A skill for life and the gift of self-expression through the interpretation and playing of music.
Whether it’s Bach or the Beatles, hip hop or musicals, everybody can find some style of music which suits their mood and enables them to escape to a different place somewhere within – where it is possible to lose themselves and express deep feelings and emotions. It is this ability to transcend our situation that I think makes playing the piano especially rewarding. Not that other instruments are inferior, but with a piano it can seem as if you have an entire orchestra literally at your finger tips.
Resonant bass and the sparkling upper notes of a melody combine to transport us to another place where imagination takes flight. Play it once or a hundred times, the song or piece of music will always be different because every day brings a new interpretation, dependent on our fluctuating moods.
As we begin to learn the mechanics of the instrument, we have no idea what awaits around the corner. But slowly, as we progress from early individual hand pieces to playing with both hands separately, and then finally with both together, we begin to get a sudden insight as to what might be possible. It may be that the first time one experiences the lilting rhythm of a waltz or manages to play that big chord with an amazing harmonic intensity and depth of feeling, a window suddenly opens to our self-expression – and we can access that other world which exists within. Learning only ceases when we make a conscious decision to no longer seek improvement.
Music stimulates learning because it never stands still, always pushing our technical abilities forward in order to find increasing depths of self-expression. The piano I believe is a fantastic tool for that endeavour.
Piano for different ages
I start teaching pupils from around the age of 6 or 7, when most will never have played the piano before. At this age concentration can be an issue, and so I work with them using a Piano Tutor by John Thompson, which I find very useful. Some instructional books on the market can be confusing to the younger beginner as they contain too much information.
The important thing is to get playing as soon as possible, and I find generally that the John Thompson series offers attainable targets, and progresses quite quickly to using both hands together with a good variety of short and well-known tunes. This I supplement with the Dozen a day scale books, which are excellent for building finger strength, dexterity and speed in a format that gives the scales a fun and interesting aspect whilst still improving technique. We continue to work with those tutors for a year or more, until it’s time to move on to either an Associated Board preliminary assessment or a Grade 1 examination.
With older children from about 8 onwards who have never played before, I usually use the Michael Arron series tutors, which again are well set out and not overly complicated. Most, however, are often already working towards an exam, or may even have taken some early grades. They come wanting to change teachers. This can be for a variety of reasons, occasionally because of a lack of progress due to a gap in some part of their understanding which seems to be impeding them. Having found out what the problem is, I will continue to work with them on current exam pieces while trying to find other music which they can enjoy playing without the pressure of an exam.
Often the problem with older children can be when and how much to practice. Finding the best time for this is very important. Parents can help here by assisting them to keep to a regular routine. Scales and pieces are becoming harder at this point, and a structured approach to practice is essential in order not to waste time. I pay particular attention to making sure they understand the correct way to go about their practice in order to maximise available time.
At this age it’s also important to find a style and a composer with whom they feel an empathy, as this is often is a good way of keeping interest alive while they’re still having to work on other exam pieces which may be less satisfying. As children develop and progress through the grades – perhaps by the time they reach a grade 5 standard – work at school is starting to become a real issue, and the extra load of another music exam can sometimes be a bridge too far.
It is essential to recognise this and be both flexible in terms of lesson times and occasional gaps. Essentially music should be fun. It is often better to concentrate on playing for pleasure rather than for performance, as it provides a very real ability to escape from the pressures of the here and now, and also an opportunity to transform negative feelings into positive ones. Of course I also teach adults, many of whom will have previously played the piano and now want to regain their old skills. This can sometimes be harder than anticipated for a number of reasons. Keeping to a regular routine of practice whilst working full time can be challenging.
Regaining dexterity and speed after years of not playing can also prove frustrating. Being able to read the music but not being able to play it can be disheartening. Overall what is required is patience and a positive attitude so that one does not allow oneself to feel either stupid or useless. Investing time in regular practice is the key to restoring previous levels of ability.