What do you teach to a beginner during the 1st Piano Lesson?

To Parents – Principles that should be taught starting right from the first lesson

During my early teaching years, I would normally select a tutor book and commence the first lesson from page one of the book.  Many occasions, I did not know which book best suited my student’s needs in terms of their intellects, regardless of their age, as some students are highly intelligent and more mature than another given the same age. Selection of a lesson book should take into considerations the student’s character, personality and exposure and influence to music, from family background to environment.

These have led me to wonder are there alternative ways to augment a child’s first lesson.  Hence, during my lessons I have incorporated a few important principles.  It is imperative that students are set up properly to prevent unnecessary bad habits from developing in the future.

1. Lesson Duration

Firstly, from experience, I have found that a 30 minute lesson for a beginner is not sufficient while a 60 minute lesson may be lengthy, so I recommend that 45 minutes as most ideal.  In some cases, though, it may be better to schedule two 30 minutes sessions per week. This can greatly help to monitor if the student is following through the instructions and process as instructed and will help prevent bad habits from developing during practice alone at home.  If the student learns things right, it only takes repetition two to three times to start building a strong foundation.  Imagine if the beginner student practices incorrectly twice a day with multiple repetitions for six days before the next lesson, how much damage could unfold in that period. Often times, correcting or unlearning bad habits is thrice as hard as learning to acquire the right approach. This process should be closely monitored until the teacher is satisfied that the concept of the lesson is established.

2. Meet and Greet

I generally like to start to get to know my young students by asking questions when I meet them. Typically, I ask questions to find out what sports they like, is there any colour that they particularly like, what is their favourite book and character, why did they choose to learn the piano and the like. For older beginners, I may ask what their goal of learning the piano is, do they wish to become a concert musician, a piano teacher or just learn for pleasure. Other questions will include what type of music they wish to learn. These questions help me gauge the student’s personality and interests.  I use this information to plan lessons and work with them more collaboratively by possibly relating examples that inspire their learning process.

3. Posture

Many times I have inherited students where they present themselves with appalling posture formation and poor use of finger movement when sitting at the piano bench. I have sometimes had to spend an awful lot of time correcting and helping them undo their bad habits.  This definitely causes me to raise my eye brow and wonder how their previous teacher could have taught so irresponsibly. In the early days of training a student I continuously reinforce proper posture and form vehemently.

To address this, firstly, the student’s shoulders must be square and relaxed because holding up tension will result in restriction of mobility which will curtail the ability to allow freedom of movement which impacts tone and expression. Beginners are taught how to hold their palm and fingers on the keyboard. It may seem like the most natural things to do but unfortunately it is not.  Neither over supination (hands leaning towards the pinky) nor over pronation (thumb roll in towards the inner arms) should happen. On a daily basis, we walk, write and eat our meals with our hands in a supinated position but hardly do we pronate and thus asking a student to undo the supination is one of the most challenging activities!

It may take weeks if not months to establish all the components of proper posture, form and technique. While I teach my students lifting and stroking the key in tandem with the forearm dropped and with a rolling motion while keeping the wrists very supple, as well as proper posture, it can be an arduous task at times.  Students learn how to gain independency of each finger and the production of the tone quality simultaneously. Albeit there are teachers who hastily teach beginners from tutor books that introduce the middle C, D, E, etc right off the bat. My approach is to not teach directly from the tutor book at this stage. From my experience, I have always incessantly found that concentrating only on the tutor book distorts the awareness of the student on how they hold their posture, use their fingers and other movement that may be involved. Until they have learnt and gained finger independency, reading notes from the music scores only serves as a distraction to the consciousness. These activities require continuous monitoring through a beginner’s formative stage which is regarded as one of the basic foundation of techniques.

4. Phonology

Phonology deals with the production of the tone quality. Students learn to use their ten fingers effectively and purposefully to strike each key to produce a quality tone production. So to address this aspect, I encourage my students to listen attentively and produce the best tone quality. This must be cultivated from an early stage so they can discern between sonorous sounds (good ringing singing), rich warm tones and a harsh percussive tones. A beautiful tone is the most sought after capital assets that every instrumentalist strives to acquire just as a vocalist must possess an attractive voice to sing.

I instruct my students to use the forward arm roll and drop movement to achieve a non-percussive sound. The wrist must maintain suppleness and be relaxed to allow the whole hand to flop from above and roll forward with the forearm. In other words, the function of the wrist is like a hinge to a mechanical part of a device. To roll forward, the fingers strike the key towards the palm in a ‘come to me’ motion. With each sound produced, I frequently check with my student to comment on if the sound played is what they intended to hear.

5. Pulse

During my lessons a student is being taught how to govern their posture at the keyboard as well as using their five fingers of each hand to strike the keys with the intended sound. They could frivolously strike the key and make a whole lot of sound which would not make any sense. I frequently explain to beginners that music has a life, a heart rate and pulse of its own. The onus is upon the player to bring the music notes on the page to life.

I introduce tapping and clapping to the note values i.e. 1,2,3 and 4 beats as well as time signature 2, 3 and 4 beats in a bar . When tapping and clapping is involved, this creates a very strong physical sense to understand the note values. Simple rhythmic patterns will also be incorporated into this pulse tapping and clapping learning.

Some beginners may find the pulse tapping and clapping uncomfortable. Nonetheless, if you persist with this task for a sustained length of time during the lesson, it will soon become a seamless activity as the pulse becomes integrated as part of the body’s internal ‘clock’. Over time, this strengthens the rhythm and pulse.

When the pulse is established, the beginner can start to make sense of each note that is struck by giving them a simple rhythmic pattern.

6. Personality

A plain simple decent of each key strike by a finger is merely a sound. In order to enliven each note played, it is vital to teach the student to add character and personality to each sound. In my opinion, a beginner whether young or old should be taught that a single key of a piano is capable of producing a million sounds.

This expands their imagination, expression and creativity as a pianist. I encourage my students to produce sound with expression. Learning this way not only teaches about what each expression really means and feels, it also puts a piece they are learning into context and the student becomes more engaged and interested.

Bringing it all Together

So a good teacher will address these principles starting right from page one of the lesson book.  It may seem a lot more onerous for a teacher but it will, in the long run, offer greater rewards as the student progresses through lessons.

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