Why play games in piano lessons?

Snakes and Ladders board

Learning music takes many forms

Here in Australia it is the second week of the teaching year. It is hot and steamy and the kids arrive tired and yawning from school. Really they just want to jump in the pool and cool off. What better way to make piano lessons the next best thing than to play a game or two in the air-conditioning?

Is that the only reason to play games? Not at all. In fact I wish that was what I was doing. Alas, caught on the hop as usual I am still not quite ready for the year. Why is the Christmas holiday never long enough? I have been making new music readers and grading them, making games, planning competitions, planning lessons. Phew! We are spending these first two weeks picking up the threads, checking nearly lost knowledge and forming our year plan. How much better if we could have done this through games. Well next week we will!

Yes, next week we will reinforce this knowledge through appropriate games and hands-on activities. And they won’t even know!!

I now make all my lessons 40 minutes, which gives ample time to cover theory, ear training, sight reading, rhythm and beat work, singing etc. without me feeling that I am neglecting areas. Games and activities using colourful materials allow this 40 minute lesson to be broken up into manageable sections which keep the brain firing.


What sort of games?

Board games, matching games, listening games, writing games, iPad games, hands-on……… whatever I can think of.

Preteen boy happily playing a video game

music apps

What do they teach?
  1. Names of notes
  2. Names of intervals
  3. Note values
  4. Rhythm and beat
  5. Keys
  6. Chords

In fact, just about any aspect of music can be taught through games or some fun activity. So if you are thinking “Why am I paying for my child to play games?’, understand that children learn quicker and more thoroughly through games. Games unlock the resistance about learning. Games make for quick learning because you have to know the rules to play. Games lead to easy success which is massively encouraging.

So dear friends. Never fear! As the year progresses I will be using more games in the lessons and maybe there will even be a few to take and play at home… along with the music readers……… but that’s another story.

What and How to Practise

mother and child at piano

learning to how to practise

Well here it is, the long awaited article of exactly how to practise. This is a biggie!!

We sign our child up for piano lessons and everything is happy ever after. Nope – it doesn’t work that way. Children have no idea how to practise. They may not touch the piano between lessons; or they fiddle about getting disheartened; or, if they are very keen, they will keep playing through their new piece hoping eventually it will sound right. Adult beginners are much the same. Sound familiar?

Did you know:

  • Children love it if you learn along with them and play together with them, duets or just the same notes. And don’t worry. If you are learning this can be very simple, but so much fun!
  • Success is achieved by a combination of quality and quantity. But at the start efforts may not be brilliant, so quantity may have to suffice until quality kicks in. Make sure your child has enough to practise to keep busy. Rote pieces can be great for this – yes, even chop-sticks!

 

lady playing piano with cat

Even adults need to learn to practise efficiently

  • Some children practise only one or two days for longer time, not realising that this strategy doesn’t work. Piano playing is a skill so half learning one day, forgetting, relearning the next day actually reenforces the process and gets best results. So at least 5 days a week to make good progress please.

For best results:

  1. Make sure your child knows what to practise – keep it simple – enjoy.
  2. Pieces should be practised in the head before playing. This saves children jumping in without thinking and is very successful.
  3. Longer pieces will probably have been broken into phrases by the teacher. Work on ONE phrase at a time. It doesn’t have to be the first phrase. I have been having great success by shutting the keyboard and helping the pupil memorise the piece before playing. This works so well if they really look. A phrase, if the right standard for them can be learned in as little as 5 minutes!!
  4. Repetition is an important part of learning. It needs to be done very deliberately to avoid mistakes creeping in. It should then be happily in long term memory, ready to call on when desired. I love this quote by Stephen Heller, a 19th century teacher and composer:

    The amateur practises until he gets it right. The professional practises until he cannot get it wrong.

To become a good practicer….. well you have to practise!

Why should my child practise?

Boy playing piano

starting to play

Let’s look at why practice is so necessary.

After years of teaching I know that to succeed in mastering the piano, three things are necessary:

  1. The determination to succeed
  2. Daily practice
  3. Good reading skills

If you are saying to your self, but my child doesn’t want to be a professional musician so there is no need to be practising long hours, you are only partly right.

Ponder these thoughts:

  1. How do you know that your child will not become super interested in music and want to take up music in some shape or form?
  2. Any amount of daily practice will give results if done regularly and with interest, but…
  3. Practice is only successful if it is done properly.

Children enjoy a challenge but most children don’t have a clue what they want to achieve or what to do at home.

This year I gave my students next year’s work before Christmas. Most welcomed the new challenges with great enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to get going. This suggests to me that the craving for new is a determining factor in the will to work. More about how to create interest in my next article. Let’s just talk a little about practice here.

  1. Your child should practise because playing the piano is a skill. The fingers and brain have to be trained to work together, just as you need to practise ball skills to succeed in that area. It is important to establish a practice routine right from the start of lessons.
  2. Your child should practise so that practising becomes a part of daily life, like brushing teeth. Even little children can be encouraged to play some pieces through each day in a fun way.
  3. Your child should practise everyday because establishing a routine is also easier for the parent to cope with. It just is – no questions.
  4. Your child should practise everyday because the amount of practice done determines the progress. But try not to watch the clock. Make practice goal-orientated.
  5. Your child should practise because not practising at all usually means an almost total lack of progress. Yes – unfortunately it is one after school activity that won’t happen by just turning up for lessons.
  6. Your child should practise to foster commitment which has a wonderful flow through into all other areas of endeavour.
Piano keys

practise means getting better and better

Parental attitude plays a big part in the progress of the child. Children are little clones of their parents until at least teens, and sometimes life long. You may not realise it but they pick up your attitudes like a sticky ball. Children will not like a piece if a parent doesn’t like it. If you want them to take music lessons but show no interest they will not be interested either.

If parents nag a child to practise but again show no interest, the child will not want to practise. Wild enthusiasm, interest and support give better results than nagging. And of course gently enforcing the practice routine.

The first thing parents should do each week is to check what their child is supposed to be practising. I write the weekly goals in a notebook. These are what should be achieved by the next lesson. But often I find the notebook has not been opened and the child has played old pieces all week. Parents can help a lot by keeping their child focused on what needs to be done.

The goals for the week are carefully chosen by the teacher to address the different aspects of learning the instrument. It might be finger training, looking for patterns in music, theory essential for playing, ear skills or improving reading skills. Challenges faced and overcome become a strength.

Left to their own devices many children will avoid aspects that they find not so interesting, thus causing weaknesses that can grow and become problems.

Practise takes effort and concentration but the results are enormous. Children can become addicted to the sheer success of hard work. Surely that can’t be all that bad! Why should your child practise regularly? Because without practice there will be no progress and they will fail to learn to play the piano. Learning to play is not just for the talented, but a wonderful achievement that anyone prepared to work can do.

Evidence That Music Benefits the Brain

preteen girls singing

Life-long music

It is always exciting to read about scientific studies that back up what we already know, or think we know, about the benefits of music.

An article appeared last month in the Medscape by Megan Brooks which reported on three new studies which showed that musical training affects the structure and function of different regions of the brain. The studies were presented in San Diego, California at Neuroscience 2013. The role of musical training is shown to have great educational and developmental benefits.

Megan Brooks reports, ‘”Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions — from finger tapping to dancing — and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time,” Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, from Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical
Center (Boston, Massachusetts), an expert on music, neuroimaging, and brain plasticity, said in a conference statement.

These new findings show that “intense musical training generates new processes within the brain, at different stages of life, and with a range of impacts on creativity, cognition, and learning,” said Dr. Schlaug, who moderated a press conference where the research was discussed.’

One study investigating the effects of music training on brain structure, found that the benefit seemed to be greater for those who began music training before the age of seven.

“Early musical training does more good for kids than just making it easier for them to enjoy music; it changes their brain and these brain changes could lead to cognitive advances as well. Our study provides evidence that early music training could change the structure of the brain’s cortex,” Wang noted in a conference statement. “There is a lot of research showing that musical training has various cognitive benefits, such as better working memory, pitch discrimination performance, and selective attention,” Wang told Medscape Medical News. Yunxin Wang is from the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University in China.

Two points came clearly out of these studies. Early music training is very beneficial and improvisation is of particular help. I’m happy to say that our early childhood group lessons and piano lessons include improvisation and composition.

Exam Time

stressed lady

stressed teacher or mum!

Once again we are in the last run-up to piano exam with the usual nerves and anxieties for teacher and pupil alike!  If only children realised the stress they put their teachers through.  When I was a child I can remember thinking how lovely it would be to be the teacher, immune to the worry of approaching exams.  I wish!!

I think one of the biggest worries for the teacher is the unpredictable nature of children.  I never seem to learn this, after many years of teaching.  Once exams are over I seem to have amnesia, as with childbirth, and I forget the process entirely. Then here we are again.  My carefully planned timing is completely undone, and with weeks to go there are children still painstakingly learning scales and notes, never mind my imagined meticulous polishing and adding exciting touches. So what goes wrong?

I think I am an idealist.  In an ideal world all children would practise efficiently every day, they would delight in the musical adventure, laugh at the joy of speeding up scales and eagerly anticipate each new piece. Unfortunately there are very few children who fall into this category.  These children are a real joy, and like other music teachers I see my teaching excelling as our enthusiasm feeds off the other.  But some children are there only because their parents insist, and many more, while they like playing, are only too willing to fore-go the practice.  So while we think pupils are making steady progress, there comes a week when other things get in the way, and then another happy-go-lucky week, and suddenly your plans are ruined and we are into damage control, our tense and tight voices panicking the child who is then ready to bolt, like a startled horse.

I wish I knew the answer…  Allow more time seems a sensible idea, but I’ve found it often means the child delays doing anything.  Some children just will not work until their backs are against the wall, and then it is often too late.  Children are not good at planning ahead and assume teachers are old and fussy and all will be well in the end.  I had one pupil who timed it to perfection.  She started working about 3 weeks before the exam and walked out with a distinction every time, to my great annoyance and increasing grey hairs!  Alas, this doesn’t work for many who usually scrape through, but never really achieve anywhere near their full potential.

Mastering the piano is a skill, and like all skills there are many hidden elements to be mastered. Every Olympian must have complete control over themself in order to succeed. We witnessed this year just how many great athletes failed to reach their personal bests because of faulty timing.

lady playing piano cartoon

self discipline

I guess these hidden elements are:

  1. self-discipline – ensuring daily practice comes first
  2. Taking the right steps, looking at detail
  3. Picturing the goal and being determined to get there
  4. Believing in yourself

Many of these fine traits lead to success in other things and are well worth cultivating. But to acquire them needs commitment from the child and great support from the home.  So teachers – we can only do our best, the responsibility is then with the child.

Time for a glass of wine!!

Something Fresh

Spiralling piano keys

Something fresh

Unfortunately there never seems to be enough time in the lesson to fit in pieces, scales, ear tests, sight reading …. the list goes on… But what can you teach when you or your pupil need a break from routine.  Perhaps the long awaited exam is over, or the pressure of school is making practice difficult. Sometimes a change of pace acts like a tonic to revitalise lessons.

Without a great deal of extra teacher enthusiasm, sparkle and a good dose of creativity, pupils can flag into a state of turning up for lessons, but having a break from practising.  All has to be forgiven, but with a feeling of disappointment and a sense of teacher failure.  This situation needs to be nipped in the bud before the descent into the dreaded downward spiral!

Refreshing ideas for grey moments:

  • Exciting new book or pieces well-chosen for child.  A change of pace, perhaps mood pieces, may do the trick.
  • Pick up some jazz music or well-arranged pop.  Good time to try different genres.
  • Use cheat sheets or fake books and learn how to play by ear and add simple harmonies.
  • Music related side-fields – learn to sing, play recorder, conquer rhythm through creative means.
  • Teach some new concepts through games.
  • Play/teach duets. Duets are excellent for that change of pace.  Can be greatly motivating and will definitely hone skills such as rhythm, musicality and expression.
  • “Tricks” for technical work. eg. learn the trick of chromatic fingering, playing in thirds, starting a scale on any note.
  • For the little ones, a few simple-to-read or rote Christmas or Easter songs, whatever is in season.
  • Singing or rhythm games.
  • Lead sheets of pieces they have wanted to play.

Good luck!