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.

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!!

Memorisation

happy girl reading book

memorising away from piano

One of my teaching resolutions this year is to put more emphasis on memorization.  This skill is too easily dismissed as a talent.  Either you can or you can’t.  To be honest that rather sums up my pupils at the moment.  Some are frightened to take their heads out of the book, while others seem to memorize everything effortlessly.  Unfortunately this memorization is not always secure, so there is a danger of spending many hours relearning the seemingly easily-memorized piece.

Memorizing is one of those aspects of teaching that I used to teach, but over the years it has been squeezed out because of the pressure of time. And memorising is achievable by all, and is able to be taught.

I was reminded of this special skill  when one of my post-exam students was given the task of memorizing the first section of Beethoven’s Op13 last movement.  We talked about the how and she then came back the next week with the section memorized.  This was not too unusual, as she is one who fits into the category of a quick memoriser.  What was pleasing was that she volunteered the information that she really felt she knew the section so well and was looking forward to applying the same method to the next section. Wow!

The trick is to be able to visualise the music, as well as using the physical memory of  the passage.  Too often good memorisers rely too much on the physical memory but quickly forget a piece when it is not played for a while.

Here’s how I teach memorization.  Although it sounds very long-winded, it shows results in a remarkably short time and, with practice, pieces can be memorized effortlessly and in a very short time.  It is all about “chunking”, the short-term to long-term memory process. As experience and knowledge increase, the brain is able to take into short term memory more information at a time, thus speeding up the learning process.  Once absorbed and processed, information is then sent to the more permanent long-term memory, so can be recalled easily and without thought.  (I know that is very simplified so please forgive!)

These are the steps I use.  This is not the only way, but it works very well for me.

  1. Take a short part of the piece, it maybe a section, or one or two phrases and should not be more than a page.
  2. Learn RH slowly and thoroughly noting the correct notes, rhythm and fingering, dynamics and phrasing.  I like to get my pupils to do this away from the piano as they look more thoroughly when the fingers are not itching to play!  Once all is correct, play until secure, This can take as little as 5 minutes!
  3. Learn LH in the same way.
  4. Once both hands are securely memorised, the same should be done hands together.  This will involve different problems but, as both hands are thoroughly known, the look and feel of the complete piece is more easily learned.
  5. Put music away and play!
  6. Rinse and repeat with each phrase, not necessarily in any order.

This whole process can be achieved remarkably quickly and with practice can be done very quickly.  The advantages of learning this way are huge.  The mind is freed to express the meaning of the piece, explore universal and individual feelings and meanings.

Committing to Learning

Yesterday a small incident in my teaching day left me pondering things for quite a while. It turned my whole philosophy of teaching on its head. So I’d like to share it with you, and invite comments.

happy teenage girl

Being joyful but determined

I teach a beautiful 16 year-old  girl who plays like an angel. She really is very good, a joy to listen to and very enthusiastic. My husband had just commented on her wonderful playing and I was telling her. “Why thank you,” she said, “It wasn’t always so – I used to hate coming!” I was stunned but before I could answer she said she would like to share a secret with me. It appears that when she first started coming when she was eight, she cried and screamed before every lesson but her parents took no notice and come she did.

She had arrived from another teacher and technique was poor in every way, but I could see that she was very musical. I do remember her resistance to reading music, but was unaware of her feelings. Apparently this went on until one day when her father pretended to phone me saying she would no longer be coming to the lessons because she hated it, and then she screamed that she did want to come and the tantrums stopped.

Wow! I have another pupil who I do remember kicking and screaming in her lesson with her mother keeping her on the music stool and me very embarrassed, hoping she would give up – but no and seven years later she also is a very competent player. So I was not quite sure what to make of all this. I always feel that if a child is not enjoying playing they should not be playing, and yet here were two extreme cases which have resulted in excellent and very happy pianists.

Young girl playing piano

setting patterns

The conclusions I can draw are that playing the piano is a skill and as such requires regular practice of that skill and perseverance. These parents were cluey enough to realise that it was going to be a hard road and were happy to support and encourage that commitment, even when the going got tough, and it often does at some stage when learning the piano. Parents are the salt of the earth and I admire them greatly. These parents had held firm even when pressure was on and have been rewarded with children who now have a life-long skill which they love.

It’s tough bringing up children, and we all want our children to be happy, but committing to anything is a quality worth learning and the play-offs are enormous, far beyond learning a great skill, no mean feat. It effects character and relationships, trust and abilities and is definitely worth the learning. Committed parents make committed children and strong character. And certainly makes our job as teachers much easier.

How to Help Your Child with Piano Practice

lady with girl playing piano

helping with practice

8 Ways to help your Child

  1.  Be enthusiastic! Show them that you think learning piano is very exciting and love everything they do.
  2. Anticipate your child’s ups and downs.  You may have to cajole them through the bad patches.
  3. Know when to help, when to support and encourage, and when to step back.
  4. Make practice a daily routine and make sure your child practises what they should be doing every week.
  5. Stress that they always need to be thinking what they want the piece to sound like.  What does it make them think of?  Make up little stories about the piece based on the sound.
  6. Encourage them to teach you!
  7. Keep your sense of humour when resolving practising issues.
  8. Always make it clear how proud you are of them.

8 Things to Avoid!!

  1. Try not to nag or sound irritated.  It is important to portray music always as a pleasurable activity.

    stressed lady

    stressed mum!

  2. Never belittle your child’s efforts!
  3. Avoid feeding your own ego through your child.
  4. Although it is good for a child to play in front of friends and relations if they wish, don’t push your child if they don’t want to.  This can lead to performance phobia later.
  5. Don’t worry about temporary lapses in practice, but do worry if the lapses are too often. For good progress to be made your child should be practising most days.
  6. Don’t threaten to stop lessons if they don’t practice. Learning piano is a long term goal. Encourage them to practise and ride it out. Otherwise you may have to carry out your threat!
  7. Don’t EVER criticize your child in the presence of others. Never make your child lose face. And don’t criticize your child in front of the teacher. This may undermine the relationship the teacher has been building up. Better to speak to the teacher privately.
  8. Don’t expect gratitude for letting your child take piano lessons. Your child has no idea of your sacrifice and it may be years later that gratitude is voiced.