Although these remarks are aimed at child beginners, the basic concepts apply equally to teen and adult beginners.
Be especially delighted when the student shows initiative (preparing the next song on his own, putting hands together when you and he agreed that he'd do only hands apart). This is how we foster independent musical thinkers and children who are confident in their skills.
I advise starting students with true note reading rather than working up to it from rote-playing or some form of pre-notation. Start the way you are going to continue. Reading "real music" from the start makes children feel very "grown up," and it avoids their feeling betrayed when a new, more difficult system of notation is suddenly required several months into study.
Age (which correlates roughly with developmental readiness) has only a small impact on learning to read real music notation. Just because children cannot read the written word does not mean they are unready to read music notation. Certainly, it's easier if the child can read words because he can then read the assignment in the notebook, but a "pre-reader" has a parent who can help! Moreover, being presented with something written just for them and about something they want to do is a great stimulus to learning to read. I advise you never to turn away students only because they cannot read words yet. If a child can say the alphabet and count to 20, I can teach him to read notation, and I'm sure you can, too.
Introduce the metronome early on, too, and present "games" for its use. Make metronome use part of every lesson assignment and ask for its use at home as a practice tool within the first couple months of study.
I advise you most strongly to withhold eighth-notes for children until grade four. Even teen/adult beginners will profit from playing music only with quarter- notes as the smallest value for their first year.
Andante (which I define as "comfy," "leisurely," or "a leisurely stroll," depending on the age of the student--rather than terms mature musicians use) is a natural pace for beginners. I also find that one quarter-note at 60 to 63 is often selected by the student (I have a suspicion this corresponds closely to the human pulse rate!).
A beginner may have better success with a momentary effect: an accented note (or a sforzando) rather than a forte passage. Some don't have the finger strength to play a sustained forte passage.
A beginner likes note values no smaller than a quarter-note. Values greater than four should be written as tied-note groups. Several smaller values tied together are better than one large and one small; for example, for five counts, tie a dotted-half and a half-note together, not a whole note and a quarter. It looks strange to us, as mature musicians, but the tied-note group tells the beginner exactly how many counts are needed.
An early beginner concentrates on the noteheads. He won't even notice symbols located apart from noteheads, such as rests in the silent hand.
Time signatures should be reduced to the *top number only* (leave out the bottom number altogether). Don't even both to try to explain that "this means three quarter notes in a measure." "Three counts in a measure" is much more meaningful to the beginner.
All accidentals should be written in--each time they occur in the measure. The beginner is intent on traversing the line of music and worried about what is coming next and getting his fingers to the right place in time. For this reason, he cannot remember a key signature or even an accidental earlier in the measure. I advise you not to worry about reading key signatures until note-reading is well-established (at least a year and probably two or three for a beginner who starts at age 4-5.).
Four measures per line is a good number for beginner music. There's plenty of "air" around the notes so the student does not feel overwhelmed by the "note-yness" of the piece. "A lot of notes" equals "difficult" as far as the beginner is concerned, and he will be intimidated by densely-packed notation. Better to write 16 measures to a page and use two pages for two songs (thus creating confidence) than to squeeze two 16-measure songs on a page (and thus creating anxiety).
Use the grand staff, even with one-hand songs. Seeing the complete compass of the staves helps the beginner orient himself. The grand staff is also gives the beginner clues, in the beginning, as to which hand plays which note.
Everything is going to come out mezzo-forte and andante anyway, so don't worry about it!
Be liberal with opaquing fluid. Paint out all those distractions so your beginner can focus on correct note- reading and counting. Don't even quail at removing notes or simplifying rhythms. (Reduce two eighths to a quarter; change dotted-quarter/eighth to two quarter-notes; etc.) Who knows your student better? You or the editor?
Be prepared to write material yourself for your beginning students. It's not that hard. You can do it!
A short song crystallizes the goal of the piece and helps beginners focus their attention on the pedagogical nugget in it. And passing off four one-line songs is far more satisfying than passing off one four-line piece! To beginners, it seems greater evidence of progress....and four stickers!
Holiday songs are popular, too, especially with children. Their favorite holiday is Christmas; Halloween is second; and Valentine's Day is third. Harness their enthusiasm by making holiday music a part of the curriculum. (And while we're at it, how about a Halloween recital in costume or a Valentine's recital at a nursing home where each student makes a Valentine to present to a resident there?)
If something new is introduced, I also recommend scaling back the demands in other areas. If a new note is introduced, eliminate dynamic markings (and other details) in the piece. Let the student focus on the new material without having to worry about other details.
*NEVER* write in finger numbers when introducing a note which is outside the five-finger position. For example, one-line A (second space on the treble clef). This note requires a stretch. It's enough for you to point it out; the student knows he has to stretch RH pinkie to get to it. Now here's the rub. He must -also- revise fingering for, let's say, the G just below it. No longer is finger 5 going to play that G; now he must use finger 4. Do *not* write in 4 above that G! Make him think, "This is a step down so I must use the next finger down." Writing in the rest of the fingering makes it easier on the teacher, for sure ("Just use finger 4, ferpetessake!"), but we are not requiring the student to use his basic note-reading skills. Instead, we are offering him a sop which will ultimately slow down his reading of new notes. Of course, writing in finger numbers is easier for the student, too, because he already "knows" what numerals mean and naturally will revert to reading the more familiar symbol (the numeral, not that black dot). Encourage reading by minimizing finger numbers!
Therefore, fingering should appear *only* at an atypical situation - - a thumb tuck/finger-crossing or a finger substitution. And what proper beginner piece contains problems such as these?! (See elsewhere on my home page for further information on fingering.)
Paint out those finger numbers printed in the book. Allow only those where there is ambiguity or an unusual circumstance.
Beginners like songs that have words, even if they don't sing them. Funny or clever lyrics are highly favored. (They're not too fond of tedium, so practice charts and recording minutes of practice done do a lot to dampen enthusiasm.)
If beginners think that piano study is a satisfying activity, they'll keep at it and become intermediates. That's when the actual literature itself becomes more interesting to the teacher!
copyright 1996-2005, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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