By: Hellene Hiner
A Sad Little Story With a Happy Ending.
A couple of months later Jenny turned seven. Lillian came to her birthday party. After all of the fun and celebration had concluded, Jenny's mom suddenly asked “Lillian, sweetie, would you play our family's favorite song? Remember that piece that you played at your recital a couple of months ago?“. “Oh, I forgot that music already!“, the girl carelessly replied.
“I am so sorry to hear that”, Jenny's mom was distressed. Suddenly a happy thought lit up her face. “I completely forgot! We have sheet music of the song!” She opened the piano bench and placed the music on the piano.
Lillian narrowed her eyes at the notes. Then she hopelessly looked around the room and began to fidget on the bench. “I can't read this“, she finally confessed.
“But you learned this piece by reading, right?“, Jenny's mom asked somewhat baffled.
“Of course! We read this with my teacher sitting at my side and I also memorized a lot by looking at her hands”, Lillian whispered.
Later on, Jenny’s story takes an absolutely astonishing turn. Before I get to it, I have some important thoughts to share with you as a music educator. Many parents, like Jenny's mom, look for answers when they send their children to music lessons. One of the most common is:
Many think that reading words and reading music notes are the same process. Is this true?
Children learn to read after they can speak fluently in the same language. But when we play piano, we 'speak' with our fingers. They are our 'voice' and 'vocal chords.' Do we have an inborn skill to manage our 10 fingers the same way that we control our vocal cords? Of course not!
For this reason, a beginning piano student of any age misses keys and struggles with finger work, just like a baby whose first efforts at speaking begin with babbling and vocalizing sounds. Obviously, teaching someone to read who can't say a single phrase is not the same as teaching a student who can't stop talking like a chatterbox.
Another point to ponder-- five and six year old readers are already capable of focusing their eyesight on small letters and then shifting this focus along a line of words. They often use their finger or a ruler to mark their place on a page because they are afraid of losing track of the words.
But when playing piano, there are more than ten black tracks and eleven white ones that a music reader must follow all at once! Maintaining the eye’s focus over all these tracks is a skill required only in the arenas of piano playing and chess. Unfortunately, piano beginners can't help themselves by pointing, because their fingers are busy with the keys.
Consider the spatial relationship of the keys on the piano to the music score. A beginner have to divide their eyesight between the notations on the music (no simple feat in itself) and their hands on the keys. Otherwise, they won't hit the right target! Poor things, they can't sneeze or even blow their noses, for fear of losing their position on the keys- and taking forever to find it again!
Another challenge is to learn the sound of a note ‘by ear’. Any pre school child can already clearly tell the difference between O and U, and between U and Y. Unfortunately, this can usually not be said for the musical ear of the very same child. To determine the difference between C and C-sharp is not every child's (or even adult’s) forte.
The reason for this is plain and simple: their entire life, children have been too busy with learning to express their desires with words! It is a matter of survival for them, in some terms. Put yourself in the child's shoes. You want to say, 'I want candy' and babble nonsense instead. What you do get? Perhaps, some steamed broccoli and carrots. As for your ability to differentiate C from C–sharp- it’s not so crucial compared to real life drama, don't you think?
To make a long story short, our kids are not naturally inclined to read music notation the same way they are ready to read books. They can't focus, their coordination skills are still developing, and their musical ear is in bad need of improvement. No elementary school teacher would ever expect such 'beginners with special needs' to read books. No way!
But piano teachers have no choice. They take such students with enthusiasm, because they simply love music, and, well… there is no alternative. But at least they always have a chance to 'win the lottery' and to get some really smart-talking 'toddler,' (it is always exciting to have an element of unpredictability at your job). They do their best to teach your child to play and enjoy music with the tools and methods available.