Three Essentials for Learning Piano

teenage girls practising band

playing music with friends

The road to success can be long and hard. But does it need to be? Learning to play the piano can be a real chore for some children, but for others it is a great joy. Why is this?

I would really love to say I have an answer that will turn every child into a budding pianist but perhaps that’s a bit optimistic.  As a teacher I am always looking for better ways of helping each child to succeed. I have distilled the three essentials which seem to be true for all.

These three things that seem to indicate whether a child will be a struggler or fly along happily. Thank goodness all these things can be changed or improved at any time.

Children come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their natural musical abilities. Some children have no natural sense of rhythm, some seem to be born drummers; some can sing like angels, others need to learn how to use their vocal cords; some are natural memorisers, etc. etc. But everyone has the wonderful ability to learn.

These 3 essential elements greatly increase the likelihood of short and long term success.

1. Grit: Whether children are learning to spell, doing complicated sums, or learning to play the piano, the determination to succeed is crucial! Once the first excitement of starting the piano has worn off, there comes a realisation that to learn to play this beautiful instrument is really quite challenging. Some children enjoy this challenge and put everything into achieving ever greater goals. Some children groan and hand the whole responsibility of their success over to their parents and teacher. Needless to say without much success. Please note by success I mean baby steps. Really being able to play and enjoy a lovely piece how-ever easy. Grit, or determination keeps a child trying until they can – just like a little child learning to walk. Grit is crucial for learning a skill, and playing the piano is a skill.

2. Practice: Knowing how to practise and when to practise is a crucial skill and needs some organisation of self and home to get it right. It is a self-discipline, and as such has enormous flow-overs into every area of learning for your child. In fact it is life changing. It needs to be done regularly and properly. A time should be found which will work every day, and it should be stuck to. The gains are huge and the side-effect is that your child will start to love playing. The ‘how to” practise is more tricky. Aimless playing through and watching the clock achieves very little and should be avoided. Having a goal to achieve for the day/week and succeeding shows real progress and is very inspiring. There are many good books written on this subject. It is definitely worth getting this right.

3. Good reading skills: Teachers call this sight reading. It means that your child can pick up a piece of music that they have not seen before and play it. How wonderful is that!! Good reading skills mean that your child can have fun playing lots of music, not just the few they are learning. Good reading skills have enormous pay-offs because now your child can read and learn pieces much quicker and so, you’ve guessed it, make huge progress. Some of you may be thinking – surely that is why my child is learning the piano? Absolutely! And yet it is amazing how many children are not able to read anything without months of excruciatingly slow learning. You would find it amazing if after years of reading your child could not open a book and read a story, but this is what I see everyday when children attempt to play through a new piece. I work through sight reading every lesson, but children need to play new music everyday to bring their skills up to a level where playing piano is a pure joy.

cartoon mountaineer

climbing to success

So there we have it. Some many disagree with this list, but after many years of teaching I have found GRIT,PRACTICE and READING SKILLS are the key to success. Your teacher is doing their best, but show your child you are serious about music and help to improve these three elements and watch your child succeed.

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!!

Should children sit exams?

Library of classical music books

facing exams

Should children sit exam?  Yes that old chestnut again! Just about everyone has an opinion about this, even people who have nothing to do with music, or learning the piano. But somehow it always draws hot debate, with tales of horrendous childhood experiences abounding. Let’s face it, our society is soft on stressing children out, commitment, pressure.  But, although we are conscious of keeping stress down, these are the very things that build life skills and dare I say character.

Piano exams are upon us and for once I feel that our timing is not bad.  Pieces are still nicely in control, and we are relaxing and reaching the peak at just the right moment. But my pupils have worked hard to get to this stage, a year’s work has reached its peak and they are about to reach their reward – not just an impressive certificate, but the satisfaction of knowing that hard work has been done and a bench-mark standard has been reached. Learning piano is a very solitary past-time and it is very isolating to watch friends meeting for band/orchestral rehearsals. Eisteddfods allow some experience, potentially very frightening, of playing for an audience. But what about sitting exams – is it worth the stress and hassle?

As a teacher of 35 years experience, I have fluctuated between a resounding “Yes!” and resounding “NO!”  As a teacher I agonize over every note with my pupils when they sit exams, urging them on over all the fences.  Result – exhaustion!  As a parent I have agonized over every note and urged my children on over all the fences.  Result – “exhaustion!”  I’m sure teachers and parents will relate to that!  When between houses, we lived in a small townhouse with 3 children doing exams each on 2 instruments, the organization and stress was amazing.  Miraculously all the exams were passed.

So what about the children, do they benefit by taking exams?

8 Reasons why Children Should take exams:

  • There is a well-worn path from beginners to advanced (primary to Grade 8 ) which takes 8-10 years and leads to mastery of the instrument.  This standard is international and it is a good yard stick for comparing self with others.
  • Exams ensure that essential steps are not missed.
  • Exams help to build confidence.
  • Exams give a sense of achievement.
  • Exams can be very motivating and tend to make children strive for higher standards than they would otherwise.
  • Exams introduce repertoire that may not otherwise be experienced.
  • Exams provide the firm technical background essential for technique which may not necessarily be achieved otherwise.
  • Exams provide valuable life-lessons for coping with and conquering nerves when in stressful situations.

    Spelling star

    Spelling star

5 Reasons not to take exams:

  • Exams can be a very stressful experience if the child is not fully prepared.
  • Exams may take a long time to prepare for, and repertoire may be restricted if the teacher relies on this source for the year’s work.
  • A rigid syllabus can be very limiting for the imaginative child.
  • The goal of passing exams can become the only  reason for taking them. The musical element, what music is all about, can be forgotten.
  • A few parents use exams to watch their child shine and enjoy the reflected glory. They become obsessed with their child passing exams and their child excelling. This can lead to unrealistic expectations.

I now enter all my pupils, who wish it, for exams.  But there have been periods when I have refused to put children into exams.  During that period we were able to do a rich feast of music, adding a range of styles and old favourites into the usual mix.

But I found that, although the sense of freedom was marvelous, it was harder to get the best  out of pupils. It was hard to instill self-discipline into the practice routine because of the lack of enforced deadlines.

My answer is a compromise.  We try to spend at least half the year looking at music outside the main repertoire and then do our yearly exam.  So far I have had no complaints.

Typical Characteristics of 2 to 4 Year Olds

child looking through magnifying glass

learning through play

Children of this age can be even more confusing than 2 year-olds! Why? Because your child is now in the midst of enormous growth, physically and mentally as they take in masses of information about the world, sort and label and turn rapidly from baby into a small but fully-functioning person. Your child now has a clear picture of him/herself as individual and how he/she fits into the world around him/her.

Motor coordination, spatial awareness, problem solving and social interaction move on apace. Language development is amazing and many children of this age love playing with words.
In the next two years they will want to know about everything and thinking and memory develop accordingly.

During this time they are acquiring fine motor control – cutting, threading, drawing, fitting toys together. They are also able to use their large muscles with much greater control, marching, running, climbing, galloping, jumping, twisting and stopping more quickly. They learn to throw and catch and enjoy paying with hoops.

They are more anxious to watch and play with others and like to work in groups. They learn much by copying: parents and increasingly other children. This leads to imaginative play and they love pretending. Attention span increases and they have a love and need for repetition of favourite experiences.

The sheer enormity of change and development in the two years from 3 to 5 years is staggering. Their thirst for learning and sheer joy of life is uplifting and we need to cherish this special time.

What a lot is going on inside your miraculous child! Hardly surprising that there are some negative elements that need to be understood and coped with. Children of this age have short emotional spans. Because their skills fall behind their desires, they can easily become frustrated leading to quick tempers and even tantrums. This is normal. The easiest way to cope is to cleverly avoid confrontation. Let your child take their time. Emotions are on a short fuse but luckily things are quickly forgotten if something more interesting appears. Distraction can still work, though stubbornness can start to be a problem, even as they approach the stage of amicable 5 year-olds.

Music and the Preschooler

Young Boy Closing CD Player With Finger

Exploring

Between the ages of 4 years and 6 years children undergo enormous growth, and they are ready to expand and extend their musical experiences.

This age is certainly a more comfortable age to teach (and parent!) than the volatile 3 year-old.  But they are also more demanding.  The 5 year-old is interested in everything and immensely curious.  They are not only ready for, but actively seek new challenges.  They are also more able to reason and have good control over their bodies.  They can walk on a line, run, stop suddenly, turn, twist, jump, hop and dance.  Their fine motor control is vastly better and they can hold a pencil and write.  This opens up the possibilities of a music programme enormously, and it is a great time to start group music.

At this stage many parents will want their child to start learning an instrument.  Although I have and do teach young children piano, by in large they will endure this discipline but much prefer group music where they can interact with friends and enjoy games.  Keyboard skills can be started very successfully but should be part of a range of activities.

At my home studio I have a 2-year programme which covers the preschool and Grade 1 years. The children acquire a firm music foundation which leads to primary music lessons or piano studies.

During this course, through singing and playing glockenspiel and recorder, children learn to write what they sing/play and sing/play what they write.  The course builds on Kindy Kids and the children learn through games, singing, creative activities, movement and dances.  Building on their knowledge of beat and rhythm they learn about metre.  They play and sing in rhythmic and melodic ensembles, learn to listen to each other and to music of different genres and learn a little about music of different countries and cultures.  We use lots of props, learning through hands-on.   Again I use a mixture of Kodaly, Orff and Kindermusik ideas.

children playing percussion

Exploring music

As well as being a wonderful part of life, music helps to develop higher reasoning skills.  5 year-olds are very active and enjoy plenty of movement, but are also ready for writing down and then reading rhythms and pitch.  This follows naturally on from their Kodaly singing and hand-signing.  I help children write their own music and we look briefly at some famous composers.   We even look at different genres of music such as country music and jazz.  Later I can introduce some of the wonderful computer programmes for children, including programmes for writing down their music.

Parents need to take a keen interest in any course attended and follow-up enthusiastically at home.  Children will be very ready to share what they have learned, especially games!   The variety and stimulating activities of music classes are exciting and will be happily anticipated.  Children need to be encouraged and music needs to be put high up in household importance if music is to become a life-long love.