Why Kids Succeed At The Piano
There is only one reason why kids succeed at the piano: patience. I have taught children with incredibly deep talent, and those with almost none. I have gotten all of them to play the piano and enjoy it. The only common thread is that I was patient enough.
This is especially true with the children who are not so obviously gifted. Yet it is just these children who may benefit the most from an experience with the piano. These kids may get no other opportunity to experience making music at the piano. Much of the credit goes to the parents, who allow me months and years to win the victory of the piano.
It takes time and repeated, patient, humorous effort to get an “ungifted” child to play. Let’s examine that term, “ungifted,” a term I don’t like but it is descriptive enough.
What Holds Kids Back?
There’s never a single reason that makes a child reluctant to throw themselves into studying the piano. Here are common “objections:”
“It’s too hard.”
“I don’t like the teacher.”
“I just don’t want to.”
In addition to the reasons the child states, there are those they may not be able to articulate:
They may be too immature to understand the process
Kids may be naturally timid
There may be social reasons, such as sports and other interests
Kids may be taking lessons only to please the parents
A Hypothetical Case
Here’s a hypothetical case, names changed to protect the innocent. Sam was about eight when we started. He liked sports and thought piano was slightly weird. But he showed up. We went through all the motions. He tried, but he couldn’t seem to put any of it together, except tiny bits.
I laughed and accepted this, and acted as if this was the normal pace, half-snail, as it were. We went through months of good-natured fooling around with the piano. He could play bits of two songs, with no fingering other than the crazy system he devised. Any attempt to show fingering options were met with “It’s too hard that way.”
I let him finger it his way, calling it the “Patented Sam Peterson Fingering Method.” He grasped chords, and could play a few. Mostly, Sam was affable but not really interested.
Lessons Are Practicing For Some Kids
But I kept hammering gently away, week after week, not caring if he practiced. I gave no assignments other than the songs we might think of to play during the lesson. For kids like Sam, lessons are practicing. So be it.
Be patient and see how it turns out. After a year, he had memorized the right hand of several pieces. But could only play with two hands if it was part of a game. I played left hand for him, and was his cheerleader.
Time Is On Your Side
During the second year, I imagine Sam was thinking, “This isn’t so bad. John is always nice to me and never gets mad. He always tries to show me new songs. Piano is okay after all, I guess. Actually, it’s kind of fun.” At the end of the second year, Sam grasped fingering. He thought it was cool. “Now I see that’s how you go fast!”
We applied it to the songs he already knew, and some of it worked! Now we started to add a few chords to the left hand in these familiar songs. Soon he could play with both hands. His self esteem at the piano shot up.
The Rewards Of Patience
I said, “See, I told you to be patient and not get mad at yourself for mistakes. Just keep playing and trying. I don’t expect it to be perfect.” In his third year he decided he wanted to learn Harry Potter. We put the song together slowly, one hand at a time. He became obsessed with the song.
If I tried to shift gears to anything else, he immediately wanted to work more on Harry Potter. After a few months, he found other songs that he wanted to play. At the end of three years, Sam was his own boss at the piano. Confident, he would sit down and play a tune for anyone that wanted to hear.
As his Mom said, “We went over to the neighbor’s house, and their daughter played a song, but you could tell she hated it. She even said so, saying her Mom forced her to take piano. Then Sam played. He played like, eight songs. All the kids gathered around the piano and watched. You could tell Sam enjoyed playing and showing off, even if it wasn’t note-perfect.”
Only Patience Makes Progress Possible
For Sam, my patience turned what might have been a sour piano experience into a hobby that he was truly interested in. Is that not a better result than being made to feel a failure against the unreasonable standards of dogmatic teachers? In conclusion, a child with a lot of natural talent may need only a gentle nudge in the right direction.
But a normal, American child in 2021 may require a lot of carefully designed “looseness” in the form of the lessons to get interested at all. You have to lead the child to discover the hidden talent within themselves. I have found this approach always works if given enough time. Lower the bar to fit the height of the child. You can always raise it later.