Teaching any subject at any age comes with a great deal of responsibility. Teachers of children, in particular, need to adopt strategies which will not only impart knowledge of the subject they teach to the child, but also help the child grow more confident, capable and healthy, taking great care to not injure their often fragile psyche.
When teaching a physical activity, this responsibility extends to their physiology. The piano, as all musical instruments, has been linked to certain injuries, mainly tendinitis, associated with the repetitive nature of using a keyboard.
This is mainly an issue because many people, at times even piano teachers, are unaware either of the connection between piano playing and tendinitis, or of the correct technique which will prevent such an occurrence. Piano technique is often considered an “advanced” student issue, one connected with the ability to tackle a more demanding repertoire, rather than the basic of sound production in general. Teachers who follow this school of thought focus their teaching on learning many pieces, in order to create a sense of achievement in students and their parents, ignoring hand and arm behaviours which are extremely damaging, thinking that these behaviours will either sort themselves out or that they have time to teach their students better technique later.
The truth of the matter is that it is hard to teach proper technique. The younger the student, the more boring they consider any kind of work associated with their positioning, arm and hand relaxation or natural movement. It is not easy to explain how to achieve relaxed movement and 4-year-olds, for example, don’t really care (why would we expect them to, anyway?)! However, it is absolutely crucial that the way they first learn to play is actually the proper way, since quite a large component of piano playing is habit. The more a child plays, the more they get used to playing the way they do.
The reason that tendinitis is serious, is that once a tendon is injured, it never really heals. You can alleviate pain, usually by rest, but you are forever prone to further injury. It can be a career-ending injury for pianists, but it is also a real nuisance in any aspect of one’s life. Which is why proper technique which will prevent it should be the first and foremost concern for any piano teacher.
The harder our muscles work, the harder our tendons have to work to support them. Using force to strike a piano key makes our muscles work hard. As advanced pianists can strike keys up to around 200 times a minute, it is self-evident that using force to strike keys will be detrimental. Force is not our friend!
The first thing to do, then, when we teach young students is to teach them how to control their movements so that each one is relaxed and unforced. Small children do not possess great control over their muscles, so we need to begin with larger muscle groups in their arms before moving on to the smaller muscles of the hand.
The way to do this is not to explain all of this to our little students. Remember: they don’t care! This actually is one of the things they can learn later. Talking about it doesn’t do much good at this stage. However, if we make it fun and entertaining, we can get them to relax quite easily. Using imagery and analogies, like their arms being the feathers of big birds flying slowly in the sky or leaves hanging from a tree, play some music and make a little game out of it, they can quickly absorb the idea. Using the same strategies of imagery, analogy and gamification we can also train their hands and fingers to adopt this same relaxed, natural behaviour, preventing injury from ever occurring. This way of playing has a seriously wonderful side-effect as well: a beautiful, rich sound!
The role of games in piano lessons
Piano lessons have traditionally been conducted with a student sitting at the piano, as their teacher sits next to them, pointing to things on pages, explaining and asking questions. This, of course, is an essential part of piano teaching and always will be, but as student ages drop (the latest research on the matter found that the optimal age to begin lesson is 3 years old), this seems more and more implausible. Young children cannot concentrate on one activity for any length of time longer than twice their age in minutes (6 minutes for a 3-year-old, 8 for a 4-year-old and so on) on average, so it is imperative that activities are changed often and that they vary greatly.
Repetition is also required. Repetition is said to be the mother of all learning, according to the ancient Romans, and a great amount of repetition needs to go into establishing the basic understanding of the various concepts connected to piano playing. However, if the concept is reinforced through play, the number of repetitions required drops dramatically.
Playing games may not seem like teaching. It may, in fact, seem like the teacher is taking on the role of a very expensive babysitter. And certainly, if your child’s teacher chooses to play just any random game during their lesson time, you would be right in thinking that that is what they are doing.
However, a lot of thought, hard work and cost goes into both creating, designing and purchasing games, especially for young beginners. Simply throwing a ball between their hands can enhance children’s spatial reasoning, cross the midline in the brain helping vestibular input (balance), trains eye-hand coordination, enhances proprioceptive input (how our muscles sense the world around us) and much more, directly related to piano playing. There is also an endless number of card and board games, each specifically designed to enhance a child’s understanding of one or more concepts learned in their lesson. When something is fun, children will engage with it. When they are not focused on learning something, the knowledge and information passes through to their long-term memory without effort, so that it is easily accessible at any time.
If you have questions about how a specific game helps your child learn, don’t hesitate to ask the teacher! Most of us love what we do, so we are happy to explain why we do it.
The problem with piano methods
If you are a piano teacher – or a piano parent – from the 1980’s on, chances are you have been using one of many piano methods that are circulating in great abundance. No matter which one you pick up, they are colourful, full of pictures, teacher suggestions, practice suggestions, they come with a variety of supplemental books for ear-training, technique, duets and so on. They look appealing to young students; they seem to be everything you need to provide a well-rounded music education and they are filled with little compositions written in 5-finger positions to make it easier for your students to learn their notes and play their songs. So, what’s the problem?
I, too, was drawn in by such methods when I first started teaching. And, at first, I couldn’t see the problem with them either. When my students’ hands were stiff as a rock, no matter how much I pleaded, showed them how to relax their arms, I began blaming myself. When their sound production was poor at best, I thought it was a problem with my way of explaining what they needed to listen for. When they couldn’t sight-read the simplest of material, I thought it was because they simply didn’t understand what I was telling them. I completely lost my confidence in myself, so when the financial crisis hit Cyprus and parents just couldn’t afford lessons any more, as they quit, so did I. I went into a different line of work, thinking that I couldn’t cut it anyway.
When a friend asked me to teach her daughter, I went back to the familiar 5-finger position teaching method. I knew this child. I loved her and she loved me, and we had spent countless hours playing together, talking, I was her “auntie” and she would do anything to please me (as children do). Still, she was unmotivated, didn’t want to practice at home, and I struggled with imparting a good, healthy basic technique. But I was not giving up on her, no way. There had to be something I was missing. And then it hit me: the 5-finger position was working against me!
When playing, we need to adopt a natural hand position, one that is aided and aid the relaxation of the whole arm. But there is nothing natural about trying to make five fingers, all of different length, sit relaxed on five keys of the same exact length and height. The hand, wrist and arm need to learn to move to accommodate relaxation; I was asking these children to lock their hands in a fixed position and then relax. In essence, I was giving them conflicting instructions. That was when I decided to give up on the methods instead of giving up on my students and myself.
I had decided I was going to create my own method. I was going to go back into the teaching styles of Beethoven and his students, free the hand of any sort of positioning and allow it to flow freely, using only the third finger to begin with, the longest, strongest finger which sits squarely in the middle of the arm. I had decided that I was going to turn it into a fairy tale with different characters all related to the different concepts I wanted to teach so I began a long research for inspiration. That was when I came across Tales of a Musical Journey by Irina Gorin.
This book seemed to be everything I was planning to create. I ordered it, and that was the end of my research on the matter! Now, my students have free, relaxed hands and arms, they can focus on the sound quality and they can sight-read, as they never learned to associate number fingers with notes, making reading them “too much of a hustle to bother trying”. They progress more slowly in the beginning, as they need to learn all of the components of the music which they see in front of them. But once the initial stages have passed, they are unstoppable! This method has worked wonders for my 4-year-old as well as my 9-year-old beginners. It has also worked wonders for my self-esteem. I now know that the problem was not in me, but in the tools I had tried to use to get the job done.
Disclaimer: this is in no way a paid endorsement. I believe deeply in this piano method, as well as its author, who has made it her mission to rid the world of damaging piano technique and superficial piano teaching, providing a much better alternative for teachers all over the world.
Mother of Arts. King of Instruments.
Art is as old as man. It may well be the most ancient form of communication. Studies even suggest that the emergence of music in particular seems to coincide with the emergence of the sense of group identity in early modern humans, the origin of society (Nicholas Conard - University of Tübingen, Germany), while there is rising suspicion that it was used as a form of communication before the invention of language.
Music moves us, it can transmit emotions and ideas, it can affect our mood, it can even affect how we perceive visual images. Not confined by words, colours or frames, music can communicate feelings which cannot be otherwise described. Turn off the sound in any horror movie, and it stops being frightening. Add the wrong king of music to a monologue and it suddenly makes no sense. Add the right kind of music and it is suddenly much more powerful. Accompany any form of art with music and it is immediately elated to new levels. It becomes more communicative, more understandable.
Music is the mother of all arts.
In the kingdom of musical instruments, the piano reigns supreme. It is not only one of the largest musical instruments, it is also the one that offers the largest variety of expression and playing potential with unrivalled variety of power, depth and versatility. No other instrument can offer as many notes as the piano. It can be the protagonist or the accompanist, it can replace an entire orchestra or join it. It has the ability to accompany soloists without drowning them out, while it can be heard above a philharmonic. A percussive instrument, it also carries strings and keys. A composer can use it to create works for the whole orchestra. It has the ability to play both melody and harmony at the same time.
The piano is the king of all musical instruments.
Welcome to Mother of Arts Piano studio.
It is said that music is the mother of all arts. It is also said that the piano is the king of all musical instruments. I have dedicated my life to the music of the piano. I have studied -and practiced- how to play it, how to teach it, how not to teach it, as well as the physical, mental, emotional and cognitive effects it can have on the human brain. I now feel it is time for me to share all I have learned. I am Eleni Zeniou and I am a piano teacher.