Saturday, September 2, 2017

Piano Technique: How Much Do We Need?

Let's Play Music is intentionally different from traditional piano lessons. It's so different that we don't even label it as a piano program but a three-year complete musicianship program.  

That might leave pianist parents wondering: 
Will my child learn proper piano technique in Let's Play Music!?

A Piano Dilemma

First, a quick reminder that Let's Play Music was created in large part to solve a specific dilemma.  We know piano has a star role in early musicianship education (post), but children don't have full development and control of motor function in their hands until about age 8.  Should we avoid teaching piano to children until they are 8?

But, children are most sensitive to hearing pitches and laying neural foundation for ear training when they are babies. The sensitivity decreases as children age and settle into language and environment. We need to start teaching music as early as possible, and using the right tools. That means playing instruments, and piano is the place to begin.

If we put our 4 and 5 year olds on pianos so they can learn what the brains and ears are ready to learn, the fingers will be frustrated.  Let's Play music solves the finger-strength-dilemma in two ways.  

First: we spend a year playing the auto-harp and bells. Students have a whole year to let the brain and ears lay a foundation of how music works, how notes work, how chords work, how rhythm works.

Second: when we teach piano technique during years 2-3, we go very light on technique drills.  We DO teach technique exercises including relaxation, posture, and several 5-finger drills (technique post) but we can't shake a stick at how a private teacher will train an older student. 

So, should we avoid teaching piano to children younger than 8? No! We should simply avoid expecting perfect technique from children younger than 8, and instead put our focus on every other aspect of musicianship. (Musicianship)

Right now you might be a little sad that there's not much focus on technique. Trust me, the grass is greener on this side. After graduation, most students are less-than-excited that private lessons focus on technique at the expense of time spent on the rest of musicianship skills.

Did you know? Presto!, a new course from Making Musicians, teaches students ages 7-11 the same skills as taught in Let's Play Music. The program is heavy on technique training... because the students are ready for it!

Why Chords?

Little fingers are not super strong. So, does it seem surprising that we ask students to play intervals and chords right away?  That's even tougher than playing single-note melodies. What gives?

From a musical perspective, chords are the right place to start.  Most music that the children know can be harmonized with the I, IV, and V chords. It makes perfect sense that the most effective way to hand them the awesome power of creation and the joy of real music is to show them how to take these chords and make them work!  

By playing chord harmonizations on the piano and singing along, students experience success and joyful performance from day one.  In class, your teacher will sing songs (Old MacDonald, etc.) and have the students decide which chords to play.  That's power! That's creation! That's what we teach.

So, the tradeoff: Some tiny hands might not be able to manage playing these chords this year.  We allow students to play just the root and 5th, or just the root, or other modifications if they have particularly small or weak hands. Nobody is held back for not being able to execute "perfectly" on songs.

Her brain learned it. Her ear learned it. She felt inspired. She felt joy.  She has the rest of her life for her hand to catch up. We're not overly worried.

The Graduate and the Novice

When a private teacher receives an 8-year-old LPM graduate, the teacher should expect the graduate to be advanced in theory, composition, ear-training, reading notation, transcribing, and improvisation. Plus, she knows how to practice at home for 30 minutes each day. Let's Play Music has really paid off!

BUT, the graduate is probably equally novice in technique as his peer 8-year-old friend who is beginning piano with no musical background.  This presents some interesting challenges to the teacher, which is why we have our connections program, offering free materials to teachers to help them work with our graduates.  If you give both students exactly the same assignments for the first year, one of them will be unhappy.

At age 8, students are very flexible in their ways. They are only just coming into full dexterity and muscle control.  What I'm saying is, if your LPM student has been playing with slightly less-than-perfect technique, there is absolutely nothing permanent or incorrigible about that student. She can still be a competitive pianist when she's 9.  

Actually, the fact that the 8-year-old has been trying to use and control those muscles has strengthened them even as they were still developing.  If your child could not take ice skating lessons until age 5, you wouldn't prevent her from walking and running at age 4.  If you want your child to play with perfect form at age 9, be easy on her as she wends her way through LPM.

A good private teacher will be so delighted to have a gifted musician that she won't balk at needing to train the fingers and arms to catch up to the amazing mind and ears.

Igniting the Passion

Back when my daughter was 3, we joined a class called Storybook Ballet.   As we walked down the hall of the studio, I saw older ballet classes doing what I would expect in ballet class: proper technique with everyone lined up seriously. 

But Storybook class was nothing like that.

All of the 3-year-olds enjoyed warm-ups in a circle, then copied the teacher, prancing around the room with pre-ballet moves. They listened to a short storybook; one time it was Little Red Riding Hood. Finally, each day had the best possible ending: dressing up in a new costume and performing some loosely-choreographed moves to act out the story for parents.  

Storybook Ballet was a huge hit with our family. Obviously, it was age-appropriate. My 3-year-old couldn't tolerate long drills or high expectations. The class did introduce some ballet steps and terms, but mostly it captured the fun and exciting elements of ballet: dressing up, telling stories, creating moves, and performing!  

The role of storybook class wasn't to drill in technique, the purpose was to ignite the passion for dance.  It worked! Dance teachers could have spent time focusing more on getting those babies to do it 'right'.  But why? But instead they chose to share the joys of performance in every class.

Let's Play Music reminds me of that ballet class sometimes.  We show our students how to create music right away with chords. We don't tell them that they need perfect technique and a degree in theory before they start composing. We want them inventing. They're not just executors of music, but creators of it. We let them be silly. It should feel like play.

There will be time later for perfecting technique, but the best time for fanning the flames of passion is now.  Students who have an amazing experience in Let's Play Music build up passion and excitement that carries them through the next several years of (potentially boring) technique perfection.

So go out there and have fun! Good enough technique is good enough for now.

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music teacher

No comments:

Post a Comment