Sunday, October 21, 2007

Music for My Munchkins

A few weeks back the Carnival of Homeschooling included a link to a post entitled Learn to Play the Piano on a Shoestring.

The author of this post, who uses the handle lindafay, described her problem: she wanted to teach her children to play piano, but she had no piano; she couldn't play herself, and didn't have a strong background in music theory; and she didn't have a budget to hire a teacher. And yet she still figured out a way to get her children decent training in piano, so that now--many years later--all of them are reasonably proficient. Her post explained how she did it.

Judging from the number of comments left on this post, a lot of people were inspired by it. And if you are in the same boat as this blogger was--and a lot of people are--I would highly recommend you take the time to read it.

I myself was inspired by this post, and since I read it I've been giving a lot of thought to our children's musical education. You see, music is a big deal in my family. On my father's side, I had a great-grandfather who was a magnificent cornet player and bandmaster. His daughter, my grandmother, played piano and violin beautifully, sang beautifully, and wrote and arranged numerous pieces of music--many of which we still have. I have many fond childhood memories of my dad playing Debussy's Claire de Lune at the piano to help him unwind after a hard day of work. He also occasionally arranged music for weddings. My maternal grandmother played steel guitar during a time when this was a ubiquitous instrument in all the local bands. In fact, she once had an opportunity to appear in (I think it was) a Bing Crosby movie; they were looking for a young, attractive woman who played the steel guitar. But she turned down the opportunity--this was during the Depression, and taking the gig would have required her to quit her job, which (given the scarcity of good jobs) she was loath to do. I have memories of my mother playing Scott Joplin at our piano. My brothers and I really liked the Crush Collision March, which was (no kidding!) written to describe a train wreck. We kept pressuring her to play it over and over again. I myself was briefly involved in Opera after college; I learned to play the harp in my late '20's; and I arrange and direct music at our church. When the whole family gets together we usually wind up singing lots of four-part hymns, Christmas Carols, and whatever else tickles our collective fancy.

This is obviously a legacy that we want to pass on to our children. And I've regretted the fact that I never learned to play the piano; it would come in very handy with my compositional work, or just when I wanted to relax after a hard day. (While the harp could assist with this, I haven't gotten good enough yet that playing the harp relaxes me. Playing any musical instrument only becomes relaxing after you've achieved a certain level of proficiency; before that point, playing well takes such intense concentration that it becomes yet another source of exhaustion. At least, that's my experience.)

Before I read the above post, we had been struggling with the fact that we really can't afford piano lessons--and we especially won't be able to afford them when the two younger kids get to be that age. So reading that a dedicated mother was able to teach her children piano, when she herself didn't know how to play it, when they had next-to-no resources, was quite a revelation. If she could do it under the constraints that she had, we've got to be able to do it with the resources that we have. Or, so I've been thinking.

After all, we have a piano in our house; I did briefly take lessons in college, so I'm not a complete newbie around the instrument; and I know a fair amount of music theory--enough that I can compose music to give to our singing group at church, that's sophisticated enough to make them all complain. :-)

(Tonya says: "I've come to the conclusion that singers just like to complain." Very true.)

So I decided this last week to run a little experiment. I called the Pillowfight Fairy--who will be turning five this week--over to the piano, and I pulled out an adult-level instructional text (because that's what we have on hand. This was just an experiment, remember). And I started teaching her two things from the very beginning of the book.

First, I started teaching her how to tell the names of the notes on the piano. They go from A to G, and then repeat. And you tell the identity of a white key based on its position with respect to the black keys: if you have a group of two black keys, the note in between them is D; If you have a group of three black keys, the note just above the highest is B; and so forth.

So far, the Pillowfight Fairy hasn't mastered this to the point that she can just look at key and tell what it is; but she's starting to get the concept. She has figured out that A is the bottom key on the piano; so if you ask her to play an F, she will count "A, B, C..." up from the bottom, find the F, and then go up by octaves to play every F on the piano. So this is a start; she's beginning to figure it out.

Second, I decided to try to get her to hold her hands in the correct positions, with curved fingers. Up until this point, every time she's goofed around on the piano, she would stick her fingers straight out, except for the one that was hitting a note, which would be pointed straight down. She would of course play very randomly, because she wasn't trying to play a tune. But I took a cue from a diagram in the book, and got out a couple of rubber balls; I held one in my hand, and put one in the Fairy's hand, to demonstrate how the fingers should be curved. Then, once she could show me how the hands were supposed to be held, I had her start doing little five-note runs with each hand--C, D, E, F, G, then back down--with her hand maintaining its curved-finger postion, and with an effort to eliminate extraneous movements. She's already started to get the hang of this.

Now there are of course some challenges. First, the Fairy is only five years old (give or take a week), and is right in the middle of the "I'll do it myself" stage. While she has an excellent attention span for things she wants to do, she doesn't have as much patience for "direct instruction". If one sits down with her to explain things for more than five or ten minutes at a time, she starts to resist. I don't want to teach her to hate the piano forever. So for now I'm keeping the lessons very short--five to ten minutes at the most--and then I let her do her own thing at the piano, and hope that some of the lesson sticks. So far, it's looking like this is happening. When I've let her off to do what she wants, she has generally continued for a while afterward doing the five-note runs, with her hands in more-or-less the correct positions.

We'll worry about about required practice times at some point in the future. For now we're only doing this as an experiment, using only the adult-level materials we have on hand. When we start doing this for real, we'll pick up a piano instruction book that's more age-appropriate. And as the Fairy gets a little older we'll start working up bit by bit to a practice regimen more closely resembling the one lindafay recommended.

But the other challenge comes from the fact that I, the Daddy, will be taking this part of the home education as my responsibility. Most of the academic work is being directed by Mommy, since I'm at work the whole day. We only have a few hours in the evenings, between when I get home and when the kids go to bed, just to be a family. So it's an as-yet unanswerd question as to how the music training will work within our schedule. How many times a week will I sit down with the kids? For how long? How are we, as a family, going to enforce practice time discipline--and do we start practice times now, or do we wait a few years for our children to mature a little first? We--and I in particular--have a whole lot of trial and error coming up on the horizon.

Still, the results of our experiment to date are highly encouraging. The whole thing may not work out, to be sure, but before I was exposed to the above post it never even occurred to us to give it a try in the first place. For that, I'm very thankful to lindafay for sharing her experiences with us.


Chris said...


Your post really struck home, especially visions of family gatherings with hymns and carols in 4-part harmony. I too come from a family with a long musical history.

As I've posted about before, we've just started Belle in an Atlanta-based Children's Choir. In addition, she has started piano lessons this year. Fortunately, lessons around here aren't too expensive. I think we got a discounted rate since we can come earlier in the day than the public-school kids. Don't you love the supply & demand effect? We bought a very used piano this summer that now is a focal point of the living room.

Interestingly, our recent trip to the symphony has triggered much interest in other instruments. The Boy is enamored with stringed instruments (all the way from violin to stringed bass), while Tink adored the harp. (music to your ears!)

I wish I still had my French Horn!


Timothy Power said...

Of course, you've probably heard all the French Horn jokes then.

Q: How do you get a Baritone BC to sound like a French Horn?
A: Turn it upside down, stick your hand in the bell, and miss every third note.

So it would appear that your kids have excellent tastes. I'm especially enamoured of Tink's decision, of course. Word o' warning, though: The least expensive pedal harp I've seen (that's the kind you get in orchestras) will set you back about $10,000. I use lever harps, which are less expensive than pedal harps; nonetheless, the larger of my two harps (which sits about 4' tall) would set me back about $6000 if I wanted to buy a new one just like it; and my small one, which sits on my lap, came to about $2000 when all the accessories are added in. Tink has expensive tastes as well.

But if you're willing to save up and then splurge, I can give you far more advice about getting started than you really want to hear. :-)

In the meantime, I can't play my big one just now because one of my strings broke and I don't have a replacement for that particular string. Thanks for reminding me, I've got to go order one....

Anna said...

You sound like you're on the right track.

We're at the same point in our musical family, teaching my five year old where C is located, octaves, hand shapes, etc.