For most children, the real proof that you can play the piano is that you can play tunes that other people recognise. Each week, one of my young pupils used to say to me ‘This is just made up music. When can I play real music?’
And you know what they mean. The spark of recognition and enthusiasm to have a go when children reach the tunes, Twinkle Twinkle, Row Row the boat and This Old Man in our course makes me plumb my mental music library for how to devise a course which consists largely of tunes that everybody knows. But that’s the problem. Everybody doesn’t know the same tunes. Those tunes, which we imagine we imbibed with the mashed carrot and apple of our first taste of solid food, keep changing for each generation. You can no longer assume that every child will recognise Yankee Doodle, O when the Saints and Kum by ya. And when faced with their quizzical gazes as you sing the tunes to them, you can see why…
The week after Halloween marks for us the start of the best six weeks of the year for teaching young children to play the piano. Eagerness abounds, smiles burst forth from both parents and pupils, feeble treble and gritty bass voices are raised in song, and the only tears shed are those of parents (and sometimes grandparents) as they behold their precious child weave anew the magical sounds of Away in a Manger, Frosty the Snowman or We three Kings. No one sings more heartily than the piano teacher: I wish it could be Christmas every day. What wouldn’t I give tofind a way to maintain that level of fervour to practise throughout the year? Before I hear you say Oh yes, that’s OK for kids with a Christian background but what about the rest? let me say that I have rarely met a child who doesn’t want to play Jingle Bells, Rudolf or Silent Night – or the parent that didn’t want them to. And thanks to TV ads, supermarkets and the rest, they know the tunes. They’re not always sure, at first, that they do know them, but a slow smile spreads across the puzzled countenance very quickly as the tunes ring familiar bells in their heads.
Our Christmas Piano Book 1 contains a glorious conglomeration of sacred and secular reminders of why we love the festival at midwinter so much. It has always seemed to me that the composers of Christmas carols gave of their best for this special time of year and though the most popular secular seasonal tunes may not make such lofty claims, their universal popularity speaks for itself. Best of all, each of the 19 carols in our book has an accompaniment which enhances the spirit of the song. So, Away in a Manger (see the video clip below) creates a warm, gentle rocking setting for the new baby, while Frosty dances along as merrily as any politically correct snowperson might.
And the children love them! Many of them prepare a selection of tunes to play to their families over the festive period and enjoy the adulation of their loved ones as they evoke the emotions and memories which we all have of Christmas Past. Just this week, I had an email from the mother of a little girl who had given up piano lessons in favour of the clarinet. She had dug out her Christmas Piano Book from last year and played through the whole book to the delight of herself and her parents. Parents often tell me they find their children playing them throughout the year, and long after they become able to tackle greater things too. For those who do want something a little more challenging, Christmas Piano Books 2 and 3 offer a selection of the same songs with simple left hand accompaniments.
I still have not cracked the way to maintain such levels of enthusiasm throughout the year. Perhaps I should accept that everything has its season and we should make the most of this one. I’m writing this on 29 November 2016 – lots of days yet to enjoy the sight and sound of young children playing ‘real’ music at the piano.
Hooray for dear old Santa Claus!
Esther Cohen, Archie McLellan