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.

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.

Music and the Kindy Child

At my studio I teach a programme called Stepping Stones for 2-3s, and 3-5s.  The kindy class, 3-4s is the most popular and I think the most interesting in that there is so much growth that year.  Teaching to that age can be challenging  but I love it!


Preschooler music classMusic walks hand in hand with language development and children love hearing and moving to music. This is the ideal time to introduce them to the joy of music. They need opportunities to move, sing, listen and interact with instruments. Music blossoms in a rich environment of music and children will start to weave it into the fabric of their lives. Many life-lasting attitudes are established at this time so without music it is unlikely that this love will emerge at a later date.

Make music part of your family life!

Music is experienced with the whole body. Movement is a natural part of music so children need to move to music. This also develops the natural sense of beat and rhythm. Creative movement, make-believe, walking, running, jumping, twisting, galloping, hopping, stretching, finger play, use of balls, bean bags, hoops, balancing, dancing, circle games are all part of movement and experiencing music at this age.

Our first musical instrument is our own voice and singing is a delightful way of entering the musical world of joy and relaxation. Children love singing and although only a small percentage of children will be able to sing in tune at three, singing will give them great joy, and their control of the voice will quickly improve.

Quiet listening activities increase their ability to listen in a focused way, which helps accurate learning.

Children love to experience the physical sensation of playing simple instruments. This can be seen from a very early age when small crawling children discover the saucepans! They delight in the physical feel and the cause and effect of their action. Many very simple instruments can be made at home using kitchen equipment, containers, cardboard, paper, scissors and glue.


1. Provide a home environment that embraces music. No need to go overboard here. You just need to enjoy music yourself and enjoy humming along to music on the radio. Play a variety of music from rock to gentle lullabies. Sing some nursery and pre-school songs together. This will show in a natural way that you value music. Your child will absorb this sense of pleasure as part of family life.
2. Listen to CDs and learn the songs by singing along when ever you and you child feel like it.
3. Make some simple instruments at home together. These are actually better than buying percussion instruments which children quickly tire of. Home-made instruments last just as long as the interest.
4. Think outside the box.  Don’t be too rigid in your expectations.
5. If you go to a music class, try some of the activities that were done in class. Look for books of ideas.


These ideas, which help my own parents, may well help you as you explore the world of music with your child.

The class Kindy Kids is designed for 3-4 year-olds and lasts from 40-45 minutes each week. At this age children attend on their own but parents are expected to stay close by. The reason for this is that when parents are present children tend not to participate fully. They are very used to parents doing all the thinking for them and are quite happy watching parents doing everything for them. For many this is the first time they have been valued for themselves in a small group. Some will find this daunting, but with your full support and total confidence in them you will be surprised how quickly they will become a confident member of the group.

They will, of course, copy one another but originality is valued so they will start coming up with their own ideas and the group will flourish. Children this age love to talk and don’t usually need much encouragement!

For the last 10 minutes parents are invited back into the class and the little ones proudly show them what they have been doing and parents join in with a few dances. Circle dances are difficult to do without parents! It always astounds me how children change when their parents come into the room. Sometimes the change is dramatic. Shy children suddenly start bouncing off the walls and outward-going children suddenly become very withdrawn and disinterested. All of this is normal, but don’t judge your own, or other people’s children, by what you see at the end of the lesson. Remember that all children are progressing at their own pace and in different ways. Parents are asked to be encouraging to all children so that the children feel they are in a safe, accepting place and that each is valued by the group.
Parents are asked to join in with enthusiasm. Children don’t notice if you can’t sing very well, or you can’t hop very well. But they will notice if you opt out or look as if you are not enjoying it, and their whole attitude to music will change accordingly. Remember – they see the world through your eyes.

My Stepping Stones programmes have the following broad aims, and you should make sure that any class you enroll your child in has similar aims:

• Build confidence by showing efforts are valued by others
• Develop self-esteem performing alone in small and successful ways
• Develop sense of rhythm
• Develop listening and singing skills
• Increase co-ordination through activities involving gross motor and fine motor skills
• Develop aural memory
• Encourage sharing/cooperation/respect/tolerance/turn-taking/patience
• Musical games and dancing
• Learning songs
• Learning chants
• Playing/exploring a variety of percussion instruments
• Making simple instruments
• Encouraging in-tune singing
• Encouraging solo activities
• Listening activities
• Rhythm/beat activities
• Creativity/improvisation
• Singing what we write and writing what we sing
• Learning about instruments and other cultures

liquorice assorts arranged in row

Life is a game


Each programme in Stepping Stones is designed to meet the needs of children of a particular age from 2 to 5 years and beyond. It is fun, fast moving and child-orientated.
The programme is only loosely structured and will vary depending on the group. While the children are having fun there is much learning going on.

These activities are all planned to introduce and reinforce the following concepts:
1. Beat and rhythm
2. Singing and pitch
3. Memory extension
4. Focused listening
5. Direction of sound
6. Loud/soft
7. Slow/fast
8. Long/short
9. High/low
10. Range of songs
11. Adding music to stories
12. Creative/make-believe/imagination
13. Explore: stringed instruments, keyboard instruments, wind instruments, percussion
14. Build confidence
15. Make each child feel valued

If a child has had these experiences before school they will be well on the way to a joyful life of music.

Teaching Theory Through Games

I was reminded this morning of how wonderful it is to teach through games.

studio games area of Music Adventures

studio games area

Group teaching can be so rewarding and so beneficial.  I’ve never had much success teaching group piano.  I know teachers who do it brilliantly, but for me it slows the whole learning process down.  I find it difficult to be spontaneous as to follow one child’s idea can be irrelevant/boring/confronting to another child.  I find rivalry can lead to shutting down of other children who quickly decide they don’t want to compete or it isn’t their thing.  This could lead to a whole new article, but suffice to say that I love teaching group theory for all of the above reasons.

Throw out all the boring, dry book theory – I’m talking real living theory where children learn through exploring and playing.  This morning I used Music Mind Games by Michiko Yurko, but any well-designed resources are fine – or make your own.

Learning through games means children are focused and alert.  As they are working with others in participation they are totally focused and alert.  They need to know the rules and learn the skills, so they quickly pick it up. Works like magic! In these enjoyable groups all are spontaneous.  We joke and have fun and, because they don’t realise they are learning they do, each child taking out what they are ready for and learning from one another. But the weakly competitive environment means they readily hone up their own skills.  Nothing is irrelevant.  Children help one another so the rivalry is friendly, not confronting.

Concepts start to be understood.  There are plenty of ah-ha moments when things they have struggled with suddenly make sense.  Signs can be taught through games, so children really feel the meaning eg. – make self into small ball to star jump.  Patterns of note groupings can be taught through games; intervals taught on small and giant staves; the recurring pattern EGBDFACE; counting backwards through the musical alphabet; building triads; circle of 5ths…  and ear training through dictation and bingo.

girl playing with alphabet letters

learning through games

There is no limit to what can be taught through games.  Theory can be taught in this manner from early childhood right through primary school. I urge all instrumental teachers, certainly piano teachers, who have the responsibility of providing theory and musicianship training to hold regular theory games lessons.  Once a month is fine – make it a Saturday special…  Once a fortnight is better…  But teach it with love, and enthusiasm will soar!