Many prospective piano parents ask me how I teach. I prefer to answer with what a lesson looks like since that removes a lot of the variables that go into this very loaded question. Just to simplify this a bit, I’m going to describe here what a lesson looks like for a beginner. I teach intermediate and advanced students as well, but they tend to be much more customized since they involve older students.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t mention note reading first, since it is a fundamental skill since modern staff notation was invented 1000 years ago. While note reading is extremely important, more important is getting the child immersed in playing the piano. Many adults also enjoy rote playing, as an addition to their regular written pieces, because it gives them a break from studying the written page. In one 30-minute first lesson, I can teach 2 or 3 rote pieces that give the student the chance to immediately connect with the instrument.
What Is Rote Playing?
Is learning the piano always fun and easy? No and no! But there has to be some element of both of these in lessons and practice, or interest will wane quickly. Rote playing connects the ears, hands, and brain of the student in a way note reading doesn’t. Besides giving the student a quick way to build repertoire, it prepares her to deal with note reading challenges when they are presented.
Note reading is what would be considered a traditional approach, and it’s still an important part of lessons. I’m including all of the pieces learned as a result of learning this notation. For the typical beginner, much of the challenge in learning a new piece is deciphering the notation versus the difficulty in playing the piece. This can be seen in how readily they pick up rote playing, which subtracts the reading element.
In the piano method I typically use, Piano Safari, reading is approached carefully and methodically for younger students. For older students, grand staff reading occurs much more quickly. Younger students start with pre-notation reading on the black keys, then proceed to the white notes as they become more familiar with the note names. Once that’s comfortable, grand staff reading is presented.
Technique is important in playing, but the youngest student needs to have experience with playing with one or two fingers before getting all five fingers involved. Piano Safari presents an innovative set of simple skills called Animal Techniques. They comprise seven building blocks of piano technique, which we would learn otherwise haphazardly as a piece calls for them. By learning these techniques early, we can set a great foundation for playing that will help for a lifetime of piano playing.
I start my students on pentascales, also called 5-finger patterns, as soon as they are operating with all five fingers. Once pentascales are fluent, we go on to learning 2-octave scales. That’s about as far as we get at the beginner level. Learning technique is foundational for playing. By working consistently on it as a separate discipline, we encounter difficulties that will eventually appear in their pieces.
Improvisation is an activity that I’ve come to appreciate later in life. When I was a kid, I was never introduced to it. I never enjoyed composition, which is considered to be the written form of improvisation. The good news is that you can enjoy improv, and even become really good at it, without moving on to the composition stage.
Music improvisation simply means to doodle. It’s the musical equivalent of drawing on a napkin or scrap paper. That’s really different than composition, which is like getting out the oil pants and applying the brush to canvas. Improv for kids typically involves a set of rules or limitations intended to make the process less overwhelming. At first, it might involve just the notes that are under one hand, and playing just quarter notes. Later, we can extend the range of notes and rhythms, which can lead to short pieces.
Some kids really enjoy this and do it at home as part of their practice. Others try it but don’t really enjoy it. The important thing is that they get a chance to be the creator of their own works instead of just the interpreter of other people’s compositions.
I’ve introduced you to four activities that comprise a beginner’s lesson. We sometimes don’t get to do all of these activities every week. However, I try to rotate them in, so that each activity happens fairly regularly. Lessons are a wonderful chance to learn about and make a connection with music. I love exploring alongside each child to encourage and bring out their creativity in ways that often surprise them.