Chords for Kids
Chords for kids have to be simplified, both in execution and concept. Chords are groups of three keys, usually played by beginners with the left hand. Thus they are the DNA of music, and are present in every musical construction. Even melodies are really just chords where the notes are not played simultaneously but sequentially.
Chords have one additional quality, emotion. Each chord literally produces an emotional response like sad, happy, mysterious or angry. Because of this, they are a perfect introduction to music theory.
Start With Two Note Chords
The first thing I teach kids after we have played a few familiar songs, is to show them simplified, two note versions of chords. Chords usually have three notes. Two note chords allow kids to have easy physical control while playing them, usually with the second and third fingers. Just leave out the top note of the chord because this is physically easier for kids.
I avoid the thumb at first as it is shorter than the other fingers and using it puts the hand at an uncomfortable angle. It's not a fingering game, it's a memorization of location game.
Playing And Listening To Chords
I use chords in two ways. One, the child is asked to include chords with the left hand if they feel comfortable. Remember, the ability to play with both hands is dependent on the child's brain hemisphere development, so expect less of younger kids. Two, I use chords as "ear training," a course which consumes most of the first year of conservatory training. The child is asked to identify chords, evaluate their emotional quality, and gain facility playing them all over the keyboard with both hands.
Almost like color-blindness, some kids "get" the quality of each different chord, and others have no idea that there is any difference at all. This is lack of audio awareness is almost always true of very young kids, who somehow have not yet developed this peculiar audio-emotional skill, or at least are unable to express it. Just brush past it and work on getting the chords visually, ignoring emotional evaluations.
Two Note Chords
Chords usually have three notes, but for younger kids I allow them to play the bottom two notes of the chord. Play the two notes at the same time (on a real keyboard) to get the idea of how a chord sounds.
The Chair Of Doom Game
The easiest way to demonstrate the emotional quality of chords is to play bits of songs and ask the kids what they think. This is essentially college ear training. Sometimes I play a game called the Chair of Doom, wherein the child takes the teacher's seat, and the teacher plays various kids of music, asking the child to comment. It's a mock game show where the child becomes the listening contestant.
I play the opening of Beethoven's Fifth and the child will go, "Spooky!" Play Annie and they will say "Happy!" You make up songs, too. The pace should be very fast from one song to the next. Just get them to listen.
Teaching Kids To Listen
After I play a bit of a song, they must answer with an emotional quality, or dramatic explanation. "Happy, sad, ballerinas, monsters, soft rain." Any answer will do, I never contradict them, except when they confuse happy and sad. This such an essential difference that if they get it wrong, we work on it a little extra.
You have no idea how hard it is for certain ages of kids to use both hands, hence both hemispheres, simultaneously, So, allow two note chords, and offer younger kids the option of playing without chords.
Younger Kids May Hate Chords
If a younger child shies away from chords, they are not ready. I have seen kids reluctant to use chords for a year suddenly start using them voluntarily. Simplify chords, but add them to every song so they are available. Make chords optional for younger kids.
Remember that chords by themselves are easy for even younger kids, but their combination with the right hand playing melody may be problematic. This involves a wholly separate issue, playing with both hands. Kids love chords, if you make it simple enough. Build from there.
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