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On Learning Piano and Making it Relevant

January 10, 2009

Over Christmas break my mom and I spent an evening with the family of her new friend. What began as hummus and crackers before dinner, ended up amounting up to much more than that. All of the kids present (4, 8 and 10) were obsessed with their new Christmas presents. Among the chaos of wii tennis and wii bowling, I noticed their snazzy electric piano. I asked Steve,
their father, if anyone played, and he mentioned that Chloe, their oldest, used to take lessons but then decided she had more fun coming up with her own music. He was most excited about her ability to play back a melody
on piano, that she had heard sung.

It’s rare with conversations like this, that “enjoy” gets frequently used.
His values, in terms of how Chloe was developing musically, were unusual, and to me probably the most important aspects of becoming musically literate. Fur Elise was not mentioned. Great pianists or prodigies were not mentioned. He simply realized that his child did not enjoy learning condensed versions of greater pieces (not that there is always something wrong with that), and did something about it.

So I played Rachmaninoff on their cute little piano that had remnants of note-name stickers on the keys.
I wanted to make playing piano seem cool to entice Chloe.
It worked.

After dinner she wanted to show me how she could play whatever I came up with to sing. So here was the student putting something to the teacher, waiting for the teacher’s response. That demand alone flipped everything fundamental to most piano lessons. So I gave her a singable melody, “do a dear a female deer”…that she probably knew, was on all the white keys, and was mainly steps. After she realized that she already knew it, rhythm was out the door (although I’m unsure if it was ever all that important to Chloe’s playback process, since identifying the notes seemed to be satisfying enough).
Then I came up with a three note upper neighbor pattern, involving f#, that just descended stepwise with each loop. Chloe could completely sing back the pattern, continue the trend (of downward steps), but had trouble translating this to piano. First she oscillated between f and g, trying to convince me that it was one of these, even though it was clear she heard it was neither, and could perfectly sing the f#.  Then I revealed to this very energetic 10-year old (also hugely uncommon in most piano lessons), that
often when black keys are used, they stay the same for the whole song.

That drastically changed things. Although I’m sure she’s learned this before, about key-signatures and what not if she had any basic piano lessons, I’m also sure that black notes never seemed important because she never
had to care about them. Sure there they are sitting on the keyboard, but usually you can transpose everything to C and then you don’t have to worry about them at all! (Or you can just average the white keys and make
it seem like you’re hitting all the notes)

Instead of just reviewing material, I presented Chloe with a problem (that was a response to a process she initiated, “sing a melody”). This made black keys all of a sudden relevant (and key signatures too). The most interesting thing was that away from the piano, Chloe could recognize patterns, sing them back and understand how they worked and progressed. Once on the piano, however, everything became linear, rhythm didn’t matter because
only the next note mattered, and how quickly she could find it. But there’s better ways to go about it than trial and error, and I hope that someone can help Chloe translate her musical intuition onto piano.
Maybe once you attach that knowledge to a thing, it keeps it from disappearing.

I think about this as I sit in the backseat, my mom and her friend Norman trying (and failing) to sing
“do a deer, a female deer.”

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