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The Joy of Teaching Piano to Young Children (Videos)

Starting a very young child on a musical journey is joyful, exciting and challenging. The first baby steps taken at the piano will be memorable for both teacher and student, so careful thought and preparation are needed.

At the very outset, I believe in nurturing an awareness of the singing tone and how it is created. In the most fortunate circumstance a child has a real acoustic piano to practice on at home in order to experiment with various tonal shades, timbres, “colors” that we explore at our lesson. This consciousness of what the instrument can elicit as we tap into the imagination and inhabit a universe of sound exploration, requires attentive and sensitive listening. This is where the teacher can be the magical guide. At this crucial point of engagement, lessons can take off in positive directions and bond the student to the whole creative musical process.

Singing is an activity universal to childhood and a teacher who taps into this celebration of musical expression, will go a long way toward imbuing what the singing tone is about as it applies to the piano. The goal will be to teach a child to “sing” through his fingers and shape a phrase as he or she would vocalize it.

Learning hand position formation is important at the beginning of study, and it is not rigid but gently round, with curved, not curled fingers. The teacher can gently nudge the student in a relaxed physical direction by suggesting the light embrace of a ripe plum in his palm. The consequences of squeezing it too tightly will be amusing to the child, but well taken.

While materials such as Faber Piano Adventures provide great launching pads for formal piano study, it is the teacher who has to translate all the notes and symbols in these primer method books into a language comprehensible to a child and his universe of play. The playground as music teacher is certainly a concept that applies to the piano lesson and its content for very young children.

Staccato notes suggest lighthearted images: students often imagine that they are bouncing on a trampoline, or listening to popcorn pop. They will spontaneously share an activity that is suggestive of crisp, detached, staccato notes. Run with it and enjoy!

When teaching the legato, (smooth and connected) singing tone, images of gliding on ice, floating clouds, rolling waves, inspire children to play expressively and not hammer out notes in a mechanical way. The flexible, “spongy” wrist is the great shock absorber, and it should be demonstrated as well as modeled.

To imbue a sense of a steady beat, the teacher can guide the student along with a very buoyant motion of her hands and arms, and NOT refer to a clock, or metronome. After all, the beat is a frame for the music which can bend with the breeze as phrases taper to their conclusion. It is never static and stultifying. Animated clapping exercises shared back and forth between teacher and student are always helpful.

There is a joy to teaching very young children, because imaginations can happily run wild and create a very exciting, inspiring space that both teacher and student can inhabit.

Kirsten Productions: Aviva Kirsten, video editor

Cat related:
Aiden makes another appearance in this video:

Other Related:

For Toddlers and pre-schoolers before piano study is undertaken:

American Orff-Schulwerk Association - Music and Movement Education
Music and movement teachers find in the Orff Schulwerk a total approach to fostering creativity and conveying musical knowledge and skills.

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Piano Gym routines with my 10 year old student

This is a fun romp through the keys of F# Major and minor with some diminished 7th and Dominant 7th arpeggios cruising across the keyboard in legato, followed by detached, “ping pong ball” rendered staccato.

Parallel and contrary motion scales/arpeggios are a pianist’s preliminary gymnastics. They’re great for the warm-up phase of each practice session.

My 10 year old student also playfully tackles an F# minor arpeggio  as part of her piano gym routines. She’s come a long way in four years time.

The warm-up activity culminates in her lively performance of Bach’s Invention 8 in F Major.

Background: This student started her studies with me at age 6 and progressed to playing 4 Bach Inventions, and the Mozart sonata K. 545 in C. She’s participated in the MTAC Bach Festival and Celebration events.

It’s been quite a joyous ongoing journey in which I’ve probably learned more from her, than she has from me.

In truth, we, teachers derive great wisdom from our students, making our collaboration a joint effort.

The student sat at my Steinway M, while I coached her from my second Steinway 1098 studio upright piano, a 2007 furniture move out  sale purchase. The Fresno Bee listing was flagged by “Fujie,” my faithful friend and piano student who passed on the Steinway 1920 auction piano as well as the little Knightingale. Eventually, she ended up buying a notably resonant, brand new Kawai studio upright at California Piano in Clovis during its close-out sale. (That’s worth another story that should make it to the blog someday soon)

I’ll just sit back now and enjoy the video, reminding myself that the joy of music making is its own reward.

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Scales and Arpeggios with videotaped replay

I often think of piano technique as in the same league as sports. Why not? I practically grew up in the bleachers at Ebbets Field watching the Brooklyn Bums battle their adversaries. And not to forget that I was a tomboy who copied everything my big brother did. I even tried to break the Little League sex barrier but valiantly failed. The American Legion registrar said, “No” to any girl turning up for tryouts regardless of ability.

Baseball was for me a choreography, especially on the field as players fluidly danced through nearly impossible plays, sending base runners unwillingly back to the dugout. A line drive was gloved by a super coordinated shortstop who hurled a ball nearly off balance to the first baseman. He gracefully arched his whole body to retrieve an out of range bullet.

Tennis was no less impressive. Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, Aussie masters of classic strokes, brought ballet into full bloom on the court. At an exhibition match in Madison Square Garden, they breezed effortlessly through baseline clinchers, overhead smashes, and impossible backhands. Reaching impossible heights, the two champions darted after balls sailing over their heads with the lithe motions of jaguars.

My sports fixation, which played out on baseball fields and tennis courts, never left me, even as I grew up and shifted my interest to music. In fact, my students realized very quickly that not a lesson would go by without my introducing a sports analogy.

Mark, an adult student, who towered above me at six feet five inches, was on the pro tennis circuit before he had settled down to a law career at the US Attorney’s Office. Normally, we’d spend the first twenty minutes of our session working on scales and arpeggios, covering the span of the entire keyboard, likening it to tennis turf—grass, of course.

We focused on deep breathing, relaxation techniques including mental imagery, surrendering to the moment, letting muscles loose, dropping shoulders, and letting the hands shape themselves into naturally contoured curves. Our goal was to be in the zone, sealed off from the stress and strain of busy, bustling work environments. We were immersed in the here and now accepting ourselves without the burden of judgment.

Inevitably, some of my tennis and baseball metaphors would crop up when least expected.

Wolfgang, a 12 year old student, who was an ace pitcher for his middle school baseball team, fully understood the follow through motion a pitcher needed. It was also part and parcel of the technique that applied directly to the piano. When I demonstrated a wind up to the pitch, he raised his eyebrows. What was the piano teacher attempting to do? Invade the baseball diamond?

Wolfgang knew that without a flexible wrist, the pitcher would be dead on the mound. For a pianist, a stiff wrist spelled a harsh key attack, and a good chance of injury.

The best application of these sports inspired physical principles, was in the arena of scales and arpeggios. Rather than consider them pedantic exercises, I viewed these preliminaries as a way to get “connected” to the instrument. The concept brought a constellation of ideas like dead weight gravity, feeling centered, having hanging arms like a marionette.

“Puppet strings” had always been the best auto suggestion for my students. It caused them to relax, sending tension and worries to the recycle bin.

In the video attached to this writing, I’d demonstrated my personal approach to practicing scales and arpeggios, hoping that the image of a piano teacher’s fingers dancing across the keys would inspire some form of modeling .

If nothing else, the videotaped replay of the arpeggios in slow motion without audio would offer music teachers an additional instructional tool. They might also consider revisiting the piece, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” as the springboard for a trip to the park. Since we had the SF Giants Triple A farm team here in Fresno, (The “Grizzlies”) it was a no brainer to reserve a seat and grab a hot dog once the new season began.

Piano Technique related videos: My Tutorials