What young beginners learn in piano class

Brain gym in piano class

Playing the piano needs different parts of the brain to work together simultaneously.

Young piano students in their first year learn to :

  • Read written music and play the correct pitch & rhythm, at a steady pace with an appropriate tempo.
  • Play soft, loud, 46 brain-619060_640legato (joining the notes) or staccato (with notes detached).
  • Sing so they learn phrasing, and can identify mistakes in pitch.
  • Listen and hear what’s good and what needs to be worked on.
  • Accept correction even when their work is excellent. This is because standards of achievement need to move higher over time, for progress.
  • Practise on their own at home with parent support, growing more independent as they grow up.

Then, there’s the physical aspect of how to depress the piano keys, playing with relaxed shoulders, good posture & hand position, and fingers which are firm, not floppy.

Here’s a related post : A guide to buying a suitable piano bench


One of my adult students has been learning the piano for a little bit over a year. Here’s what she said to me yesterday.

Playing the piano has changed the way I think. I can’t really identify the difference, but I can feel it in the way I get things done.

I get feedback similar to this from parents of young children after a year or two of piano class. It’s the reason why many of my busy piano parents who started out just mildly interested in piano class later became extremely supportive of their child’s piano practise.


The role of the piano teacher with young beginners

A child’s first year at piano class sets the pace of his/her future learning. Quality piano teaching needs to be supported by daily practise at home.

The attitude of parents to home support for music education, and their understanding of what playing the piano involves matter a great deal.  The piano pieces at this level sound very easy, and parents new to music education can and often do make the mistake of underestimating the job of the piano teacher. 

  • Teachers who teach beginner level piano need a very secure knowledge of piano playing technique upto an advanced level. So that they teach good playing habits from the start and correct problems before they set in.
  • Piano class needs movement as young children often have difficulty sitting still. Rhythm exercises on the floor alternated with playing at the piano are great for young children. Piano teachers need to be physically fit with a high energy level.
  • Each child learns differently and piano teachers need a repertoire of varied teaching techniques and fun activities that will appeal to children with different learning styles.
  • Parent support at home is essential and teachers need to be able to work with parents and help them understand how to support their child at home.
  • Piano teachers need the ability to make piano class fun and yet keep the learning challenging enough for progress, all at the same time.
  • Piano teachers often need to teach children to think, explore ideas and ask questions. This is very important here in India where ideas on what is respect for teachers and large classroom sizes often make school teachers clamp down on questions.

Teaching beginner level piano is a challenging and exciting job. Piano teachers need to invest both time and money in learning and studying, to keep their teaching skills up-to-date, as learning styles of each new generation of children are different.

There’s a huge value to those early years in piano class, even for  the child for whom learning goes slow. For the average child, the best age to start preschool piano lessons is 4 years old and the best age to start regular piano class is 6 years old.

A guide to buying a suitable piano bench

This post talks about piano posture, what to consider when buying a piano bench & where the Indian student can find piano benches to suit different budgets. Plus an easy low-budget solution for a low piano bench.

Practising on a basic keyboard during the early years of piano class

Many Indian students buy basic 5-octave keyboards when they begin piano class, planning to save up and buy digital or acoustic pianos later. It’s not the best option, but this makes piano class possible for many families.

40 Piano hands crabby

Many students find playing the piano difficult due to wrong posture, resulting in crabby, badly shaped hands. Sitting at the wrong height is the most likely cause because many new piano families don’t have a suitable piano bench at home. They sometimes think that the student can ‘manage’ until the family sees enough commitment and feels it’s worth getting a piano bench.

 

40 Piano hands nice

A curved nicely shaped hand

The Indian family sees a piano exam as a measure of success. Sadly, doing well in an exam or otherwise, is very unlikely with poor posture and badly shaped hands. These students find it physically more difficult to play and they bang on the piano keys so hard, sometimes risking injury.

How to sit at the piano

Every beginner piano book has a diagram explaining good piano posture.

  • The correct height to sit at.
  • Sitting straight, forearm roughly parallel to the floor, with a nicely curved hand.
  • Sitting the right distance from the piano.
  • Using using only a part of the piano bench, leaving the back part of the bench free, so the thighs are not supported.

Your piano teacher will explain why this is important.

Buying a suitable piano bench

Learning good playing technique starts at beginner level, with using a suitable piano bench.

  • Sitting too low is often the root cause of a lot of hand and arm tension in beginner level students. They tend to bang on the piano and this can injure their hands.
  • Sitting at the wrong height – too high or too low can cause back, arm, wrist or hand pain.

Here’s what you need to look for when buying a piano bench :

  1. Adjustable height
  2. A firm cushion which is broad and wide enough.
  3. A steady base that will not rock when the pianist reaches for keys at the ends of the piano keyboard.

If you’re buying a new piano bench, the most reasonably priced options seems to be the  Gewa 130010 Deluxe Piano Bench. It’s available at a more budget friendly price, though it will still cost more than a basic 5-octave keyboard. It’s adjustable and I like that it has a minimum height of 52cms (20.5 inches) – low enough to suit all ages, and no storage as this makes it lighter to move around.

The Nomad adjustable keyboard bench is a lower budget temporary option. The seat is too narrow to suit as the student grows up, but it’s very affordable for keyboard students with lower budgets.

In case you’re looking for something different, there’s a wide range of piano benches available at amazon.in.

If you need a keyboard stand for your basic non-weighted keyboard, look at an  X-type keyboard stand.

Here’s an easy solution to a slightly low piano bench

wp-1504796176908.

Layer on a couple of floor mats to increase the height of a piano bench that’s slightly low

I do this in class, with very young students, rather than have to keep adjusting the height of the bench for them. Thick rubber based synthetic floor mats, or yoga mats work well.

 

We have a keyboard at home – why should we buy a piano? is a post that explains the difference between basic keyboards and digital & acoustic pianos, without getting too technical.

I hope this post has helped you, if you’re enrolling in piano lessons for the first time. Set up right at home, practise daily and pay attention when your teacher guides you and you’ll find that learning the piano gives you great joy.

Good luck!

 

Anita E Kohli is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.in.

Practise is, a reminder for piano students

Here’s a reminder for beginner piano students. A list of all the things they need to keep in mind, so they get the most out of their practise time.

Piano practise is :

  1. correctly shaped hands
  2. different from playing a piece
  3. repetition
  4. good posture
  5. short slots with breaks in between
  6. playing gently without banging on the keys
  7. playing correctly from the very first
  8. paying attention to what you do
  9. thinking and problem solving
  10. making something better than it used to be

Practise is fun, challenging & hard work, all the same time.

A step-wise approach to mindful piano practise

Practising the piano is different from playing.

Practise often involves playing just small sections of your piece, using specific techniques learned in piano class, to get lots of improvement using less time. Students need to ‘practise’ as well as ‘play’ their pieces daily.

Students often just play through their pieces, thinking they’re practising. Piano practise should be a time of attention to detail and focus, but so often ends up being mindless repetition. This often leads to breakdowns & insecure playing during piano performances. Many many young students who say they panic and are therefore unable to perform, actually have the ability to perform well, when they use the right tools to practise effectively. 

Here’s a check-list, to help piano students make mindfulness a part of their practise.

  1. Mark out the theory in a copy of your piece – notice chords, scales, inversions, repeated sections, sequences. Look at non-chord tones and get out your theory book, figuring out what kinds of non-chord tones your piece has.
  2. Read hands together as far as possible. Each teacher has a different approach, and one size does not fit all. I teach my students to learn pieces, reading them hands together from the very first, because I feel that it helps them develop better coordination in the long run. Students who are not used to this, make the switch quite comfortably, once they started practising paying attention to theory (as in point 1).
  3. Play SLOW and CORRECT rather than fast and with errors.
  4. Pay attention to the instructions your teacher gives you on playing technique. Posture, the height & kind of piano stool you use, relaxed shoulders, hand shape, whether you should play with your finger, hand, wrist or arm matter. The speed at which you depress the keys matter. The point of the depression of the piano key, at which the hammer hits the strings matter.
  5. When practising a section again and again, take your hand off the piano and take a short break between repetitions. This forces your brain to get involved, because then, you need to re-figure out hand position, fingering, and all of the thinking you did before you played.
  6. Follow your teachers instructions, reading your homework book before you practise, so that you do section work as instructed.
  7. TRY what your teacher has asked you to do sincerely, before taking a call on whether it’s necessary or not. Students with very set ideas and with mental blocks about how things should be done take time to learn new ways of doing things, so they need to keep at it a while before their ways of thinking allow them to benefit from a new way of practise.

 

Misconceptions on injury while playing the piano

There’s a misconception with some students and parents – particularly those from families new to music, that overpractise and injury is a part of the creative process. That hard work is a goal in itself. That practising long hours is to be rewarded, even when the student practises mindlessly, and is actually risking injury because teacher instructions on playing technique are not followed. That hand pain is good as it is a sign of hard work.

I’m always horrified when I get student families that think this way. Changing this mindset was hard and sometimes impossible when I first started teaching in Khargar, Navi Mumbai, and most of my students were beginners. It’s getting easier now, because my newer students have an opportunity to  hear students who have been with me longer, play for them.

Effective playing technique protects your hand from injury. If you experience pain when playing, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t repeat that action. Stop & think about whether you’re following your teacher’s instruction about playing.  Take your problem to your piano teacher at the next class.

Remember that the key to quality playing is to learn slow, with the correct playing technique. Using your hands in the most effective way, keeps your joints and muscles free from undue effort and this will help you with playing fast, and lasting out in long pieces.

Move from intermediate level to more challenging repertoire, having learned how to make your practise effective. If you’ve learned what your teacher taught you well, you will be able to do this mostly on your own with pieces or passages that are well within your ability, by the time you reach the advanced level.

Book Review : The Art of Piano Fingering

18986566_10155382987668792_172304223_oThe Art of Piano Fingering by Rami Bar-Niv is a wonderfully detailed exploration of piano fingering. It’s become my textbook for when I get stuck with fingering and need to study it in relation to playing technique, hand size and the kind of effect that a passage of piano music requires the pianist to produce.

Rami Bar-Niv is one of Israel’s most acclaimed pianists. He’s a composer and has performed and taught all over the world, giving masterclasses, lectures, workshops and private lessons.

His book starts with the basics of fingering and covers scales, chords and the basics of hand position,  so that piano students can follow it easily. Much of the book deals with advanced fingering. It’s written clearly and concise, so that a student can learn and understand advanced fingering and related playing technique.

And yet detailed enough that it will help the professional, both pianist and teacher. 

  • There’s alternative fingering for different sized hands, for varied effects & articulation.
  • Really interesting discussions on playing technique, focusing on the use of the hand & wrist, with photographs that are very clear and easy to follow.
  • Some sections have finger exercises to help with practising different fingering.
  • Lots of actual examples of advanced level fingering from pieces!

‘The Art of  Piano Fingering’ is on my reading list right now, and it’s going to be there for a long time. Because it’s a book I want to take my time with, so I can explore the ideas I find and understand them well. It’s available in hardcopy and you can get it here.

If you’re looking to really understand and study piano fingering, this is the book for you.




The best way to schedule your piano practise

Tight practise schedules create stress

Relaxed piano students do better, learn faster & often just ‘get’ things that other students struggle to achieve. The way practise slots are scheduled at home have a huge impact on how relaxed a student is at the piano and a very tight schedule can create stress, where none exists.

My years of working with parents has taught me that parents & students of all ages often just don’t realise this, and talking about it helps them understand, and make changes.

A few thoughts about scheduling practise

  1. 2 or 3 small practise slots are better than a single slot  because students are more attentive after a break.
  2. Schedule longer slots than required. Students need time to relax between activities and may come to the piano late, then get so involved that they want to stay and play longer.
  3. Schedule an extra slot, so piano student have a choice when they’re not in the mood at the same time each day
  4. Creativity grows from having time and mental space, and piano students sometimes need to sit around, idle before and after practise time.
  5. Piano students need to explore their instrument on their own, outside of what is taught in class. It’s not wasting time, but rather, it’s a student using knowledge gained in piano class & piano practise, to explore his/her innate ability. It’s wonderful when this happens!
  6. On busy days, a little is better than nothing. Play, rather than practise, if there’s no time. Even a 2 minutes of a piece you enjoy.
  7. Don’t just schedule practise, make time to PLAY. Play your favourite pieces at the end of the day. Or play a line of music you like – just a minute in between some other activity. Play to relax, because that’s what learning the piano is about.

Parent support in piano class

The need for parent support

Parent support for piano practise with young piano students is a huge issue. With teachers, because they know the likelihood of any student actually progressing beyond the beginner level depends on this. Even the musically talented student.

For piano parents it’s time and commitment and something more for them to add to their already busy schedules.

As I write this post, I’ve been teaching the piano for roughly 15 years. During all of these years, I’ve had less than a handful of students who practised without parent support.

Learning the piano is very challenging for children of any age and my experience has been that the child who sticks almost always is the child who has parent support.

Taking the ‘lonely’ out of piano practise

For most children the biggest issue during the first couple of years is getting into a routine and making practise a part of their daily lives. The piano can be a lonely instrument and children who don’t have company often don’t practise. Children need a parent around – initially to remind them to read the homework book and practise accordingly, to listen and  mostly so they have company. 

Children who have opportunities to perform and belong to schools or communities where music is encouraged tend to be more motivated. As are children who have friends who play an instrument. Participation in group classes or concerts arranged by the piano teacher is important as this provides performance opportunities and helps students make ‘piano friends.’

That hardworking child who practises WRONG

If you’re a parent with a child who loves practising the piano, who practises daily and keeps getting poor feedback, then this paragraph is for you. It’s quite possible, that you can’t understand why – because you hear playing that sounds good to you, you can see how sincere your child is and how much effort your child puts in.

Taking a look at the homework book, will tell you a lot. You will find :

  1. Homework assignments not done
  2. Section practise requested by the teacher is not done
  3. Your child ‘plays’ taking very long to work on something, when all was needed is to use the practise techniques outlined by the teacher and spend less effort achieving the same result.

Children who enjoy practise often get so lost doing practise homework they enjoy, they forget to read the homework book. They practise what they like and what they remember and simply forget the rest.

Learning 'how to practise' is important for progress. This is the 
area in which beginner & intermediate level piano students of any age
pay poor attention.

For parents who need a class where children work without support..

If you are a piano parent  with a student who does not practise regularly (and by practise, I mean doing the homework that the piano teacher has assigned) and this goes on for sometime, it’s worth looking at the kind of class you’ve enrolled your child in.

Piano teachers generally ask these students to take a break from piano class and enrol again when they’re ready to practise, because a ‘regular piano class’  simply does not work with erratic practise.

What your child needs is a different kind of class, with more frequency – maybe 2/3 classes a week. A class which is mostly a  ‘practise’ class, where there’s a lot of repetition. New topics need to be introduced very slowly, so that erratic practise works. It helps if one of these is a group class which includes music activities and work on rhythm. Piano playing will progress at a slow comfortable pace and your child will find it easy to cope.

Parent support for ‘regular piano class’

The term ‘regular piano class’ is how I describe class that teaches piano playing techniques, reading written music, how music theory goes into playing, the chord approach to piano playing & how to practise.

This is a lot to do in a 1 or 1&1/2 hour weekly class, and daily practise and completing homework assignments is essential. This almost always needs some level of parent support and involvement.

It’s not forever, as children grow up habituated to regular practise – with the resources to organise their practise, and use practise techniques to make their practise more effective. This usually happens between the ages of 14 to 16, depending on the personality of the student and the kind of goals the student has chosen to work towards.

To all you piano parents who are making the time to support your child, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Children gradually learn independence until they finally take responsibility for their own goals.

A quick easy fix for focus issues

When thinking is an effort at age 8 to 13

These children come to piano class and learn the theory and technique that’s necessary to play a piece. Then the piece starts to sound good to them as it’s kind of put together from beginning to end. So, they then start to practise by repetition, mind shut to such an extent, that they have totally forgotten the theory and technique (though they play correctly). They’re totally blank and can’t answer basic theory questions. They can’t even recall what was taught earlier – even simple basic stuff.

When I first started teaching in Andheri (Mumbai), my first batch of students did not practise. They had such excellent memories that they could and did in the beginning, fool me into thinking they’d done their work. Until I learned to understand their abilities and assess their work accordingly.

I mainly taught in Bandra (Mumbai) from 2011 to 2015, but took on a few students in Khargar off and on. I had a few students in Bandra who could not think and I wrote a post about it ‘Coping with the over-scheduled child in piano class’

I still have a couple of students in Bandra, but I teach full-time in Khargar. Teachers in different parts of the world are seeing an increasing number of students who can’t think and reason.

If it were just piano class, it would be fine, because piano teachers don't expect all kids to have developed musical skills.  But I knew my students well and talking to parents makes me realise that it was not just piano class where this happened.

 

Lessons from the monsoon madness

This year in July, all my 9 year olds and one 12 year old had a mental shutdown. I was teaching to blank faces from students who, until now, had been progressing well. They’re beginners who have been with me for about a year.

My students who could sit perfectly still earlier, were fidgeting and needed lots of off the bench activities. They were fidgety at home too, and talking to their Mum’s made me realise that the unusually heavy monsoon took away their play time, so they had no activity.

I asked one student’s parents to enrol their child in a hobby class with sports activity  and there was a noticeable change within a few weeks. It got better with all of my students as the monsoon eased and they were able to get back to physical activity – regular play or sports classes.

 

A quick fix to get your child thinking – in and out of piano class

Just get children moving. If your child’s play time does not have enough physical activity, then a sports related hobby class or  a 1 hour walk 3 days a week works fine.

I’m really amazed that something so simple worked! 

That even during the weeks of poor practise, these students could remember what was done earlier and could demonstrate it and explain it to me.

 

 

15 easy steps for students, to a really effective piano class

Sometimes piano teachers have those days. And we need to decide whether to have a good laugh or scream at the walls after our students leave. I’ve decided to laugh at all the crazy things my piano students do.

So, here’s a to do list for my piano students :

  1. Arrive at class on time. Leave home budgeting time for traffic jams and other delays, so you walk in relaxed. You will learn better.
  2. Take all your books to class – that includes your homework book & theory book. Check you’ve not left your books on the piano keyboard at home before you leave for class.
  3. Practise.
  4. Carry your reading glasses/spectacles with you.
  5. Attend class or remember to reschedule if you need to miss. Else you will not get a make-up class.
  6. Leave a little extra time in your daily schedule so there’s time when you need flex or  just want to relax a little in between. Practise needs to be done with a relaxed frame of mind to be really effective.
  7. Practise – don’t just play. Practise daily.
  8. Play games or enroll in a sports class for exercise. Getting enough physical activity improves focus.
  9. Pack all your books up after class and make sure you take them home.
  10. Read your homework  book when you practise and follow your teacher’s instructions.
  11. Set a practise schedule with a choice of 2 or 3 practise slots, so you can change your practise time to suit your moods
  12. PRACTISE
  13. Play for your family, and participate in student concerts whenever you get an opportunity.
  14. Play a little to relax even on busy days.
  15. Did I say practise daily? Yes, that’s the most important thing to do.
Prraaacctise!

😀

 

This class called ‘Piano class’

Piano class here in Khargar, Navi Mumbai, encompasses a wide variety of different kinds of classes and parents new to music and piano class get confused.

Read here, about the 4 common misconceptions that piano teachers here struggle with and about why keyboard teachers who don’t play the piano should consider joining piano class.

1) The confusion about what piano is

Many parents think that the toy keyboard is a piano and ‘Casio’ is used to refer to keyboards of any brand, digital pianos and acoustic pianos (the big Casio).

Here’s a post that explains the difference between the acoustic piano, digital piano and the electronic keyboard without getting too technical : We have a keyboard at home, why should we buy a piano

2) The exam book is the lesson book & repertoire is not required

Parents and students know Trinity College London  and want exams. They’re content with just 4 pieces a year and are often unable to connect music theory to the pieces they play.

Getting parents and students to understand the need for repertoire used to be a struggle. I found that I needed to talk to my beginner level piano students, explaining the need for learning repertoire and why I don’t use the exam book as my lesson book. My piano teaching fees now include the cost of books, so that there’s no unplanned expenditure on books. 

3) Beginner level piano teaching is easy and should cost less

Piano parents generally undervalue the job of the piano teacher who teaches young beginners, until they actually sit in on piano class.

Here’s a few common perceptions about beginner level piano teaching :

–  Teaching younger students requires less knowledge.

–  Children can go to a qualified teacher later, when we’re sure they’re practising.

There is a lack of understanding that high quality beginner level teaching will stimulate student interest, creativity and musical understanding in young students. So, parents willing to pay reasonable fees for intermediate level teaching, often want beginner level class to be very very low budget.

A teacher needs to be qualified & experienced enough to produce results, in order to  break this mindset and attract the kind of student families that value music education.

Here’s a related post : What young beginners learn in piano class

4) Attending class without practise regularly is fine

Solo piano class (one student at a time) lends itself to flexible teaching. Each student gets taught differently, depending on the students learning style and goals, however some level of regular practise is essential, so that the teacher can continue to teach.

Asking a non-practising students to take a break, and return when they’re ready to commit to practise makes sense. Students can use this break to attend a group class – either choir, rhythm or group piano class, and return to solo piano class later. 

The demand for piano class, and lack of supply

When I first started teaching here in Khargar, there was very little interest in any kind of  piano class, and huge demand for light holiday classes to teach children to play on tiny toy keyboards.

That’s changing, and I’m seeing a lot of interest in piano class, and a growing number of student families who are looking for quality teaching. Many of the teachers here only play keyboards (with the left hand playing chord inversions, using different rhythms) and don’t play the piano at all. There’s a gap in supply with just a few piano teachers in Navi Mumbai. So there’s scope for growth, for those teachers who are willing to invest in furthering their music education.

Links to related articles :

‘The way forward’ and interesting article by Karl Lutchmayer, concert pianist & lecturer, where he talks about making music concerts more accessible to the general public, and a  lack of trained music teachers in India.

What do piano teachers ‘DO’?  is a look into the work schedule of a piano teacher, outside of piano class time.