Tag Archives: piano pedagogy

How Singing Helps to Learn Piano

Many of us have memories of piano teachers that used metronomes meticulously, or in some cases beat on the edge of the piano with a ruler as we struggled to play in time. While some of their methods may seem old-fashioned today, there was a very important underlying purpose of teaching time and meter. However, many early childhood music programs today understand that singing and movement not only naturally teaches beat, but also a myriad of other benefits to childhood development. In this second installment on our series about Music Literacy and the keyboard, we explore how for these and other reasons singing prepares children for learning to play keyboard.

Learning Piano Through Familiar Songs

Singing helps children to develop a repertoire of familiar songs. Children enjoy singing, and the more they sing the more they want to sing. As they progress to learning the keyboard, both the love of singing and having a good foundation of songs allows for greater success – because they want to play the song that is so familiar.

Singing Helps with Beat, Meter, Tonality, and Patterns

There is an abundance of research and publications that demonstrate how singing helps children with literacy, and that includes music literacy at the keyboard. There are several ways in which singing helps children be more successful learning the piano:

  • From the very earliest stages of childhood babies listen and often echo their caregivers’ song patterns, providing initial steps to music literacy.
  • Just as your old piano teacher may have done, tapping the beat while singing helps foster beat confidence.
  • Simple body movements, such as rocking from side to side helps establish a basis for understanding meter – like a human metronome!
  • Inviting children to sing the resting tone at the end of songs help to create an understanding of tonality.
Children enjoying a drumming and singing activity during a Musikgarten group piano class.
Children enjoying a drumming and singing activity during a Musikgarten group piano class.

Teaching Songs through Vocal Quality Nourishes Children’s Music Sensitivity

Children’s Music Teachers pay particular attention to their own voices in order to help children to develop a sensitivity for musical keys, tones, and pitches. Several ways that teachers ensure vocal quality are:

  • Singing mostly without music, so that the vocal quality is the focus
  • Singing clearly, but also lightly so as not to dominate the singing of the group
  • Listening to ones voice for proper intonation, so that the song model is tonality exact
  • Pitching songs in the range in which they are suggested
  • Modeling good singing posture, even when sitting

Singing with vocal quality offers an excellent opportunity for children’s music teachers to model expressive musicianship. Establishing a relationship between familiar songs that children can sing and what they will play on the keyboard allows them to echo the melodic and rhythmic patterns which make up each song. This allows them to eventually figure out how to play their favorite songs, which is well exemplified by the Montessori approach of self-learning. The child’s ear becomes the “self-correcting instrument,” guiding the hands what to play.

Singing familiar songs throughout early childhood helps to provide a strong foundation for the understanding of beat, meter, tones, and patterns. And with the five-finger position provided on a keyboard allows children to move more easily to tetrachord and scale positions. Because their playing originates from a familiarity of songs and singing,  as a result they more easily translate and play the songs in many keys.

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

Music Literacy and the Second Stage of Child Development

Merriam-Webster first defines literacy as simply “the ability to read and write,” but a second definition expands that to “knowledge that relates to a specified subject.” This is an important distinction, especially when considering childhood music literacy. In our next series of articles, we will explore how music literacy applies to the second stage of child development, specifically in playing the piano and instrument instruction. While most children’s music programs focus on music and movement in the first stages of development, many fall short of continuing the progress in the second stage of child development necessary to achieve music literacy.  

The Second Stage of Childhood Development

Developmental biologist Jean Piaget established the theory of phases of normal intellectual development from infancy through childhood. The second stage, which Paiget terms Concrete Operational, is where children’s thinking becomes less on themselves and more on their awareness of external events. Some experts argue that development is actually continuous, but Piaget did agree that the depending on the child, the age ranges could vary slightly. While Piaget defines the second stage of childhood development being from ages 7 to 11 years, our focus in this series of articles will focus on the 6 to 9-year-old child.

Ready to Face and Decipher New Challenges

From ages 6 to 9 years, the child has begun a new phase of development both physically and cognitively. They are eager to face fresh challenges and have a growing aptitude for the refined movement needed to play an instrument. Their sensory motor functions have been well-integrated over the last six years, and serve as a good foundation for abstract learning. They are starting to not be satisfied merely with knowing the name of an object, but having the desire to know the how and why of things. One result is that the child’s mind is now interested in symbols, patterns, and codes to explore. This in turn helps to develop an appetite for improvisation and cooperative learning with other children.

Children Love to be Part of a Group 

Beginning in the second stage of development, and sometimes earlier, children are self-aware and ready to become part of a group, especially with peers. A peer group setting becomes a place where the child can begin to learn rules, push limits, and test ideas. This important stage of identity has the benefit of teaching important social skills of how to work with others in teams.

Groups are considered very useful for learning things, as questions can be asked and addressed from different perspectives. This is why nearly all children’s education programs use group activities in the learning process. This is no different for childhood music programs. Children love being with and making music with others. The desire to contribute to the group requires deep concentration and absorption while teaching valuable lessons in cooperative learning.

Music Literacy through Children’s Group Keyboard Lessons

Learning the keyboard provides children with the cognitive challenges and group dynamic that they desire. Music literacy applied to piano playing is much more than reading and recognizing notation or finding the correct keys, but also gives meaning to those notes in a way that allows for composition and improvisation. It is a child’s desire to communicate that motivates them to further develop a deep relationship with the aural and written art of music. This aural approach to music literacy becomes the foundation which provides the child a delightful transition to the world of music notation and understanding. This aural-to-visual method of literacy allows children to understand and appreciate music in terms of its tonality, meter, and style, while further refining their ability to listen.

In our next installments, we will explore specifically how discovering the keyboard in a group setting can be very different from the mechanical drills and rote learning that traditional piano learning imposed.    

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

Confessions of a Piano Teacher

It’s a new year and a new beginning for our blogger, Ellen Johansen.  She will be adding her insights, tips and suggestions each month.  But first let us introduce her:

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My name is Ellen Johansen and I have a passion for teaching music to young children.  It is my belief that music is one of the most valuable gifts we can share with others; the kind of gift where both the receiver and the giver benefit.  Being a Musikgarten teacher, I get to facilitate and develop this gift of music with children and their parents with the hope that they will continue music in their family lives and in their future.

I began teaching piano when I was 16 and I am reluctant to talk about it 🙂

I had no idea what I was doing but I did discover that teaching music was fascinating.  In my twenties after studying the art of piano pedagogy in college, teaching became an important source of income. I drove from home to home, sometimes wondering if I was teaching music or providing an expensive babysitting service.

As I developed my home studio and continued to study piano pedagogy, an annoying and enduring question rose, “How do children really learn to read music?” I scrambled to collect every possible method book, theory and ear training workbooks thinking they would somehow answer this basic question. Yet there seemed to be a disconnection from the printed pages of these books to the sound I wished for my students to learn. The joy I wanted them to experience with discovering and creating a musical sound was missing.

Why were my students so squirmy on the bench? They seemed un-interested in my attempts to help them see a half step compared to a whole step.  Even though they could name those dots on the page with letter names, why did they seemed no closer to reading music fluently?  I found myself blaming it on not enough daily practice.  Or maybe I wasn’t following the method books correctly. The children coming for piano lessons could not sing in tune or keep a steady beat. This concerned me greatly.

As I began to raise my own family I recalled all the hours I spent singing with my own family as I was growing up. My Great grandfather was an organ builder, my grandmother was a piano teacher during the depression and my mother and her sisters learned to play the piano and sing.  Music was part of my every day as a young child. My mother played the piano and sang every night as I fell asleep and my siblings sang songs and played all sorts of musical games children like to sing and play.  We sang and played in the car, we sang and played around the house, we sang at campfires on the beach, we sang in school and at scout meetings, we sang weekly in church and in Sunday school, and we sang and played with our neighborhood friends in the backyard.  But the children walking into my studio were growing up in a different culture, where music was performed on the radio or TV and children attended playdates instead of knocking on a neighbor’s door.

Then I found an ad about teaching early childhood music and movement classes in my studio.  Maybe this source could help me answer this question.  I met Lorna Heyge and everything changed.

I completed every training session offered in early childhood music, and then I taught as many classes as I could book in my music studio. It has now been over 20 years that I have taught the Musikgarten curriculum and this wonderful teacher’s resource has been the ongoing wellsping of appropriate and passionate sequential musical activities that lead the children in my classes towards musical literacy.  But it wasn’t without many missteps and musical mishaps before learning how to incorporate this aural and joyful approach to my classroom.

Today I run a successful, independent music studio on the East End of Long Island and offer all levels of the Musikgarten program, from toddlers through keyboard classes. Most of my Musikgarten graduates continue into piano studies.  I now have the experience of witnessing many of my Musikgarten graduates go on to study other instruments as well as composition. They enter college with music in their hearts and as part of their course load.  One student of mine, who started in a toddler music class, is graduating from High School this year and will be giving a concert of piano music including Debussy’s Arabesque and Gershwin’s Preludes.  He is a great example of the Musikgarten graduate who is the literate musician I always dreamed of teaching; he thinks and plays musically, can hear what he sees and sees what he hears.  It all started with that first question: “How do children really learn to read music?”

I hope my experience and insights into this marvelous curriculum will help you find your answers to your teaching questions.