The Art Of Learning

And we're back! Welcome to 2016, a new year brimming with musical potential. This semester is a fully-booked calendar of continuing students as well as some brand new students just now embarking on their own piano adventures - it's a very exciting time! 

As with all new students, it's up to me to discover the best possible learning method for each individual. This will vary depending on age, prior experience and, most importantly, musical taste. In my experience no two students learn the same way and though I've developed particular exercises and methods for general learning, they need to be tailored to fit the individual.

That said I do follow a pretty regular pattern for every student's first lesson. I call it Covering The Basics and it goes thusly:

Understanding The Keys - finding C is where every piano student starts but I insist on learning to recognise each of the other keys as well. This is to prevent students counting from C and to avoid bad habits later on. I am 100% against learning C as 1, D as 2 and so on. If you can teach a child the key as a number, why not just teach them the correct name in the first place?

The C Scale - one octave hands separately and then together. This is to further establish where all the keys are on the piano and it's also one of the best ways to develop coordination and dexterity. It's also one of the trickiest things a new student is likely to do for a while and if they can accomplish that in their first lesson I find they leave feeling pretty good about themselves. If a student is very young (around 4) I'll concede to a mini-scale (C to G) but still hands together. 

(Bracket conversation: why do I insist on hands together from the get-go? Because one of the most common characteristics I find in new students is a fear of using both hands, which is ultimately the whole foundation of piano. I've met students who have spent a year and a half learning to play with only their right hand. That right hand is very good but you even mention the left and you can see the fear in their eyes. Very unhealthy. Best to start hands together and avoid the drama later on.)

Note Values - this is the first half of what I call the reading guide. Writing down the basic note values - crotchet, quaver, semiquaver, minim, semibreve, how much they're worth, what their rests look like and their rhythmic names - ta, ti, tik etc. We might make up a few patterns together and either clap them or play them on the piano. 

Reading - the other half of the reading guide. I like to draw the treble and bass clefs on staves and I'll ask my student to write in the notes using either old classics such as FACE and All Cows Eat Grass or we'll invent new ones, especially good for the younger kids. A few stand-outs include All Chickens Eat Gorillas and Great Big Donuts From America. The most disturbing was from a 6 year old who turned to me and said 'Great Big Demons From Africa!' I was a little frightened. 

Playing Music - Once the staves are finished I might write some notes in (a few ta's and ti-ti's) and ask them to use their reading guide to play the notes on the piano. If there's time we'll have a look at a bar of real sheet music and, again using the reading guide, play it hands together.

And that's it. But wait! I hear you cry. Surely this is all too much for a first lesson, especially for small children! But in my experience it really isn't. In over 5 years of teaching I've learned to never underestimate my students, no matter the age, and the results have always spoken for themselves. I call the above The Basics because they really are. There is so much more to learn about the piano and music in general and I don't want to spend a whole year teaching a student C position for their right hand. Frankly it's boring, for me and them, and I also believe it's lazy teaching. 

Instead we Cover The Basics in the first lesson. In one lesson they've gone from knowing nothing about the piano to recognising all the keys and playing a scale hands together. They've developed a basic knowledge of rhythm and (most importantly) demystified all those little black dots on a piece of paper. Yes it is a lot of information but this is why we write it all down and by the next lesson we're using what we've covered to learn a song the student loves.

Piano can take years to master, after 20-something years of playing I'm still learning new things every day, but I believe the basics should take up as little time as possible so you can get straight to the good stuff.