Let’s Start At the Very Beginning, Part 2: Where is the beginning?

In Friday’s presentation I began by challenging the notion that our beginner piano students are in fact ‘beginners’. Sure, this might be their first piano lesson, but most of our newest pupils bring with them a myriad of musical lessons learned prior to walking in our studio doors.

Music educators are deluded in the extreme if they believe that students have had no musical experiences prior to formal classes; from hearing their mother’s heartbeat while still in the womb through to being exposed to Muzak at the supermarket, children have a very rich tapestry of musical memories by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. There is complex musical accompaniment to children’s television (whether we’re talking opening themes of Disney preschooler animations such as Handy Manny or Jungle Junction or the rich semiotic of musical signification that organises In the Night Garden),  there are toddler/preschooler rock groups (The Wiggles, The Imagination Movers, and so on), and that’s without starting on iPad/iPhone apps and mobile phone ring tones.

But that’s just on the listening front.

Our beginner piano students have also been engaged in noise-making from a quite early age as well, whether it is vocalising/singing or creating noise with implements and saucepans. Not only do they have a bodily instinct as to pitch, but they have a corporeal sensation of dynamic. They know how to make long sounds and short sounds, and they’ve mastered all kinds of articulations and inflections and they understand the emotional loadings of specific kinds of sounds. In short, their musical imaginations have much to play with.

OK, so – so far this is everyone who walks into the piano teaching studio. But now things start to differentiate, and we start to see that some beginners are far from novices.

Some beginners have had a piano in their homes from the day they were born. This places them at a huge advantage to the beginner whose parents can’t quite bring themselves to commit to buying a $200 electronic device posing as a digital piano. Some lucky beginners have even had others in their family playing the piano as part of everyday life for years before you, the teacher, first see them. The fast-tracking this background experience provides is mammoth.

Firstly, these children are familiar with the layout of the keyboard, the function of the pedals, the weight of the keys, and maybe they’ve even explored the mechanism inside the lid…. There’s a whole level of ease that this familiarity provides that will take other beginners months (maybe even a year or two) to get up to speed.

Secondly, these children have witnessed the instrument being played. They’ve seen the way the pianist sits on the piano bench/stool, how the music is laid out on the music stand, how fingers connect with key surfaces, how arms are used in creating volume and in preparation for moving across and about the extent of the keyboard. This is almost always an advantage, unless the pianist has been extraordinarily ungainly or deficient.

And this all adds up to children who feel confident approaching the piano during those first 30 minutes of formal keyboard education. As the advertisements say, priceless.

But wait, there’s more. Some beginners come to the first piano lesson with a year or two of group music classes behind them, from Kindermusik through to Orff through to whatever has been offered in the local community hall. These classes might consist of moving to music, clapping with the beat, singing songs, learning about pitch direction, learning basic principles of music notation, maybe solfège training in some way, rhythm reading, playing on percussion instruments and so forth. These students are even more ahead than their beginner peers because they’ve been consciously thinking about these musical concepts (including musical literacy) prior to considering the specific physical skills needed to play the piano.

And then there’s the issue of students who’ve grown up with print music in the house (they’ve seen all these symbols over the years, even if no one explained what they meant) and observing people playing instruments using music as part of the process. These students are relaxed about learning to read, just the same way children who grow up in homes with books are comfortable about gaining literacy skills. Again, this is an advantage that can be measured in months.

There’s little we can do as piano teachers in that first lesson to ascertain or measure the differences between our beginner students. But what we can do is quickly work with parents and students who are new to the culture of playing a musical instrument to help the whole family adjust to what really is a cultural shift. Pianos being part of family life, not sequestered off in the furthest, dankest, back room of the house; playing the piano every day, even if just for a few minutes; a sense of celebration about the music that comes from the piano, rather than an anxiety over ‘accuracy'; a little collection of print music books gathering in the piano stool, or in a book case nearby, rather than dog-eared sheets of photocopy, disintegrating/fading/becoming lost; all these aspects of musical life need to be learned.

And at the very beginning of a beginner’s piano lessons it does us teachers well to remember that, even with such cultural lessons ahead, this is not necessarily the beginning at all.

To be continued…


Can You Use the Same Pieces When You Try For An Exam A Second Time?

In response to google searches asking “can you use the same pieces when you try for an exam a second time?”:

So, you (or your offspring) have failed a piano exam and you are wondering if you can just polish up the pieces you’ve already kind of learned and give the exam another go, hopefully with a substantially better result. The answer is usually yes, with the following proviso:

Has the syllabus changed? The ABRSM syllabus (for example) changes every two years, and while there is a cross-over period worked into the system you might find that the pieces in question will lapse before the next opportunity for an examination. The AMEB syllabus changes at infrequent (and irregular) intervals, and at the moment there are two different syllabuses running concurrently for the Piano for Leisure exams. So check the syllabus to see if the pieces are still current.

So long as your pieces are still on the syllabus you are free to present them for examination as many times as you like. The exam boards don’t keep Big Brother-like track of you and your repertoire selections, so the examiner won’t peer at you in your next exam, asking “how dare you bring the same pieces in for examination as you did last time?” The examiner doesn’t even realise you failed last time, when you last sat an exam, or anything at all about you (beyond your age and gender, usually).

There are, however, some educational angles you might want to consider before reworking the pieces that didn’t produce a pass result in your exams.

1. It can be discouraging (and boring) to work on the same piece for a very long time. It seems counter-intuitive, but it can be faster to learn a brand-new piece than to keep struggling on with a piece you didn’t perfect for your exam the first time.

2. Your repertoire selection the first time around may have contributed to your failure. Every piece has its own set of challenges; look at the skills required to perform each piece and select a piece that is already within your ability.

3. Maybe the whole exam was too hard, and rather than simply sitting the exam a second time you should spend a year learning a range of new pieces, and once you’ve done that you won’t want to return to the old pieces anyway.

The only time it’s a good idea to use the same pieces when you re-sit an examination is when you are over 14 years of age and the only reason you failed is because you just didn’t do any real practice. In other words, you didn’t properly learn the pieces in the first place. Treat the first, failed exam as a test-run (pun not-quite-intended), and simply continue preparation for the ‘real’ exam.

Under the age of 14 just get on with exploring the world (and the repertoire of the piano) some more, and don’t get hung up on sitting exams. Sit your next exam when you are truly ready, and don’t get talked into sitting an exam that is too hard for you, or that you don’t want to take. But for goodness sake, don’t keep playing the same old pieces, being reminded of your bad examination experience!