What am I doing here?

What do children expect and hope for from piano lessons?

When I was very young I used to lie in bed listening to my dad play the piano. I imagined there was a massive concert hall downstairs with swishy red velvet curtains and a huge, appreciative audience. My mum also played and we enjoyed playing duets together. At school, Miss Jones played the piano every day as we entered and left assembly, as well as accompanying the daily hymn. When I started piano lessons at the age of 7 my understanding was that if I worked hard for a very long time I’d be able to play like these early icons of mine!

I have no idea how many of my peers had piano playing parents but they all heard Miss Jones play every day. She was good! At secondary school, we still sang hymns accompanied by the piano. We saw pop groups on TV accompanied by guitars and pianos or keyboards.

The world has changed! I have noticed a new type of beginner pupil. They are a subset of the ones who come to piano lessons as the result of parental choice, between the age of 5 and 9, and they don’t know what ‘playing the piano’ is. I’ve been pondering this and suspect it’s because our local schools don’t have a Miss Jones playing classical greats whilst children walk in and out of assembly; if songs are sung they are accompanied by backing tracks; pop hits have electronically generated backing tracks. These genres are skilfully produced and used but live or televised acoustic music isn’t usually part of the lives of young children.

So what do these children understand by ‘going to piano lessons’?

I don’t really know! They’re happy enough to play their first notes. What they lack is a sense of piano playing ambition and purpose. They tend to dislike being directed or corrected. One of my young pupils, when I asked him why he wanted to learn to play the piano replied that his mum wanted him to come; upon further questioning he couldn’t see the point of playing the piano - it seemed irrelevant and something that was done in the past by people long dead - an ancient craft along the lines of spinning or lacemaking, revived by a few enthusiasts.

These children need a slightly different approach to teaching and learning. They need to be given a framework, ideally before the first lesson, within which to build a desire to play the piano. They need to see and hear pianists. If parents don’t play the piano, maybe a friend or relative does; ask them to play to and with the child, encouraging them to listen and helping them play a few simple tunes or improvise some moods. Show them YouTube clips of excellent pianists of a variety of ages, playing a variety of styles - jazz, rock, classical, pop.... Take them to the local music festival or to concerts at the local arts centre (sometimes there are concerts aimed at children, but good music will often hold a child’s attention for a long time); stop and listen to ‘Pianos in Public’ being played (eg at train stations and airports) etc - be creative!

The parents of this generation of children probably saw and heard the piano played at school and may well have had piano lessons when they were younger, with some idea what ‘playing the piano’ means. There has been a shift and these parents, who rightly see the value of their children learning to play the piano, can make a huge difference by investing in their child’s experience of music and the piano before they start having lessons.

This same shift brings numbers of eleven and twelve year old beginners to piano lessons - they have encountered keyboard and piano playing for the first time at secondary school. They are inspired, enthusiastic and driven, with an idea of what they are hoping to achieve through piano lessons. They, like all my students, are a joy to teach.

What do children expect and hope to achieve from piano lessons?

To play like grandma. To play like someone they have seen on YouTube. To play like the soloist they heard at a concert. To play like the ten year old they heard at the local music festival. To play like Elton John. To play like their school music teacher etc etc.

And oh, how vital it is to keep music alive in our schools!