Piano Instruction for Children in a Spirit of Play

To give a young child piano instruction only as work and never as play is to work counter to the child’s nature. For this reason alone it constitutes ineffective teaching. A child’s business is to play: that is his job as a child. He may do chores or lessons, but these activities do not define him as a child. On the contrary, it is the desire to play that defines the child as a child rather than as merely some miniature immature adult. The desire to play is present in the young of all the higher animals. Along with intelligence it is what distinguishes the higher animals from the lower animals, like insects, that can only work.

The Suzuki method of teaching children has made three important breakthroughs that are particularly relevant to piano instruction. Based on the premise that children everywhere learn their native language comparatively expertly and effortlessly, the Suzuki method seeks to avoid an overly austere working atmosphere by teaching a child a musical instrument in the same way that one teaches him one’s mother tongue. For piano instruction this means 1) teaching real music (speech) as opposed to just scales or technical exercises (grammar) right from the start, 2) giving constant encouragement rather than criticism, and 3) letting the child progress at his own pace.

To this excellent formula we can add that the child should also be allowed to approach the instrument in a spirit of play. This means that he should be encouraged to have FUN at the instrument! One way to do this right from the start is to let the child quite literally play with the instrument as though it were a big toy by having him depress the damper pedal and letting him explore the whole spontaneous cacaphonic world of possible sounds by just picking and banging away with abandon at the keys while keeping the pedal much more down than up! (Franz Lizst called the damper pedal “the soul of the instrument”!). And don’t forget dragging the fingers up and down the white keys and then the black keys! For even the average child this will result in creative harmonies, disharmonies, and much (sometimes interesting!) “roaring”! This one activity alone, more than any other, allows the child to bond with the instrument, sparing him the inhibitions that are often acquired at the early learning of a discipline, and giving him, in the process, an intimate knowledge and feeling for the pedaled piano’s true—and magnificent—potential for sound! [J. S. Bach, when trying out a new church organ, would pull out all the stops and play with all the ranks of pipes at once for the purpose, as he put it, “of testing the lungs of the instrument”].

The child should also be given a complete piece of music to learn at the very first lesson. Naturally he will discover that this too is fun. In the older child or adult this “fun” translates into joy! With time the child will also discover that through work, that is, through effort and self-discipline, his mastery of the instrument—and thus his joy at making music—will be increased

For an introduction to actual musical pieces, the teacher of young children should swallow his great cultural sophistication and give “Chopsticks”, or any other piece with many repeated notes, as a starter piece. The average child usually masters the famous ditty in the space of a single lesson, at which point the teacher can provide harmonic accompaniment. Thus is assured a successful outcome of the child’s very first lesson, in which he has succeeded in creating melody, harmony, and instrumental accompaniment (the child accompanies the teacher as much as the teacher the child!). He will also have had a valuable lesson in self-discipline. The fact that “Chopsticks” survives from generation to generation outside the world of piano pedagogy is proof of its value, with its many repeated notes, triplet rhythm, simple diatonic movement, and, above all, its ease of play perhaps explaining its hold on children. Coincidentally, the many repeated notes in “Chopsticks” also oblige the young student, in the actual process of repeating the notes, to use the correct technique for depressing the key, a very happy occurrence! [See Richard Brodie’s book, SECRETS OF PIANO MASTERY, for the true secret to correct key depression]. Interesting, too, is the fact that virtually every child, with the index finger of each hand pointing down “like a chopstick”, will intuitively choose the arm stroke over the finger stroke in depressing the keys, with the arm stroke’s great advantages over the finger stroke in playing any slow or moderately paced succession of tones, advantages unappreciated by piano teachers who tend to overburden their children with scales and fingers-only technical exercises. Best of all, the child discovers that the playing of a piece of music, once it is mastered, is fun—and a joy—in and of itself.

In helping the child to build repertory, the teacher should choose pieces of significance from among a wide variety of styles and from the best anthologies available. Method books with boring little ditties written by non-entities are to be avoided, as the repertory for children is filled with masterpieces with catchy melodies and rhythms. Any request by the child to play a particular piece of music, or music of a particular style, should be honored immediately. After all, it is for HIS benefit that he is learning the instrument! Of paramount importance is continually introducing the child to at least some of the easy works of the great masters. This means Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, et al (“Für Elise”, of course, is obligatory!). If one does this, and if the child responds, he will seek out these and similar treasures for the rest of his life!


Excerpted from Richard Brodie’s book, SECRETS OF PIANO MASTERY