By: Hellene Hiner
The commonly accepted traditional methods of teaching beginners to play the piano are about as dangerous for the mentality of our children as throwing them alone into the middle of the ocean to teach them to swim. They are as painful as pulling teeth without anesthesia. Even though we love music and have an endless desire to learn the music language, the majority of the existing methods of teaching music instruments is a waste of time, money and energy for most people. This is because they were primarily designed for the low percentage of musically gifted people. As for the average person- these lessons aren't only useless, but may cause incurable wounds, and as a result could negatively affect the character of the learner and his perception of life in general.
This is exactly why there is an abundance of different systems and methods of teaching music, but only a little amount of people who can actually play and sight-read. Our society is sharply separated into the small stratum of music experts and all of the illiterate masses that can't read music at all. Piano lessons have been associated with so many disappointments passed from one generation to another that the amount of people that still want their children to study music decreases every year. This has had a negative impact on the development of music as a language, on music as a performing art and on the music industry in general. For example, according to the Blue Book of Pianos, since the year 1956, the total number of piano sales has dropped to half as much. Music publicists, performers and music teachers greatly suffer from a lack of interest from the general public to study music. However, the greatest damage that music illiteracy brings to public education is its impoverishing of our perception, limiting our imaginations, and weakening our minds and creativity. Currently, the crisis is being worsened by music recording technology, which has weakened the motivation of people to receive a music education at all. Why struggle, if in order to hear music all you have to do is push a button on a CD player?
The currently existing systems of teaching music are as absurd and ineffective as the teaching of literacy in the Middle Ages. Then, scholars learned in the Latin language, which was extraneous to their perceptions, by memorizing large texts from the teacher's drills. This is why teaching one to be literate was selective, individual, and was offered only to the most mature adults and teenagers. Only prodigies with extraordinary memory and analytical abilities were able to advance from mere acquaintance with a bunch of senseless sounds to their comprehension and structure. In the Middle Ages, it was also commonly believed that literacy was just for a selected few people and that global illiteracy wasn't to be questioned.
Luckily, today the methods of teaching children literacy have improved so drastically that we are able to teach every child to read and write from as young as 6 years old in a group setting in public schools. We've forgotten how literacy was earned in the Middle Ages long ago. More than that! Even recent existing methods (for example, the popular method in which children were required to memorize the shape of letters, rather than the sound, developed by Scott Foresman in the 50's-60's) are considered absurd.
However, music education is still based on the blunders related to the ignorance of the most important psychological rules of human perception. This throws us back onto educational traditions from several centuries ago, and puts the mentality of contemporary people in danger. The errors of music pedagogy are not as innocent as we used to think them. They contribute to the low self-esteem and disappointment of our children, and kill the desire to study music at all. This is the real reason for the total music illiteracy of people. The cutting of budgets in public music education is the only material proof of the general catastrophe.
Piano as a starting point for learning music
Piano could and should be the starting point of the music education for every person beginning from the age of 2 years old, because the piano is considered to be the 'king' of all instruments. I truly consider the piano to be the most important instrument of intellectual training for young children. The piano is the perfect tool for children's development at the preschooler's age.
* To produce a sound on the piano (for very small children, a keyboard) is not as hard and challenging as on other instruments. * It doesn't require an established music ear to produce a correct sound, like the violin, but it is able to develop the music ear. * The linear and regular placement of piano keys helps one to understand the rules of music notation. * To play the piano, a musician has to use both hands equally, and every finger has to work as hard as the others. * The necessity to apply the verticality of music notes to the horizontal layout of the piano keys promotes spatial thinking in the piano player.
Playing piano has the ability to develop symphonic thinking, like in an orchestra of multiple sounds. Because our perception of a chord is the perception of space in sounds, and vice versa, melody gives the feeling of time.
Considering all of these advantages, the piano could become a tutor for every child learning the music language from early childhood. All it takes is looking at the existing methods of teaching music with the eyes of men in the 21 century. We have to try to improve the way we teach music as soon as possible, because we have to stop the constraint on the mentalities of our children first.
I hope that you will be interested in reading the observations that I have managed to collect during the last 29 years of my music-pedagogical career. Perhaps, you will use this insight to decide: "Is it worth it to continue to defend the established principals of teaching music, or not?"
"Practice makes perfect" - what exactly is improving our existing music pedagogy
"Practice makes perfect" is a very popular saying among music teachers. This phrase is repeated so often that nobody realizes the teacher's meaning of it. You could perfect the act of plowing a field as much as you like, but if you forgot to plant any seeds into it, all of that work would be worthless. If we want to teach a child to swim, he'd have to spend a large amount of time in the water to learn. This is the only way to build swimming skills. If we teach a child to read fluently, he has to spend most of his time reading - not listening to our explanations of how to do so. Yet, in music class, children are still forced to study theory before they can even touch an instrument. For a beginner, music theory is something absolutely new and absurd. The child is unable to rely on his previous experience, since he has none. The 'practice' in this case results to nothing but mechanical drills. In most cases, the traditional pedagogy has had this exact drilling in mind when using the word "practice" - the most frustrating, laborious and ineffective work, with results that don't fairly reflect the time and energy invested.
Every child collects enough audio, visual, and tactile experience by perceiving sounds, images, and feelings firsthand. This experience can be used as a reliable basis for learning music and playing the piano. In order to learn anything, the person's active thinking process must be involved, based on his life experience. Yet traditional systems of teaching music cross all of the student's experience out, starting from a white page. The student is then stuffed with new and strange theory information and coded abstract images, which are alien to his perception. We all hate Spam and we put signs on our doors that say 'No soliciting'. Yet in music class, the teacher constantly solicits the minds of our children with needless theory Spam, which their perception does not require without any experience of reading music.
"Practice makes perfect" in this context sounds like a spell, like the only way out of a dead end situation. Cramming without the support of a child's established practical experience is the only help he has in handling new information without really understanding it. In order to properly understand and memorize, the student must find regularity and a principle of organization in the material. This is the reason children learn grammar rules in any language only after they've learned to speak it, and are capable of reading and writing comprehensively.
As a result, the memorization of music pieces is similar to memorizing a French poem by imitating the way it sounds while actually having no idea what it means. Children are not reading music, but drilling it bar by bar. When music is learned this way, it is more easily forgotten and doesn't build a solid enough base for the future music development of the child. This causes irretrievable damage to the mentality of the children, because they see that they put forth too much effort for only a tiny result. When learned with this much labor, the 'right' movements of the hands and fingers promote a 'perfectionism' complex. The students are horrified to play something new 'incorrectly' - with the wrong fingers, wrong hands and with no 'dynamics' approved by the teacher. After such tremendous inputs of time and energy into this kind of activity, the result is rather negative in the long run. The mechanically learned piece of music does not contribute to familiarity with the music language and does not help the student to understand it. The child is unable to see the whole picture because he gets too caught up with the minor details.
The system of teaching theory brings more chaos to our children's minds. For example, the mnemonically based formula 'Every Good Boy Does Fine' slows the development of the recognition, differentiation and reading of music notes. The sounds of music move up and down in the forwards and backwards directions freely, and the preset sequence of English words (FACE) or sentences (All Cows Eat Grass) loses impact when flipped around. In fact, it prevents the development of fluent reading in beginners' minds. 'Good does boy every fine', 'fine every does good boy,' or 'ECAF,' just does not make any sense to students, who are aligned to the logic of speech.
On the other hand, it is absolutely necessarily for every beginner to know the order of music sounds and music keys back and forth, from any point on the Grand Staff the way we know our own room's plan enough to move through it in total darkness. We need to know this sequence in order to possess an awareness of music space and to be able to freely move in it. This is exactly why even when pressing only one key, a beginner has to picture which keys are around, in one step or in 2 steps, etc., in order to feel free to deliberately move in any direction and group the hands' muscles before the fingers can hit them precisely. But 'Every Good Boy Does Fine' does not give the child freedom to shift freely because it ties the child's mind to the short leash of the English phrase. This ploy is like a single, unstable rope over a precipice that music teachers use as a bridge for students who never developed the ability to balance.
How the 'traditional' way of teaching piano damages the development of the fine motor skills of beginners.
People's skills are such a vulnerable area of their development that forcing progress could cause permanent damage. It is the same as forcefully opening a flower bud's petals before it is ready to do so itself. Despite the fact that the official motto of piano education is "Do it right from the very first," this pressure contradicts the very nature of the formation, development and perfection of skills. It is very sad that this dangerous outrage upon the nature of human muscle development is so welcomed in music pedagogy and maims one generation of people after another.
First, a child must learn to stand firmly on his feet and to keep his balance, before he can feel confident and strong enough to make his first step. Only after learning to walk is he capable of running and jumping, and only when all of these skills are developed is he ready to learn to dance with rhythm. No adult in his right mind would ever decide to teach a barely standing and bouncing toddler to perform ballet.
Considering the analogy of walking, there are certain stages of the development of piano fine motor skills:
1. Finding the correct keys using any fingers
2. Finding the correct keys with the proper fingers
3. Playing keys with different duration (rhythm)
4. Playing in consideration to the tempo and pulse
5. Playing in consideration to the quality of the sounds (dynamics, character, etc.)
Under no circumstances should the child be pushed to the next level before he accomplishes the previous stage!
Another important rule is that in accordance with the nature of skill development, each person has to walk - not study the theory on how to do it. He has all the rights on earth to walk the way he can. A majority of people understands that at the first performance, any skill will reflect some clumsiness. For music pedagogy, this rule of nature is just a ligament. Most piano teachers demand even sounds, precise rhythm and an expressive performance with ideally rounded hands from even 3-year-old toddlers, who have just learned to find themselves on the piano keys!
When a child is learning to walk, he should be able to see the ground and to know where is he going and where he is located. It would be extremely cruel to cover the child's eyes in order to teach him to walk in the darkness and 'to feel' the ground without even getting a good look to begin with, forcing the child to imagine the road in his mind. However, during piano lessons, children are not allowed to see what the names are of the keys that they press. Instead of this, teachers demand that their students project the order of the keys in their minds. The coordination of the development and assimilation of the keyboard as a walking space for the fingers is offered to students with no support of vision.
Consideration of all of the additional demands leads to an overcharging of the child's perception and pushes his muscles to work under terrible stress. It is fraught with irreversible consequences not only for fine motor skill development, but also for the nervous system in general.
In order for you to understand how this exactly happens, imagine what life would be like if our city authorities had decided to take all of the street names down. Try to recall your own nerves' sensations in an unfamiliar neighborhood while trying to find a certain address, especially if you were running late. Children's nerves stay in that condition during piano lessons most of the time! A pain in the neck, lifted shoulders, clamped hands - all of this is a consequence of forceful treatment of muscle development with no consideration to the child's health.
It is a fact that the fear of getting hurt and the fear of uncertainty can often enslave our muscles. This defending reaction, given to us by nature, is used to free our reserves to solve the most urgent problems using analytical comprehension first. The griping muscles and injuries of young players are due to the stress of an informational overload. Thus, the abundance of analytical problems blocks the assimilation of coordination skills, causing the muscles to become rigid. This could cause many injuries to our children, from physical to spiritual, and could fasten many complexes, which are very influential to the formation of their personality.
How 'traditional' ways of teaching piano hold back the music ear development of children.
Music was born from the human throat. Scientists, with the help of electronic devices, have proved that the throat participates in the process of music perception. More than that: the ear's and the voice's development are tightly interrelated. With the help of voice exercises, it is possible to develop one's music ear. In fact, even people who could not carry a tune before can earn the capability to sing and write advanced melodies by ear.
On the other hand, without voicing notions, it is impossible to develop an adequate thinking process. Saying new words and sentences out loud is the most natural and common method of mastering any language. This is why teaching children to read with phonics was a real break-through in public education. This smart approach helped our children to rely on their formed audio and vocal experience and it increased the effectiveness of reading by several times. With the help of phonic teaching, it is possible to teach even preschoolers how to read.
Bearing on the Alphabet system in music class is an obstacle to music education indeed, because it does not rely on the human voice and on articulation, but instead tries to thrust abstract symbols into sound. It creates artificial difficulties in the forming process of the music ear and thinking of children, because the very important organ of music perception is not involved in the process of study. In this scenario, a child is forced to learn with a skill that he never mastered - the skill of memorizing abstract symbols, which do not have anything to do with music sounds.
As a result, the formed system of music education produces 2 types of musically 'handicapped' people - the first type is capable of sight reading, but is unable to play by ear and improvise, and the second type can play everything by ear, but cannot read. The gap between musical sound and the child's perception of it with time becomes a disaster in the human mind, and half-educated musicians are very common.
Many teachers, however, understand the importance of singing during the process of learning music. They try to use the letters of the Alphabet as syllables for singing. But this is a very bad idea that can damage the underdeveloped and vulnerable vocal cords of children. Judge for yourself: 'Ei,' and 'Ef,' are two 'locked' syllables, based on the vowel 'A', which is one of the most uncomfortable for singing. Other syllables - 'Bi', 'Ci,','Di" 'Eee,' and 'Djee,' all use the same vowel 'E,' which is one of the most tensed, and come out through a clenched jaw, giving 5 notes out of 7 the same timber 'color.'
The most convenient and time-proven system of names for music notes is Solfegio, known as Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol etc., created in the 10th century by Gvido from Arezzo (an Italian monk who also invented the Staff and notes). These syllables were developing and in use for 11 centuries. Solfegio offers the most balanced and comfortable vowels for the human throat. They are extremely helpful for vocal, ear, and music memory development along with the music perception of every individual, regardless of his music aptitude.
Without 'voicing' music the way children 'voice' words at the beginning of their study, they are being deprived of the opportunity to develop their music ear, memory and thinking. The alphabet names for notes were specially designed only for those who have an inborn talent, giving others little chance to succeed in learning the music language.
The 'Traditional' Grand Staff - is like 'War and Peace' for beginners It is very easy to tell a children's book from a novel by its bright and colorful appearance, and large fonts and pictures used to help to understand the meaning of the writing visually. These 'hints' help the child to rely on the established skill of the visual world's perception with an opportunity to develop his abstract thinking and imagination. The texts for children who are just learning to read usually consist of small sentences, not volumetric paragraphs, and as a rule, do not have more than 5-7 lines of words on one page.
The amount of lines is sometimes crucial to the visual perception of any written material. Everybody knows that. This rule is followed by all people with common sense - teachers, editors, parents. Music pedagogy managed to ignore that rule also! There is nothing more complicated in understanding and comprehensive learning than the 'traditional' Grand Staff.
The Grand Staff's appearance is not just intimidating to children, but also to adults - beginners, too. The Grand Staff consists of a minimum of 10 lines and 12 spaces. Completely, there are 22 graphically similar lines of music text. For fluent reading, the beginner's eyes have to see and operate through all of these lines at once. According to the research of Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), the founder of memory psychology, the ability of our memory is limited and can't keep up with more than 7 new elements at the same time. In order to operate more elements with no stress, you have to gather them in-groups and systemize them. At the heart of any memorization (especially visual), if there aren't mechanical drills, one has to organize the materials. The art of memorization is in the ability to see and to think systematically.
However, it is very hard to understand the lines and spaces of the Grand Staff, because the graphics of it are not literally what they represent. In fact, the black, thin lines and white, wide spaces are equal stitches, like in chess. The beginner's mind sees thin black lines and thick spaces and gets the wrong impression: that the black lines are important stitches and the spaces are just breaks between them, like in books. The traditional black and white graphics of the Grand Staff hold meaning to professionals who have experience reading music. However, there are no hints for the eyes of beginners to determine what is most important and how to focus on it. More than that: the note duration graphic is more expressive than the note's pitch. But to beginners, who have an underdeveloped coordination and are busy looking for the correct keys, rhythm is not their top priority.
I don't know of any 'classical' method that's ever created learning materials capable of training the eyesight of beginners to determine each line or space on the fly. I never saw any flash cards or software meant to develop their vision to instantly recognize space and line notes with the help of a subsidiary graphic. I didn't see the use of colors and images that are capable of attracting the vision of a beginner as a decoder of abstract rules, as with pictures in children's books. Reading lines and spaces, however, is a crucial task because music notes share a similar appearance, and their difference in pitch can only be determined by their place on the black and white 'roads'.
Only the experienced eye of a musician has the ability to 'catch' all of the 22 tracks of coded music writing accurately, having enough of an attention span to see the lines of the Grand Staff volumetrically, in a system, and in graphical correlation with each other. For the vision of any child-beginner, though, there is no difference between the notes on the second or third line, or between two adjacent notes, whether they are on the same track or on a different one. Without this kind of 'music vision,' the human eye is nothing but useless dead weight, which can only confuse a beginner perceiving the music text.
The 'solution' to the blind situation described earlier- memorizing the notes with the help of words and phrases, places the entire load on the student's brain, rather than his visual perception. Along with all other loads, this is too much to handle for the child's mind, stretching its responsibilities to inconceivable limits.
If you find a music textbook with cheerful and fun pictures and colorfully presented 'rest signs,' Clefs, or other symbols of music writing, do not jump to the conclusion that it is a good book. Whimsical music notes disguised as people, animals or other creatures, and music lines colored like a rainbow aren't always able to teach your child to read music. First of all, colors CAN'T explain sounds. All of these attempts to color each note in 7 different ways to 'explain' their differences are nothing but a mess that is not going to help your child. Secondly, before you get too excited, try to analyze what the graphics are exactly about and to what senses they are applied. What is this book trying to explain? Is any of this visual 'fuzz' actually helping the child to 'decode' the Grand Staff principals, or is it only another element that 'stuffs' him with even more theory information? If so, all of these cute characters will only overload his mind. Please remember that this is only more 'Theory Spam,' which can lead to future disappointments.
The arrangement of notes on the Grand Staff constitutes a harmonious 'mirror' system, but the majority of students have no idea about it. This system is so vivid, simple and understandable, that it can always solve the question of memorizing and finding any note of any octave on the fly. The system per se is a music visual combined with an articulate alphabet, and to know the system is as important as knowing your multiplication tables in math, or the table of elements in chemistry. Thanks to this system, it is possible to find any key related to any note and to understand the logic of music space in general. But the majority of the 'traditional' methods prefer to teach music notes and music keys separately, one by one, without any reliance on the music system, denying our children any prospective.
"Playing with sheet music," or the apotheosis of struggles.
Everyone knows that playing with sheet music is one of the most important stages of music education. In fact, that is the exact reason - to be able to play by reading sheet music - that the majority of people take piano lessons. They envision themselves being able to open any book and to fluently read it. This is the ground breaking difference and misunderstanding between the wide masses and piano teachers. For the masses, music is a language that they want to learn to play for themselves. For most music professionals, music is an art meant to be performed on stage for others. No English teacher will ever dare to make every child that is just beginning to learn how to spell words and read to do so while acting and using theatrical expressiveness. Maybe because when the whole world gained some literacy, it brought the realization to us that everybody should know how to read and write, but only the gifted can master these skills to the artistic level. In the music pedagogy, the idea that students should play artistically or not play at all is still cultivating. This puts all musically inclined and artistically gifted children on a podium and precipitates all others into the abyss of blame, making them ashamed of themselves, hurt and disappointed, and losing confidence.
The ways of teaching to play with sheet music itself are the most nonsensical in the world of pedagogy practice. All of the student's senses and skills, such as coordination, vision, ear and voice, are developed separately by the piano teachers while using theory and explanations as a major tool! Thus, the piano teacher practically explains to the child's hands how they are supposed to move and look when they touch piano keys. The child's ears are told what they are supposed to hear. The eyes are instructed on where they have to look and what they have to see, and the head is advised on what it has to think during the process. The child's voice does not get any attention at all most of the time, because it is considered unimportant.
If, after all these hours of explanations and incredible struggles, the child actually starts to play exercises and to guess the right notes, it does not bring him any closer to fluent sight reading. This is because he doesn't know how to do everything he learned separately at the same time. I do not know any nutritionist that would recommend feeding a child an enormous meal once a week. Yet, almost every piano teacher tries to shove all of the skills and knowledge into a child with total impunity, never stopping to ask, "isn't this too much for the child's comprehension and mental health?"
One of the oldest skills a child has ever developed from birth is copying. Through imitation, children learn to talk and to move by looking at adults and 'mirroring' them. This is why the direction of the lines of text and the writing of them is the same. 'Monkey see, monkey do,' is the smartest way to teach kids new tricks and to perceive the world. When it comes to playing the piano with sheet music, things aren't done this way at all. Music notes are placed on the music Staff vertically while the corresponding keys sit horizontally. This is the last drop for many beginners, leaving them completely lost and frustrated. Already overloaded with way too many puzzles and abstract theory information, they just can't handle any more!
Developed separately, all of the child's skills start to conflict with each other, rather than work as a team to handle the task. They hold the progress of reading (which is not already fluent) even further down. Previously learned piano exercises provide absolutely no help for note reading and theory, while knowledge of theory alone has nothing to do with hand coordination. The music ear can't participate in this activity at all, because while producing one note at a time, it is hard to hear any music. As a result, the child, 'prepared' to play with the music sheet feels like a puppy with a huge boulder of information tied to his neck. Struggling to make it from one note to another, and trying to find the corresponding key to each note, beginners aren't left with too many choices: either quit all this unpleasant business, or start to drill music text while cramming. In both cases, they lose the inspiration to study music and to love it for the rest of their lives.
The vision, coordination, hearing and thinking of any person must interact in a rational and healthy balance. Any educated professional should understand that while focusing on one thing, you cannot equally focus on another. But whatever the plan is, skills have to be at the heart of every lesson, and especially piano lessons! There are two very important rules of didactics: '1. You have to move gradually from the simple to the more complicated and 2. You have to move gradually from the specific to the abstract.' These rules were selected by the world's pedagogy centuries ago, and following them is essential.
Every system of teaching music that is offered to our children to play with notes using the traditional black and white Grand Staff is in fact violating these didactic rules. It makes the balance between the development of coordination skills, vision, and abstract thinking practically impossible. The demand to develop coordination skills in conjunction with music reading at an equal proportion is the same as downloading modern, advanced computer games on a Pentium I.
The only solution to this dilemma is to find a healthy balance that could be a simplified presentation of the Grand Staff, with as many visual hints for the beginner's eyes and coordination as possible. The more we develop these basic skills, the more room we free for a more advanced level of education - the thinking process and the ability to analyze all of the information. The skills of playing piano by no means can conflict with each other or to get in each other's way. It is very important to move beginners to the more advanced steps of the regular Grand Staff gradually, and to keep the balance between mental thinking and motor and visual skills in a stable and healthy proportion. This is the main principal of organizing the smartest and stress-free curriculum for children and beginners of any age in the world's pedagogy.
The Suffering, that became a law.
Children love to learn new things successfully. Otherwise, they do not like to learn at all. Traditional music pedagogy, for most of its long existence, has lost several generations of people and has contributed to the total music illiteracy in the world. It has cultivated musically illiterate presidents and governments and it didn't accomplish anything better than a tricky explanation of its failure. According to this explanation, the struggles that our children go through by dealing with the absurd teaching of music fundamentals are the only right and legitimate way of learning. As any dentist would say, that it is as professional as pulling teeth without anesthesia.
For the long time that people have existed, we've gotten used to thinking that the aptitude to study music is a God-given gift. God is much more generous than people used to think of Him. The ability to hear and differentiate music sounds, sing and play with sheet music and to write music down by ear can be earned by every average person. It is possible to learn all these skills in group settings in public schools. I understand this is hard to believe. Yet, once upon a time, it was hard to believe that you could get to New York from Houston in only a couple of hours, to speak with a friend in another part of town through a tube, or to have a box that shows movies. It only takes desire to fix the problem with music education now, and music literacy will become a part of everyone's life. Most importantly, we need the motivation to make it happen, and the courage to understand that these changes are for the better.