Pitfalls and Solutions for Teaching Piano

This morning, I was reviewing a piano course for children. There are dozens of these available. They are series of books that include one for piano lessons, one for music theory, and then supplemental song books, often dedicated to holidays or themes. The pages are colorful, sometimes with cartoon-like characters that serve as friendly guides for children through the lessons. There is ample value in such books, as they make music lessons fun, and build valuable musical skills, particularly those associated with playing a keyboard. If used properly, these books launch a lifetime of musical enjoyment. If used properly. That’s the rub, and that’s what I want to write about today.

In order to teach music properly, no matter the materials used or the area being taught, there must be an aural component. By this I mean the student must think of or imagine the musical sound before producing it with the voice or a musical instrument, and there must always be a sound involved. 

Music is not a visual art, it is a performing art; one in which sound is the medium. Music notation is a means for preserving creative musical work. It is never the music itself. Music does not exist until it is performed. Music notation is no more music than a physical CD or an mp3 file. One must play the CD or the mp3 before it can be called music. One doesn’t hold a CD in one’s hand and call it music. You can’t hold or touch music, you can only hear it. 

If I learn that one whole note is four beats (which it only is if the quarter note is the beat unit) and that two half notes equals one whole note, then I have learned a math fact, and nothing more. I have simply written or read two plus two equals four in a different symbolic representation than the one in which it is presented with numbers. In other words, half note + half note = whole note, is just 2 + 2 = 4 written in a different “language.” Yet many of the music theory workbooks present these kinds of problems, masquerading them as music learning activities. Masquerading, because students are solving the math problem with paper and pencil, without ever hearing the sounds, the durations, that these symbols represent. 

The truth is, musically literate people, whether professionals or students, do not listen to or perform music by counting beats. They may count beats of rests, but not beats of sounds. Instead, they hear music as patterns of durations and tones that they group together into patterns that are recognizable as rhythms, meters, motifs, themes, and so forth. There is little value in teaching individual notes in the way that those music theory workbooks do, not only because there is no sound associated with them, but because they are stripped of any musical context. Musical notes only have meaning when they are associated with other musical notes. One cannot determine a meter, tonality, tempo, or motif from a single note. One common music theory activity is to present a see-saw with a note, perhaps a whole note, on one side of the see-saw. The student is asked to place other notes on the other side of the see-saw to balance it, so there are the same number of beats on both sides. There would be much more value in presenting those see-saws with one-measure rhythm patterns in a clear meter that the student chants or drums, and then have them create another rhythm pattern in the same meter. Observe, however, that doing so requires a more advanced level of proficiency than simply writing a beat equivalent note combination. This indicates that music theory should not be taught until the student has already mastered a good many rhythm patterns (in the case of teaching rhythm), which will delay its teaching beyond when it is used to teach “note values.”

So how, you may ask, do I teach students to hold notes the correct length if they are not doing the math? First, don’t start with whole notes. Long durations are the most difficult to perform accurately, so why start with the hardest thing? Teach quarter notes first. That’s the basis for steady beat, and children can perform quarter notes because they have presumably been patsching or clapping a beat to rote songs already. Combinations of quarter notes and quarter rests can be the basis for rhythm activities that eventually include what I call aural math. The teacher chants a 4-beat pattern of quarter notes and rests, and the student responds with a different 4-beat pattern of quarter notes and rests. 

When you are ready to teach half notes, use the same patterns you used for quarter notes, only  remove the quarter rests and replace the quarter notes that preceded them with half notes. The students will then perform the half notes for what they are: elongations of the beat. They are already used to feeling a beat where the quarter rest was, so elongating the quarter note into that beat will be natural and an effective way to introduce half notes. You can them proceed with patterns that have half notes followed by half rests and later use the same method to finally introduce whole notes, and patterns that have quarter rests after half notes which are then replaced by elongated the half notes into a dotted half note. 

After the student has become proficient at this, that is at each step along the way beginning with the quarter notes, notation can be added. The teacher writes the pattern they chanted, then the student comes forward and writes the pattern they have just chanted. But notation should never precede the student being able to create what is to be notated or even to be able to read what has been created before they write it. Remember, music theory is not a prescription of for something that will be done, it is a description of something that has been done. Music theory should be used to understand music that has been created, not how to create music.

When using the piano lesson books (or any instrumental method book) the same principle applies. Just as notation is not the music, neither is the fingering. When the only thing a written note means to a student is a fingering, they are not reading music. Fingerings are no more music than notation. There must be a sound associated with the fingering. The fingering is a means to an end, not the end itself. If a student is reading finger numbers, then those numbers have replaced the notes as the form of notation. It is essentially tablature for piano. A student should know what sound they are about to produce before they play. If they cannot, then they are not ready to read music notation. Singing finger numbers is fine. Have the student sing them before playing. You will be amazed at the results. Keep everything in its proper order, and your teaching will be much more effective than if you avoid the aural part of music learning.

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