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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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.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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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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The Invisible Piano Method

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The form of the usual piano lesson, to a child, is torture. They sit in a strange room with a strange adult and have to be quiet while complex things are explained to them. This is no fun.

Lectures are usually meaningless to a child of six.

You have to show, not tell. Do it, don’t talk too much.

Ideally, your delivery of the piano lesson should be invisible: it should not feel like a lesson but a visit from an interesting, sympathetic adult.

Imagine you were an uncle of some kid, and the child asked you to show him how to start playing.

Would you immediately pull out a piano book and begin some long explanation of theory? Would your demands be implacable from the first second?

No, you’d play some silly game, maybe learn Chopsticks or some other silly childish song, like Twinkle Twinkle. You’d show the kid a fun time.

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This same avuncular attitude can easily apply to piano lessons not taught by a hypothetical uncle. You will find you get much more done with a friendly, collegial attitude.

One of the first things that will happen in such a lesson is what I call the “apparent digression.” The child will say, “I want to learn that song that goes…….” but you were planning on teaching fingering that day.

The child wants to digress.

Do you follow, with a clever plan, or order that said digression will not happen, “We are learning fingering today, not that song you like.”

You follow the child, not the pre-arranged curriculum. The curriculum is set, but it doesn’t matter, with certain exceptions, in what order it is introduced.

A child who is interested in a certain song is far more likely to be open to ideas about how to play it. If you’re a clever teacher, these “ideas” will consist of curriculum: fingering, chords, positions. But the child is just having fun playing a song they like.

Try introducing the same ideas using a song to which the child is indifferent, and you will see the value of “digression.”

Wherever the child’s mind leads is where you should go. Your job is to cobble together the curriculum using the songs in which they are interested.

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Many piano treachers are unable to teach this way, using what I call the “hand-me-down-method.” What this means is that the teacher can only teach the way they were taught. They cannot adjust to the needs of the individual child in front of them.

Copyright 2010 Walden Pond Press

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Engage Kids With The Piano

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Engage kids with the piano. What does that mean?

I’ll tell you first what it doesn’t mean.

  • If your child just goes through the motions, they are not engaged.
  • If your child hates to play on their own, they are not engaged.
  • If your child is not curious about the piano, they are not engaged.

In a first piano lesson, I don’t care if the child gets through page 1 of the Bastien first book. I may not even open a book.

  • I care that they had fun pushing down the keys.
  • I care that they found a song they like.
  • I care that may have noticed a pattern or two.

Every second of every lesson, I am watching the kid’s face. I want to know what is easy, what perplexes them, what interests them, what bores them.

Curriculum doesn’t matter: I’m a doctor with a patient on the table and my mission is to make that kid love piano.

There’s time for curriculum: fingering, chords, both hands. We’ll get to all that naturally. Right now I want to see what the child makes of the piano by themselves, with a little guidance.

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The first task is always making music. One index finger is all that’s needed, and a song the child is dying to play.

Numbered Keyboard
Numbered Keyboard

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

1 1 5 5 6 6 5      4 4 3 3 2 2 1    5 5 4 4 3 3 2     5 5 4 4 3 3 2

1 1 5 5 6 6 5      4 4 3 3 2 2 1

I number the keyboard so there is no difficulty in finding the right keys to push. I usually avoid black keys at first.

Unless of course, the song requires them, in which case, they’re just introduced themselves to flats and sharps, voluntarily.

The Star Spangled Banner, for example, requires a black key, or Happy Birthday.

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So before a child ever reads a note of music, they should:

  • Play a song they love by memory or number.
  • Play at least three chords, C F and G.
  • Try to play with both hands. Success is irrelevant.

As time goes on, the songs get more complex. Fingering, at the beginning an option, becomes essential to navigate a even a moderately difficult piece.

Depending on the child’s brain development determined by age, difficult fingering may or may not be possible.

I once had a seven year old who insisted on playing the JAMES BOND THEME, a rather complex piece that needs fingering to be set in order to play quickly enough.

I quickly saw that he was having trouble playing the chords (left hand) together with the fingering of the right hand. Instead of insisting he do the whole thing, I instantly sense what his brain needed.

“Play the melody with both hands. Forget the chords.”

This simplification allowed him to easily play at least the melody of the song, to his great satisfaction.

This simplification allowed him to become engaged with the piano, and with the song. If I had asked for chords as well, he would have been lost.

Later, of course, he learned the chords. When he was ready.

Copyright 2015 Walden Pond Press

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Kids Reject Old School Piano

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Old school piano curriculum has stated since 1830: you will read music first and play what you like later. The problem is that you will quit before you play any music you like.

Every bit of old school rules are valid, in the abstract. I learned the old school way. The question is, does it work for kids today?

Actually, the old school never worked for anyone except those destined for the conservatory. For amateurs, for children, it was the same disaster 200 years ago as it is today.

Elements of it are useful, but if you teach only using this method, you’re in for a rude awakening: 90% of your students will quit within a year.

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Restricting a student to only reading music will stifle enthusiasm quicker than anything else.

Better to proceed on a two-branched approach: read music separately from playing music.

Reading music can only be done the old way. But playing music can be done in a thousand ways. Blind people can make music, so reading music is only an optional skill.

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This two-branched approach works well with kids, since it gives them the flavor of playing music while at the same time starting to build the old-school skills. Playing music by any means fuels their enthusiasm while the old school work lays the basis for further conventional study.

So let’s make a new rule for child pianists.

Currently kids are taught as if they were candidates for a music conservatory, ready and willing to do the blind, numbing labor it will take to succeed. This is insane. You don’t teach hobbyists the same way you teach professionals. This is poisonous for kids.

The basis for teaching kids piano should be: interest every child on their own level and at their own pace.

This means letting kids play music by eye, by ear, by number, by letter, by any means that is easy and exciting. After that, see how much music reading they can take.

You can force feed a child music theory, or let them explore songs that they like.

The choice is up to you.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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How A Child Sees The Piano

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Kids notice different things than adults. They are not as detail oriented, nor should they be, as they haven’t been trained to be truly observant. The piano is a good training ground for observers.

To a child, the piano is absurdly complex.

To a child, a bicycle is less complex. Put a pair of training wheels on it and now it is a useful toy.

Our job, as piano teachers, is to make the piano into a useful toy rather than a confusingly complex giant piece of furniture.

A child needs to see order in the piano right away, even if it not the more complex order they will later see. They need to see the piano on their own level, which is terribly simplistic.

Numbered Keyboard
Numbered Keyboard

So we number the keys, which is as one-dimensional as possible. No differing, conflicting planes and dimensions, just familiar old numbers.

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Now the child can see how much fun it is just to play a simple, familiar song. Get them to play a dozen. All the while, their eyes are taking in the keyboard, making valuable observations of which they are only dimly aware.

So far, we have made the piano into a rather large, tuneful toy. Nothing to be frightened of here.

But as soon as I introduce reading music, you can see the child shrink back. They can tell, “This is unfamilar. This isn’t easy.”

So I wait, because I can see the reaction.

We stick to numbers because it is obvious they are comfortable with numbers.

While we do this, we start other skills, which are easier than reading music, but will be useful when we get to it.

Fingering, chords, playing with both hands. All are easy if you are only reading numbers.

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So while the child develops skills and comfort with the keys, they are preparing themselves for reading music.

A child who knows fingering, 20 songs, chords and can play with both hands is a better candidate for reading music.

Why? The child is properly prepared.

From a child’s point of view, like the bicycle training wheels, the toy has to suit their capabilities until those capabilities grow.

Piano By Number gives the child that time to grow.

Copyright © 2017 by Walden Pond Press

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A Patient Piano Teacher

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A patient piano teacher knows when to back off, when to be less demanding, and when to switch to an activity that provides relief from stress.

Of course there’s a curriculum you’re trying to instill, but it does no good if the child is completely stressed out by your manner.

The child’s stress usually comes from the teacher’s insistence on following a set curriculum, with a set timetable. But kids lag behind, they get confused, they don’t practice. Browbeating them and insisting on concentration when they can’t deliver it is torture to a kid.

A better approach is to know what you want to teach the child, but then find out what part of that curriculum is palatable to them that day, and try that. Curriculum at this level can be taught in any order, and complying with the child makes them cooperative.

Sometimes kids are in no mood for anything, and then you have to back off completely. Be crafty, and disguise a simple skill as “nothing.” Force never works.

Force always has an equal reaction, which is apathy.

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Combine the old school, conventional methods with the newer ideas, like Piano By Number, and now you have a toolchest that will interest a child if it is presented in the right proportion, regardless of their mood.

You need to be constantly assessing the state of the patient/student to see what they are capable of at that moment. The force method doesn’t care what mood the kid is in, we’re playing page 26.

Kids get tired of reading music, then I retreat to numbers. When they get tired of numbers, I switch to piano games. When they get tired of piano games, I switch to hilarious music history. Once they are laughing, we can start again at the top of the list.

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The best advice on salesmanship I ever got was from a real estate entrepeneur, who said to me, “You’ve got to have a thermometer ten feet long to sense the mood in the room. That’s what sells: sensitivity.”

Some will say I’m “soft on crime” and need to utilize “tough love,” but my methods produce results: students who play under their own steam, who want to play.

At times kids will simply not be in the mood for anything. They want to watch TV, they want to play ipad.

At such times, I play a game called ATOMIC PIANO LESSON. The child sits on a chair or the sofa, and I play piano, asking them for their reactions to the music I am playing. It is really ear-training, but they will never know it.

Then I ask them to play a C chord from the sofa, six feet away. Of course they can’t, but they pretend to reach. Then they laugh. I seem to be asking for the impossible.

Usually, once they are laughing, they will return to the piano and play a tune or two, usually with one finger. We laugh.

But we are still in agreement, because we had fun: we will keep trying.

Tomorrow is another day.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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