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PLAYING PIANO BY NUMBER
The idea of playing piano by number has been around for a long time. In fact, numbering the keys is just an extension of numbering the fingers. This was first done systematically by Carl Czerny early in the 19th Century. Czerny, one of the most famous piano teachers of all time, was a pupil of the great Beethoven.
In the 1950’s, there was the Emenee organ, a keyboard which had numbers printed on the keys, and a book of songs “by number” to go with it. There were even “play by color” products. The concept was always to find a quick way to get people started playing the keyboard.
The reason for this is that reading conventional sheet music is not easy, not for adults, and certainly not for children. Why should starting piano be “easy?”
Talk to most conventional piano teachers and they’ll say that music is serious and difficult, and piano cannot be made easy for beginners.
The truth is that piano students have historically had an 90+% quit rate. More than 9 out of 10 quit within the first year!
Why? The piano teachers blame the kids, but perhaps the piano teachers are to blame.
Do you know any method for anything that has an 80% failure rate and calls itself a success? A golf swing? A sewing pattern? A diet regime? It’s supposed to work!
Here are a few figures from my private piano teaching practice: 90 out of 100 children who start Piano by Number are still playing a year later, almost all having made the transition to conventional sheet music. And almost all of those children continue, year after year, because they are allowed to learn at their own pace, and started having fun with the piano right away.
Who cares if a child who would normally have quit piano is happily playing songs by number and a few pieces of sheet music a year later? The choice is to have that child quit piano altogether.
If a piano method does not work, the method is wrong, it’s as simple as that.
The professionals may tell you otherwise, but common sense tells you this is true: if a piano method does not work, the method is wrong.
But why use numbers to teach beginning piano? What is there about conventional music notation (sheet music) that so confuses almost everyone, and specifically children?
The answer is that numbers are understood by everyone. Numbers are essentially one-dimensional, whereas conventional sheet music incorporates concepts from many dimensions to convey the information necessary to play, say, Jingle Bells.
Click here for a more detailed discussion of reading music.
Conventional sheet music and conventional piano teachers demand that a child comprehend four things in order to “succeed:”
These four elements are overwhelming to all but the most musically gifted children. Is music only for the musically gifted, or should everyone be able to play piano at their own ability level and pace?
Kids are often devastated by "failure" at this ridiculous, conventional system of piano teaching. No wonder they quit.
I’m not saying that the above four elements aren’t necessary, I’m saying that children don’t respond to the conventional system used by piano teachers as a starting point.
We need a better starting point for children and the piano.
Playing Piano by Numbers requires only one thing: play the correct piano key as best you can. Believe me, after watching thousands of kids, this is hard enough to do well. It’s a great place to start for everyone. Just press the numbered keys so that it sounds like the song you know.
Music isn’t just for musicians and piano teachers and stars and artists and record companies, it’s also for children, an essential part of childhood.
But why “piano by numbers?"
The basis of musical construction is mathematical. No one asks kids to start math class in the first grade solving algebraic formulae. We let them start adding and subtracting for YEARS until we ask more. Piano by Number gives children the same “gentle start.” It’s only logical to start at their level.
Numbers are an essential part of music. When we “number” the piano keys with stickers we do no more than denote the classical “intervals.” The numbers that kids learn with this system are the same as the numerical assignments given to the relation between piano keys by classical music. When a child plays the piano key #1 and the key #5, they are playing the same combination of keys known as the interval called the “fifth” in classical music.
Everything learned playing Piano by Number will be of value when making the transition to conventional sheet music.
The Missing Step
Playing by number is a reinforcement of classical technique, a “prequel” or "missing step" that conventional piano teachers have unwittingly left out of their methods, to the unintentional detriment of their students.
It’s important for children to get started easily, and successfully. I’m not advocating lowering the bar for everything and forever, only for approximately the first year that a child starts music study. The benefits are enormous.
Preview the elements involved in playing Piano by Number
Below is a sample page from both PIANO IS EASY.
Your child will play a single line of numbers, from left to right like a book. There are no other symbols to decipher. There are no chords and no accompaniment. The child is not expected to play with both hands unless this is what comes to them naturally. The object is to have the child make the piano produce the tones of a song they can recognize.
Recognition is the key: just watch the smile on their face as they realize they are actually playing a song they know. It’s an instant increase in self-esteem, and I have the pleasure of seeing it every day.
I’ve put the stickers on the piano, now what do I do?
You should put the stickers on the piano with your child. Kids emulate what you do. If you play piano and are involved, they will want to do the same.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Even if you only try playing at the beginning, the sight of you trying piano is enough to let them know that they should try it, too. Make the launch as fun as possible.
Open the book to the songs and try one yourself so you know what it’s like. YOU are the piano teacher. You need to see what the children are attempting to do. Playing Piano by Number is so easy for adults that you’ll get the idea in a few seconds.
It doesn’t matter which finger or hand you use. If you or your child use one finger, most likely the index finger, that’s fine. The point is to start playing. It’s better to play with one finger than be confused by a flurry of commands and not play at all.
Here’s a very important tip: lavish praise on your child. Tell them they are great for playing Jingle Bells. Tell them you want to hear another song. Tell them you want still another, if they seem still excited. Be amazed. It is amazing. Sit with them and listen to them. Be involved.
Piano teachers need to find a way to praise everything, and downplay failure.
Stay directly involved until your child seems to be firmly launched, playing song after song on their own. Then back away and let them do it by themselves. If they need help, there’s nothing so complicated that you can’t help them figure it out. Piano “by number” is that easy, and satisfying to a child.
My object in private piano teaching is to make a child into a “tinkerer.” A tinkerer is a child who:
1. Plays the piano a little bit every time they go past one
2. Likes to try out new songs
3. Doesn’t worry about anyone else’s opinion of their playing
4. Tries to play songs they hear on TV or elsewhere
5. Is confident and curious about the piano
6. Thinks piano is easy
7. Makes up their own songs
A piano weighs perhaps at least an average of 500-700 pounds. Are there any other 700 pound pieces of furniture your child has exclusive control of in your home? My point is that just playing Jingle Bells on a 700-pound monster is enough to raise the self-esteem of the most humble child.
Never express disapproval.
The only mistake your child can make is to not play the piano. Praise, praise, and then when they are bored, go play the piano yourself. They’ll keep coming back, and so will you.
The phrase, “Piano Is Easy!” was in fact the expression of one of my students.
I asked a child, after about a month, “Well, Dave, how’s it going? Still like piano?”
Dave, about seven years old, said, “Piano is easy!” with a smile that indicated anybody knows that silly piano stuff. I had the title for the book, right there. Thanks, Dave.
By the way, Dave now reads music, plays simple Bach pieces and sight-reads any easy piece of conventional sheet music I put in front of him. Yes, it took two years. But Dave plays (not practices) the piano without being told, because it’s a fun activity.
Dave was allowed to discover that piano is fun, even for people who can’t read conventional sheet music at first. In my estimation, Dave had a 100% chance of being one of those “quitters” if I hadn’t started him with numbers, and then used numbers carefully to prepare his transition to sheet music. I always tried to find HIS level, and help him move up at his own speed.
Practical advice for parents: do’s and don’ts
Do encourage your child
Don’t criticize their playing
Do sit and listen to them play
Don’t demand that they “practice.”
Do ask them to “play” the piano
Don’t set a time limit, such as “Practice half an hour.” If a child doesn’t do it under their own steam, it’s pointless to force them. Five minutes a day is all that a child needs, if it’s fun.
Do play piano yourself. I teach in homes everyday where the youngest ones are eager to try piano because Mom does it, Dad likes it, and the older kids play as well.
Don’t take playing piano so seriously. If you think it’s fun, your kids will, too.
Do this if your child seems to not want to try it: go over to the piano and start trying it yourself. You’d be surprised how quickly your child decides that they want to do it, too.
Don’t even think of Carnegie Hall. Don’t apply any pressure whatsoever. If you push kids too hard, they turn off right away, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to get them back.
Do think about a private piano teacher for your child if they show interest. But not for a while. Let the child explore the piano on their own. You can always find piano teachers.
Don’t expect your child to understand, at first, things like using the “correct fingers” or playing “in rhythm.” All you want at first is to have your child enjoy sitting at that great big piano for a few minutes a day. There will be lots of time to pursue further interest if and when your child decides they want to take lessons. And when they start those lessons, they’ll already have a relationship with the instrument. It’s much easier to interest a child in conventional music study when they think they already can play!
Do make games out of everything connected to music:
“You play a song, then Mom will play a song.”
“Let’s see who can play Jingle Bells the fastest without any mistakes.”
“Let’s each play our favorite song.”
“Let’s play the song backwards!” (Kids love this one!)
“I’m going to try a song using both hands.”
“I’m going to play three songs, and you play three songs.”
“Does this song sound happy or sad?”
“I’m going to use lots of different fingers on this song.”
“Let’s play name that tune.”
“Let’s play musical chairs.”
Don’t be impatient. Don’t expect anything, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Expect lots of conventional accomplishment and your child will lose interest as soon as they see they cannot please you. Make it easy to please you. Piano teachers sometimes set the bar too high out of personal pride.
A child who has a positive start on the piano at home is more likely to make the transition to private lessons outside the home.
In former times, before radio and television, the piano was the entertainment center for the family. The whole family at least tried to play an instrument.
I believe beginning to play Piano by Number helps move a family toward that perhaps unattainable but noble ideal. There can be only a good result from more people discovering the pleasures of the piano and music, no matter how humble their current abilities.
It’s better to start playing piano with a simple system than to be confused with a flurry of conventional commands and thus quit trying altogether.
What I try to do as a piano teacher is to communicate the excitement I felt for the piano as a child to each and every child as an individual.
Copyright 2001 Walden Pond Press