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Unschool Piano Pedagagy – Principle 2: Music is a Language

16 June 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get someone started playing music. One of the conclusions that I’ve drawn  is that learning to play music is a lot like learning a new language.

Now, I’ve read a bit about how we learn languages. I love learning about how we learn and language is such an important part of that! If you’re interested in learning a language and are looking for an alternative to years of classroom study, try searching for Benny the Irish Polyglot, Tower of Babelfish, or Where Are Your Keys. All three offer interesting tools and specific ways to practice your new tongue.

One of Benny the Irish Polyglot’s rules is “don’t be afraid to make mistakes.” Actually, on the contrary, he advises language learners to go out and make as many mistakes as they can. That way you’ll learn what doesn’t work. The key thing here is to just try. Instead of just worrying about having the perfect grammar and syntax before you’re willing to open your mouth, just do your best and be ready to be corrected. Have fun with people… and listen to closely to how they string words together.

Right now I have a very young friend who cheerily talks and talks to anyone who will listen. Actually, to be honest, I’m not sure she needs a listener. While she has a growing vocabulary of English words, when she really gets going, not very much of her communication is part of the grammar or vocabulary that I have. I trust, though, that someday soon things will click I will be able to apprehend more of what she has to say. I really look forward to that — she obviously has something interesting to tell us!

Parallel to that, I’m recommending to S- that she spend as much time as she wants to just *playing* at the piano. Try to make sounds that she finds pleasant. Try to make sounds that she finds jarring. Right from the start, I’ve shown her that even the same notes can express different ideas and I plan on leaving her each week with a new challenge to express an idea or image through music. Try and play a thunderstorm… or snowflakes… an excited puppy… a lazy cat, asleep.

Of course, my toddler friend isn’t just babbling with no correction or examples. She has people in her life who will slow down and enunciate the words that she’s almost added to her vocabulary and she’ll overhear conversations and hear books read aloud.

In the same way, with S-, I want to give her constraints for her free play to help her find what works more quickly. “Try starting and ending on C and playing mostly white keys.” “Use the same keys but play an A with your left hand.” “Try playing mostly black keys… what note seems to be the ‘home note?’” I hope that these suggestions, these constraints, help her to more quickly find pleasant combinations without just being overwhelmed.

And let’s listen to music like we dream of making! I’d like to learn to “speak” jazz.  S- is interested in classical music. So, just as our toddler listens to grown-ups, let’s listen to players who are already fluent in the language we want to speak. I think that I want to find two sorts of recordings for her. First, recordings of ideas that are within or just beyond our reach — like the words that we slow down and enunciate for the toddler. And second, brilliant performances that inspire us to dream about what we might be able to do in a year or two… or 10.

Next up, I’d like to write some about goal setting. It’s one thing to dream, but how do we find the path to live those dreams?

P.S. Listen to this *brilliant* performance of a familiar song. I think that it lives in both categories. Playing these notes is relatively easy, but Lisitsa makes them beautiful and elegant and graceful and alive in a way that’s outside of my present reach.

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