Category Archives: Group Piano

A Brief History and Evolution of the Piano

In teaching young children piano, children’s music educators will find it helpful to explain the origins and history of the instrument they are playing. Knowing the  evolutionary story behind the piano helps children learn about cultural traditions and historical events. The history of the piano is interesting because it can be classified as both a stringed instrument as well as a percussion instrument, while even having an element of wind instruments. While its invention is most often attributed to one man, Bartolomeo Cristofori, the pianos evolution can be traced as far back as ancient Greece around 500 BC. The monochord, or kanon in Greek, consisted of one metal string was stretched over a hollow body of wood called a resonator.  While sometimes used for music, the monochord was more often used by scientists to study sound. Being long enough to divide into different sections and placed over the body in various ways, it was useful in that it demonstrated different chords in a visible way. The monochord was often used for tuning other instruments, even all the way through the 19th century, and also helped singers to learn pitch.

Not being satisfied with just one single string, inventors and scientists soon added more strings to create polychord instruments that contained two or more separate sounded strings. Over time, polychords started appearing both with a bridge (a device that supports the strings and transmits the vibration to another structural component) and without a bridge. With use of a bridge, several notes on a polychord could be played together in combination, whereas without a bridge, the notes were commonly played separately.

Over time the Polychords evolved through a series of instruments into the harpsichord and clavichord, both which used a keyboard to direct the plucking or striking of the strings. The history of instruments being played with keyboards originated from the pipe organ, where bursts of air are sent through different sized pipes to make sounds. So, it could be argued that the piano is actually a wind instrument as well!

When considering whether the strings of an instrument are plucked or struck, another ancestor of the piano deserves honorable mention. Still played today, the hammer Dulcimer is a bridgeless polychord instrument that uses small hammers to strike the strings. Originating in the East, the Dulcimer spread to Europe in the 11th century. Unlike the Harpsichord that was limited in volume and strength because the strings were plucked, the hammered clavichord allowed the player a greater level of range and expression. The clavichord became very popular during the Renaissance period of the 14th century, and used a brass rod called a tangent to strike the strings. It provided the ability for the strings to vibrate for as long as the keys were depressed. While an improvement, the clavichord still did not provide the level of volume that many players and composers desired.

Around the turn of the 18th century, Bartolomeo Cristofori, a gifted maker of keyboard instruments including the harpsichord, created the pianoforte, which in Italian means both loud and soft. Cristofori’s invention provided a mechanism that released the hammer from the string right after pressing the key, allowing the strings to vibrate longer and the player to strike them at different strengths. First considered a feminine instrument, the pianoforte was very expensive and primarily used by the wealthy. Women who played it were considered good prospects for marriage. However, these very progressive female pianists inspired many compositions by composers such as Hayden, Mozert and Beethhoven, all of whom played the pianoforte. As a sign of the times, men were the only concert pianists, but these composers started the piano down a path of global popularity.

Other than the addition of 34 strings and improved materials, Cristofori’s design of the pianoforte is not very different than today’s modern grand piano. Space requirements and technology have given rise to other modern versions such as the upright piano, but the fundamental elements remain the same.

While children’s piano teachers may consider this explanation of the evolution of the piano to be too far advanced to interest children, what will capture their attention and imagination is that a piano is inspired by of all three types of instruments at the same time – strings, percussion, and wind.  A keyboard originating from a wind instrument controls percussive hammers to strike a range of strings. Early childhood music educators can use this explanation to provide context to many of the concepts and techniques of playing the piano.

Layers of Experiences Help Children Learn Piano

Over the last several months, we have been exploring the various reasons for how early childhood music education better prepares children to learn any musical instrument, with a focus primarily on piano. Beginning piano teachers understand how early childhood music education and the developmental influences of BODY, MIND, SPIRIT and FAMILY, provide a firm foundation for children to achieve greater success at the keyboard. In this final installment, those influences are blended into a layering of experiences that are taught from a musical point of view. These layers, stemming from children’s developmental stages, spiral and interact with each other to provide the foundation for sustained musical development.

The Developmental Layers of Childhood Music Education

  • Listening Comes Second – Music is an aural art, and we come to it for the sheer enjoyment of listening, singing, and dancing. As early childhood music studios are filled with musical sound, hearing music in various forms and from different sources adds a second layer of musical foundation. As children listen to more music, they are intrigued to continue and explore it further as they learn to discriminate sounds and build a vocabulary of musical patterns and styles that will help in learning piano.
  •  Singing Comes Third – Cultures across the world have communicated through music, which offers a sense of community and identity. We desire to communicate and express the joy of our own voice through a repertoire of common songs, learning melodies and the structure of musical patterns that will translate to understanding musical instruments.
  • Playing Simple Percussion Instruments Helps with Piano – Our hands serve as expressive extensions of who we are, and in turn, musical instruments are an extension of the hands. Playing simple percussion instruments such as drums, rattles, rhythm sticks, or maracas, increase our joy of making music and refining our movements while teaching us about beat, meter, and phrase. As we do this with others, we begin to have musical dialogue with partners or groups.
  • Musical Literacy is Emerging All Along the Way – As we first learn to move and listen, speak our music through song, and extend music making into instruments, we are making sense of the specific rhythm and tonal patterns we hear and practice. At some point we will want to understand how to write and read those patterns, which may come before or after sitting down to learn the piano.

Introducing Piano to Children’s Musical Development

Once these layers of musical foundation have been established, the piano teacher is able to add the next layer of complexity, offering a way for children to express their joy and knowledge of music through an intricate, yet subtle instrument. The most successful Early childhood music programs prepare teachers to think in these developmental terms, carefully considering how to introduce musical concepts. Realizing that they must first work with ear and body before eye and brain, piano teachers are working to establish musical communication that leads to musical thought. Group work helps to ensure that classes remain playful and lively while teaching the “whole” child in ways that are developmentally appropriate.

Early children’s music programs help children to fall in love with music, have a mind full of musical thoughts, and establish body control needed to master an instrument such as keyboard. This firm foundation allows beginning piano teachers to take children to the next exciting level of musical development!

This commentary is based on the article The Well-Prepared Beginner: Prepared in Body, Mind, Spirit, and Family by Lorna Heyge, Ph. D. Dr. Heyge is a pioneer in childhood music instruction, as well as a piano teacher of many years.

How Early Childhood Music Classes Prepare Children to Learn Piano

Part 3 – Through SPIRIT and THE FAMILY

Many early childhood music programs take a very concentrated approach to teaching piano keyboard, focusing mainly on technique and notation. While these methods are competent in teaching piano skills, many do not take a holistic approach to teaching “the whole child” a true love of music and the instrument. The first two installments on How Early Childhood Music Classes Prepare Children to Learn Piano have focused on the Body and Mind. But taking educating the whole child a step further, more encompassing teaching programs also focus on the important aspects of SPIRIT and FAMILY.

How SPIRIT Influences Children’s Understanding of Piano Instruction

From the earliest ages across almost every culture, music has been practiced as an expression of the soul. Good music instructors understand this, and wish to cultivate a comfort level in their piano students so that they may better express their deepest musical thoughts.

Through music and other arts, children gain a sense of meaning and belonging as they experience beauty, joy, wonder, and order. Music has the power to influence a child’s inner world holistically by helping to bridge body, mind, and spirit in one place. Children gain joy and a sense of belonging when they sing and dance with peers and family. When adults join in the music making, a bond develops that extends this understanding to new dimensions and allows the musical spirit to thrive.

The most successful childhood music programs not only lay a solid foundation of basic skills and technique, but more importantly allows children’s love of music to deepen. Through singing and dancing and musical games, children have opportunities to laugh and play together. And as they repeat the same songs and games over and over again with both peers and adults, they grow to love them even more. Just as most of us enjoy singing familiar holiday carols and songs, children delight in repeating the songs they know. Teaching that sense of belonging in both peer and mixed age groups provides strong encouragement of further exploration on a musical instrument such as the piano keyboard.

FAMILY Support Encourages Children’s Success in Learning Piano

Parents and teachers alike understand that a supportive family is very important to children to succeed. Many young parents today who grew up with more passive electronic entertainment such as television and computer games often do not have a base of familiar childhood music that provides a greater sense of belonging to family and peer groups. Early childhood music programs that involve caregiver participation in class not only provide a means of belonging for the child, but for the adults as well. And as music is rekindled in their spirits, these adults can share and influence music in their children’s lives.

Families that share music, whether through singing and dancing together, going to concerts, or simply listening to music together reinforce the importance of music in children’s lives. When provided with such a supportive environment, they are further encouraged to explore creativity through musical stimulation. By participation in childhood music classes and helping with practice routines at home, parents reinforces the appreciation of the process, effort, and discipline needed to learn a musical instrument such as piano. Active family involvement in music making creates a foundation for successful learning in the future.

While technique, listening, and notation reading are extremely important in the process for learning any new musical instrument, other factors also influence how successful a child will be. Learning to love music and an instrument are inspired by a sense of belonging to the music in a holistic way. Nurturing the musical spirit and having a supportive family are highly important in how the child will apply technique to musical creativity on an instrument.

This commentary is based on the article The Well-Prepared Beginner: Prepared in Body, Mind, Spirit, and Family by Lorna Heyge, Ph. D. Dr. Heyge is a pioneer in childhood music instruction, as well as a piano teacher of many years.

How Early Childhood Music Classes Prepare Children to Learn Piano

Part 2 – Through THE MIND

Children’s piano instructors understand that a strong foundation in music from the earliest ages will help improve student’s progress and understanding of the keyboard later in childhood. We began by exploring how movement and the body influence this early instrumental preparation. As we continue to delve into how various areas of influence in early music education grooms children for the piano, or any musical instrument, we reveal how it prepares the MIND. 

Early Childhood Music Education Prepares the Mind for Piano Lessons

Is there a purpose to learning an instrument or reading music if a child has not first absorbed musical thoughts? For a very long time, expressive body movement was not linked to higher brain function in formal education. Until as recently as 1995, researchers and educators limited the health benefits of movement and exercise solely to the body rather than the brain. Now it is clear that movement is not separate from higher brain function or development, and that expressive movement combines body functioning with affective areas of the brain such as imagination. These neural connections can be seen in language, literacy, and dominance of ear.

  • Learning Musical Language through Songs and Singing – It is easy to understand that children would not be asked to speak a language they have not heard, nor read a language they cannot speak. It stands to reason that there should be no exception for listening to and “speaking the language of music” before learning an instrument. Asking a child to read and sing or play a song on an instrument before they have ever heard it would not give it meaning of familiarity and affinity. This could be one reason why so many young piano students learn to play only “notes” instead of expressing musical ideas. The large repertoire of songs children have sung with friends and family as well as in the early childhood education classroom equips them with a musical language that will eventually allow them to better learn and play an instrument such as piano.
  • Childhood Music Education Provides Foundation in Music Literacy – Through moving and singing children gain a multitude of experience with rhythmic patterns and steady beat, as well as tonal patterns and home tone. Just as a child learning to read looks for familiar patterns in words and sentences, so do they seek rhythmic and tonal patterns in music. This familiarity with musical motifs enable children to better express musical ideas, as their literacy brings harmony to mind and spirit. The ability to better grasp the patterns and language of a musical instrument is also influenced by dominance of ear.
Listening and Singing melodic patterns during a Musikgarten class.
Listening and Singing melodic patterns during a Musikgarten class.
  •  Listening Skills and Dominant of Ear in Learning Piano – Children who have participated in early music education have learned to be led musically by their ears. Piano teachers discover that they have better listening skills and aural preparation, allowing the eye to more easily recognize what the ear already knows. As one of the first senses to develop in the womb, the ear is dominant in early childhood as children learn language and familiar sounds. Discriminatory listening skills develop as they attune to important sounds in the environment, such as a mothers voice. Early childhood education programs promote these aural insights by teaching children to focus tentatively on a sound source while imitating sounds vocally. Understanding slight distinctions in sound is a vital foundation for all learning.

The ear, arguably the most vital sensory channel to most children’s learning, is the linchpin for Listening, speaking/singing, and balanced/coordinated movement. It is no wonder that early childhood music education is so vitally important in learning an instrument such as piano since music links the ear, the voice, and the body.

This commentary is based on the article The Well-Prepared Beginner: Prepared in Body, Mind, Spirit, and Family by Lorna Heyge, Ph. D. Dr. Heyge is a pioneer in childhood music instruction, as well as a piano teacher of many years.

How Early Childhood Music and Movement Classes Prepare Children to Learn Piano

Part 1 – Through THE BODY

Children’s piano teachers often must “start from scratch” in teaching the child not just the keyboard, but all of the different facets of music. That is why many piano instructors will attest to how a child that has been involved with music education classes from an early age is often better equipped to learn piano, while doing so at a much greater pace. The benefits of introducing music to babies at the earliest stages of life are well known, and some of those same benefits can be applied to learning the piano. There are several reasons for this, which can be roughly broken down into the areas of Body, Mind, Spirit, and even Family/Community.

In the following months we will start to explore how participation in a children’s music curriculum, even at the earliest stages of infancy, help to set a strong foundation for learning any musical instrument later in life. The first facet of this strong musical foundation that will be examined regards the body.  

Dancing with scarves during a Musikgarten toddler class.
In Musikgarten classes movement is central to steady beat, language development, and expression.

How Body Awareness through Music Helps Children Prepare for Piano Lessons

During the first developmental period of birth through age six, children gain control and awareness of their bodies. As their rhythm and motor instrument, a well-coordinated body will provide the gross and fine motor skills a child will need to play the piano. A vital and natural part of this first stage of life, movement enables a child to communicate non-verbally  how they see the world.

Today, however, children are too often sitting – in front of the television, a computer screen, or in a car seat while busy parents run errands. This sedentary situation results in children having less control over their body movement at an early age. Music promotes movement, and purposeful movement through music responses help children with particular skills such as hopping or swinging, while also developing such musical skills as a sense of beat and meter.

  • Music and Movement Teaches Children a Steady Beat – Children experience their own internal pulse, which allows them to naturally recognize and adapt to the pulse of an external source. Infant movements such as rocking or bouncing is often in response to a beat, whether musical or otherwise. Through musical exposure and encouragement, these movements can be cultivated into the understanding of a steady beat.
  • Language & Movement Help Teach Musical Understanding – Impulse control is a vital ability that tells our body when and how to move. Musical games, like Walk and Stop which incorporate movement instructions, help children establish important connections between language and motor skill. Later in childhood, this developing self-control prepares children to enter instrumental lessons that require language-mediated movement.
  • Expressive Movement Supports Self-Awareness – Children delight in singing and dancing. When they are exposed to songs with purposeful movement and phrasing, they develop a sense of meter and how to feel the phrase through both music and movement. This relationship reinforces kinesthetic awareness and perception essential to self-awareness.
  • Simple Instruments Build Coordination and Concentration – Playing simple rhythm instruments, such as shakers, rhythm sticks, bells, or drums, serve as an excellent preparation for finger, hand, and arm coordination needed to play the piano. While whole-body control and coordination are gained through dancing and other locomotor activities, simple instrument playing supports upper-body control and finger dexterity. Learning body control, including quieting the body between beats, helps children’s ability to focus their listening and concentrate on the finger movements required in playing a musical instrument.

Learning body awareness and purposeful movement are important in the development of a child’s motor skills and coordination. Exposure to musical instruction at an early age, whether through purposeful movement or simple instruments, reinforce the steady beat, fine motor skills, and focused listening skills that will help them to approach keyboard instruction with a strong foundation.

This commentary is based on the article The Well-Prepared Beginner: Prepared in Body, Mind, Spirit, and Family by Lorna Heyge, Ph. D. Dr. Heyge is a pioneer in childhood music instruction, as well as a piano teacher of many years.

The Pathway to Music Literacy in Children

From whatever country they were born, or environment they were born into, all children are born with a natural ability and inclination to sing and dance. Famed children’s music researcher, teacher, author and lecturer Dr. Edwin E. Gordon concluded that until age 9, children are in the developmental stage of their music aptitude and disposition. Throughout this time, parents and teachers have a great impact on how musical a child will be for life.

In this series on the Pathway to Music Literacy, we have explored the various foundations and methodology that make children’s music curriculum successful, touching last on the connection between music and movement. In this final installment, we’ll sum up how nurturing all these basic music skills prepares children for a pathway to independent musicianship and enduring music-making capabilities.

Aural Preparation is Key to Music Development

Just as language begins in children with aural preparation, music also starts as an aural reality for the child. Only after this reality exists is the child able to then read and write language, or understand the written form of music in notation. Just as words are the building blocks of language, tonal and rhythm patterns comprise the vocabulary of musical language. Once children become familiar with these patterns, they love playing aural games that apply both a neutral, chanted syllable, or in the context of a familiar song.

Children singing melodic patterns in a Musikgarten class.
Children singing melodic patterns in a Musikgarten class.

Teaching Children to Write and Read Music

Once children are able to understand and play aural games, they are ready to see those familiar patterns in symbols. Active, participatory notation games show these symbols to the children on a sensory motor level. With repetition comes understanding, and as they begin to be able to discriminate between several familiar patterns, they can be further challenged to find the same patterns in unfamiliar songs. Instead of simply decoding, they are actually reading with comprehension. Notation games of listening and responding to a series of patterns also teach children to take dictation and write out songs they know so well.

Assessing the Pathway to Music for Children

In early childhood music education, accurate assessment is crucial in knowing how to lead children on their pathway to music literacy. Through a series of steps, music teachers can determine specific pre-requisites to determine a child’s readiness. Once those steps have been mastered, children will be able to look at an unfamiliar piece of music and do the following:

  • Identify the familiar patterns within the song
  • By making inferences, they will figure out the unfamiliar patterns
  • Hear the music in their heads

This approach prompts children to begin to think in the language of music, and play it on the keyboard.

Instilling Music Improvisation and Composition in Children

As children learn to manipulate words, phrases, speak, and write complete sentences, they gain a better understanding and eventually become conversant. The same is true in the pathway to music literacy. By first understanding rhythmic and tonal patterns, recognizing these in the form of notation symbols, and then learning to write these patterns, children obtain the ability to start to manipulate and improvise. Once they begin to improvise patterns, they can begin to improvise phrases and eventually parts of a composition.

Through this improvisation, children become musically fluent and can contribute a musical

thought in the appropriate tonality, meter, and style. It is when they gain this intuition of musical patterns that children can truly improvise and compose through Music Literacy.

Much of the content for this post was based on the introduction to Music Makers: at The Keyboard, childhood music curriculum developed by Musikgarten.

The Listening and Movement Connection

Our series on how early childhood music programs influence Music Literacy at the Keyboard continues with the importance of body movement with music and listening. We have explored how singing a repertoire of familiar songs, as well as setting a good foundation of keyboard posture, are vital to instrumental education. Now the close relationship between music and movement complements these footings toward success in music literacy.

The Connection Between Music and Movement

Cultures all across the globe have used movement as the body’s expression of rhythm, which shapes the way we use and understand language. Children naturally desire and enjoy movement because it is exhilarating and energizing. A good foundation of understanding body manipulation helps them to play an instrument expressively.

Listening is vital to nearly all learning, not the least music education. And just as controlling body movement is more challenging for children today, so is learning to listen well. Developing a “listening ear” must compete with the increased amount of noise/sound and visual stimulation in a child’s environment.

Listening and movement are closely aligned through the ears two major functions. The first is vestibular, which controls balance, and thus nearly all movement. The second is the auditory, which directs hearing and voluntary listening. Therefore, it is vital to establish the important link between those two functions in early childhood music education.

Music and movement during a Musikgarten group music class.
Music and movement during a Musikgarten group music class.

How Movement Benefits Early Childhood Music Education

Rhythm and beat competency are emphasized in movement activities in early childhood music classes, particularly through tapping and drumming. Clapping, tapping one’s body, or using instruments such as rattles, sticks, bells or drums while singing helps to develop a child’s rhythm and beat. These, along with other group activities such as passing a beanbag in a song circle, brings children joy and social fulfillment. Drumming, in particular, has been a unique attraction for young and old alike in cultures all across the world. The tactile use of hands provides muscular memory while reinforcing the idea that the sound produced is directly related to the quality of the touch.

Dancing to recorded music as a group also provides a good opportunity for children to experience the flow of music while connecting to the larger community of their peers and teachers. In the most successful children’s music curriculum, teachers repeat these movement activities early and often so that the child in time feels free to express themselves through movement.

Early Listening Skills Make Children Better Musicians

Listening is defined as giving attention with the ear with the purpose of hearing. With the constant assault of noise and sound in our environment today, active listening is extremely important in order for children to concentrate. The very best training for listening employs the use of singing, chanting, and body movement to make the aforementioned connection between the auditory and balance/movement functions in the ear. Therefore, children’s music curriculum and teachers will continually engage in listening activities such as singing, reciting, and listening to music. The music teacher also instructs children to develop a listening posture that allows them to hear the music in their heads. This is particularly helpful at the piano, where body posture and hand position and technique are important for learning the keyboard. Through modeling and encouragement, the successful teacher is demonstrating attentive listening both through movement and posture.

Establishing and reinforcing the important connection between movement and listening helps prepare young children for playing any instrument. The union they feel between singing, drumming, and dancing will support the transfer of their understanding to piano. By introducing the keyboard as an extension of the body in this way, children learn to play the instrument musically – feeling the total experience of the instrument.

In our final installment of this series about Music Literacy at the Keyboard, we will see how all of these different foundational music teaching tools set children on the deliberate Pathway to Literacy

Much of the content for this post was based on the introduction to Music Makers: at the Keyboard, childhood music curriculum developed by Musikgarten.