Are we being fair to our students by teaching them using the traditional piano method?
Using the traditional method to teach children to play piano has proven to me to be an obstacle in the road of piano education. It is in the least discouraging, and in many cases can be crippling to the piano learning process and sometimes damaging to some children psychologically, and leaving scars in the learner’s self confidence and character.
We all have encountered the student who quit after a few lessons because they felt that they were not able to learn, and after looking closer into why some of my students quit, I decided that I want to completely change the approach I have towards teaching. When I quit teaching using the traditional method and stopped to have any assumptions about any of the new students, students stopped feeling incapable of learning and stopped quitting for that reason.
To demonstrate in more detail, I will first set a few examples of the concepts most usually taught in the first few lessons and the skills which the children are assumed to have which form the basis of instruction.
What typically is introduced during the very short period of a few lessons, the first month, will in most cases be something like:
Learning the names of the piano keys and finding them on the piano.
Learning the whole note, half note and quarter notes.
Learning the bass and treble clefs.
Recognizing and reading the notes of the middle C position or the C position, playing simple tunes using these notes on the piano using the correct fingers and using the correct hand and the correct rhythm.
Before going any further, I want to be clear on what exactly I mean by the two words: concept and skill.
A Concept as defined by the dictionary is a principle or idea.
In other words, it is knowing the workings behind the answer of a problem and why you are doing certain things without having to memorize formulas to figure things out.
Counting by 1’s
Writing down the numbers from 1 - 9
Matching numbers with objects
A skill, however, means the ability to do something well.
Referring to the math concepts listed above, you will need at least one or more of the skills below:
The skill of speech.
The skill of holding the pencil properly in your hand.
The skill to identify patterns.
Going back to teaching piano, and in an attempt to break down what is traditionally taught in the first few lessons into concepts, I came up with the following list. I invite you to go through it and most probably and very easily, you will be able to add more concepts:
Understanding the white / black key pattern
Knowing the first the first 7 letters in the alphabet
Concept of different keys having different names
Assigning numbers to fingers
Finding the keys on the piano
Concept of pitch and relative pitch
Concept of assigning shapes of notes to time values
Concept of notes moving up and down the staff will change the note name although it still is keeping the same shape.
Concept that going up on the staff is going to the right on the piano.
Concept that going up on the staff is going to the left on the piano.
One note on the paper means one key to be pressed
Concept of maintaining a rhythm.
Understanding that each note is written in a different place on the staff.
Differentiating between treble and bass clefs
The 5 lines on top of the grand staff starting with the treble clef are for the notes to play with your right hand.
The 5 lines on the bottom starting with the bass clef are for the notes to play with your left hand.
If we attempt to teach all the above concepts in a very short period of time to a beginner child we are assuming that the children we are trying to teach has at least the skills listed below before beginning any piano lessons:
Assign an abstract (number) to a physical object (finger)
Read a few letters
Sit still for at least a few minutes to perform a short melody
Hand eye coordinate
Ability to sense rhythm
Ability to identify pitch
Know the difference between left and right
Able to eye track the sheet
Good attention span
Ability to follow instruction
Are we being reasonable when we assume that all of our beginner students are coming to us with all the skills above? If we do we are setting up many of these students for failure and we are not being fair to many of the learners who lack one or more of these skills. This is why only a few students can actually play and read music, and this is why piano lessons are being associated with failure, and that's one of the reasons the number parents wanting their children to learn piano is decreasing every year.
Here is an example of one of my students (Student A) who quit far too soon when I started teaching while I was still an unexperienced teacher:
Student A started when she was 6 years old. She seemed to me a typical student, struggling a little in school as her mother mentioned but managing to move up her grades.
I started her on a typical method book that I used with all my students and worked fairly well so far. That means so far until this student appeared.
It didn't take me long to figure out that this little girl had a perfect pitch.
She was attempting to memorize everything! She even tricked me into believing that she is reading the notes, that's until the music started to become a little more complicated.
We both struggled for 3 months, to no avail. After 3 months she quit. Piano was so stressful to her that it was impossible to go on.
I felt like a failure! Which I was. Because I sabotaged the chance of a student with perfect pitch the fun and enjoyment of learning a music instrument.
P.S. Many years later, while being in college, student A was diagnosed with ADHD.
Now let me tell you about another more recent student of mine (Student B):
Student B was 6 when he started his first lesson. After only 2 lessons I recognized similarities between him and my student A. Not wanting to go through that painful experience again, I redesigned my approach.
Before introducing a concept, I always made sure he had the required skills he needed to master this concept and worked on those skills. Little by little and within a few years this student had completely transformed. He joined a group, he is learning independently, playing confidently and at last taking part in the ABRSM examinations.
Did that make me feel different than what I felt after student A quit? You bet!
Piano teaching is a wonderful profession and piano teachers have a big responsibility at their hands. Let's all do our best to be fair to all the children.