Archives for posts with tag: piano pedagogy

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.


I think that I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been giving piano lessons to a few of my young friends. It’s been a lot of fun: I really enjoy trying to understand how we learn. I’m new at this, and I have a lot of ideas that I want to try out. Even though I spend a lot of my time trying to help kids learn ideas or concepts, I’m excited to try teaching an actual skill. I’m looking forward to being able to say, “Did you hear what you just did? Remember when you didn’t know how to do that?”

I’ve just begun meeting with a completely new pupil. S- has never had any lessons before, and I’m especially keen to give her a solid start. I’ve been brimming over with ideas but I haven’t made the time to actually pin them down… until now. Let’s think this through:

Joby’s Principles of Anarchist Piano Pedagogy

Wait, what? What’s anarchism got to do with piano practice? What, are you starting with atonal post-modern noise? You might well ask. I think of myself as an unschooler and an anarchist. I don’t believe in “have to.”  I want to find a way to help my pupils learn what they want to learn without coercion. That is, I choose  not to use fear, guilt, reward or shame to motivate people.  It’s not just that I’m an idealist and want to be a nice guy. I’m convinced that people learn more easily when they enjoy what they’re learning and they choose to put in the time and effort rather than spending that time out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or “have to.”

Of course, we’re on the right track in this case. S- asked me for lessons. I’m not imposing anything on her… but I want to be careful not to put her in a position where she feels guilty if she hasn’t practiced as much as she thinks she should. I’d so much rather see her determined to put in the time because she sees how it’s helping her than have her worry about disappointing me.

It’s a simple idea, but it will require effort and planning on my part before we meet so that she has a clear idea of how to spend her time the rest of the week. That’s okay, though: I really want to do it!

So, I guess my  first principle is:

Have fun!
Practice because you want to, not because you think you have to. In fact, there is no such thing as “have to,” only “choose to.” You can put a lot of effort into learning to play the piano, but it doesn’t feel like work when you choose to do it.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about my ideas of how to accomplish that. I’ve got a lot to say about goal-setting, mastery and the idea that music is like a language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment space below. Have you ever taught music to teens? Did you ever take music lessons? What was your experience: was the effort fun or tedious? Do you think I’m crazy? Tell me about it!