Playful Preschool Piano Teaching

Introduction

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.

Maria Montessori

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.

Play is the work of the child

Maria Montessori, Italian physician and educator

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.

Technical Limitations

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.

In Conclusion

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.


Footnote

1. The book is listed on my Piano Lessons – Books page, found under the top menu Teaching > Links for Current Students

Photo by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay
Last Updated 2019-11-01 | Originally Posted 2019-10-31

Music Apps for Beginners (and Beyond)

Summary

Last summer, I committed to testing a bunch of music apps that I could recommend to my students. The result of that work is in this post. It took about a year to discover that I only consistently recommended two applications, plus a metronome app for those who didn’t have a separate metronome. I’m working through some recently downloaded apps that I’ll most likely add to this post, but it’s time to clean up my old post and start anew. Here is my list of music apps for beginners and beyond!

But First…

There is a bit of a bias towards iOS versus Android by app makers in education. Even though I’ve been only a PC owner since the early Windows days (and yes, I remember DOS!), I solely use an iPhone and iPad. I don’t have the resources to buy Android devices just for testing. However, I have tried to provide alternatives, and would be glad to work with any of my students to see how they perform. It’s in my best interest to recommend the best tools, since it makes lessons easier for me and my students!

The biggest lesson I learned is you get what you pay for! Free apps can be helpful to try out a paid app, but don’t expect to rely on them for anything past that. When I first tested out music apps, I tried going the free route and was totally frustrated and wasted so much time! If I recommend an app, it will be worth the $5 or less that most of these cost. The good news is that all of these apps are one-time purchases, not a monthly or yearly subscription. You own it for as long as the developer continues to support the app – which hopefully is a long time!

Highly Recommended

Note Rush: Music Reading Game

Flashcard drilling using your piano/keyboard to verify the notes. It’s great for students who are rapidly expanding their reading of the staff, and need a bit of fun along the way.

Device: iOS, Android

I find Note Rush a lot of fun to play myself, and I sometimes demo it with students by sight-singing, instead of playing notes on the piano. It’s a hit with any student to whom I introduce it. The app uses the device’s microphone to identify pitches, and it has calibrated perfectly wherever I’ve tried it. If your piano is wickedly out of tune, it may not do so well! It’s pretty easy to use, since you choose from one of several pre-loaded levels. You could also customize your own choice of note ranges if you’d like something more challenging.

If you are a beginner and note reading is going smoothly, or especially if you are past beginner method books and playing intermediate literature, you might want to skip this app. However, at least half of my students in method books could benefit from using this app along with the landmark and interval training that I provide.

Rhythm Lab

Rhythm drilling, using either one or two hand tapping on the screen. It’s useful for beginning through intermediate students.

Device: iOS only
Android Alternative: Rhythm Cat

This is a super fun app, and I find it I recommend it a lot for transfer students whose teachers have not been as strict with note values as I am. While I typically recommend it for students who need it for basic note values, like half notes vs quarter notes, the app could also be helpful for learning more complex rhythmic notation that anyone continuing into more difficult music will face. If you do struggle with playing in time, and are not self-aware about stopping at bar lines or when things get difficult, this is your app!

The interface is a bit complex and the judgmental applause at the end of each exercise is a bit annoying, but I look at that as just a minor irritation.

Metronome Apps

Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome

The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is listed at the bottom of my piano books recommendations. It is an old fashioned metronome, not an app. I have to include it because it’s still my top recommendation instead of, or as an addition to, an app.

Price: About $25

This model has been around in some form for several decades, and price has not changed much during that time. It’s an old-fashioned, electronic metronome that requires one 9-volt battery to run.  It’s not quite as old school as the Wittner Taktell, the German brand dating back to the 19th century that I grew up using.  So that makes me just a half dinosaur!

Why buy this and not just solely rely on a phone or tablet? Sometimes having a device dedicated to doing one thing is the right choice. If you need to charge your phone, or if you are sharing a device with a sibling or parent, it may not be available when you need to use it. It’s the type of device that you will only use occasionally. However, when you need to use it, you want it to be on your piano, in your piano bag, or maybe both!

Tempo – Metronome with Setlist

A more straightforward metronome app with bells and whistles not found on a traditional metronome.

Device: iOS, Android

This is the app that I often will use in lessons, since I already have my iPad out to mark attendance, check my schedule, and it is convenient to use. I have a Wittner on the top of my piano, and carry two different Seiko models in my separate piano and organ repertoire bags. It’s not as fun as the Super Metronome Groove Box, especially if you want an app to provide a backing track for playing pop songs. You get what you pay for; this one is much cheaper!

Super Metronome Groove Box

This is a more fun type of metronome with different instruments, beats, and compound meter.

Device: iOS, Android

The free version is just awful, but I’d try before you buy since you can get a feel for it, despite it timing out after just 16 measures! When I bought it, the price was $6.99. That’s was $4 more than I paid for the Tempo app above. You do get a much more feature-rich app. If you play some rock and pop, and want to play along with a metronome to develop a steady beat, or just because you enjoy having a rhythm section behind you, this is the app! If you just want to check an occasional tempo or play along for a few measures, stick with Tempo! 

What’s Ahead?

I’m always looking for other apps to try, and would like to add to my list to make it more comprehensive.  If you like apps, I’d be glad to forward you lists of them from other teachers that I follow, with the caveat that just because they liked them doesn’t mean either you or I will!

Posted on 2019-07-25

One Piano Parent Listened

When I start typing on my keyboard, I often wonder whether there is an audience for what I’m about to say. Even though I only write when I feel passionate about a topic, I don’t know if anyone will read my blog post or Web page. If someone reads it, will it be helpful or even better, influential? In one case, the answer is a resounding yes! One piano parent listened!

She was seeking to upgrade her child’s piano. My student had long ago outgrown the 61-key Yamaha keyboard that was her practice instrument. If you read my Web page on choosing the right piano, you’ll know that I was never a fan of this instrument in the first place. I’ve also gone on the record with a blog post making the argument for an acoustic piano. I admit there are a lot of positives about choosing an electronic keyboard, until you realize that even the best keyboard isn’t going to sound as good as even a mediocre piano.

After considering a range of instruments, the piano parent decided to go with something inexpensive; she bought an older American-made spinet. It was delivered just a month before the auditions for a music festival in which several of my students participate. This was the third festival in which I had prepared my student. Each previous time there was barely enough practice to be ready. The results were always okay but not great. This time, my student ranked as first alternate, or second place, for her level! Even though she didn’t go to the finals, she made a major accomplishment. Along the way, she surprised everyone, including me!

Yes, a decent piano can make the difference. In this case, it was one costing $700. My student started practicing independently, without badgering from her parents. She practiced the changes we discussed at lessons. Her approach to the piano became more confident in a way that I didn’t see before. A couple of months past that event, she continues to play well, and has completed her method books and is ready to move on to the next level. While there is no guarantee that a new(er) piano will do the trick, having a decent instrument is one of the keys to success. And, I’ll always be thankful that one piano parent listened!

Posted 2019-06-28

What is your goal?

I got the chance to do quite a bit of reading during time off from work, especially following Christmas Eve, which included two services and a very difficult organ recital in between those broadcast via Facebook Live. Without looking for it, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the New York Times titled I’ll Never Be Rachmaninoff. It was written by an adult piano student who returned to the piano following a long absence. Her goal was clear; but what is your goal?

It’s not the first time I’ve written a post based on the recreational benefits of piano study, but I think it always comes across better in the first person. Jennifer Weiner tells the story of finding teachers, and how study positively affected her life and daughter as well. Ms. Weiner was a very competitive person in youth and in life, so the last thing she needed was to resume piano study with the hopes of becoming great. Her goal was to be good, not great, and she describes her journey towards just that. Thus, the title of her article is particularly compelling.

I try to remember to ask my students about their goals and to regularly check in with them that lessons are meeting them. Often, especially with younger students, the goal is pretty general, just to play better, and the means to get there isn’t specific. For other students, particularly teens and adults, there are more specific goals in mind. It might be to reach higher levels in classical study, to play pop songs, or to play Christmas carols for their family.

One of my adult students had that last goal. She just reported back that it went well. For this particular student, the focus was short-term, to play a series of Christmas carols well enough for a sing-along. She enjoyed it enough and received enough positive feedback that she’s considering more study, though not right away. That’s great!

Whatever your goal is in piano study, I hope to help guide you there. Whether your goal is to be good or great, I think Sergei would approve!

Posted 2019-01-02

Listen to the piano

I’m often asked by piano parents for recommendations on buying a piano. It’s a loaded question. I often have to ask several follow-up questions before giving an answer that will satisfy what they are really asking. In ideal terms, I’m thinking about the instrument that would best serve the student now and several years into the future. In practical terms, the parent is often looking for a bargain and something that will work now. It’s sometimes even difficult to get a parent to consider an acoustic instrument, even when money isn’t the primary constraint. How can I possibly make more of a dent, to get someone to try to think differently? Listen to the piano.

Since I perform quite a bit, I play a variety of instruments. Most of them are acoustic instruments, but there are occasions when they are electronic. There are those grin and bear moments, like when I played for a birthday party earlier this year with a borrowed 61-key electronic keyboard, damper pedal not included. Not all electronic experiences are like that. I often get to play some really good keyboards, such as a Yamaha Clavinova. Although there are other companies that make legitimate keyboards, I really like this model just because I’m most familiar with it.

However, I can’t say that I’ve ever played a keyboard without feeling compromised. I’m not talking from a purist or snobbish viewpoint. Listen to the piano. How does it sound? To me, there’s only way to produce the sound that a piano should have, and that’s with a hammer hitting a string. Sound sampling has greatly improved during my lifetime to where electronic instruments merit their place. They just aren’t real!

I was scrolling through Instagram posts one morning, and came across a pianist whom I know only through social media. She often posts students playing her old American-made grand piano that has a sound that could only come from that instrument. Between the moving parts of hammers and strings and the fixed ones like the iron and wood, each piano has a story to tell. Listen to the piano. I’m still amazed that my tiny Knabe spinet, so old that it has ivory key covers, speaks so beautifully. All spinets have the compromise of a drop action, but they can still sing and inspire.

Listen to the piano. That’s how I’m going to start when next asked this question. Perhaps my advice will go unheeded. But maybe that will cause some piano parents to pause to listen. And who knows? That might make all the difference!

Update: My former Knabe spinet is now in the home of a new piano student, as a result of the purchase of a Yamaha U1 48-inch upright.

Updated 2019-06-24 | Originally Posted 2018-12-23

One Facebook Share

One Facebook share. Most of you have probably shared something on Facebook. Marketers encourage us to do this all the time since they understand the power of multiplication. I expect that maybe a dozen of my followers might see the photos I post of my students, typically from their performances at festivals or recitals. A few people may even like the photos. So what was different in this case? One Facebook share!

One of my piano parents, who apparently has a very large friends list, decided to share the post including her daughter. It blew up – in a good way. The stats are attached at the bottom. This post was seen by 418 times, and of those 25 liked it, and 6 commented on it. Just from one share!

I wrote a post this summer called Small Action Big Impact, of which this could be a part two! Though in that case, I was talking about a review on a Website, which was viewed by more people than I could have imagined. The principle is the same. So at this time of Thanksgiving, I’m reminded to make the effort to be ever thankful, whether that’s expressed in a smile, a kind word, or even a note of encouragement or thanks. It also makes me redouble my effort not to hurt anyone through an unkind word due my impatience or judgment. You never really know what impact either may have.

Posted 2018-11-26

Summer Lessons Experience

I just completed my first full year of teaching at Shepherd Music School. When I last taught in a similar setting, the school closed over the summer. Students could study privately as long as it wasn’t onsite. In that case, my summer students were a subset of the ones that I had from the school year, and tended to be the more serious ones. I wasn’t recruiting or adding any students. And, as expected, most of them came back to the school in the fall.

At Shepherd, we teach year round, adding students at any point, though we do tend to add most new students in August, January, and June, at the start of our fall, spring, and summer sessions, respectively. The summer session is really designed to be flexible. You can take just a couple of lessons, or you can take as many as you can fit in, which typically is eight.

There was one parent who was very clear about trying out the short summer session to see if her five-year-old was ready for lessons. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. But with others, the expectations were not set at the beginning: Students who I thought were starting a long journey were just like summer campers. This was not only a common theme at Shepherd, but something I read quite a bit about on piano teacher community Facebook pages.

I don’t have anything against a student studying just in the summer, per se. However, it’s one thing to teach a summer student who is at least a few years into their journey. You can work on some repertoire, and offer some artistic and technical suggestions along the way. It’s another thing to teach short-term a student who doesn’t read music, hasn’t learned how to keep a steady beat, doesn’t know how to hold their hands, nor play in a relaxed yet focused way.

Perhaps there is a way to offer a short curriculum that offers some type of closure, which I think could be helpful in two ways: 1) It provides the student a sense of accomplishment, and 2) It shows the parents clear progress in a brief amount of time, which may encourage further lessons.

This all sounds good, but the caution is that some serious shortcuts to the long-term learning process might have to occur. The biggest gating factor to a young learner playing recognizable pieces is her reading level. In order to learn these pieces, he might have to be taught by ear to guarantee a result. There’s nothing wrong with playing by ear as long as the parent understands that learning to read will take longer if it’s not made the top goal for the student.

So, my goal for next summer is offering more customized lessons, based upon stated up-front goals. I’m hoping that this not only adds a little music into the lives of my new students, but might convince the parents that this really should be a year-round activity, not just a summer camp experience.

Posted 2018-08-08

Summer Project – Playing by Ear

This post, Summer Project – Playing by Ear, is the third in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. I honestly had enough on my plate with my other two projects: researching iPad apps and learning how to offer online lessons. Obviously, I was wrong since I immediately attached to the charisma of Ruth Power when I saw her on a Webinar. As a result, I completed her free Ear Bootcamp and then enrolled in her formal course Songs by Ear.

Playing by ear is important for a musician, though it’s not a skill that many piano teachers, me included, find time to include in lessons. I find it a nice sideline to include when discussing harmony, which comes up both in the Arkansas state music curriculum and in method books. It’s nice to show how simple chord progressions such as I-IV-I-V-I serve not only as the basis for many childhood songs but also for popular music. Some of my piano students will see this in action sooner rather than later.

I’ll expand on this topic as my experience with learning how to teach playing by ear expands, but I just wanted to share some of what I’ve been up to in preparation for teaching this fall!

Posted on 2018-07-27

Piano Teaching Philosophy

Introduction

I get asked this question occasionally, so I felt I should write a formal response. The caveat is that there’s only so much from reading someone’s thoughts or even having a conversation. When you’re near the end of your interview process, I strongly suggest getting into the nuts and bolts by scheduling a trial lesson. Both teacher and student should be comfortable before beginning what could be years of cooperative learning.

Piano Teaching Philosophy

I believe that art and music are important to the education and enrichment of the lives of children and adults alike.

Piano lessons are expensive, so they should be undertaken with a commitment to get the most out of them, for the time that they’re pursued.

Learning to play the piano should be fun, though it’s not easy. Proper technique, good rhythm, and sight-reading are necessary through all stages of learning. Music theory and ear training are also important to round out all of the concepts learned at the keyboard.

Each student has his/her own needs, and I accommodate those as part of the learning process. Some pursue piano just for recreation and enjoyment, others like the rush that comes with scoring high at a music festival. Lesson plans are tailored to the student’s goals and ability.

The process is as important as the final result. Learning how to break down a new piece of music and put it back together, and then doing it all over again, is what inspires me. Humility comes from realizing that there never will be a perfect performance. There is always an opportunity to learn something new from a great composer!

Last Updated 2020-02-16 | Originally Posted 2018-05-29

Summer Project – Online Lesson Academy

This post, Summer Project – Online Lesson Academy, is the second in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. I invested in a reasonably priced online course given by the Upbeat Piano Teachers, a team of two – Sara Campbell and Tracy Selle. Sara was mentioned in a Webinar given by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). As a result, I listed her as a piano teaching resource in this post, which speaks about her own site and blog, Sara’s Music Studio.

So far, so good! All of the information was helpful and well put together. Now it’s time to do the homework assignments during the short window of time the course instructors are available to facilitate. There are two Q&A sessions, after which we are on our own.

What is the point? Technology has made online lessons possible. There are just several pieces of equipment needed to get started, including a laptop and a Webcam, or just a tablet with its built-in camera. Add high-speed Internet and you’re ready to go! It’s not much more complicated than that.

So why use it? The most obvious reason is to eliminate the need for makeup lessons when the problem is getting to the lesson. It could be inclement weather, a transportation issue, or even minor illness. Makeup lessons are the bane of music teachers everywhere, so why not try online lessons to teach during the allocated teaching time? There are some instructors who extend this technology to provide distance learning. This can occur if either the student or the teacher moves away, but both parties want to continue lessons. It also allows a teacher with special skills to teach outside of her geography.

One of the surprises of the seminar was the idea of video learning. This is offered where the student can’t show up for his lesson and isn’t available for an online lesson. The teacher can use the lesson time to create a customized video with specific instructions for the student. The student then has to watch the video within a short window and perform the assignments to be ready for the next lesson. It’s also possible to create a series of generic video lessons ahead of time to be offered to a student when it’s not possible to create a customized video.

That’s it so far! I’m excited to do all of this work, and then engage with parents and students to get started!

Posted on 2018-05-28