Chords for Kids

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Chords are groups of three keys, usually played by beginners with the left hand. They are the DNA of music, and are present in every musical construction.

Even melodies are really just chords where the notes are not played simultaneously but sequentially, with a few other notes thrown in.

Chords have one additional quality, emotion. Each chord literally produces an emotional response like sad, happy, mysterious or angry.

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So the first thing I teach kids after we have played a few melodies of familiar songs, is to show them simplified, two note versions of chords.

Two note chords allow kids to have easy physical control while playing them, usually with the second and third fingers.

I avoid the thumb at first as it is shorter than the other fingers and using it puts the hand at an uncomfortable angle: it’s not a fingering game, it’s a memorization of location game.

I use chords in two ways.

One, the child is asked to include chords with the left hand if they feel comfortable. Remember, the ability to play with both hands is dependent on the child’s brain hemisphere development, so expect less of younger kids.

Two, I use chords as “ear training,” a course which consumes most of the first year of conservatory training. The child is asked to identify chords, evaluate their emotional quality, and gain facility playing them all over the keyboard with both hands.

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Almost like color-blindness, some kids “get” the quality of each different chord, and others have no idea that there is any difference at all.

This is lack of audio awareness is almost always true of very young kids, who somehow have not yet developed this peculiar audio-emotional skill, or at least are unable to express it. Just brush past it and work on getting the chords visually, ignoring emotional evaluations.

The easiest way to demonstrate the emotional quality of chords is to play bits of songs and ask the kids what they think. (This is essentially college ear training.)

So play the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth and the child will go, “Spooky!” Play Annie and they will say “Happy!” You make up songs, too. The pace should be very fast from one song to the next.

You have to expose them to listening over and over. In fact, I play a game called the Chair of Doom, a mock game show in which we switch chairs, and I play while they listen in the Chair of Doom.

After I play a bit of a song, they must answer with an emotional quality, or dramatic explanation. “Happy, sad, ballerinas,monsters,soft rain.”

Any answer will do, I never contradict them, except when they confuse happy and sad. This such an essential difference that if they get it wrong, we work on it a little extra.

So, allow two note chords, and offer younger kids the option of playing without chords.

If a younger child shies away from chords, they are not ready.

I have seen kids reluctant to use chords for a year suddenly start using them voluntarily.

Simplify chords, but add them to every song so they are available.

Remember that chords BY THEMSELVES are easy for even younger kids, but their combination with the right hand playing melody may be problematic. This involves a wholly separate issue, playing with both hands.

Kids love chords, if you make it simple enough.

Build from there.

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