THE FIRST PIANO LESSON AND BEYOND…
At this time of the year there are many children around the UK who start learning the piano. I am sure that I am just one of thousands of teachers who, this week, have had new piano pupils come for their first lessons.
The look of wonder and joy on 6 year old Natalie’s face as we explored the sounds that the piano makes just made my heart sing and her mum, who came along as well, was also clearly loving the experience! But it really got me thinking about how well teachers convey to parents what learning the piano involves beyond the first lesson and just how important the parental role is in making it a successful venture.
So I thought I would write to my new ‘piano family’ and just put them in the picture a little more with 7 important points I think they and every parent should know about learning the piano. If this resonates with you please do share it with all the parents you have contact with!
#1 – LEARNING FOR LIFE
Music is something that will be with us all throughout our life. It brings us joy and emotionally it moves us into places that can be hard to reach otherwise. Learning the piano is so much more than just learning to play a piece of music or taking an exam. Instead it helps to develop a life-long love of music and a way of expressing thoughts and emotions through the instrument.
(Click here to read more on Why Music Matters)
#2 – CREATING THE RIGHT CONDITIONS
If you want your child to flourish musically the right conditions need to be created in the home environment.
- Is the piano tuned regularly?
- Is there a stool at the right height and something to put the feet on?
- Is the room a warm and inviting one with good lighting?
- Is it both quiet but not isolated from the main action of the house?
I know it isn’t always easy to get all these conditions in place in a busy household but they all make a difference and are worth considering.
Finding a suitable time of the day for a regular practice slot and integrating it into your child’s timetable is also an important consideration. Practice as a practical arrangement rather than an ongoing, emotional negotiation – which can be draining for everyone – will really help it to be a positive experience.
Also, think about how you can encourage a wider love of music beyond the piano lesson. Do you play different styles and genres of music at home or could you take your child to a local concert or festival to hear others play? There is nothing like hearing a live musician to inspire and motivate all of us.
#3 – ENCOURAGING CURIOUS AND PLAYFUL PRACTICE
I am sure you know this but the old adadge ‘practice makes perfect’ is a myth!
Instead of thinking of practice as a boring activity, let’s think of it as an exploration, an adventure that is full of surprises and delights. The practice of experts is full of curiosity and a sense of playfulness and, although young children will need help and guidance, this same approach should be encouraged from the start.
For example, you can help them to ask questions about what they are learning – what passage are you going to play? Why are you going to play it? How are you going to play it? What happened? Why? etc.
#4 – ESTABLISHING FIRM FOUNDATIONS
Learning the piano is a complex activity requiring many different skills to be learnt and understood. In fact, learning the piano is one of the hardest things your child will ever undertake.
The early stages can’t be rushed as firm foundations for all the different skills have to be established. There are musical concepts to be learnt, pianistic skills to be mastered, reading skills to be developed, musical sensitivity to be nurtured – and that’s just for starters!
Early piano lessons should be just as much about developing musicianship skills as about ‘learning’ the piano so expect to hear singing as well as playing.
#5 – SO MUCH TO LEARN
Did you know there are 10080 minutes in each week?
Your piano teacher has just 30 of those minutes to teach all the skills just mentioned and, to be honest, in majority of cases that just isn’t enough time! Just compare it to how many minutes children spend learning to read at school and at home each week and, of course, they start to learn to read when they are already pretty fluent and confident with their language skills.
Making sure that the pianistic foundations are firm and secure takes time. You will probably find that the different skills come on at different rates and that is completely expected. For example, the ability to play the piano can develop quite quickly whereas establishing secure note reading often takes more time. An experienced teacher will know this and will create individual programmes for each pupil, allowing the different skills to develop in their own time with the appropriate support and back up.
#6 – MAKING PROGRESS
There are a whole range of piano tutor books available for teachers and the books often play an important role in making progress.
Beware the danger in thinking that the goal is to get to the end in the shortest time possible! Many of the most popular tutor books mainly focus on learning to read notation and playing and developing musical awareness can easily be neglected. Always keep in mind that ‘playing’ the piano is the ultimate aim and it is this that keeps the motivation to learn going.
The same advice applies to the instrumental exam system (ABRSM, Trinity etc.). Most children are simply not ready to ‘take Grade 1’ within one to two years of learning the piano, at least not if you want them to keep learning in the long-term. Rush them through without the necessary understanding and you will find that quite soon they will feel defeated by the whole process and will be asking when they can ‘give up because it is boring’.
#7 – COMMUNICATING
It is important to recognise that you are part of a triangle; teacher, pupil and parent. All sides need to communicate clearly with each other right from the start. Of course with younger pupils the main points of communication are going to be between yourself and the teacher. This might mean sitting in on lessons and making notes (but not interrupting) or it might mean a short de-brief at the end of the lesson about what has been covered and clarifying what is to be done at home (for more on practice notes read Sharon’s blog here).
Research shows quite conclusively that good, open lines of communication between teacher and parent are essential for effective learning to take place and that there is evidence to show that the teacher-parent relationship directly affects musical achievement.
Good, open lines of communication between teacher and parent are essential for effective learning -Tweet quote
Learning the piano is a commitment and of course, at some point in the learning process, it might get tough to keep the motivation up. You know your child better than anyone and will need to have some strategies to encourage them to keep going. But I’m afraid that topic is going to have to wait for another blog post.
So, if you are a piano teacher reading this please do share it with parents, both new and old. If we clearly communicate what is involved in learning the piano and exactly what commitment is needed, the more positive the outcome will be for all concerned.