entertained emperors and kings at the age of five.
countless tales of musical prodigies, most ending in tragedy
like Josef Hoffman, the child prodigy who became a worldwide
superstar only to plunge into alcoholism and madness. Mozart, of
course, ended very sadly, too.
But what about
the rest of us?
In all my years
as a musician and piano teacher, I have seen very few real piano
prodigies. These days, musical prodigies are protected and
nurtured in major conservatories, and we don't hear about them
until they mature and are ready for a musical career.
patterns in the mass of normal kids who attempt to learn the
What exactly is
"talent" at the piano for the vast majority of children?
Let's take a
hypothetical 100 children.
Out of the 100,
about one child will have a complete, natural ability to play
the piano already in place. These kids simply understand the
instrument naturally in a physical sense, and are as hungry for
piano as they are for baseball. But there's an additional
reason they progress so fast: they are so good in the first
place that they receive a tremendous amount of attention and
praise from everyone who hears them: a kid who can really play
the piano is a treat and a rarity for everyone.
Next are about
25 kids who can play fluidly and read music as well. They
don't have the flair and ease of the one precocious child
above, but with time they can learn some or all of it, and will
always enjoy being able to play.
Last are the
great mass of kids, we'll say 75 or so, who learn a little,
awkwardly, in varying degrees.
It is this mass
of kids who concern us, for the prodigies and the other good
players will take care of themselves, fueled by their natural
gifts. Prodigies are very easy to teach.
But the broad
mass of kids need a lot of help to start enjoying this great
The first thing
they need is for their piano teachers to stop treating them like
the prodigies. Piano teachers do much to harm this group of kids
by expecting them to achieve in the same arena as the prodigies.
The two groups require completely different approaches.
trends that one begins to notice about this group of children,
and although these observations are generalized, they may have
some value for teachers seeking to control a group of varying
talent in this group is mental, not really physical. It's
about your mind, not your fingers, at first.
children who do the best are those who are able to visualize
the patterns involved in the notes. Thus teachers are well
advised to teach the musical patterns before they insist on
fingering. If you want to see a confused child, combine the
youngest children have the very least dexterity. Expect them
to use the index finger at first, for they cannot easily
juggle finger logic and note logic until properly prepared.
If you want to see a confused child, combine the two
children enjoy logic and pattern games. It is simply human
nature to see patterns. Rewarding kids for seeing these
patterns is the key to success in early piano lessons.
and family upbringing, including birth order, may have much
to do with a child's ability to enter and enjoy this world
of musical pattern. Some kids have trouble concentrating, or
even conceiving of repeating an act a dozen times: no one
has ever asked them to do such a thing before.
Here is a law
for you: the lower the child's natural ability at the piano,
the slower your approach must be.
The pace of the
lessons must always be fast and furiously fun, but curriculum is
delivered at a pace in total synch with the child.
For example, I
don't care if a five year old reads music, but I do care that
he can play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star from memory. Why?
Because his interest in the piano will be infinitely more if he
can play an actual song on the piano, and Twinkle is not hard at
If I can get
him to play Twinkle, index finger alone, I can then get another
song, then another, then another finger, then the other hand. It
snowballs as you add one happily acquired ability on top of
If I had
insisted on reading music, this same child would have walked
away from the piano in disgust, saying to himself, "This is
too hard, I'm no good." I have heard kids say those words,
exactly, countless times, usually the first time they try to
Your job as a
piano teacher is to prepare the child correctly so they never
have to experience that discomfort.
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