The Whole Piano is Mine! Keeping Today’s Beginners Engaged Through Attractive and Motivational Repertoire
When I began teaching in the United States as a fresh artist-teacher graduate of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, I soon recognized that to make my teaching style appropriate to the experiences and circumstances of my students it was crucial to familiarize myself with the American teaching environment and practices. Ever since, I have never stopped observing, reading, and experimenting. Perhaps my most important realization was that everything, including our local culture, students' interests, preparedness, attitudes, and general environment, is constantly changing and, in order to be successful, teachers must continually adjust to these changes. This may be less necessary for those few whose students are all extraordinarily talented and motivated or come from supportive families with extremely high expectations, but the rest of us must find ways to inspire and motivate the pupils of today.
Our success as teachers is not defined only by our contest-winning students or by those pupils who become accomplished professional musicians. It is just as important to nurture future music enthusiasts, life-long amateur musicians, and people who will be involved in, support, and donate time or financial resources to our musical culture. Striving for these goals, we contribute not only musically to our students, but also to their emotional and intellectual enrichment, thereby making their lives happier and healthier.
Providing Meaningful Musical Experiences
In order to achieve these goals, students must enjoy playing the piano, even though they may encounter challenges. We have to provide them with meaningful musical experiences that make them feel like "real" pianists right from the start. Not long ago, I asked an eight-year-old student what he liked about playing the piano. "I like the feel of my arms and wrist moving like this," he answered gesturing, "I like making neat sounds." He continued: "I like to be able to do something well that not everyone can do." In other words, the physical experience of playing the piano is just as important a part in his enjoyment as the auditory experience. In addition, a sense of accomplishment heightens his pleasure. Older, more advanced students may also find intellectual stimulation, as well as emotional release, in playing the piano and making music.
Moving to different registers is physically satisfying to children, while experiencing sounds of different registers and their colors and characters excites the students' auditory senses. Music composed of very simple patterns moving across different registers (especially when notated with the use of 8va signs to facilitate reading on the staff) looks accessible to beginner music readers, yet sounds interesting and attractive to them. Being able to play music over the whole keyboard, rather than in the two or maybe three octaves directly in front of them, also makes them feel like they are really playing the piano and gives them a sense of accomplishment. With such music, they are also able to impress their audience, which is a great incentive for many students.
Pieces based on simple, repeated, or slightly varied patterns that move from register to register provide great workouts in keyboard geography and are also extremely helpful in fostering freedom of arm movements, healthy body alignment, and good hand position at the piano. By promoting freedom of movement early on, we can cultivate a healthy piano technique, helping to prevent piano- related injuries. Children as young as four to six years old are eminently capable of learning complex movements. However, young children's fine motor skills are not as developed as their gross motor skills. They can execute arm movements, such as moving between registers, more easily and better than exercising fine control of the fingers. While older beginners generally have more advanced fine motor skills and do not have to start with pieces that rely more on the arms than the fingers out of necessity, playing pieces using many registers of the piano with limited demands on the fingers is just as thrilling an experience for them as it is for younger beginners. Pattern-based compositions also encourage reading intervals instead of isolated notes and hearing sound patterns instead of individual sounds, which is the way we read and hear words and sentences. Through observing patterns, students become familiarized aurally, visually, and intellectually with the building blocks of music. This contributes to their ability to understand music as a language, in which sound patterns organized in a logical structure create emotional meaning. Fostering students' ability to see music as an infinitely expressive, complex, but logical language—rather than a succession of sounds seemingly unrelated to each other—plays a crucial role in cultivating musical, literate, intelligent musicians, be they professionals or amateurs. Pattern-based pieces can also play a substantial role in developing tone control, facility, speed, and the ability to execute various articulations in a musical manner. In addition, such music is relatively easy to learn and memorize, so students are able to learn longer, more impressive pieces from the outset.
Combining rote teaching with reading notation provides many benefits. Children grow up being exposed to much more complex music than they can read at the beginning of their music studies; therefore, playing only very short and simple pieces does not satisfy them for long. Learning entire pieces or sections by rote allows them to play longer and more aurally satisfying music. Due to the increased length of pieces, students develop better concentration. Playing by memory becomes natural and comfortable. A wide range of musical ideas and rhythmic patterns that the student is not yet ready to read can be taught by rote. Students understand music better when they learn with their ears, not only with their eyes. Learning by rote aids with the understanding of musical patterns and variations—aurally, visually, and intellectually—which then helps with reading music notation. Moreover, they can watch their hands and focus on technique or turn their full attention to expression.
I like to introduce the damper pedal to beginners early on because it allows them to create lush harmonies and rich textures out of even very simple musical material and intensifies the sound experience. Young students are curious about the shiny pedals and they find the rich sonorities highly appealing. Even overlapping pedaling can be successfully taught after one or two years of studies and, after that, students are ready to experiment with the pedal to create more resonant, vibrant, and warm sounds. Of course, children unable to reach the pedals from their proper seated position should use a pedal extender to avoid sacrificing good posture and hand position. Many students are also eager to try the una corda and sostenuto pedals. If they express interest, I take time to show them how they work and let them play with them, but I see little practical use in beginners employing these pedals. At a time when producing sounds at different dynamic levels and basic tone control is still a challenge, using the una corda pedal can be counterproductive and using the sostenuto pedal can create too much of a distraction. In addition, most pedal extenders cannot reliably operate more than one pedal.
Nurturing Student Ownership
In order to maintain a higher level of engagement, I find it important to give students ownership of at least some of their pieces. When choosing repertoire for recitals, festivals, competitions, and other performances, I try to offer two or three carefully pre-selected choices for each piece. This gives students a sense of control over their special pieces, makes them enthusiastic for their own selections, and motivates them to work harder to achieve goals and meet deadlines. Descriptive titles, lyrics, and even illustrations can be wonderful attention getters. They fuel students' curiosity and help them connect to the music. Younger students often become interested in learning specific pieces this way, before having a chance to hear the music. Selecting from a broad range of repertoire in a wide variety of musical styles, keeping each student's personality and interests in mind, enables the teacher to find inspiring music for each student. It is valuable to include some pieces inspired by popular music that the overwhelming majority of children are most familiar with. Exotic sounds and exciting syncopations and non-classical rhythm styles engage students. Once we grab their attention, it is easy to introduce them to musical styles less familiar to them, including classical music from any period, because they are ready for new experiences.
Ensemble playing can also produce fuller textures and more sophisticated sounds than solos, including more complex rhythms and richer harmonies. It also makes the learning environment more collaborative, more social, and more relaxed. Playing in ensembles contributes tremendously to fostering listening skills and instilling good timing and feeling the forward motion of music. Student-teacher duets can foster the development of an internal sense of pulse, various metric patterns, and propulsion. They can also aid in the development of phrasing, articulation, tone control, and a healthy technique because most students will try to mimic the teacher's gestures and musical expression. This collaboration also creates the idea of student and teacher being equal participants in music making, rather than opponents (judge and examinee), resulting in a more relaxed and pleasant learning environment. Recorded teacher parts or accompaniment tracks may also be employed, especially for home practice—if equipment is conveniently available. This, however, presents additional challenges, since recordings cannot adjust to the student's performance, so hands-on guidance at lessons is crucial. Many students find playing duets and even trios with their peers very enjoyable, not only because of the more complex sounds, but also because ensemble playing transports playing the piano from the private to the social sphere. For band and orchestra students this social environment is the norm, but for pianists, making music often remains a solitary experience. I try to provide ensemble experience for my students on a regular basis, sometimes even in the very first semester of their studies. Careful one- on-one preparation before ensemble rehearsals is, of course, crucial for success.
Making it Worthwhile
Being able to sound accomplished from the beginning of study and playing enjoyable music can fuel students' desire to continue piano study and stick with the sometimes frustrating task of practicing. In my opinion, children need to gain perseverance and discipline, in which playing a musical instrument can play an important part. However, teachers must face the fact that most children have the opportunity to engage in many pleasant and exciting activities that require minimal or little effort. Without being able to feel a sense of accomplishment from the very beginning, they quickly lose interest in activities requiring considerable effort. As teachers, we must accept the environment in which we nurture future music lovers, enthusiasts, and amateur or professional musicians. Our success depends on finding ways to make the time and effort invested in piano seem worthwhile to students, so that they want music making to be part of their lives. Choosing exciting literature that students enjoy playing many times, helping students connect with the music at the emotional level, focusing on expression, promoting physical comfort, providing physically satisfying experiences at the piano, and striving for students to achieve sufficient progress so they can feel good about themselves as budding pianists are effective ways teachers can provide motivation.
Finally, we cannot forget the importance of students' families and friends. Their interaction and comments can inspire or discourage budding musicians, setting them on the path of perseverance and success or leading to loss of interest. Therefore, it is wise for all students to have at least one attractive piece at all times. This will improve parents' attitudes and satisfaction towards their children's piano practice and musical development. After all, teachers rely on parents for setting up and supervising a practice routine, delivering students to lessons and other events, not to mention funding their musical activities. Because parental support and involvement in children's musical education is crucial, recitals should be exciting for the audience, as well as the students.