Why Rote Pieces?

I have been exploring the idea of teaching by rote through the wonderful books Piano Safari, and Piano Partners by the Shaak family. The benefits of first teaching by example are so great that it seems incredible that I ever thought I could teach piano without teaching young children by rote.

girl at brown piano

Average age beginner

All children should have the benefit of learning the piano regardless of perceived aptitude and learning by rote at the beginning give all children a kick-start into music.

The traditional way of teaching piano, which has lead to countless numbers of children dropping the piano within a few years, is by learning to play through reading from the very first lesson. When you take a step back this seems a ludicrous idea. What parent would tell a young child that they couldn’t speak any word until they could read it?! Yet this is what we do in music. A child arrives, often very enthusiastic because they have been exploring all the possibilities of the piano, and we teachers say, “That’s very nice dear, but today we are going to learn where middle C is and how it is written and you can go away and read these middle C pieces”. Many disappointed children put up with this hoping for more, and eventually the notes increase as they play rather boring little pieces. It is really only a wonder that children don’t quit sooner!

Enter the rote piece and improvising in our early lessons. How exciting to be able to go home and play a piece about a lion or African drum or play a one finger duet with mum, or make up a piece about chattering monkeys. This is the stuff – they can enjoy pieces that move all over the piano and they will be really listening and enjoying the sounds.

Reading will be there, but a little slower. No need to pace everything to reading pieces – they will get there, and meanwhile we are learning how to shape and make beautiful music, to think in musical sentences not one note at a time, to enjoy moving freely and gracefully and with abandon. What fun!

And something else happens. Children start to understand music. They see patterns and shapes, they get quicker at memorising pieces which means that their reading progresses quicker because music has more meaning when they see the whole picture and not just individual notes.

Children become more ready to experiment and adapt songs they know, improvising by patterns and sounds. They really listen to what they are playing so their musical ear develops. This is a skill which is becoming lost by traditional trained musicians. Classical musicians of the past, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt etc. were all brilliant improvisers. This is the stuff of great musicians, whether classical minded or not.

So if your child comes home with a new piece they want to play you, but no music, rejoice – the seeds of a love of music are being sown. Reading will take a little more time, just as it does when your child is learning to read story books.

The Christmas Wind-down

preteen girl thinking

dreaming, thinking

Christmas is just around the corner and in Australia I can begin to see the Christmas wind-down as children and adults alike become tired as Christmas approaches. But do we put music in a box and forget about it until February 2017? What a pity that would be…

Music is a living art that brings joy to most of us. How many of us would wish a world without music. But learning to play an instrument is very demanding, and sometime we feel we would like a break… just for a little while. Unfortunately any break from learning a skill means a lose of momentum, the muscles forget what they have learned, facts are forgotten and sometimes it takes a while to pick up skills again after the break.

Here are a few ideas to keep your child playing over the long break:

  • Organise a Christmas concert for family and friends. Perhaps include a sing-song to keep all happy.
  • Look out those Christmas songs and carols.
  • Play with a sibling who is learning a different instrument.
  • Play piano duets with a friend.
  • Play and sing old songs.
  • Start your own band.
  • Make up songs on the piano, with or without words.
  • If you have a keyboard let your child explore different sounds and rhythms.

Make piano part of family life and watch skills grow, even through the summer break.

 

Piano Readers

Music sight reading books

Our new reading books

This year I am introducing readers for the children. I have made many books by selecting pieces from other books and combining them into suitably graded readers. This is a lending library and it saves me lending out dozens of books. As I own all the books I’m pretty sure it is legal. I hope!!

I took the idea from school readers. Children from first days take home a reader every night and hey presto, pretty soon they are reading quite well and very soon very well and so on. You would be amazed if you knew that many children take years to learn to read music, which I assure you is a simpler process than learning to read stories. What goes wrong, I feel, is that children do not read enough music, so don’t quickly become familiar with music. So these readers are roughly graded and can be borrowed and enjoyed, then returned and changed within the same colour. Once a particular level becomes very easy it is time to go up to the next level. At this point I will hear a few pieces to make sure the child is ready to move up. Mostly I will give a few hints and leave this books to be enjoyed.

I’m hoping children will feel encouraged to explore, even pieces which may have unmet signs and challenges. They will not need to play every piece to me, so they may feel freer to explore and just have a go. The pieces are roughly themed and of a similar level but each book contains a variety of pieces and may vary in difficulty.

Yellow to Blue/Green cover first year to about Preliminary Grade ( that is equivalent to Grade 2 sight reading). Triple Yellow is stretching out and all the levels above are Grade 1 (Grade 3 sight reading) and up. You will notice that it is normal for a sight reading level to be approximately two grades below their actual ability level. These grades are of course piano grades and not school grades. For those unfamiliar with piano grading, there are 9 grades (Preliminary to Grade 8), Your child may take an exam at the end of each stage which is of a similar standard throughout the world. Preliminary exam is taken on average about 2 years after starting. Grade 8 is the final exam taken 8 to 10 years later by which stage your child will be a competent pianist.

It is important to realise that these readers are supposed to be easy to read and therefore should only be enjoyed at the end of normal practising (otherwise they will be playing way below their ability level!!) They are for enjoyment, and to show children that they are able to just pick up a book and read it. The world of music opens up! If children are struggling to read these readers the level is too high. It should not be a book to struggle over but one that can be read straight away. Hopeful also children will meet some music which they wouldn’t otherwise meet, and perhaps some old favourites from films, or that they have sung at school.

Please encourage your children to enjoy their readers. Show excitement and ask them to play a few pieces for you. Because while they are having fun, they will be improving their reading out of sight! Thank you.

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.

Determination to Succeed

teenage girl playing pianoStudies have shown that effort, not talent lead to amazing results. 10,000 hours seems to be the magical number required for mighty achievement but steady, regular practice will lead to success.

To spend years mastering an instrument requires the child to have great determination. Support and encouragement are very necessary. Teacher, student and parent all play vital roles in the learning process.

Our greatest gift is not talent but our ability to learn.
Parents must create the desire, fuel the passion and give children the confidence that they can and will succeed.

“Quantities of quality practice can transform a person of seemingly average aptitude into a much improved and possibly outstanding performer’. Michael Griffin

Parental involvement is the key to the child’s success. To have determination the child must be excited about learning. They should also be encouraged to commit to learning for however long it takes. This is a hard lesson to learn, but a very valuable lesson crucial for achieving anything in life. The only way to learn about commitment is by committing. The piano is a very complex instrument to learn. If the child and parent are not sufficiently committed, as soon as there is the inevitable low point learning will stop. Children are learning about responsibilities in many areas. There is a requirement to complete school homework and do household chores. But parents may need to encourage their child to do these, and so it is with music. If there are family expectations for some things but not music, it gives a clear message that music learning is not important.

Children who make a long term commitment makes the greatest progress.

The parent must encourage but not criticise and look for opportunities for the child to play and perform. Once a child has tasted some success they will be unstoppable. Determination leads to success.

Recommended reading: Learning Strategies for Musical Success by Michael Griffin