Nicola Cantan’s new book, Playful Preschool Piano Teaching 1, is about teaching piano to 3-5 year-olds with listening, learning, and laughter (her subtitle) is a revelation. I am currently a paid member of Nicola’s Vibrant Music Teaching, so some of the concepts introduced were not new. However, it’s a great pocket guide to the challenges and opportunities for young pianists. The reason I’m taking the time to give part review, and part explanation of the book is that I think it could be very helpful to piano parents. Although I don’t currently teach anyone in preschool, I find many useful applications of the material to the several 6-8 year-olds I teach. If you are hands on with your children, you may find this book a revelation to early childhood learning in piano and beyond.
The Italian physician and educator is given a lot of credit early on in the book, with good reason. “Play is the work of the child.” That’s the quote attributed to Montessori that Nicola uses to describe her own approach. If you’ve ever spent any time with a young child, you will find that a child at play is not like an adult at leisure. Adults often look to leisure to disconnect from reality; children look to play as a chance to connect with it. When a child uses building blocks, builds sand castles, or even draws with crayons it’s an attempt to bring order to their world.
I’ve seen this first-hand in a lesson I had recently with a 5-year-old. He took a detour from the topic I introduced, as he wanted to learn something related to what I mentioned. The parent softly chided him to pay attention, but in truth he was paying attention and was quite engaged. His focus quickly returned to my topic once I answered his related question.
Challenges to Learning
A child’s ability to learn piano in the traditional sense is greatly diminished below age 7 or 8. By the traditional sense, I mean the capability to sit fairly still, focus on note learning, and put together pieces with little to no help from a parent. However, there’s a world of learning that is ready to tap into with the very young. Developing the ear through singing is one of them. After all, singing came first in ancient cultures, followed by the use of musical instruments. Kids love to sing, and can quickly transfer that ability to picking out notes on the piano for a piece of music, with one finger in each hand. This occurs well before they develop the ability to read notation for that same piece.
Note reading is difficult for all kids, but much more so for young ones. That’s true even when introduced slowly and methodically. The child has to learn about different shaped notes, with different durations. Then, she sees them placed on these lines, spaces, and sometimes above or below this staff, as we would call it. Plus, we expect them to associate all of this to white and black notes on the keyboard. Nicola explains this utter confusion in nonsense nomenclature, and calls the piano itself a toofpranie. Using this imaginative language, she shows how a child becomes confused and anxious when asked to quickly put all of this together to play their first song, at their first lesson.
Improvisation and Imagination
Nicola’s approach is much more imaginative and improvisatory. Even learning the patterns of two and three black notes on the piano is difficult at first. She relates each set of black keys to an animal, and conjures up stories that they can use to experiment with the keys. They eventually learn all of the notes, white and black. Plus, they have a great time getting there since there are so many fun games and songs used to guide their way. Reading music is not an obstacle. It’s just one part of lessons that includes singing, improvisation, musical story telling, and of course, rhythmic exploration.
With just singing and rhythm, you can do a lot. Fortunately, the young are very able to learn note values well before they can identify them quickly on the page. Again, there is adaptation needed, since kids don’t clap well early on. Instead, using patsching, or slapping the thighs, works better. They can also walk around the room to experience quarter notes and half notes. Good luck trying to get a 9-year-old to walk around the room to fix a rhythm problem! Movement in general is something to be encouraged when teaching these little ones, since it helps them connect into and use their abundant energy.
One of the most apparent limitations a young child hasis the ability to use all five fingers. This can extend up to 6- and 7- year-olds as well. Most young pianists only have the ability to use one finger on each hand at a time. Good pre-reading method books start with the second (index) finger, and then offer the third (middle) finger as an alternate. However, at some point, these books will introduce a piece that requires both 2 and 3 to be used. Then, finger 4 gets added shortly thereafter.
What happens if the child isn’t ready? Simple – play the piece with just one finger, cycling through 2 through 4 to make sure each gets a chance to develop. Playing with 2 to 3 fingers will come when the child is ready with the teacher’s guidance. The thumb and pinky, fingers 1 and 5, are in some ways an adult pianist’s strongest tools. However, they are the last to be developed in a young pianist.
There is a lot involved in teaching very young pianists. Playful Preschool Piano Teaching to addresses this adeptly. I readily admit that I am only partially down that road. I am in deep respect and awe of those who successfully teach 3-5 year-olds! However, I’ve become more and more convinced that students don’t need to wait until age 6 or older to begin, if the circumstances are right. The child has to be receptive. The parent has to be involved. The teacher has to pace learning in a way that works. The benefits could be immense. As Nicola says, a child’s innate musicianship can be developed from a very young age, and can lay a foundation that is hard to match when compared to a child that begins much later.
1. The book is listed on my Piano Lessons – Books page, found under the top menu Teaching > Links for Current Students