What to Teach at the First Lesson

The most important thing to teach at the first lesson is that the child -is- competent. He should leave the lesson knowing that you are positive he will be able to learn to play the piano.

He also should leave knowing that playing the piano will be satisfying (note I did not say "fun"). It won't always be easy and it will take some time, but he always will derive great satisfaction from it and will find it a worthy way to invest some of his time.

He should know that his teacher respects his intellect and enjoys his company.

These are all process-oriented goals. I believe working toward them is far more important at the first lesson than concentrating on product-oriented goals (example: send the child home with a song learned by rote). Process-oriented goals are attitudinal and thus are the foundation of a life-long love of piano and of music in general.

At the first lesson for a young child, I like to touch on several basic skills. The following discussion is for a young child (aged 2-5); I cover the same material but more quickly and in age-appropriate fashion for children aged 6 and above.

We play "copycat games," tapping on a drum or clapping. If the child is adept, I change the speed or add accents or dynamics. I ask the child to march or walk while I play and vary the tempo. We might clap or tap to the metronome. These activities introduce aural discrimination and begin to build aural memory. These aural games also emphasize large-muscle use. Children, especially young ones, learn best when going from large- to small-muscle skills.

We begin the process of learning to read notation by drilling on alphabet letters and their sequence, forward and backward. I remove letters in the sequence and ask the child to figure out what is missing. Then I scramble the sequence and have him fix it. Then I do both. These activities also assist with visual memory and sequencing. (I use two octaves of the music alphabet. I use manipulatives: plastic magnetized letters. Seeing two octaves together introduces the "trick" of G following A.) I keep these games fun by asking the child to "hide his eyes" and teasing him about being so smart. (I usually ask him please to start eating dogfood for breakfast so he can be "dumb" next week - - so I can trick him and "win," at least sometimes. This always brings chortles and avowals to avoid dogfood like the plague.) With a young child I ask the parent to alternate "trying to trick" the child; this allows me to observe how the two interact as well as starting the ball rolling for enthusiastic home piano playing.

We learn finger numbers. I draw around both hands and ask the child to write the finger numbers on each finger. (If more drill is needed on this, I draw around the hands again and ask the child to color a certain finger of a certain hand red, another blue, etc. I vary it further by asking him to draw a circle or a triangle to identify a specific finger.)

I also explore how sure the child is about which hand is his right hand; it is common for children, even to age 7 or 8, to be momentarily confused about which hand is which. The younger they are, the more often they are unsure and the longer the hesitation is. (I don't hop in and answer the question for him until he indicates that he truly does not remember. I give him lots of time to think.)

We learn the geography of the keyboard. I use a game called "Oh, Say Can You Play?" (as in: "oh, say can you play a white note with RH 4?") This also reinforces handedness and finger numbers. (Don't forget to insert some fun: "Oh, say can you play a black note with your left elbow?") I usually don't get to identifying the keyboard by letter names at the first lesson, especially with a child aged 3 or so; black vs. white is sufficient, although if the child is especially adept I add high/middle/low; this lays the groundwork for up/down as regards note reading.

We address the physical demands of playing the piano by working on the C Major five- finger pattern - - or we use whatever number of fingers the child is physically ready to use. Most very wee ones do not have the coordination to do all five fingers at the first lesson. Even so, most children's 1-2 fingers are sufficiently strong, so we start with 1-2 RH alone; then LH alone Next I tell the child that he may try hands together sometime during the week if he feels he is ready. Note that this is -his- call.

After he can do twosies with 2-3, say in two weeks, I tell him to try 3-4. He generally finds it kind of hard to do; I then point out that 4 is "kind of wimpy" but that I know he can do it if he'll try it every day at his house. Finally, a week or two later, we get to the "super wimps" (4-5). Most children actually laugh out loud when they discover how uncoordinated these fingers are. ("Why should they be strong?" I ask. "You don't do anything with them! Do you use these fingers to hold a pencil or a fork?")

When twosies are complete, we do threesies and so forth. By the end of four to six weeks, the three-year-old and I have worked up to fivesies. Expect a 7- to 8-year old, who's been wielding a pencil for years, to be able to use all five fingers right away, though some will note that "5 isn't very good," in which case you suggest, "Let's just do some back and forth between 4 and 5 to make it stronger."

This is a full half-hour! In fact, it is a full hour! Very seldom do I get to everything because I want to make sure the child leaves with no confusion. At a minimum: (1) some sort of finger drill; (2) copycat tapping game; (3) sequencing of letters; (4) a card game to begin recognition of the basics of notion (treble and bass clefs, barline and double barline).

I do not worry about introducing legato touch. Sometimes, depending on the physical coordination of the child, I do not mention "connecting" the notes until two or three months down the line. Beginners - - especially young children! - - can't keep track of a large number of things simultaneously, so I feel it's better to wait on these concepts than to overwhelm them in the beginning. It's always good to build confidence first. Likewise, I say nothing about hand position until later lessons. If the wrist is broken and the heel of the palm is resting on the keyslip - - the piece of wood just below the keyboard and running perpendicular to its plane - - or if the thumbs are pointed downward off the keyboard, I might mention keeping the wrist flat or keeping all five fingers on the keyboard, even if they're not playing right now. But short of a gross "violation," I say nothing about hand position at the first lessons. Right now we're focusing on how to make the instrument sound and the satisfaction derived from playing the piano.

I like to couch all drills as games. There should be giggles and smiles and anticipation of "piano playing time" at home (note I didn't call it "practice time").

I like to make piano playing - - and the lesson in particular - - into a safe learning environment where questions are encouraged and never derided; and where the student is reminded that mistakes disappear as soon as they are made and that he can try again as often as he likes.

I send the child off with games to play with his family. These can be copycat rhythm games, the alphabet letter games, "Oh, Say Can You Play?", and perhaps a card game (such as "Go, Fish" or "Concentration" with a homemade deck using outlines of RH, LH and pictures of black keys, white keys--four "suits" altogether). These games immediately draw the family into home piano playing and cements a family bond and dedication to piano study. Note: Children aged three and older can handle a card deck of clefs/barlines, but, I find, those younger than three are better off with the hand outlines, mentioned above.

Several days after the lesson, I call the parents to see how things are going. Parents appreciate this and know that I am concerned about the child and his progress all the time, not just when he is in my studio.

The most important goal of the first lesson - - and of at least the first month of them--is giving the beginner a feeling of competence. When the beginner knows the teacher is convinced he "can do this", he is willing to try hard. He's willing to try even when he makes a mistake or when he's having trouble "getting" it; the teacher has shown confidence in his intellectual abilities and his fundamental worth as a person.

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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