fun place to be.

There are few skills kids this age can absorb, except maybe up and down.

You’re really looking for a psychological victory, not an educational one at this age. Convince them that they want more.

Your pace should be glacial, never ever pushing the child, but laying out games and seeing if they bite at the bait. If not, move on.

It will be practically impossible for them to go from the page to the keys, as they will lose their place almost instantly. Concentrate on the keyboard.

Age 4 to 5

Kids can now go from looking at the page to looking at the keys, so it is possible to play actual songs. If not, continue to concentrate on the keyboard, getting them used to the geography.

Find their favorite songs and translate them into a form that is transparently easy for them to play.

You may be able to introduce the black keys, flats and sharps, but I would concentrate on finding the white keys 1-12 at first.

Fingering is only dimly understood at this age, but encourage them to use specific fingers if it does not frustrate them. It’s a good age to let them explore “crazy fingering,” wherein they try any combination that strikes them. It often helps them feel the logic of the “proper” way.

Age 5 to 6

Numbered Keyboard for kids
Numbered Keyboard

At this age, the child’s brain is finally ready for more complex tasks, and is ready to try to complete tasks.

You must still lower the bar and keep a game feeling to the lessons. It should seem more like a fun half hour with a sympathetic adult rather than a lecture.

You can try playing with both hands, and fingering. But you must know when to back off and let the child simply do what comes naturally. Later, you can convince them there is a better way.

KINDERGARTEN PIANO

Now begins the process of bait and switch, between Piano By Number and reading music.

Motor skills take a jump at this age and kids are able to control the hand with more assurance.

The proportion of numbers/games to reading should be about 8 parts numbers to 2 parts reading.

The child, now about six, has had the opportunity to play games and have fun and play familiar songs. They are ready for a little work on reading music, as long as the exposure is short but often.

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Funny Piano Lessons

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A laughing child is easy to teach. An upset child is almost impossible to teach. Which would you rather have? It all has to do with the teacher’s manner.

Thus, with some kids, I adopt the manner of the comedian. Some kids like it in varying degrees, depending on their personality. I have very serious kids who don’t want any humor.

But I think what such a teacher is saying with such a manner is, “I will never go faster or harder than you can take. There will always be time for childish good humor.” It puts the child at ease.

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Now you can go to work.

Games are inherently funny, especially if you adopt, even for a few seconds, the manner of the game show host.

Kids are in school all day, often with humorless pedants. Piano is an elective after school activity. Think about what the child is expecting.

Kids are going to learn the basics, anyway: fingering, chords, both hands and a host of other skills. It will go down much easier with a dose of humor.

The humor is not at odds with curriculum, nor is it a substitute for it.

So you will go through all the standard curriculum, but when you see an opportunity for humor, use it, laugh with them, and then back to work.

Sometimes we simply have to stop work to follow our vein of humor, but the time isn’t really wasted: a kid who has been given his “head of steam” with humor will be ready for work.

STUPID TEACHER GAME

Sometimes, when a child is bored, we switch chairs, and I become the student, or a very stupid teacher. The tables are turned.

I act like I need their help on the simplest of tasks. “Where is Middle C?” “Where are the black keys?” “What is a C chord?”

Sometimes I pretend to be a spaceman-robot, who needs to find Middle C, but somehow is too stupid to understand any explanation the child offers. They must try again and again, rephrasing, constructing their argument to get the spaceman to understand. It forces them to think.

OTHER GOOFY CHARACTERS

Sometimes the child becomes the teacher and I play a very stupid student called Hubert (apologies to anyone named Hubert.)

Hubert can’t do anything, especially the skills the child has already learned well.

The dialogue might go like this:

Hubert: “Where is Middle C?”

Teacher: “Next to the two blacks.”

Hubert: “In the middle of the two blacks?”

Teacher: “No, to the siide.”

Hubert: “Which side?”

Teacher: “On the left of the two blacks.”

Hubert: “The white key?” (Hubert plays B, the wrong note.)

Teacher: “No, the one right next to black key, don’t skip any keys.”

There! You have gotten the child to demonstrate total knowledge of every fact that will lead them to Middle C, or any C.

They will never forget Hubert and Middle C.

Any skill can be taught using humor.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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