Teaching young beginners effectively is one of the most important jobs in music education. But how often do we assess our own strategies for teaching beginner piano versus continuing to teach the way we’ve always taught (or, worse still, the way we ourselves were taught)?
In this article, I’m going to explain why you should ditch the method book for at least the first month of lessons (and hopefully a lot longer) and, most importantly, what I think you should do instead.
I’m going to explain the importance of improvisation, creativity and curiosity in beginner lessons and why a focus on building a musical vocabulary is one of the most crucial and fundamental aspects of teaching.
Finally, I’m going to give you access to a complete first lesson plan for your studio and show you where you can access a full 10-week beginner lesson course, that doesn’t use any method books.
Before we consider what we’re teaching, let’s quickly review the research about how children learn music.
Why a Reading-First Approach is Wrong
One of the biggest mistakes I see piano teachers making is starting beginner students with reading.
It’s just the wrong way to go. Period.
Consider this: if you had the responsibility of teaching a young child how to understand and use a language (ie. reading, writing, listening, speaking, comprehending, creating, expressing themselves, having a conversation), what would you teach first?
- Would you start with reading and writing or would you encourage them to listen and copy you as you demonstrate how to pronounce things out loud?
- Would you force them to slowly comprehend a written text or encourage them to just start experimenting with how to use their voice to create something meaningful?
- Would you stop them for every tiny mistake or just see it as part of the learning process?
I’m sure I don’t need to say that starting with reading and writing is not the approach we use for language, so why use it for music?
Think about how we learn a language as babies: we listen, mimic and babble as we start to juggle how to use our mouths to speak.
As we receive more encouragement from our parents, we learn words. As we get better, we start connecting the words together into phrases and then into full sentences.
It’s all pretty basic at first, but our vocabulary soon grows, as does our ability to string words together into coherent and complex structures.
“Fifty or sixty years ago that first-lesson information dump would cover semibreves (whole notes) through to semiquavers (sixteenth notes), dotted notes, a range of simple time signatures, both clefs, names of all notes on both clefs, the basic accidentals, the concept of leger lines, and a scale or two. At the very least.” Elissa Milne, Australian Music Educator.
What the Research Says
In recent years, I’ve incorporated the approach of many far more experienced music educators than me in my teaching.
The approach of Gordon, Kodaly, Orff and Suzuki in particular, have been instrumental in developing my own approach to teaching beginners.
As noted music educator Dr Godon states:
“… [the] five parallel music skill vocabularies…are 1) listening, 2) singing and chanting, 3) audiating and improvising, 4) reading, and 5) writing. As with language, listening is basic in piano instruction as well as all music instruction. Unfortunately, in typical instruction, listening is disregarded. Detrimental results are similar in music as in language when importance of listening is overlooked.”
In his article, Why teaching music reading is the wrong way to teach piano, Paul Myatt shared this process in the following diagram, with the ultimate music learning process moving from left to right over the course of a student’s music education:
What Should We Teach Beginner Piano Students?
What’s your current approach to teaching beginners? What do you do in those crucial first few lessons to motivate, engage, excite, develop rapport and build the musical fundamentals they need?
What are the musical fundamentals they need? What do you want them to learn?
Ultimately, it all comes back to your philosophy: Why are you teaching?
What are you trying to achieve in the long run? What are the most important outcomes for your students? What would you be proud of them being able to do in five, ten, twenty years?
Please read my article about deciding on your teaching philosophy. It might just be the most important thing you do today.
If you don’t know why you’re teaching, how can you possibly know what or how to teach?
Assessing each student’s ability and needs
Before you get out any books, resources or start teaching anything, to effectively teach beginner piano students, you first need to assess where your students are at:
- Can they already play something?
- How musical are they?
- What’s their sense of rhythm like?
- Can the create a simple improvisation?
- Do they already understand keeping in time and a sense of “home”/tonality?
- Do they have any special needs?
You also need to take into consideration factors such as:
- How will you be teaching: 1-on-1, small group or large group?
- Will parents be active in the child’s learning?
- Do they have any natural musical inclinations/ability?
[spp-tweet tweet=”If you don’t know why you’re teaching, how can you possibly know what or how to teach?”]
My Beginner Teaching Goals
Here are the things that I want to impart to my piano students in their first 10 weeks of lessons:
- That I love music and I love teaching them
- That music lessons are creative and exploratory
- That creating music is fun and easy
- That music can tell stories
- That music is more than pushing down keys
- That music is art and involves dynamics, speed, feeling, etc.
- That singing and moving to music is just a part of “how we do things” in music education
- That playing the piano the right way (ie. with the right technique) is really important
- The importance of understanding, feeling and moving to meter (duple/triple)
- The concept of “home”, tonic/dominant tonalities and being able to hear and create bass lines
- That music is made up of chords, patterns and melodies
- That they can transpose music into different keys
The best way I’ve found to impart all of this is to keep the method book firmly closed for around 8-10 weeks!
“Creativity is central to the development of a young musician.” Paul Harris, UK Education Expert
So with those things in mind, let’s take a look at some good objectives of the first 10 beginner lessons.
Beginner Teaching Objectives
By the end of the 10 weeks, I expect students to be able to:
- Know how to sit properly, at the correct height and the correct way to use the arm, wrist and fingers
- Have a good sense of steady pulse
- Be able to tap rhythm and keep a beat
- Be able to sing a song and keep a beat
- Know the names of all the white notes and be able to quickly find any of them
- Improvise on the black and white keys
- Know how to tell a story with music
- Chant and play rhythmic patterns
- Know the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 time. Be able to explain and demonstrate it
- Understand the basics of harmony and how bass lines can outline a “home” key
In my opinion, we need to develop in students the aural, verbal and physical language of music well before we add the complexities of reading.
The best thing is that all of these objectives can be explored through experimentation, play and improvisation without any reading.
But how, exactly, do you do it?
Let me explain my approach which I call my No Book Beginner Framework.
My No Book Beginners Framework
I know that teaching without a method book can be daunting for classically-trained teachers. So, I’ve decided to put together my own sequence of beginner lesson plans. This will help you teach beginner piano students in a more creative way, without methods books, in those all important first lessons.
I call it my No Book Beginners Framework and it will help you understand just how much fun you can have with students without using any other books.
The framework is most suited to students aged 6-11 in 1-on-1 lessons of around 30-45 minutes per week. This isn’t to say that the activities and suggestions in the framework won’t suit groups or longer lessons, it’s just that they might need some alteration.
For teenagers and adults, I still have the same goals and ideals, however, I’ll choose different stories and activities to suit the age group.
For teens in particular, I’m always teaching them how to play things they want to play alongside these beginner lessons. Check out my free Teaching Teens Toolkit for more ideas and the concepts you need to keep in mind. Also, see my series The Real Reason Teens are Quitting Your Studio (3-part series) for more tips.
For students under this age group, I’d recommend reviewing our Early Childhood Teaching Theme and following some of the ideas and curricula mentioned there.
One question that tends to come up regarding this approach is “What will the parents think?”.
If parents have been brought up to believe that piano teaching only occurs with a method book, they might need a little coaching. Perhaps they experienced piano lessons themselves as a child and expect that you will teach in a similar way to the way in which they were taught.
“If parents find this strange, tell them that it’s much more important that you explore rhythm, pulse, creativity and improvisation before they start reading. I’ve never had a parent anything but thrilled to see their child exploring lots of sounds on the piano, using all the keys and pedals and having a ball.”
Remind them about how much their child will benefit from getting these foundations right and I bet you’ll have them on your side. If not, you might want to reconsider whether this is the right family for your studio.