On Learning the Piano
Long before I settled on music as a career, I doodled on the piano (rather than practised…), improvised at length (probably to avoid homework), bashed through library scores of favourite musicals and stumbled through Christmas carols (singing all the while). That’s what my basic piano skills gave me.
And, of course, at some point I also got down to getting through grades, and eventually diplomas as a classical pianist. While improvisation and basic keyboard skills could have taken me down a jazz route, in fact, I took up the organ, and used those primary musical skills daily – improvising, accompanying and performing in churches and cathedrals. Later, after training as a music therapist, I continued (and still do) to use those same skills to engage children and adults in music-making directed towards other aims: developmental, psychological and emotional well-being.
All through my teaching career I have been aware that children who take piano lessons do gain much of their musical literacy through a piano teacher – and that they need to do this in their later primary years if music is to be a part of their later lives. The developmental window that is open in these years is vital – in rapid intellectual growth, in fine motor skills that are flexible to adaptation to instrumental learning, and in enthusiasm and stamina for taking on new skills. My own teaching has also shown me that the majority of children really enjoy lessons, gain self-esteem and are able to develop skills at their own pace, which can significantly help their well-being when they are finding the pace of a class group in school too slow or too fast. In this country, the learning of musical instruments is locked into the divisions in mainstream general education, polarising rather than bridging the gaps between state and independent schools. The very best route is through good community provision of piano lessons – attending lessons out of school. Current Covid-related challenges notwithstanding, visiting a well-qualified private teacher, in their studio or home, gives a child a different perspective on learning to that that they experience in their school setting. It gives them one-to-one attention, an out-of-school activity, a different relationship to the teacher-pupil relationships in their school. And this, in itself, can be hugely beneficial as the in-school baggage around group behaviour, academic performance and competition with peers is refreshingly and conspicuously absent. In my own teaching practice, I have also taught adults wanting to train as music therapists who either lack enough basic keyboard skill to undertake training, or whose keyboard skills lack improvisation, harmonisation and the necessary versatility. What this always highlights is that it’s the skills that count more than the achievements.
A friend of mine, whose three children I have taught and continue to do so, has weathered the storms of encouraging practice when they were younger with a baseline view that learning the piano is a life skill. Like learning to swim or riding a bike. You may disagree, but I see where she is coming from – and I do agree in many respects. There is no underlying feeling that her paying for lessons is a trade-off for practice, any more than paying for swimming lessons should result in a qualified life saver. It’s a skill that can be learned – and put to use for pleasure or work when her children are grown up. She knows that the “reward” is not one for her in terms of vicarious pleasure or parental pride – but rather a skill that for her children to own and use as they wish.