Of learning to talk before you can read

Today I read a forum post from a proponent of Simply Music.  She talked about how hard and somewhat unnatural the current methods of piano teaching can be for the student.  Yes, it is important to learn how to read music, but a young child who sits at the piano is less interested in learning what the little black notes mean, and more interested in playing real music on the piano.  After taking a break from teaching, I took on my younger siblings as students earlier this week.  For three of them, it was their first lesson.  They were so excited to be here, and the first thing that they wanted to do was to play me a song that they wrote.  No.  To play me a song that they made up.  They did patiently wait for me to tell them about bar lines, measures, and rhythmic notation, but it was not the fire that had brought them to that lesson.  They want to PLAY!  They want to make beautiful music on the piano.  As a teacher, my first job is to first, do no harm.  I really hope that I do not destroy that fire, and that I can help them achieve their expectations for themselves.

Harness that fire, yes.  Ultimately, they do need to learn how to read music.  They do need to learn technique, how to count a beat, and how to work hard at the piano and practice.  Of course they do!  But all of the technique, all of the reading, and all of the hard work of sticking through the practice sessions are not the ultimate goal.  They are the means to the end.  That end goal is to be able to enjoy the instrument.  To feel the satisfaction of playing fun music, and knowing, not just being told, that the music that they have to share is enjoyable and worth listening to.

When I was in Jazz band at the University, we auditioned every year.  I had been in band for a couple of years and felt confident that I would make it into the Ensemble, the “lesser” band which was appropriate for my course load in the vocal department.  Then a new young man came, and his talent just floored me.  He was absolutely remarkable!  His improvisation was fantastic, and it was obvious that everyone was pleased with what he had to offer.  I was pleased!  With a hint of sadness, I reminded myself that I still had chamber singers to look forward to.  But when the audition results came in, my name was on the list and his wasn’t.  I was really surprised.  I saw the young man the next day, with a big smile on his face as he headed to the jazz professor’s office.  When I had the opportunity to speak with him, he told me that they were really excited about his talent, but that he needed to learn to read music before he could play in the jazz orchestra or ensemble.  They started a jazz combo course that semester and worked with him.  The next fall he was in the jazz orchestra, reading music and playing superbly.  The girls went nuts during his solos!

He learned to play like that without learning to read music!  He understood chords and how they worked, he listened, listened, and listened to musicians that he loved, and he practiced, practiced, and practiced, creating the music that he wanted to hear.  When the time came that he needed to know how to read music, he took the time to figure it out, and away he went.  I don’t remember his name, but he inspired me.

So what is my application from this lesson?

I like the idea of using colors to help children decode music.  I don’t object at all to the finger-numbers in the John Thompson method because it gets children playing beautiful music sooner than other methods, and if the teacher follows the teaching suggestions, it also teaches the students to transpose.  Using a method book also familiarizes the student with music notation from the start, and I like that.  I am not ready to pull away the sheet music all together.

But I do think that I would be well served to get over how annoying Peter-Peter-Pumpkin-Eater and Heart and Soul can be when you have heard it a million times, and show my students how to play it.  Let them play something fun right from the start.  Let them taste success.  Give them a reason to learn how to read music.  I didn’t learn how to improvise until I went to a community college that desperately needed a pianist in the band.  I fell in love with jazz and continued with it when I went on to USU.  It was my “candy” class, and oh, how I loved it!  My students need more time to be creative and express themselves, and less time drilling flash cards.  More time playing chords on the piano, hearing, touching and feeling how they work, and less time developing the fine motor skills of drawing snowmen on the music staff.  Music needs to be alive for them.

Following a method course can and does produce results of course, but many children quit the system only to wish as adults that they had been “talented” enough to play.  Granted, some people have more musical talent than others, but I believe that all children, and adults for that matter, have the ability to learn music.  Perhaps it is the system and not the talent that is lacking.

I am not necessarily endorsing Simply Music in this post, but I do think that they have a good point.  Let children learn how to “speak” music, to understand it, and then the desire to read will come.  There will be a reason for it.  I have never purchased their products and I don’t plan on it any time soon.

I am still going to use the Jonh Thompson method books with my siblings and children.  The songs are fun, even from the start.  The accompaniment book for “Teaching little fingers to play” is delightful.  I had to order it online, music stores do not carry it.  But I am also giving myself permission to break away from the typical lesson routine that our society endorses, and trust myself as a musician and teacher to help my students express themselves and mentor them in that process.  I started to dip my feet in the water with my studio in the past, but now I am ready to jump in.  Care to join me for a swim?

About the Author Tamsyn Spackman

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