Following on from my introduction to the Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme
When a student starts with me, I assess them and choose a tutor book to suit their age, learning style and prior experience. Many of my young starters, age 5 and 6, will start with My First Piano Adventures Book A. Children aged 7 and over will usually use Piano Adventures Primer. Both of these schemes start “off stave” and teach by intervals rather than with thumbs fixed to middle C.
Once my students have settled into lessons I introduce them to the Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme. The stars are colour coded and go up by level and the first level is “First Steps” which is white. This is for students who are just starting piano and I would expect them to be working through a Primer level tutor book. This level should take them up to the point where they have been introduced to the stave.
Which essential musical elements do I work on with beginner students?
As soon as their first lesson I will start singing with my students. With the younger ones I use songs from Jolly Music using notes 5 and 3 on the major scale, or so-mi in solfa. Rain Rain Go Away also works. It creates a descending minor third which is the easiest interval to sing because children use it in the playground. Remember ner ner ne ner ner? Ideally I want them to sing too but recently I have had some resisters. With these students I’ve decided to keep singing myself and not ask them to sing back. I’m hoping soon they will just start singing with me! With these songs we can start to train their aural skills – a subject for another blog!
Learning outcomes for pitch
- The student can listen to two melodic examples and identify if they are the same or different
- The student can identify, by listening, which of two notes (large interval) is higher or lower
- The student can identify in which direction a melody is progressing
- The student can play a so-mi song on black keys or a chime bar
Pulse and rhythm
Again using songs from the fabulous Jolly Music we will work on pulse. We clap, march and bang a djembe along to music, or singing or chanting.
Learning outcome for pulse
- The student can march and clap along in time with their teacher
Dynamics and articulation
Dynamics are great fun to learn on the piano. Especially for little ones. They love doing monster forte sounds and little mouse piano sounds. These activities also really help their sense of pitch as you can play high mouse sounds and low monster sounds. Introducing them to dynamics helps them make their simple pieces so much more interesting without the needing to know very much theory or technique.
Learning outcome for dynamics
- The student can identify, by listening, whether a melody is played forte (loud) or piano (soft)
I love the My First Piano Adventures Books for young children because they introduce good piano technique in such a fun way. Here is a video showing one of the authors, Nancy Faber, teaching a child a rounded hand shape with the rhyme Stone on the Mountain. Of course we also talk about the little mouse that lives under our hand. We wouldn’t want to squash him!! I get the students to name the mice!
Learning outcome for technique
- The student knows that they should play with a rounded hand shape
Scales and chords
It’s hard for 5 year old beginners to get their fingers round five note scales. I do get them on the “Key Skills” level scales as soon as they are able, but in order to get their sticker for “First Steps” I only expect them to play with one finger. To tie in with the Piano Adventures method I ask them to use finger 2 or finger 3 and brace it against their thumb. Like the A-OK sign. This helps them to use their fingertips and prevents their first knuckle collapsing.
Learning outcome for scales
- The student can play pentascales in the keys of C and G using one finger
I don’t start students on formal theory books until they have completed the “First Steps” level. However key elements such as the time value of notes and keyboard geography can be introduced before the student starts learning on the stave.
Learning outcomes for theory
- The student can identify the white notes on the keyboard
- The student understands crotchets, minims, dotted minims and semibreves
- The student can identify Middle C on the stave
In “First Steps” I don’t include any specific sight reading targets. These start in “Key Skills”. However we can prepare for future sight reading targets by clapping the rhythm of their pieces.
Improvisation and composition
I discover many new books and resources from my online colleagues. The world wide web is a wonderful thing. One such resource is the Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book. I don’t use the book much, but the CD is wonderful! It has backing tracks for practising pentascales to and also backing tracks for improvisation. At this point all I want the student to do is try. They can use any notes they like and just start playing. The results aren’t always pretty but we’re fostering an environment where there is no wrong answer and that having a go is the most important thing. I take the same attitude to composition. If they have played a piece they particularly like then I might suggest they write their own version. Sometimes we use an event like Halloween or a particular weather or animal to inspire their composition. They notate it as a picture – in any way they like.
Learning outcomes for Improvisation and Composition
- The student has improvised, using any notes, over pre-recorded tracks
- The student has attempted to compose their own melodies
Once the student has gained a sticker on each point on their white “First Steps” star they get to keep their completed star. They also get a certificate and a report which shows how they’ve progressed over the period and a summary of all the skills they’ve gained. For children this is a really big deal. It’s a long journey to Grade 1 on the piano and these certificates enable them to show they are progressing. Many of the children take them into school and have them awarded in assembly in the same way as other children have swimming badges and karate certificates.