Beginning students: when the student surprises you. A six year old student at her third piano lesson.
January 10, 2021
C.P.’s lesson on 12/31/20
For the beginner, learning to interpret music notation is sometimes
difficult, in particular merging information coming into the eyes from
the page of music and physically producing ordered sounds at the
piano. Part of this in turn has to do with whether the student is
aware of everything that is on the page or only notices part of it.
We must begin with finding out what the student consciously sees.
Often, in beginner’s books, there is too much information on the page,
some of which is secondary or tertiary information that is directed towards the teacher or are instructions and interpretative material directed to the student. In sifting through what is most relevant to notice on the page, in an otherwise clustered visual field the student has to play “Where’s Waldo?”
Once we have put ourselves in the student‘s mind, and ourselves see on
the page only the those objects in the visual field that the student is consciously aware of, then we can proceed to starting to sort out between which part of the information they are aware of is most relevant to playing the piece, which part is relevant but of which they are current unaware and must first become aware, and which part of the information on the page, of which they are aware, can for the moment can be ignored.
Then there is the part which is knowing in what temporal order to note
and respond to what is on the page and which is also relevant.
One of C.P.’s favorite pieces to play is “Happy Birthday” which she
learned by rote. It is obvious that playing it makes her happy. She
learned it by rote (actually by my writing the letter names of the
notes she was to play). It freed her from all of the above mentioned
confusing factors for a six year old, so she could have the pure joy
of playing something she recognized on the piano.
Her mom then said: show Joe how you can play Happy Birthday with two
hands at once. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I pleasantly
surprised to hear her play the melody of the piece in two octaves at
once. I would not have anticipated her being able to do this given the
other difficulties she is encountering.
I was so glad that her real abilities shone through and did not remain
hidden behind the mask of the cognitive tasks that I was teaching
her to address. The ‘future’ of her talent, as it were, made itself
evident in the present tense.
At my request she tried doing it again this time with the hands two
octaves apart (versus one octave apart). Though she had to do a lot
of looking back and forth between the hands, the coordination of the
eyes looking from one hand to the other was just fine. I made no reference out loud to these potential difficulties, but encouraged her to trust herself. Any specific information I might give would only marr her instinctive synthesis of component abilities. Why single out, when it is already part of the whole.
We switched to “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, as arranged in the Thompson
Easiest Book, volume one.
As she played it from rote memory I had her mom point to the notes on
the page at the moment she played each one. I didn’t expect an
epiphany in which everything page-wise and keyboard-wise suddenly
synthesize together. It was more than enough, as a first step, that
Then daughter and mom reversed roles. The mom played the piece on the piano as her daughter pointed to the notes to play on the score. After witnessing her mother do it the other way around, she had no difficulty in pointing out the notes on the score-space in the time order in which they were supposed to occur.
Even more gratifying than the notion of simultaneity as a hint at close relationship between two apparently different things, is the notion of power or control over another person (especially an adult on the part of a child). The correct pointing out of symbols on the page by the daughter ’caused’ the mom to perform specific actions.
At the next lesson, we will introduce singling out which fingers play
which notes of the piece. When she had played Happy Birthday in two
octaves at once, the fingering in her right hand tended to be more
organized, while the fingering in her left hand included more
‘hopping’ around, often using the same finger over and over (often the
thumb). I will encourage her doing both the way she is doing it
naturally and an ‘other’ way, not a priori presented to her as the
‘correct’ way (by using certain specific fingers at certain times).
With younger beginners I like to avoid notions of right and wrong. By
being able to do it her way as well as the book’s way, she gains
independence and confidence, and the added and broader perspective and
sense of achievement based on her ability to choose between, and be
able to execute equally well, two (or even more) different ways of
Later in the lesson we used the “Wright-Way Note Finder” or, as the kids like to call it: the “gizmo” or the “thingamabob”. The first thing I decided to do was to ask her to just watch, while mom slowly moved the note, always in one direction, alternating lines with adjacent spaces. She let the note pause for a second or two on each staff position before moving on to the next higher note. During this pause, the mom would say out loud: “line”, “space”, “line”, etc.
note to a staff position a good distance from middle C (first upwards
and later downwards) and then asked her to twist the control knob
until it settled exactly on middle C. This she did without any hesitation.
After settling the note back on middle C, I asked her to budge the
note into the nearest space above middle C. Asked what she had just
done, she was able to say that she had made the note become a “D”.
Then we did something similar for the B just below middle C. She
quickly got proficient going back and forth randomly among those three
notes (b3, c4, d4).
We then posed to her the question, how do you think an “E” would look
on the gizmo. No clues or hints were given. No explanations. After
a moment or two she intuitively put the note onto the bottom line of treble clef. It is important for her to figure things out for herself, and does this more quickly and ably than when receiving coaxing, explanations and directions.
This was only her third lesson, but she felt much better about herself
afterwards. Trust the student and be creative in finding a way that