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Thoughts about teaching a 4-year old with an innovative approach (Tales of a Musical Journey)

I would never have entertained the idea of teaching a 4-year old child. Over the years I had adhered to a rigid age boundary when accepting new piano students. Seven was the magic number.

When an opportunity arose to sample a new book created by Irina Gorin that focused on instruction for children in the 4-7 year old age range, I decided to embark on the journey with an open mind. It just so happened that my Amtrak traveling companion had a very young daughter who’d been enrolled in Music Together classes for about two years. The opportunity to harness some of these music appreciation experiences and expand upon them in a piano lesson framework was inviting.

With only four lessons now completed, I haven’t yet formed a conclusive opinion about the whole book and its merits, but so far I’m very pleased with its baby-step approach that would likely benefit students even older than 7 or 8.

And as far as measuring the attention span of a 4-year old coming for weekly lessons, I think two shorter ones spaced by a few days would be a better fit. It would permit goal-reaching without putting strain on a young child’s patience.

The Instruction:

Gorin presents her book as “a complete piano method that comprehensively introduces and reinforces the materials through technique training, theory practice, and performance repertoire.” One of her motivations for creating this instruction was a response to commercially circulated method books that separate out Lesson, Performance, Theory and Technique aspects of learning.

In my experience the more popular methods on the market tend to feed too much information with inadequate focus on the singing tone and how to physically produce it. Too many skills are expected to be mastered in short order as these books advance along.

Randall and Nancy Faber’s Primer Piano Adventures:

An enticing Lesson book opener like the “Pecking Hen” has the student hopping from middle C to the very highest note on the piano, using fingers 3 and 1 shaped like the animal image. Following this brief but charming keyboard escapade on white keys, two and three black-key groups are cleverly introduced with poetic verses underlying them. (Pictures of an attenuated keyboard are good reference points, and I like the word and music combination) But I have doubts that a fledgling is ready for this advance without a better physical foundation that requires rehearsing individual fingers over a relaxed space of time and practicing supple wrist movements and flowing arms. This visceral practicing phase bridges the distance between the player and the hammers inside the piano that hit the string.

By the time Faber’s method book exposure to black-note miniatures is exhausted in the very beginning pages, (and there are some lovely pieces, like “Shepherd’s Flute and “Wind in the Trees,”) it’s off to the white notes with a saturation of “Middle C” and “C positions.”

Through this crutch-burdened keyboard terrain, I often wonder how a beginning student of 7 or 8 can journey from point A, to B to C without a hands-on serving of the physical approach to tone, timbre, and rhythm parceled out in teaspoonfuls.

Tales of A Musical Journey, Book One, has a different premise. There’s no race to meet a goal on a fixed schedule. A teacher might spend lesson after lesson working on the flow of hands from lap to keyboard; making smooth, graceful “rainbow” movements between high and low areas of the piano, or eventually traveling from little houses to big ones (“neighborhoods” of two and three-black note rooftops with their white note rooms below) All these excursions occur in the Magical Kingdom of Sounds and Rhythm with King Meter, Fairy Musicalina, and Wizard Metronome presiding in a helpful way. These colorful characters stimulate a child’s imagination. If you add in movement exercises that invite a “weeping willow tree” and soaring eagle into the space of 4 or 5-year old, then you have built-in body relaxers.

For naming notes, the young student places animals inside one of two pictured houses: C for Cat, D for Deer, and E for Eagle go into smaller one, and F, G, A, and B, also named for animals are placed into the larger one. As the child finds these notes on the piano, he becomes aware of landing on keys without a forced poke or attack. (The “weeping willow tree” image softens impact)

Progress, therefore, is not measured by how quickly a student can sit down and pump out a collection of songs. To the contrary, a student’s developing consciousness of the piano as a singing instrument and his flowing wrist and arm motions are considered valued achievements.


These accouterments included in the instruction packet are very appealing.

What child would not like a fuzzy, purple monkey attached to his wrist to swing with the breezes, (teaching relaxed elbow movements) or two soft, happy face, soft and spongy balls that are inserted into tiny palms as reminders of a gentle, round hand position. Rina’s eyes always light up when she has contact with them.

In time, the Musical Journey student will embrace cardboard black notes and other teaching aids in readiness for notation. Yet, there’s no rush to “read” the notes on the staff until a student has a firm mastery of note letter names, C, D, E, F, G, A, B from his little/big house explorations, and lots of practice traversing the keyboard.

Limited goals, achieved over time, in baby steps, pace this “Journey” which aims to promote long-lasting effects.

About Rhythm

Irina Gorin enlists “Wizard the Metronome” to fine tune rhythmic consciousness, and in this pursuit, she includes an attached CD of recorded selections that have beat ticking reminders. While in the past I haven’t used the metronome in my teaching except as a tempo consultant, I plan to reserve a firm opinion about its more frequent use in Tales of a Musical Journey.

For now, Rina seems to enjoy tapping C’s to a ticking “Flute and Orchestra Selection.” It’s her first piece, so she’s very excited.

More to come!



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