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Comin round the mountain

One of our former students, now at university, wrote recently to tell us that he had started to do a bit of piano teaching himself. He told us that he was enjoying it, but was struggling to keep the lessons captivating. Did we have any tips?

Tips on teaching are a bit like tips for a happy marriage or long life. It seems that the successful aspirant thinks up the most unlikely habit of a lifetime and attributes their success to that. ‘I never argue with my spouse’, says one happily married octogenarian, while another insists that a ‘bit of strife helps keep the wife’. A daily glass of red wine for the last 80 years is one centenarian’s recipe for long life while another swears by never touching a drop.

Back to the aspiring young piano teacher:  what tips can we give from our wisdom gleaned from a combined total of over seventy years of teaching? Like a good marriage and a long life, teaching is an individual thing and what works for one may not for another. But can we distil some essence, from our lifetime of guiding people to realise their dream of engaging with the piano, which might have universal application? Do some ideas transcend personal teaching style?

Our Ebony Music course could be said to be that very essence in that it provides the practical demonstration of how we teach our pupils to play the piano – but it might be helpful to explore a few of the basic notions from which our course grew. I’m going to do that over a series of blogs, dealing with one idea at a time.

IDEA 1: SUCCESS BREEDS SUCCESS

As soon as a child (or adult, for that matter) experiences the sweet taste of achievement, their appetite is whetted for more. So … the tasks set for a pupil must be realistic for the age and stage of the learner. For very young children, even if they have a little reading ability, asking them to read music notes in two staves  AND recognise differing note values as well as pitches AND to direct their often quite feeble fingers to do their bidding, is not far short of expecting them to multiply 23 x 7 in their heads while singing Happy Birthday and while tying up their shoelaces. Give it a try!

How can we avoid this overload? Well, before laying even one tentative little finger on the piano keys, listening to and singing the tune helps for starters. Have you noticed when you’re on a new journey that the road back always seems much shorter than the road to a new destination? Isn’t it much easier to copy the visual demonstration of a new move in tennis, dance or knitting stitch than read about it? Can you imagine trying to build an Ikea unit from instructions which consist of text only? DIY has boomed since the development of the exploded diagram. How then can we imagine that a child can apprehend the sound which relates to the mysterious symbols on the page which seem to mean lots of things all at once?

If the tune is to be read from the page, marking in all the finger numbers will encourage confident movement from key to key. Having sung the tune first, the rhythm will already be absorbed. Music must have flow and that can’t be achieved if the player is struggling to locate each note both on the printed page and on the instrument. Plenty time later to work on identifying different notes, their time values and their position on the keyboard.

All the better if some tunes can be learned without the pupil having to read the notes at all. No child embarks on learning an instrument, thinking that they are going to have to learn a new language before they can do so. Just as young children delight in being able to count up to 10 in Spanish or greet someone with a suitably nasal bonjour, so they delight in being able to play a little tune on the piano even though they can’t read a note. I can’t tell you how many children have told me at their first lesson that they can already play the piano and proceed to demonstrate that truth with a rendition of Chopsticks which Grandad showed them. And truth to tell, they can play the piano! It’s all a question of degree, really. After all, few of us can play more than a tiny fraction of the vast piano repertoire, but we certainly can play the piano. We all had to make a start somewhere.

A Spanish vocabulary of 10 numbers won’t satisfy for long, and though bonjour might get a conversation started with Claude or Eloise, it will hardly make for a great entente, however cordiale it might seem at first. Even Chopsticks will cease to thrill eventually. And so, the lifelong journey of learning an instrument proceeds. But it is a slow process! The challenge for the teacher, as our young disciple suggests, is to keep the journey captivating. Everyone loves to feel they are moving forward on a journey. Presenting small challenges by using lots of short, finely graded pieces which can be learned quickly maintains the sense of adventure. New concepts will be reinforced quite naturally through numerous appearances in numerous short tunes.

Only think how many sums we all puzzled over before mastering the basic concepts of arithmetic, how many times footballers practise the same shot, and tennis players work on that elusive ace serve. Playing the piano presents both physical and cerebral tasks, and that’s before we even mention the mystical idea of ‘musical’ playing. Rather than struggling over a few challenging pieces, how much more stimulating it is to glean all that has to be learned almost incidentally by playing lots of simple tunes which almost imperceptibly become more challenging. Climbing straight up a mountain taking giant steps is infinitely more tiring than taking short ones up a gently graded path. Besides, just think of all that you miss on the way!

Esther Cohen