There is an old proverb that says
[Tweet “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it. #piano”]
One of the main goals I set myself as a piano teacher is to teach my young beginner students correct methods for playing and practicing the piano. This is important because it sets the foundation for their entire piano-playing career. And if you get the foundations right, then you have created a solid base to build upon in the future.
My beginners’ practice methods philosophy is covered in another blog, but today we’ll concentrate on my piano teaching methods for young beginners. These methods encompass both what I teach, and how I teach it.
A young beginner piano student is a child aged between 5 and 9 years old who is taking piano lessons for the first time.
Regardless of whether they are slow, fast, or average learners, I cover the same topics for all my young beginners. These topics are: the fundamentals of music, keyboard geography, and technique. However, while I may teach all my students the same things, I individualise the pace at which I teach, which topics I place more emphasis on, and the structure of my lessons in order to suit each child’s individual needs and abilities.
What I Teach: Fundamentals of Music
The most fundamental aspects of music are note-reading and rhythm. I teach my beginner students to read and recognise the two music staves (treble and bass clef), the different music notes (A, B, C, D, etc.), and duration notation that make up written music (minims, crotchets, quavers, semibreves, etc.). We learn using a variety of tools, including note-reading apps on the iPad, and rhythm games.
(You can learn more about why I use an iPad in this blog post.)
What I Teach: Keyboard Geography
It’s no use knowing that the note you’re looking at is a “C” if you don’t know where to find it on the piano! So I teach my beginner students to recognise where the notes on the staff are in relation to the piano keyboard.
What I Teach: Technique
For young beginners, I actually don’t teach scales from the outset. Children can still play simple pieces with good technique without having learnt their scales straight away. After all, we’re talking pieces such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, not a Chopin Etude.
But what I do teach technique-wise is posture – both sitting posture, and the hand- and finger-shape that’s appropriate to the child’s hand size. Both are vital for good piano playing, comfort and, ultimately, health.
How I Teach: Maintaining Attention
No one will be surprised when I point out that young children do not have great attention spans. Some seem to switch off their brains after only five minutes of lesson time, while others can go for longer. But no young child can maintain full concentration on one thing for an entire lesson.
When my young students’ concentration begins to wander, I mix up the lesson by introducing something new. We play aural skills games like clapping a rhythm, or humming or singing a simple melody. At least, to the kids, these are games – in reality, we’re actually learning something, and practicing some of the fundamentals of music. I also use the iPad to play note-reading games (the equivalent of flash cards) to reinforce the new notes they have learnt in their lessons, and the old notes they’ve learnt in previous lessons.
The degree to which I need to use these extra “games” varies according to each child’s ability to concentrate. But they are something I use with every young beginner.
How I Teach: Fun
Of course, the music learning games I play with my students during their lessons aren’t just to help maintain their attention and vary the lesson content. We also play them because they are fun. By making lessons fun and enjoyable, kids are actually more likely to learn, and more likely to feel motivated to learn. After all, if you enjoy what you are doing, you tend to do a better job of it, and you are more likely to want to do it in the first place. And that’s exactly the sort of outcome you want for a child learning to play the piano!
[Tweet “By making piano lessons fun and enjoyable, kids are actually more likely to learn. #piano”]
How I Teach: Encourage, Encourage, Encourage
All students need encouragement, both at home and from their piano teacher. As such, I always encourage my students and praise them both for the effort they put in (regardless of success), and for their successes.
It may seem surprising, but often the kids who require the most encouragement aren’t the slow or average learners – it’s the fast learners.
The reason for this is that children who are naturally smart are used to being the top of their class without putting in much effort. This is a problem, because they only want to play a piece or song once. They are so used to doing everything else only once, that they get frustrated when they make a mistake and cannot play a song perfectly the first time. For these students, I spend a lot of time motivating and encouraging them, and reminding them that it’s alright if they cannot play something perfectly the first time – they simply need to keep trying.
How I Teach: The Ultimate Lesson Focus
The ultimate focus of each of my lessons is on teaching my students something that can be set as homework or practice for them in the following week. I always set homework for young beginners that is achievable with only three consecutive days of 10 minutes practice after their lesson day. The type and amount of work I give is tailored to suit their learning level and pace, and I constantly re-evaluate how much work I should give each student.
My practice philosophy, and the reasoning behind why I set beginners homework that can be achieved with three 10 minute practice sessions, is explained here. But the main reason is that I want to set my students something that is achievable, and which, if they do practice, will allow us to move onto something new in our next lesson.
My Teaching Approach
So there you have it: my approach to teaching the piano to children aged five to nine. After nearly two decades of piano teaching experience, I have discovered that this approach seems to be the most effective for teaching young beginners.
Have you got any questions about anything I’ve covered (or not covered) in this post? Pop them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to get back to you.
For any music teachers out there: how do you teach young beginners? Is your philosophy similar to mine, or do you have a different approach? Let me know in the comments below!
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