What Beginners Need

Although these remarks are aimed at child beginners, the basic concepts apply equally to teen and adult beginners.

A Safe Learning Environment

A safe place to learn is on the top of the list.

A Teacher With Confidence in Them

Beginners must know that the teacher has total confidence in their ability to learn.

Permission to Experiment

A secure learning environment also means a safe place to explore. Let children know they are free to improvise, to create, to experiment. Encourage them to show you what they've done. Praise it enthusiastically. Don't judge it or try to improve it. Accept it as it is, as an expression of the moment. Ask to see the results of their next exploration.


Don't just praise right notes and correct rhythms. Compliment the student on successful accomplishment of each goal, no matter how small ("I see you packed all your books this week. Good for you!").

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.

An Opportunity to Make Decisions

Beginners need to be heard. This motivates them to work hard.

Plenty of Time

Beginners need plenty of time to think about answers to the questions you ask. If they seem stumped, don't jump in and suggest an answer. Don't even rephrase the question. Be patient and wait for them to gather their thoughts and speak. Science teachers found that when they gave children unlimited time to answer questions that the answers were in greater depth than when "hurried." (This same study also found that teachers gave more answer-thinking time to kids they considered bright and *less* time to those they thought to be "slow," which is of course is opposite to the way it ought to be!)

Plenty of Repetition

Beginners nearly always need more repetition than we teachers suppose. Rather than ask, "Do you understand this?" I ask my beginners: "On a scale of one to ten, where ten is water and one is mud, how clear is this?" We go over (and over) the concept or difficulty until the student announces he is at least at 8.5 or 9. Sometimes it is helpful also to inquire: "Do you know what you're supposed to do even if your fingers won't do it yet?" This helps the beginning pupil differentiate between understanding and proficiency, which are two different things.

Help in Organization and Time Management

Nearly all beginners need help in these two areas. Setting a practice time at home is one thing to suggest. You may want to solicit the parent's help with the home situation. Setting up the assignment in an orderly way is another. Always put the same thing first (such as technique) and ask the child to follow the order as you write it; this helps him establish a routine.

Help in Practice Techniques

Beginners need help in learning how to practice at home. Show them the way to pinpoint trouble spots and what to do with them. Show them how to integrate the newly-repaired section into the piece. Again, you may wish to ask the parent to help in a specific way.

Stability at the Piano

I have found that the most successful method with beginners is centered around Middle C. Middle C Position, as it is called, promotes body stability, as well as solid reading skills.

Note-Reading Skills

There is no substitute for reading music notation--not learning songs by rote, not playing by finger numbers, not writing in letter names, not using some pictographic or staffless notation. Each student *must* learn to read.

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.

Rhythm and Rhythm-Reading Skills

Along with note-reading goes rhythm. The beginner must have good rhythmic habits from the outset. These include steadiness of tempo and familiarity with values of different notes. Most child beginners will not be ready to address the latter, but the former should be a prominent part of the first lesson. Praise skill in counting and steadiness as often as you praise correct pitches or attention to articulation and dynamics. This helps the student become aware of this aspect of musicality.

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.

Limited Tempo Range

A beginner will play at the speed he feels secure, and this is a good thing. Early on, emphasize the importance of -control-, as opposed to speed.

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!).

Limited Dynamic Range

A beginner does not have much dynamic control. He will naturally play mezzo-forte. The child beginner at three to six months, probably has sufficient control to play softly, although it is easier to play loudly; the adult beginner probably will be ready to tackle playing softly after two months. No matter the age, all students will be surprised to find that it's easier to play loudly than softly.

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.

Simplified Scores

A beginner needs a simplified score.

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.

Uncluttered Music Scores

A beginner does *not* need all the musical marginalia that burdens "normal" music. He don't need words in Italian, phrase slurs, or a crescendo shown more than one way in a single piece (use another piece to illustrate alternate methods of showing a crescendo). He doesn't need tempo indications or dynamic marks for several months after beginning, either. These are things we, as sophisticated musicians, expect to see on the page and can do something about. A beginner sees all this and feels absolutely overwhelmed (and probably doubts he can "do this").

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!

Short Pieces

Four-measure pieces are plenty long for the first couple of weeks of study. Longer pieces are intimidating to the beginner. After a month or two, graduate to eight measures, then sixteen. Stick primarily with one-page songs for the first year or so. As mentioned above, note-y is translated by the beginner as "difficult." Multi-page pieces are translated as "difficult", too.

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!

Tuneful Music

Beginners like familiar tunes. There are lots of folk tunes and themes from pieces of the standard repertory (in all instruments and voice, not just piano). Use those where possible. These are nearly always superior to tunes in specially-written pedigogical material (method books); if these tunes weren't any good they wouldn't have stuck around as long as they have.

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?)

Pedagogically-Helpful Music

By this I mean music which addresses only one new concept at a time. If there's a new note, this piece is *not* the time to introduce accents or crescendo. To continue with the crescendo example, use only the hairpin *or* the word, but not both until the concept and the achievement are well-established; select a another piece some weeks later to introduce the alternate notation; then another a few weeks later which uses both.

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.

Very Scanty Fingering

Beginners don't need fingering. In fact, copious fingering hinders their progress in note-reading.

*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--and their teachers--need fun! Lots of giggles and smiles and anticipation of lessons. Lots of fun times with their family at home--games and "family concerts." Song titles that are just plain silly.

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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