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…

 

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