“Okay so you see this is a note. This one is middle C and then this one over here is on a space and this is called F.”
“What? I don’t get it.”
“Okay pay attention, this one is middle C and it’s got a line through it and then you play it with this finger– No not that finger! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell, come back here! Wait! You said you wanted a piano lesson! Argh! Why are you crying? I’m sorry I didn’t mean to yell!”
This was the beginning of my first few lessons trying to teach my then 4 year old son piano. He had been asking for me to teach him for a few weeks and I found an old method book at the public library and tried to start there. It was awful. Yes, my son is a bright kid, and I was a trained music teacher (I went to NYU for Music Education but finished in Music Business) but the materials I was finding, even those aimed at beginners, was just too much! I started to seek other books and still could not find anything appropriate.
I had a past life as an information and web designer and began to realize that the way these method books were designed was way too much information. There were notes to the teacher/parent, words for the kids and drawings all over the place. From an information design point of view, they were a mess.
But the main problem was that most of the early music method books were trying to start at a level that was conceptually already too high. They required you to have all the knowledge of an average 13 year old before even starting to touch the piano. And yet, I’ve seen young kids play instruments extremely well. Usually, they are mentored by a parent who has incredible patience and basically spoon feeds them. Wait, that was it! I realized if I could break down the information into tiny baby-sized bites, then my son, and any beginning student could learn to play the piano regardless of parental musical training.
As I started researching and reading every music education book I could find, I started creating my own materials. One of the big insights I had was that the graphic presentation of the material greatly affects the ability for young minds to comprehend. This varies tremendously between a 4 year old, a 4 1/2 year old and a 5 year old and also varies between the individual children’s development.
So flash forward, and my son is now an amazing piano player and musician and I have a full roster of piano, guitar, ukulele and general music students.
Here are some insights on how to start your first students.
TECHNICAL EXERCISES DISGUISED AS SONGS
In my beginning piano lessons, I get them going with technical exercises which are disguised as songs. If it has a funny lyric so much the better. The very first lesson is always aimed at building a facility with all 5 fingers as quickly as possible. To do this, I put color labels on the 5 keys C through G at middle C and the octave below.
Then I trace their hands and label the drawing with numbers and the corresponding colors. I tell them that each finger has its own key for now and we need to always play that key with the right finger.
With the youngest kids, I even color their fingernails with washable markers that have fruity scents. They love this – even the boys!
Then I ask them if they like Peanut Butter? If they do, then I say this song is called Peanut Butter Sandwich. If not, or they have a nut allergy – which is quite common these days, I switch to what flavor ice cream do you like? Or do you like Pizza? The basic idea is to try and customize a song to them and trying to get in six syllables. The basic rhythm that I’m having them play is 4 sixteenth notes followed by 2 eighths. It’s bouncy and fun. I’ll usually clap it for them and ask them to clap it back or sing it back or even stomp it back. Whatever I can do to get it in their body first before sitting at the piano. We’ve also done it on a drum.
Once we’ve done that, I demonstrate the song customized for them one finger first and have them repeat after me. They are thrilled they can play a real song within 3 minutes! I got this idea from reading Dr. Suzuki’s book where he described a first lesson and a song he called Mississippi Hot Dog.
VARIATIONS ON NAMING & SYLLABLES
I’ve had kids call it Peanut Butter Sandwich, Peanut Butter Jelly, I Like Chocolate Ice Cream, Pepperoni Pizza, I Like Bacon Ice Cream, and then with some kids I couldn’t quite get to six syllables so we left it as Strawberry Ice Cream or Creme Brulée Ice Cream. I didn’t even know they had that!
And the last part of the song, I have them do a descending scale, one note per finger, from G to C. The lyric for this, is dependent on how they answer the question, “What would you like to drink with that?”
My usual is “And some ap-ple juice.” Another common one was “And some water too,” or “And a glass of milk.”
The kids go home and practice this one song all week one hand at a time. Usually, within a week, I have kids using 10 fingers and having a ball singing along and playing the piano.
By limiting what they can focus on, I am guaranteeing they have nothing else to play and will master this before anything else. I do give a “bonus” song which I don’t even show them, but say, I bet you can figure this out after you’ve done the other one. It’s Hot Cross Buns, and most of my 5 and up kids can do it. Some of my 4 year olds may take another week.
What’s great about this is that we get the whole technical issue of using all 10 fingers out the way quickly and give them something fun and personal for them to play. Also, being in the first lesson, I usually have great compliance with practice routines and attention from the parents.
After they can do it one hand at a time, then I ask them to practice 2 hands together. As we go along, we eventually get them doing it 2 hands together with eyes closed.
Here’s a video of the lesson that I usually send in after-lesson notes so they have extra guidance.
Using the colors allows me to bypass all the technical issues of finding the right notes to play and get moving quickly. This allows them to gain confidence and actually have fun right away. It also allows me to teach pre-literate children and to kids of parents who don’t even know what C or a G is.
I don’t worry about flat finger for the first 3 to 5 weeks. As long as they are playing using their whole arms to produce the sound and all 10 fingers, we then gradually have them become aware of how it would be better to make a relaxed C curl. If I draw to much attention at the start, it actually impedes their progress.
I try to have each piece of music big and bold and with minimal distraction. As kids get older, we move into some other method books that I’ve found are pretty good. I’ll do a future post about my favorite method books and why.
QUESTIONS & COMMENTS
Good luck and feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.
You can download these first songs by subscribing in the box below.