Inside A Kid’s Piano Lesson Minute by Minute

Mother and child at piano

The inside of a kid’s piano lesson is quite a drama, minute by minute. Part of the reason I am a piano teacher is to be there and witness this transformation, from novitiate, to someone who can “think piano.”

The kids who learn piano the best are those whose parents or family members also play piano or music of some kind. How can we ask our kids to try music/piano if we don’t include it in our own lives?

You don’t have to be Paderewski or Beethoven. You don’t have to have expensive piano instruction.

Try Piano By Number Online

You can love country or classical or rock or gospel or rap or pop or anything, but listen to it, sing it, let your kids know that you think music is great.

THIS ISSUE: (This is from an old newsletter when the web was young, about 1996…..)

I often say I’m like a sheep dog, watching the piano student and trying to see their process. I never care about my “piano instruction method,” only about how the child is feeling moment to moment during the piano lesson. How the child is feeling is their “process.”

I care about the student’s perception of the method, which is their “process.”

The “method,” whatever it is, numbers, letters, the old school, is useless unless appreciated by the student’s “process.”

The practical result of the above is that I proceed incredibly slowly but persistently to include the concepts of sheet music after I have had the child play successfully at least two dozen songs by number.

This can take months or years, or weeks or days. It depends on the child. A nervous child makes a poor student. Set them at ease by lowering the bar imperceptibly until they are ready for more advancement.

You are the gatekeeper to the mysteries of music. Judge the height of the entrant and lower the bar accordingly.

The mystery of piano instruction is that there is a secret door to each individual child’s perception of music, and all you have to do is sit there and guide them until they find that magic door themselves, like blind men with no skill or tools. It may be chords, it may be jazz, it may be Beethoven. But you’ll have to find that key that opens it up for them. In most cases, it is simply fun. Apply fun and success comes out. Repeat.

You cannot force the moment wherein they perceive that they can play piano. It will come, and you can prepare them

If you force reading sheet music before you have adequately prepared the child, you lose the child as a willing, excited student.

If you lose the child (90% of kids who start using conventional piano instruction methods later quit) it’s your fault, not theirs. Prepare them adequately, gently. It’s not easy to learn to read conventional sheet music. It takes time.

Indeed, an exceptional, brilliant child may indeed learn the skills of reading music in several minutes or days. I know, because I was one of them. I was seven when I learned to read music in about five minutes. I’m not bragging. I’m pointing out that reading music is a very specific skill, for which some children have “the knack” and other kids must be given “the knack.”

But what about the other 99.99% of kids? Should these average, even gifted kids, be denied the wonders of playing piano music because the skills necessary to read conventional sheet music weren’t immediately apparent to their current intellectual abilities, not to mention their mood?

Set limits that the child can realize right away. Break down the elements until the child easily scales each carefully graduated step.

A Typical Lesson:

I teach 30 minute lessons for almost all kids. Here’s the log of a hypothetical but typical lesson with a child who has not yet started reading conventional music:

Minute 1-5

Is the child uneasy or happy? If they’re uneasy, haven’t “practiced” (I don’t use the word but countless parents do) I play number games and joke around and play TV themes or Rugrats or some silly pop or folk song or game until they calm down and see that I’m rather easy to please. Convince them piano instruction will be a fun, give and take, no-pressure sort of thing.

I’m not serious in demeanor in any way. I don’t really care if they have practiced, because it’s impossible to enforce: remember that the goal is to get kids excited enough that they go to the piano by themselves. The goal is not to get kids to play some song they don’t understand like a robot. The goal is to get kids to play piano under their own steam, without forcing them.

My secret goal with each child is to be somewhere in between a game show host and drill sergeant, but I start out all game show host. It grabs even the most unprepared child. Who would you rather perform for, Bob Barker (Price Is Right) or some snarling negative military presence? These are kids, folks

Minute 5-10

Assuming this is later than a first lesson, I try several skills to see what has stuck since their last lesson. I try a few songs by number, praising all the way if the child uses one or many fingers, slow or fast. Any initial effort is applauded if you see their attitude is clear and calm. Even the most humble effort has in it something worthy of praise, for example: a child who bumbles through a song like London Bridge but never loses their place has done something remarkable. Tell them about it. Tell them about how preachers and actors have to read from a book, too, and look up at people but not lose their place in the book. A child who has been rightfully praised is readier for the next task.

Never forget this: whatever level of skill the child shows you is where you will start this lesson. It’s pointless to berate or even chide a child for not having mastered a particular skill from the last lesson. I never ever let a child know they have disappointed me. Better to work with a positive attitude on that same skill again in this lesson, perhaps disguising the skill in a new way as a game.

Don’t expect anything and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with some tiny accomplishment. Take that tiny something and build on it. If you can’t build on that tiny accomplishment, go back to earlier skills.

Never let them know they are being demoted from an attempt at a new skill. If you can’t seem to get the next skill launched, just pull back the difficult activity like a magician and go back to something easier. There’s never time lost in going back and cementing earlier skills.

That’s another secret of piano instruction: the bait and switch” maneuver. Go on to something else and come back again if they are confused.

In fact I look for each skill to be almost automatic and offhand (finding keys, use both hands, flats and sharps) until I go onto another more complex skill.

COMPresizedbigpak203x293Minute 10-20

This is the main work period of the lesson. They’re calm, they know it’s fun and fast and they aren’t being yelled at (but, rather, praised) and they know the lesson is almost over. Why not have fun and learn this piano stuff?

As soon as they are comfortable, we work on a general level of competence, playing titled songs that they either know or have heard of.

What songs do they like, I ask. Let’s play them! I often only let them play a bit of a song, whisking it away from them just as I see them get tired and confused. As soon as you put another song in front of them, they are refreshed and try again. It’s better to play just a bit of 25 songs than one long song, painfully slowly, all the way through.

Kids learn the same principles from a variety of simple pieces as from a tightly limited repertoire. Variety is refreshing.

I play a game called “first line of the song” in which we zip through dozens of songs playing only the first line of the music, like a couple of greedy kids sampling chocolates.

If a child is really wandering, we play “first note,” in which we whisk through dozens of songs, and they only have to play the first note. The process is the same, but the kids have fun and don’t feel overworked. They learn the same thing no matter how long the task: look at the page and then press the piano key.

Of course, other kids will demand to play all of certain songs, and then you sit back, help if needed, and be happy and praise them no matter how poorly they do. If they play poorly, don’t make them aware of it, but instead find the basic skill that eludes them.

I’ll say it again: never ever be negative. No matter how they do, it’s an honest effort and you’ll get much further if you take mental note of what skill they failed at and then attempt later to find a way to present it.

One of the great pleasures of piano instruction using this method is making up the games that allow the kids to learn.

Always break the skills down to the lowest possible level. Make it easy to please you and kids will never stop trying. Make it difficult to please you and only that .01% of genius kids will succeed.

One more thing: I bring new sheet music (conventional or numbers depending on the child) to each lesson. The kids come to expect it, and say, “What did you bring me?” Think about it: here are kids anticipating the new sheet music for the week, not a TV show or a junk food item.

This anticipation of new sheet music can’t be bad for them, and is in fact a miracle that affects their attitude profoundly. No kid wants to play the same songs over and over until they find that first song they can’t seem to stop playing.

All kids seem to find at least one special song that they can play from memory. This song seems to be their way of saying, “See, I can play this great big piano all by myself!” Some kids love Star Wars, other Twinkle, Twinkle, or The Wigwam Song (a staple of early kids piano books.)

I’ve had parents come to me and say, “Can’t you make him play another song? He plays it all day!” I point out that when he’s good and ready he’ll move on, but for now you better sit down and listen to him play “that song” again, and praise him mightily.

If the child wanders at all during the minutes 10-20, we play a quick game to blow off steam, then dive right back in.

Minute 20-30

By now the lesson has produced whatever advancement will be possible. All you can do now is cement the sense that piano is fun and easy to do. Be aware that the last 5 minutes of the lesson are practically useless.

I always ask at 25 minutes, “How’s your brain doing? Getting tired?” If the honest answer is “Yes,” we play a fun number or chord game or two, maybe play a line of a couple of songs, and then I let them go perhaps a couple of minutes early. These kids come back every week willing to do anything to try to learn to play piano. If the kids don’t come back, you can’t teach them.

If the child is not tired, then I still proceed the same, making the last 5 minutes rather relaxed and easy.

A Student Story:

I once had a pair of brothers that I taught who both had limited skills and interests regarding piano. Frankly, they could take it or leave it. I’d put them in the quitter category for sure if they were taught by the conventional method. Their mom wanted them to play piano and didn’t care if it took a decade (a very good attitude for a mom.)

The younger brother was a handful, sometimes only going 15 minutes before he melted down and needed to do something else. You could go another 15 minutes, but I elected not to, stopping the lesson just about where he demonstrated that it was basically over.

Week after week this child came to the piano and bumbled his way through dozens of songs by number. Invariably I would say, at the end of a song or portion of a song, “Cool, let’s try this one!” I never ever expressed dismay at his efforts. I could see he was simply doing the best he could.

Slowly we tried the transition from numbers to sheet music again and again. Each time seemed a failure, but I never let him know that. I tried all sorts of crazy stunts for this child who had such trouble paying attention. One time I put a coal scuttle (a sort of black bucket used to empty ashes from a fireplace) over my head and used the little fireplace shovel as a microphone. I called out the names of chords that I “Gortok” the spaceman needed to hear, and my little troublemaker responded with glee.

I count about a dozen games that I use every day that originated with this child, and I thank him for it. He forced me to be extremely creative. And eventually it worked for him. Here’s how:

After months and months he began to realize that I wasn’t going to stop trying sheet music. So he gave in, inch by inch, and slowly was able to read the first dozen notes of the “right hand” of simple sheet music.

I acted as if I didn’t care if he learned sheet music, always moving to another area as soon as he seemed to tire of trying to figure out new sheet music, always of the simplest kind.

Finally we got to left hand, and after months of fun-filled battles he could figure out the essential dozen left hand notes kids have to learn to find on a piano.

After almost a year, this kid could play almost nothing from memory except the first ten notes of the theme to Star Wars (a performance I always applauded.)

One day his mom wanted to hear him read a piece of sheet music, so I opened a book of simple songs at random, as I always do, and said, “Play this, pal.”

All of a sudden this kid plays both hands at once, perfectly. It was a simple piece, but what a surprise. I said, “I didn’t know you could play with both hands at the same time!”

He looked up at mom, beamed, and said, “I been listening all along, mister!” with the charming lisp (“mithter”) of a kid missing his two front teeth!

The moral of the story is, here’s a kid who now loves to play the piano, who would have quit for sure with a less patient teacher, who now can read simple sheet music with no difficulty.

The truth is, any kid can learn to read music. The hard part is finding an adult who is patient enough to sit with them until they figure it out.

This Issue’s Fun Game: FOURS

“Fours” is the most basic rhythm game that I play with kids. I always use it on the first lesson, and on all subsequent lessons until the child seems too old for it. It’s a fun but very childish game that teaches rhythm and piano geography without using printed notes or numbers of any kind.

It’s important for kids to actually play the piano without the encumbrance of graphic notation (notes or numbers) of any kind. For example, you’ll notice that kids in general can go to the piano and play three songs:

1. Chopsticks

2. Heart and Soul

3. Knuckles: A funny piece kids play on the black keys with the knuckles

The object of these games is to make the child a keen and enthusiastic observer of their instrument, something impossible to do when the child is locked into reading only sheet music from a book. Kids need to improvise, however humbly, and essentially all of my games are designed to make fun music outside of sheet music, numbers or conventional.

Piano games teach a child that:

1. sheet music is not always necessary to have fun with music

2. they have to count while they play

3. music is divided into numbered units

4. piano is a fun thing they can do right away

Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press

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