Sunday, November 18, 2007

Update on our Musical Experiment

Welcome to the 100th post on my humble blog! I started doing this just over three months ago, and I've managed to average about one post a day since the beginning. The lack of sleep is beginning to tell, I'm afraid. ;-)

Four weeks ago I wrote a post entitled Music for My Munchkins, in which I described our plans for teaching piano to our five-year-old. I'd like to update you on the progress we've made since then.

First, when I started teaching the Pillowfight Fairy how to play the piano, the only piano-texts we had were adult-level. They really weren't adequate for teaching a five-year-old, a limitation we fully expected when we started out. For one thing, adult-level texts start by throwing lots of abstract concepts around (like "circle of fifths") right at the very beginning, and five-year-old beginners don't have the background necessary to make any sense of these things whatsoever. Then there are the mechanical issues, stemming from the fact that a five-year-old has really tiny hands, and the fact that if they sit properly on a piano bench, their feet don't reach the pedals and their arms aren't parallel to the floor. (And our girl is a really tall one; we suspect most kids her age would have it much worse.)

So I had to pick and choose things out of the adult-level beginner text to show her, and I had to skip a whole bunch. This led to a very scattershot approach--which, of course, the Fairy began to resist. Of course, some of that resistance came about because of the typical cussedness that comes of being five.

Well, at her fifth birthday, some of her grandparents (at our suggestion) got her a couple of age-appropriate piano texts. They picked out Teaching Little Fingers to Play from the John Thompson series, and Teaching Little Fingers to Play More from the same series. My beloved sister-in-law mentioned that she was taught to play with these methods.

At the beginning of Teaching Little Fingers to Play, there is a "To the teacher" note that explains a little about how to use the book. It gives a sample approach to teaching the first three lessons in the book, and a few pointers for handling the rest. In the first three lessons, they cover all the note names, where they fall on the piano, and where they fall on the treble and bass cleff (within an octave containing Middle C, at any rate); and they introduce the fingering numbers: 1 for the thumb, 2 for the index finger, and 3 for the middle finger, with 4 and 5 left for later lessons. The book also stresses learning the early lessons by rote, since that allows the child to start making music--which is, of course, the enjoyable part--right at the beginning.

With these texts in hand, I started to be a little more systematic: we have now decided that I'm going to give her a little piano time after dinner each evening, four nights a week; these lessons will be very short, no more than ten minutes or so; and we're not making her do any additional practice yet (since she's only five).

In the process of instructing the Pillowfight Fairy on the piano, I've discovered a few things.

First, she resists it. She'd rather just go elsewhere and play with her toys. And she is often neither very attentive nor cooperative. However, this is frequently the case with the Fairy whenever she is learning a new skill, and often her interest in the skill starts to pick up when she begins to get some mastery over it. For instance, she used to hate drawing; she wanted to dictate to Mommy what she wanted drawn, but Mommy insisted that she draw things herself. Then she started to get better at it, a bit at a time. Now, she uses roughly one ream of 8.5" x 11" printer paper, 500 sheets, each month. And I'm seeing evidence that this may well be the case when she starts to figure out the piano. Occasionally, when we're not making her do it, she will want to play by herself (with us out of the room, so presumably we can't tell her that she's doing it wrong), and we'll hear her playing out her lesson--and sounding quite good at it.

Second, the book recommends that the student sings along as she plays. My own observations confirm the wisdom of this advice. The act of singing encourages her to maintain the tempo and rhythms. When she just plays it without singing it, it turns into nothing more than a sequence of arbitrary notes; but when she sings it as she plays, all the rhythms start to fall into place, and the thing becomes a bit smoother--less choppy. (Not to mention the obvious added benefit, that she is learning how to sing and play at the same time, which is a very useful skill to have--and something I've never learned to do with any proficiency. It engages many more parts of the brain simultaneously, requiring--and building--some serious mental stamina.) Furthermore, the book also recommends that the student sing the note names, not only the words of the song, as she plays; this helps her learn the names of the notes.

Third, the book does have a bit of a steep learning curve for the earliest students. Within the first three lessons, the students have to learn the names of all the notes, the positions of one octave's worth of notes on the staves, the difference between the bass and treble clefs, the numberings of the fingers, the rhythmic values of whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes, and the meaning of the upper number in time signatures. So while we've gotten to the point that the Fairy can play the pieces of the first three or four lessons in the book, she can't always tell where on the keyboard the pieces are supposed to start. She can't look at the music, for example, and tell you that this piece begins on the A below middle C, on the third finger of the left hand. If I manually position her fingers and tell her where to start, she does much better.

Incidentally, one of the reviewers at the Amazon link I posted above made a very similar observation about this book, and therefore only gave it three stars out of five. I'm happy with it so far, but I can see where these objections come from. I am strongly considering doing some supplemental exercises. Specifically, I need to get her to the point where she associates that line on the page of printed music with that note on the piano. To be fair, many of the early lessons have a diagram showing the notes of the keyboard, with little arrows pointing to the corresponding notes on the treble and bass clefs; but I think the Fairy would benefit if I just went ahead and had her memorize it. She's very good at memorizing this sort of thing.

Fourth observation: although the Fairy resists her lessons, that resistance has been weakening as the lessons have become more and more part of her routine. Resistance also goes down the better the Fairy does. If she has played a line of music wrong the past three times, she doesn't want to do it again; but when she has done it once or twice, beginning to end, without problems, she doesn't complain as much, and I can direct her to the next one without as many cries of "Can we be done yet?" I see this as a good sign; perhaps, as she gains some proficiency, she'll want to do more and more of it.

For now, we're not making her do additional practice. We don't think she's old enough yet to have the patience for regular practice sessions, although she might be in a year or two.

So, I have a question for my loyal readers who are either still teaching their own kids piano, or have successfully (or unsuccessfully!) taught their kids: Do you have any additional advice for a parent in my position--one who, specifically, doesn't have money to shell out for a piano teacher? Is there anything in our plans mentioned above that you would advise against, or do you think we're on the right track; or do you have any additional suggestions we haven't yet considered? I'm always looking for different ideas on this sort of thing.


Andrea said...

I've been enjoying your blog for the past month after I found it on the carnival of homeschooling. We are a Christian family, kids ages 5 yrs, 3 yrs and 1 yr. I homeschool the kids (using the Well Trained Mind) and my husband works with computers. I can identify with many of your posts.
I have also started teaching my 5 yr old son piano. I have been using Alfred publishing books, but I'm sure the ones you are using are fine. In addition I have been using some materials I found from Music for Young Children. They associate characters with the note names and have stories about where the characters 'live' on the keyboard. Most of the program is taught by their own trained teachers, but they have some additional resources you can purchase online. 'The Happening' introduces the critters and 'Notable Critters' has stories about where the critters live on the staff.

Wendy Power said...

I was taught mnemonics to learn the positions of notes - Every Good Boy Does Fine, etc. I started formal lessons, once a week, when I was six or so, and was expected to practice and be ready for them. It depends on the kid, of course.

Once she's sight-reading, keep the variety of music she plays high, as she is a memorizer, and memorization is NOT a good thing if you want to progress in sight-reading.

Laura said...

The one thing that sticks out in my memory about piano lessons is that the very first thing I learned was posture and hand position. My teacher drilled this in and it is VERY important to always play with correct posture. Here is a video that explains correct piano posture.

The second thing I learned was "Twinkle twinkle little star." This song is good because it works each finger. My teacher made me play about 5 variations with different rythms. For instance "Mississippi bounce bounce", which was a pattern of 4 eighth notes followed by 2 quarter notes, played by each finger. This was to develop strength and coordination in each individual finger, as well as emphasize the correct posture and hand positioning.

By focusing on the fundamentals first, I had a strong background to begin to play other music. Good luck with your experiment! My DD just turned four and I'm hoping to start teaching her some sort of instrument next year.

Anna said...

Posture, hand position- the things the previous poster mentioned are very important. It's much easier to learn initially than unlearn bad habits.

Do teach her the circle of fifths eventually. Not for several years, but before senior year of high school like my personal experience.

Finally, allow for her to just play nonsense on the piano when she's not practicing. It helps congeal the lessons, even if she's not following them to the letter.

mdavis said...

I have been teaching my five year old from that same book for the past couple of months. We do one song a week. The first few weeks she mastered the songs in a few days, but from about Volga Boat Men on, it is not clear that one week is enough for her to master a piece. All I ask her to do is play the song three times with me. The first time we play the notes, no tempo, just barely fingering. Next night we try again and try fingering. Rhythm and counting the beat come towards the end. So far its worked perfectly and she needs to be mildly coaxed but no problem once she's sitting down because she's happy doing the one song, plus usually one from past weeks.

I made up two other phrases for the bass clef (Ants Don't Eat Grapes for the spaces, and Gramma Bunica Dropped Fifty Apples for the lines). I dont know how many weeks we've been working, but we are two songs past Volga Boatmen so you can figure it out--because at this point she is finding notes by reasoning through them if she doesn't quickly recognize it, and she, like your daughter, is a real memorizer, so I've tried to accentuate figuring it out rather than memorize. I think the first month or so was all memorization and I didn't even realize it.

Finally, I just ordered the duet version (Teaching Little Fingers to Play Ensemble) because I did notice that this is a lonely thing, and the point of that book is to solve that. Also, I didn't even read the first three pages before jumping right in--rather typical of me, but probably made the job more difficult than it should have been. The most fun however, is that I used this book fifty seven years ago and I still remember most pieces, especially Volga Boat Men, so we are both excited when a piece is mastered. I can't wait to get to the Indian--er, Native American--piece at the end. I remember that as the most exciting but most forbidding piece--I didn't think I'd EVER learn that one, and I can see that in my daughter's eyes as well. I guess this isn't just teaching piano, but a trip down memory lane--not a bad venture with your five year old daughter, it seems to me.

Timothy Power said...

mdavis, good comment. I've been batting around all kinds of ideas about how to get the girl to play things, and it's good to see how someone else is doing the same stuff. I've been taking it a bit faster than you have, I think; and I've been considering slowing down. Maybe one song a week (or less!) is the way to go with this.

I've also started doing some additional enrichment work to get my girl to learn the note names and where they fall on the piano, since I think my daughter has been faking it.

Yes, my daughter is currently stuck on Volga Boatman. She's done everything up to that point very well (but not conistently so; she has good days and bad days).

And I think your mnemonic should be "Ants Can't Eat Grapes", instead of "Ants Don't Eat Grapes". :-)

mdavis said...

My god, I didn't realize I had at least typed that phrase wrong. Now I have to check and see if I told my daughter the right and just typed the wrong one or...yikes....

We are proceeding on schedule and I have received the duet book which has been extremely rewarding; she really enjoys when we play together, and, to tell the truth, I think I enjoy it more.

mdavis said...

My god, I didn't realize I had at least typed that phrase wrong. Now I have to check and see if I told my daughter the right and just typed the wrong one or...yikes....

We are proceeding on schedule and I have received the duet book which has been extremely rewarding; she really enjoys when we play together, and, to tell the truth, I think I enjoy it more.

mdavis said...

My god, I didn't realize I had at least typed that phrase wrong. Now I have to check and see if I told my daughter the right and just typed the wrong one or...yikes....

We are proceeding on schedule and I have received the duet book which has been extremely rewarding; she really enjoys when we play together, and, to tell the truth, I think I enjoy it more.