Playing Piano By Number - Complete
The idea of playing piano by number has been around for a long time. Numbering the keys is just an extension of numbering the fingers. This was first done systematically by Carl Czerny early in the 19th Century. Czerny, one of the most famous piano teachers of all time, was a pupil of the great Beethoven.
In the 1950’s, there was the Emenee organ, a keyboard which had numbers printed on the keys, and a book of songs “by number” to go with it. The reason for this is that reading music is not easy, not for adults, and certainly not for children. Why should starting piano be “easy?”
Can Piano Be Made Easy?
Talk to most conventional piano teachers and they’ll say that music is serious and difficult, and piano cannot be made easy for beginners. The truth is that piano students have historically had an 90+% quit rate. More than 9 out of 10 quit within the first year! Why?
The piano teachers blame the kids, but perhaps the piano teachers are to blame. Do you know any method for anything that has an 90% failure rate and calls itself a success? A golf swing? A sewing pattern? A diet regime? It’s supposed to work!
Try a song on our online piano:
A Few Statistics
Here are a few figures from my private piano teaching practice: 90 out of 100 children who start Piano by Number are still playing a year later, almost all having made the transition to conventional sheet music. And almost all of those children continue, year after year, because they are allowed to learn at their own pace, and started having fun with the piano right away.
Who cares if a child who would normally have quit piano is happily playing songs by number and a few pieces of sheet music a year later? The choice is to have that child quit piano altogether. If a piano method does not work, the method is wrong, it’s as simple as that.
If A Piano Method Doesn't Work, It's Wrong
The professionals may tell you otherwise, but common sense tells you this is true: if a piano method does not work, the method is wrong. I'm glad they're going slow. But why use numbers to teach beginning piano? What is there about conventional music notation (sheet music) that so confuses almost everyone, and specifically children?
The answer is that numbers are understood by everyone. Numbers are essentially one-dimensional, whereas conventional sheet music incorporates concepts from many dimensions to convey the information necessary to play, say, Jingle Bells.
How To Begin Conventional Piano
Conventional sheet music and conventional piano teachers demand that a child comprehend four things in order to succeed:
1. Find the correct piano keys to play (a big task for a child)
2. Be able to use the correct names for these piano keys (hard to remember)
3. Use the correct fingers to play those keys (even harder, especially at first)
4. Play those piano keys at exactly the correct point in time (add this to the above three)
These four elements are overwhelming to all but the most musically gifted children.
Kids Hate The Conventional System
Kids are often devastated by "failure" at this ridiculous, conventional system of piano teaching. No wonder they quit. I’m not saying that the above four elements aren’t necessary. I’m saying that children don’t respond to the conventional system used by piano teachers as a starting point.
A Better Starting Point
Playing Piano by Numbers requires only one thing: play the correct piano key as best you can. Believe me, after watching thousands of kids, this is hard enough to do well. It’s a great place to start for everyone. Just press the numbered keys so that it sounds like the song you know. Music isn’t just for musicians and piano teachers and stars and artists and record companies, it’s also for children, an essential part of childhood.
But Why “Piano By Number?"
The basis of musical construction is mathematical. No one asks kids to start math class in the first grade solving algebraic formulae. We let them start adding and subtracting for years until we ask more. It’s only logical to start at their level. Numbers are an essential part of music. When we “number” the piano keys with stickers we do no more than denote the classical “intervals.” The numbers that kids learn with this system are the same as the numerical assignments (intervals) given to the relation between piano keys by classical music.
When a child plays the piano key #1 and the key #5, they are playing the same combination of keys known as the interval called the “fifth” in classical music. Thus, everything learned playing Piano by Number will be of value when making the transition to conventional sheet music.
The Missing Step
It’s important for children to get started easily, and successfully. I’m not advocating lowering the bar for everything and forever, only for approximately the first year that a child starts music study. The benefits are enormous.
Any Finger, Either Hand
It doesn’t matter which finger or hand you use. If you or your child use one finger, most likely the index finger, that’s fine. The point is to start playing. It’s better to play with one finger than be confused by a flurry of commands and not play at all. Piano teachers need to find a way to praise everything, and downplay failure.
Know When To Back Off
Stay directly involved until your child seems to be firmly launched, playing song after song on their own. Then back away and let them do it by themselves. My object in private piano teaching is to make a child into a “tinkerer.” A tinkerer is a child who:
1. Plays the piano a little bit every time they go past one
2. Likes to try out new songs
3. Doesn’t worry about anyone else’s opinion of their playing
4. Tries to play songs they hear on TV or elsewhere
5. Is confident and curious about the piano
6. Thinks piano is easy
7. Makes up their own songs
Practical Advice For Parents
Do encourage your child. Don’t criticize their playing. Do sit and listen to them play. Don’t demand that they “practice.” Do ask them to “play” the piano. Don’t set a time limit, such as “Practice half an hour.” If a child doesn’t do it under their own steam, it’s pointless to force them. Five minutes a day is all that a child needs, if it’s fun.
Do play piano yourself. I teach in homes everyday where the youngest ones are eager to try piano because Mom does it, Dad likes it, and the older kids play as well. Don’t take playing piano so seriously. If you think it’s fun, your kids will, too.
Start Playing Yourself
Do this if your child seems to not want to try it: go over to the piano and start trying it yourself. You’d be surprised how quickly your child decides that they want to do it, too. Don’t even think of Carnegie Hall. Don’t apply any pressure whatsoever. If you push kids too hard, they turn off right away, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to get them back.
Do think about a private piano teacher for your child if they show interest. But not for a while. Let the child explore the piano on their own. You can always find piano teachers. Don’t expect your child to understand, at first, things like using the “correct fingers” or playing “in rhythm.” All you want at first is to have your child enjoy sitting at that great big piano for a few minutes a day.
There will be lots of time to pursue further interest if and when your child decides they want to take lessons. And when they start those lessons, they’ll already have a relationship with the instrument.
It’s much easier to interest a child in conventional music study when they think they already can play! Do make games out of everything connected to music: “You play a song, then Mom will play a song.” “Let’s see who can play Jingle Bells the fastest without any mistakes.” “Play our favorite song.” “Let’s play the song backwards!” (Kids love this one!) “I’m going to try a song using both hands.” “I’m going to play three songs, and you play three songs.” “Does this song sound happy or sad?” “I’m going to use lots of different fingers on this song.” “Let’s play name that tune.” “Let’s play musical chairs.”
Don’t be impatient. Don’t expect anything, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Expect lots of conventional accomplishment and your child will lose interest as soon as they see they cannot please you. Make it easy to please you. Piano teachers sometimes set the bar too high out of personal pride.
A child who has a positive start on the piano at home is more likely to make the transition to private lessons outside the home. In former times, before radio and television, the piano was the entertainment center for the family. The whole family at least tried to play an instrument.
I believe beginning to play Piano by Number helps move a family toward that perhaps unattainable but noble ideal. There can be only a good result from more people discovering the pleasures of the piano and music, no matter how humble their current abilities.
It’s better to start playing piano with a simple system than to be confused with a flurry of conventional commands and thus quit trying altogether. What I try to do as a piano teacher is to communicate the excitement I felt for the piano as a child to each and every child as an individual.