A clever kid’s piano teacher knows that disguising repetition of short passages is essential to the child’s enjoyment of piano lessons.
In piano teaching, a short portion of a piano piece is usually called a “passage.” A passage has to be worked on, like tilling a field, until it is smooth and may be recombined with the rest of the piece.
But this is not so easy, especially with younger kids. Doing something even twice may be boring to them, and once they are bored, you will work even harder to regain their attention. Thus your efforts should be focused on disguising the repetition that kids find so numbing.
Younger children require more creative effort on the part of the teacher in order to make the repetition of passages palatable to their shorter attention spans.
But first we should ask, why repeat passages at all?
The answer is, of course, continuity. Music is most pleasurable when it is continuous, not broken up by the stumblings of the inexperienced performer.
For example, if you listen to a pianist or a band or sing in church, the group doesn’t stop if there is a mistake: that is musical continuity.
And continuity comes from familiarity. If you are familiar with every part of a song, it is reasonable to assume you can play the music continuously, so that we, your listener, can enjoy it.
So the object of repetition is to familiarize your brain with every little wrinkle of the piece. Think of it as driving a thought deep into your subconscious, into the BACK of your brain.
Glenn Gould, famed concert pianist and iconoclast, remarked that sometimes he looked down at his hands and thought he wasn’t playing: the music was so ingrained in his brain that he was not aware of the efforts required to play Bach fugues without really thinking about it!
But that’s what you’re after, a kind of out-of-body experience where you know the piece so well that your fingers almost play it by themselves.
So how do we disguise repetition for the younger kids?
There are many ways to do this. Below is just one.
THE PIANO DICE GAME
First, teach the child the rudiments of six short piano pieces they know outside of piano lessons, like Jingle Bells. It doesn’t have to be a whole song, it can be a passage or fragment. Then, write the names of the songs on a Post-It in a numbered list. Take a pair of dice and let the child throw and see which song they have to play. This takes the tedium out of playing one piece over and over. Besides, the dice make it a game.
Second, bait and switch. Work on a passage a little, then say, “Oh, let’s drop that for a while,” especially when you see the first signs of fatigue. Work on something else for a few moments, and then suddenly come back to the first, abandoned task. It will seem fresher to the child the second time if there has been a break.
Third, make a game of it. Ask them to bet their mom’s sofa that they can’t play that song again perfectly. Make the basis of your bet something utterly ridiculous, like their washing machine, but act very serious. They will play along. As they repeat it, maybe point out a thing or two, a fingering here, add a part there, and work on it a few seconds, then move on.
Take all three of these ideas and combine them, and you have a child-friendly way of “practicing,” repeating short passages over and over without the child feeling exhausted.
A kid’s piano teacher is in reality something in between a game-show host and a drill sergeant. Too much of one or the other and the child’s progress and enthusiasm will suffer.
Offering a child a piano game in equal measure to hard work is a recipe for a happy student who proceeds at their own, comfortable pace.
Copyright 2010 Walden Pond Press