What exactly is talent in children’s piano? Mozart entertained emperors and kings at the age of five, but what about the average kid?
There are countless tales of musical prodigies, most ending in tragedy like Josef Hoffman, the child prodigy who became a worldwide superstar only to plunge into alcoholism and madness. Mozart, of course, ended very sadly, too.
But what about the rest of us?
In all my years as a musician and piano teacher, I have seen very few real piano prodigies. These days, musical prodigies are protected and nurtured in major conservatories, and we don’t hear about them until they mature and are ready for a musical career.
But there are other types of prodigies. There are kids who, at 9, can improvise jazzy rhapsodies for 10 minutes at a time, and you wouldn’t think of interrupting, because they are really making music.
Are there patterns in the mass of normal kids who attempt to learn the piano?
What exactly is “talent” at the piano for the vast majority of children?
Let’s take a hypothetical 100 children.
Out of the 100, about one child will have a complete, natural ability to play the piano already in place. These kids simply understand the instrument naturally in a physical sense, and are as hungry for piano as they are for baseball. But there’s an additional reason they progress so fast: they are so good in the first place that they receive a tremendous amount of attention and praise from everyone who hears them: a kid who can really play the piano is a treat and a rarity for everyone.
Next are about 25 kids who can play fluidly and read music as well. They don’t have the flair and ease of the one precocious child above, but with time they can learn some or all of it, and will always enjoy being able to play.
Last are the great mass of kids, we’ll say 75 or so, who learn a little, awkwardly, in varying degrees.
It is this mass of kids who concern us, for the prodigies and the other good players will take care of themselves, fueled by their natural gifts. Prodigies are very easy to teach.
But the broad mass of kids need a lot of help to start enjoying this great instrument.
The first thing they need is for their piano teachers to stop treating them like the prodigies. Piano teachers do much to harm this group of kids by expecting them to achieve in the same arena as the prodigies.
The two groups require completely different approaches.
There are trends that one begins to notice about this group of children, and although these observations are generalized, they may have some value for teachers seeking to control a group of varying talents.
Actual talent in this group is mental, not really physical. It’s about your mind, not your fingers, at first.
The children who do the best are those who are able to visualize the patterns involved in the notes. Thus teachers are well advised to teach the musical patterns before they insist on fingering. If you want to see a confused child, combine the two prematurely.
The youngest children have the very least dexterity. Expect them to use the index finger at first, for they cannot easily juggle finger logic and note logic until properly prepared. If you want to see a confused child, combine the two prematurely.
All children enjoy logic and pattern games. It is simply human nature to see patterns. Rewarding kids for seeing these patterns is the key to success in early piano lessons.
Personality and family upbringing, including birth order, may have much to do with a child’s ability to enter and enjoy this world of musical pattern. Some kids have trouble concentrating, or even conceiving of repeating an act a dozen times: no one has ever asked them to do such a thing before.
Here is a law for you: the lower the child’s natural ability at the piano, the slower your approach must be.
The pace of the lessons must always be fast and furiously fun, but curriculum is delivered at a pace in total sync with the child.
For example, I don’t care if a five year old reads music, but I do care that he can play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star from memory. Why? Because his interest in the piano will be infinitely more if he can play an actual song on the piano, and Twinkle is not hard at all.
If I can get him to play Twinkle, index finger alone, I can then get another song, then another, then another finger, then the other hand. It snowballs as you add one happily acquired ability on top of another.
If I had insisted on reading music, this same child would have walked away from the piano in disgust, saying to himself, “This is too hard, I’m no good.” I have heard kids say those words, exactly, countless times, usually the first time they try to read music.
Your job as a piano teacher is to prepare the child correctly so they never have to experience that discomfort.
Copyright 2010 Walden Pond Press
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