The Power of Stickers

When I first started giving piano lessons to young children, I resisted using stickers as a motivating reward. Other teachers sang the praises of stickers, while I scoffed at the idea. Other teachers spoke of their magical lure, while I held onto the notion that no permanent marks should be made in one’s music, only notes in pencil. Looking back, I see that my reasoning at the time was not especially sound. I approached teaching little kids with the same attitude – if not expectations, that I maintained with older students. I figured the reward for mastering an exercise should be a “Job well done!”, should be satisfaction with the knowledge that one’s technique is improving,… blah, blah, blah.
After teaching little kids for more than fifteen years, I see now that that approach is entirely flawed. Young children are not motivated in the same way that older kids are, and as their teacher I should explore and accommodate this difference.

When I began giving piano lessons to Danny, he was five years old. Smart as a whip, he easily memorized all of the pieces he worked on, without effort. Usually this indicates a weakness in note reading, rather than a strength, and that the child is looking at his fingers more than at the notes on the page. But that was not the case with Danny; he simply has a near photographic memory and an extremely mathematical approach to life, as I have learned in the many years since we first met. As a five-year-old, he wanted very much to please me and to do well in his lessons, but he hated to try playing anything new in front of me. I learned very quickly that the best way to teach Danny was to play the music for him, explain any new symbols or concepts in the piece, then allow him to go home and work it out for himself. He almost always mastered those little pieces on his own at home. Anti-sticker though I was at the time, I wanted somehow to reward Danny for his extraordinary progress, and so I drew stars in pencil in his book.img_20170128_175637
Occasionally Danny would not master an exercise in one week (nobody’s perfect!). At those times, I did not draw stars in his book. He was crushed! He would insist on playing the piece over and over, hoping for a perfect “star” record. It was a tough lesson for him to learn, that some things take more than one try and that it’s okay to take some extra time with the trickier assignments! I reasoned with him that he does not want a bunch of stars in his book next to exercises he did not master. He and I would not be able to tell which ones he did really well on. Bright boy that he was, he accepted this idea and worked hard to earn any future stars. Though they weren’t brightly colored, those penciled-in stars were a good motivator and made my job easier.

Danny is now in his first year of high school. He reminds me to call him ‘Dan’ rather than ‘Danny,’ and is no longer motivated by pencil stars. Now discussions about improving his technique resonate with him. I’ve learned my lesson from Danny the five-year-old, and in the years since have allowed many, many stickers to “mar” the pages of little kids’ music books. The once sacrilegious has become exalted, a necessary item in my teacher toolbox.

My transition to “the other side” came abruptly, not slowly. It was after two or three lessons with seven-year-old Tessa. She folded her arms, gave me a cross look, and demanded to know where my stickers were.
“Excuse me?” I asked. “What stickers?”
“Every teacher has stickers. Where are yours?”
What I heard implicit in her reply was, “Every teacher worth their salt has stickers.”
That evening after work I went to the supermarket and picked up a pack of stickers along with the salmon for dinner and coffee for the morning.
And teaching little kids suddenly got so much easier.
Now there is a decisive result to show that they have done well. Now there is a colorful visual record in their exercise books logging the progress they’ve made.

Here’s an example of how using stickers has made it easier for me to reach my goals as a teacher:
When a small child ends an exercise, I want them to count out loud to show that they are holding the final note long enough. If it’s a whole note (to be held for four beats), I lean down and stare at the child’s hand while excitedly counting, “One, two, three, four, off!” Often they’ll count along with me. The child knows to wait until we say “Off!” before releasing the note. Before stickers, however, there would be little to no motivation for the kid to hold the note until “Off!” even if they knew that’s what I wanted. Now, if the child lets go before, “Off!”, then no sticker is given. The whole exercise is repeated until the final note is held long enough. Some kids will repeat the exercise many times, not willing to give up until they’ve earned a sticker. One of my young students has come to expect a certain routine at the end of every successful exercise, and I don’t mind obliging him. As he holds the final note, I lean way down and stare at his hand, increasing volume as I count, “One, two, Three, FOUR, OFF!” As he releases the note, we high five and I say, “Sticker worthy!”

Many of my young students come to lessons guessing out loud how many stickers they’ll earn that day. If I ever forget to reward a good job with a sticker, the student will often stare at the spot where I keep them, waiting for me to get the hint.
Of course not all students are motivated by stickers. Some kids are too cool for them by second grade. But the majority of kids under fourth grade respond to the incentive. Fourth grade seems to be the cusp. It’s a delicate task for me to discern whether or not a nine-year-old would be into stickers. If they feel too mature, I run the risk of insulting them. If I assume they’re too old, they might feel slighted.
This semester I am teaching two sisters, one six years old and one nine. The stickers are a hit with the six-year-old Patrice, but I made the mistake in thinking that Justine, because she was the big sister, would not be interested. Piano comes naturally to her, and she works hard. I assumed that my declaring, “Job well done!” would be reward enough.
One day Justine came in and very shyly asked, “How come my sister gets stickers but I don’t?”
Wow! I felt SO bad!
“Oh, Sweetie! Of course you should get stickers! What was I thinking? Sometimes your old teacher is a little crazy, right? Forgetting to give you stickers! That’s crazy. Let’s see just how many stickers you’ve earned!”
Justine giggled at my over-the-top response. I went through all of her music and acted like a funny crazy woman as I slapped stars and animal heads and rainbows on most of the pages. She beamed widely.

Occasionally I’ll even reward an older kid with a pencil star. Sometimes words just don’t seem to be enough to convey praise, and I feel like being demonstrative. I’ll say, “I know you’re too old for stickers. But that was a sticker worthy performance if I’ve ever heard one!” I’ll imitate my Brooklyn grandmother and say, “You deserve a gold star,” and draw a great big pencil star. Why, just last week, after Danny played a perfectly even D flat major scale at a rather fast clip, I scrawled a great big star in his notebook, and the lanky teenager couldn’t help but smirk.

Last year I bought a jumbo pack of rather small stickers. I was saving money buying the economy pack and I felt like a cheapskate when I saw how tiny they appeared in the music books. But it turned out these small stickers had an added benefit, and deeming exercises as “sticker worthy” became even more fun.
I use A Dozen a Day technical exercise books (Edna-Mae Burnam, Willis Music Company) for almost all of my students at the elementary level of piano. These are books of short exercises meant to build muscle control and sight-reading skills. Above each exercise is a stick figure, the majority of them without a face. My tiny stickers fit just right on top of these figures, and the effect is often comical. Most of my young students look forward to adding funny faces to these figures, whether it’s an animal head or a basketball. They often ask me to turn my head while they place the sticker, hoping that when I turn around I am so surprised by the funny way they’ve placed the sticker that I burst out laughing.

Last week as I was leaving the music center after a day of teaching, a six-year-old student lowered her car window and shouted, “Bye, Meg! I can’t believe I’m so good at piano that I got five stickers! See you next week!”

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The Gift of Technical Exercises

Today I wept a tiny tear during a lesson, such was the beauty conveyed by my student, Eleanor, as she played a Beethoven sonata for me (Op. 49, No.1, Andante).

YouTube link to Barenboim playing the sonata: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTPPZeNldCc

I first began teaching Eleanor five years ago, when she was eight years old. She is a bright girl, with a wide smile that lights up her face, but very, very quiet. She progressed rapidly right from the start, but because she rarely spoke more than a few words to me, I couldn’t really tell if she actually liked playing the piano or not.                                               But today she was able to show me the depth of her feelings through her playing.
Eleanor recently mastered a Bach prelude and a berceuse by Godard, pieces that require sensitive dynamics and long lines; I was looking for a new piece for her that would challenge her dexterity as well as her expression. I had recently begun studying the Beethoven sonata and found it to be so hauntingly beautiful that for days it was the last thing I heard in my head as I went to sleep and the first thing on my mind in the morning. I desperately wanted to share it with one of my students. I hoped this would not be too much of a challenge for her.
When I first showed her the piece, we looked together at the music without yet playing it. We identified the key, G minor, and analyzed the first few cadences. This was to help her to see key harmonic gestures and hear them in her head even before she played them. My goal was to offer some structure and a sense of control as she approached what seemed to her like a monster of a piece.
Then I talked about the opening motive, and how it would set the tone for the rest of the piece.

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“These opening eighth notes in the left hand,” I cautioned Eleanor, “just might be the most important and the most difficult in the whole movement. Remember all those exercises in legato parallel thirds? Now is when they’ll pay off!”
Over the years, Eleanor has played through many, many exercises designed to improve muscle control in her hands. The more control a pianist has, the more subtleties of expression possible in the playing. Having taught myself piano for most of my childhood, I do not reap the benefits of early muscle training. I know how crucial it is and I know how to teach proper technique. When it comes to playing beautiful parallel thirds myself, however, I often cheat by using the pedal. The danger with that technique (or lack of) is that the line will most likely be muddied.
Eleanor does not have to cheat with the pedal to play legato parallel thirds. Those years of practicing technique really did pay off! Her dynamics are sensitive and her expression exquisite.
I hadn’t seen Eleanor in two weeks, and at our last meeting I’d introduced the piece to her for the first time. At the start of the lesson, I asked how the piece was coming along.
“Okay,” she said, “But I am nervous about the turns in the right hand.”
“Oh no,” I thought, “I gave her too hard a piece!”
But then she started playing.
My God, it was beautiful.                                                                                                                            I envy her technique.

Richard and the Silly Putty

Richard came to me as a fourth grader for his first ever piano lesson.
“How exciting!” I said, “you want to learn about music and how to play the piano!”
He grinned, puffed out his chest, and said, “Yup. That’s what I’m here for.”
After our brief introduction, Richard’s mother left us, telling Richard that she would be waiting in the parking lot for him after the lesson.
I asked Richard the usual questions:
“Do you have an instrument at home?”
“Have you ever had lessons before?”
“What are your goals?”
Then I asked him, “What’s your favorite book?”
He slumped down a bit, deep in thought about his answer, then cheerfully replied, “I like books about animals!”
“Yes? Any favorites? Animorphs? Books about sharks?”
“Nah, just books about animals.”
“Okay,” I thought to myself, “Maybe reading is not one of Richard’s strengths.”
I considered this as I chose materials for him, picking a lesson book with bright colors that progressed at a more gentle pace than others, as well as my favorite book of beginning folk songs (Faber and Faber’s Five Finger Favorites) and a very beginning book of technical exercises (A Dozen a Day, Mini Volume). This last book has short, four measure exercises meant to be mastered easily, boosting confidence while improving sight reading.
After several lessons, Richard was still having trouble keeping both hands on the piano at a time. I was not asking him to play two hands at once, but wanted him to keep both hands ready so that the one could take over when the other was no longer playing. An affable boy by nature, he was trying hard with no success. He would hunch and stare at his right hand as it was playing, with his left hand held high the air. Then he would say, “Oh, right!” and bring his left hand down to continue the line of music. Up would pop his right hand, held far from the keyboard. When I held a book over his hands so that he could not see them, there was some improvement, but once I took the book away, the arm dance resumed.
It seemed that Richard understood what I was asking and that he really wanted to comply.
After a bit of trying with no results, he exclaimed, “I know!” and reached into his front pocket for a round tin.
I had seen the outline of the tin in his pocket and wondered what is was.
“It couldn’t be Skoal!” I thought.
It was a tin of Silly Putty. I hadn’t seen that in years!
Richard felt he had a great idea as he began to pull the Silly Putty apart with the intent of sticking his fingers to the piano keys.
When I saw what his plan was, I held up my hand and said, “Absolutely not!”

As I was writing his assignment down at the end of the lesson I was trying to recall the date.
Richard helpfully offered, “Today is the 32nd of November.”

That night, I phoned my mother, the child psychologist. She is a tremendous resource for me. I described the arm dance, told her about the Silly Putty and the 32nd of November.
“Could he be dyslexic, Mom? If so, how do I respond to that? How do I meet his needs?”
My mother cautioned that she could give no diagnosis without having met the child, but asked me tons of questions.
Finally, she asked me, “Have you asked him to cross the midline?”
“Excuse me, what?”
“What happens when you ask him to touch his right hand to his left foot?”
“Mom, of course I haven’t asked him to do that!”
“Well,” she answered, “it would be helpful to know that.”
“Mom!” I exclaimed, “My job is so much more than just teaching music!”
“Of course it is,” she answered.

One lesson Richard told me that he has no time to practice because of all the time spent with tutors and sports practices.
I sympathized, but nonetheless asked, “Maybe your tutor could help with your piano lessons?”
It seemed a reasonable question, given that music lessons most likely enhanced and incorporated much of what he was learning in school.
Richard looked at the ceiling thoughtfully and said, “Huh, good idea. I’ll ask my mom.”

After a few weeks of little progress, I introduced a very simple version of Star Wars to Richard. I thought a familiar melody would help him make a connection to the printed music. He was very excited at the idea of learning Star Wars. He was especially attentive during the lesson and seemed to be understanding and relating the notes on the page to what he was playing on the piano.
The next week he came in and plopped the Star Wars music on the piano with satisfaction, excited to get started. Not wanting to squelch his enthusiasm, I started right away with this piece, skipping the usual technical exercises. Before asking him to play it, I asked him a few questions, hoping to trigger his memory of what he’d accomplished in our last lesson.
“Alright! Star Wars! What do you remember about this piece?”
Richard smiled at me, but said nothing.
“Where would you put your hands on the piano to start this song?”
In response, he looked all around the room, never at the piano, me, or the music.
“Richard, point to the first note of the song in the music.”
As he continued to look around the room, I wondered if I am equipped to teach him. I am not trained in special education. I don’t know what this child needs, nor do I have any idea of what I can reasonably expect from him as a student.
Not knowing if a reading or non-reading approach is right for Richard, I settled on having him practice moving his left hand back and forth between the two positions used in playing this version of Star Wars. The drill required him to locate an F on the keyboard. Instead of noting that the F is the white key before the three black keys, Richard went back to C each time and counted up to find F.
The hand position drill was productive, and by the end of the lesson Richard could make his way through the song.
“I’m really good at Star Wars!” he declared.
“Yes,” I answered, “And you’ll stay really good at Star Wars if you play this at least four times over the week. Maybe ask your tutor for help.”
“Hm, she has a lot to work on with me. Probably no time for helping me with piano.”
“Have you talked to your mom about it?”
“Nah, we’re all really busy.”
It was the week before winter break, and as I was saying goodbye to Richard I said, “This will be our last lesson before January 4. Be sure to practice Star Wars over break.”
He looked at me with panic and said, “Wait! That’s not Christmas, is it?”

As the lessons with Richard continued, I asked myself, “What exactly am I teaching him? What do I have to offer? Am I teaching left from right? how to read? how to focus? Where does music fit into this?”
I mulled this over with both my boss at the music school and my mother.
My boss had some good insight. My job is to teach Richard music, though his goals and milestones may be different from my other students. He said that certainly, through music, other things such as left and right orientation are more easily learned, but that is not my job. There are other professionals for that. However, piano lessons offer an application with which to learn many things, such as left from right. For instance, playing from right to left on the keyboard will produce lower and lower sounds. The abstract idea of “left” could become associated with an aural sensation and reinforce the concept.
Talking with my mother, I wondered aloud why the parents of kids with special pedagogical needs would not apprise me of this, share with me the accommodations made and the individualized approach most certainly used in school. Surely this would help me tailor the private lessons. She guessed that there might be several reasons. Maybe the child is stigmatized in school and the parent wants to guard against that happening in the lessons with me. Maybe the parent does not realize the benefit of transferring the special needs from the classroom to the private studio, but considers music lessons to be extra-curricular, and so not academically related.
It seems logical for me to talk about this with the parents, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do this.
Sometimes I’ll say, “Your child is having trouble focusing on the lesson,” or “She doesn’t seem to be making a connection to the music on the printed page.”
At these times I hope the parent will then explain what might be going on. But so far it hasn’t worked.
Over time in my lessons with Richard, I detected a certain visual acuity in him, unlike any other person I had met. I was fascinated by this, as I am not especially visually oriented. I am that person who forgets to water the plants because she hadn’t noticed they were there in the first place. When I get out of a friend’s car, I often can’t find it again because I hadn’t noticed what it looked like when I first got in.
One day Richard said to me, “You must really like the NY Yankees!”
“Oh really?” I asked, puzzled, but by now used to his unrelated outbursts.
“Because of your necklace! You’re wearing their logo!”
This one took me a while to figure out. I took the stone necklace with the geometric pattern off my neck and laid it on the piano bench.
“Show me what you mean, Richard.”
“It’s right there!” he exclaimed, and turned the necklace sideways. Then I spotted what looked vaguely like the N and the Y of the logo as the patterns in the stonework crossed. It was a bit of a stretch to see it, let alone the fact that Richard had seen it sideways.  But I had to admit, it was there.


Another time I was trying to get Richard to identify a G in the top space of the bass staff. I was having little luck getting him to look at the page, never mind identify a G. He was looking all around the room.
Suddenly he shouted, “Atomic chimpanzees eat giraffes!”
It took me a second before I realized he’d made up his own sentence to memorize the spaces in the bass staff. Usually we say, “All cows eat grass.” But, okay, whatever works. I was pleased that Richard had come up with his own mnemonic device.
“Fantastic! Atomic chimpanzees eat giraffes! Show me a giraffe space!”
Richard was unable to apply his own method, making no connection with the page.
The next lesson I spent a good deal of time with Richard identifying “chimpanzees” and “giraffes” in the bass staff.  These two notes are relatively far apart, and so it was an easy exercise for Richard to recognize notes on the staff.
We looked at music he had already worked on, and I asked, “Is this a chimpanzee or a giraffe?”
Each time he answered correctly.
Then, as a break from the drilling, I allowed him to play Star Wars, which he knew now by heart and repeatedly asked to play.
After he played the song twice, we went back to identifying ‘G’s, but now I simply pointed to a note and asked him to name it.
To my delight, he quickly answered, “That’s a G!”
“Very good, Richard. How did you know that? You have many tools to figure out what note it is. Which tool did you use?”
I expected him to recite, “Atomic chimpanzees eat giraffes.”
But he looked at me as though this were a trick question, then said, “It’s written right there! How could I not know?”
“What do you mean? There is nothing written in the score.”
He picked up the music and turned it upside down, then pointed to the F clef.
“See? It’s a G, curling around the G space, just like you taught me!”
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“Well, Richard, that observation is sticker worthy! Which one would you like?”
He selected – of course – a giraffe sticker. Pasting it in the book, he turned it upside down and had one of the horns pointing to the G space.

Richard sees and relates to the world in his own way, and it was up to me to tailor the lessons to suit his special point of view. Usually my primary goal is to teach students to read music so that they can play anything they want. I rarely ask children to memorize pieces. Richard, however, seemed not to relate to the music in a visual way, and enjoyed playing Star Wars from memory. So I worked backward from that point.
After Richard played the song, I asked him to hum the first four notes.
He happily hummed the familiar triplet opening of the famous theme, “Bop-ba-da-BAH!”
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“Great opening, right?” I said, as I closed the lid of the piano. “You know, that cool sound happens four times in this piece. Can you find all four of them?”
This was my beginning way to get Richard to connect with the sheet music visually.
He was confused at first as to why I’d closed the piano lid.
“We’re not going to play anymore? Is the lesson over?”
“No, the lesson is not over. We’ll play again in a little bit. I want you to look at the music and see if you can find the Bop-ba-da-BAH. It happens four times in the piece.”
Richard hummed thoughtfully to himself and pretended to look at the music. I pointed to the first four notes.
“Here’s one, right?” I asked. “I asked you to hum the opening and you did. So here it is, at the beginning of the song.”
“Oh yeah,” Richard said cheerfully.
“Can you find three more?”
“Sure!” and he pretty quickly found the other three.
The next week I allowed Richard to play Star Wars three times at the start of the lesson before I closed the piano lid and asked him to hum the second half of the first phrase, with the second triplet and the leap up of a seventh.

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“That’s the part with the B flat, right? There are eight of those. Let’s find them all.”
The exercise worked well for him. He was beginning to make more of a visual connection with the page.
I decided to try this technique with another familiar song. Working on “Oh! Susanna,” I had the music on the piano, but Richard rarely looked at it. He liked the song and after a few weeks learned and memorized it by ear.
During the third lesson of working on “Oh! Susanna,” I had Richard play the song two times through, then closed the piano lid.
“Oh no!” he said, “The lesson can’t be over yet!”
“No, it’s not over. Can you hum the first three notes of ‘Oh! Susanna’?”
He hummed the first two lines.
“Remember that there is a part with two notes that go faster? Two eighth notes?”
“Yeah,” and he pointed to the first two notes of the song.
“Fantastic! You found the first ba-da-bum!”
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I pointed to each time the three note figure appeared and sang, “Ba-da-bum. Ba-da-bum. Ba-da-bum. Ba-da-bum. Ba-da-bum. Ba-da-bum.”
“Now it’s your turn. You find all the ‘ba-da-bums.’ There are five of them.”
“Okay,” he said cheerfully, and as he pointed, I sang each ‘ba-da-bum’, starting softly with the first and increasing in volume until he found the fifth, the loud ‘Ba-Da-Bum!’ heralding the successful completion of the task.

Coco and the Focus Book

Coco was a beginning piano student whose great sense of humor made her seem older than her eleven years. She could be quite the actress and often had me in stitches. She practiced a fair amount at home, but felt she should be “better” at piano because she was, after all, eleven years old.

“But you’ve only had four lessons so far!” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, but I’m ditzy,” she said. “This will not come easily to me. Middle C and I do not have a good relationship,” and she slumped down a bit, shaking her head from left to right.

“Nonsense!” I said. “But you can’t learn much sitting like that. Sit up straight, please.”

Coco puffed out her chest and exaggerated a straight posture, overacting like a haughty person.

“Listen, Coco,” I said. “You don’t have to make fun of yourself just because you are sitting up tall. You can be a confident young lady and not have it be a joke.”

The next week when I caught her slumping on the piano bench again, she overacted a straight posture, but then stopped when our eyes met. She knew I was not having any of that.

Mid-lesson I pointed out that she was not using all of the information on the page before her, ignoring some of the tools provided. There was a diagram of the piano on the page, illustrating the keys used in G position, yet she was having trouble find a G on the piano.

“I’m sorry,” Coco sighed. “I’m distracted today.”
“Yes? What’s on your mind besides what we’re doing now?”
“Nothing, I’m just distracted. That’s how I am some days.”
Her resignation took me aback.
“Coco,” I said, “pretend there is a shelf above you with a whole line of books on it. ‘Attitude’ books.”

She gave me a look that said she thought I was strange, but she was going to follow me on this one.

“You’re tracing your finger along the spines of all these ‘attitude’ books,” I continued, “deciding which one you want to use for today. There’s Energized, Sad, Interested, Focused, Distracted…. Lots of books . And which one do you choose? You choose Distracted! Of all the books!”

She giggled as I pantomimed putting the Distracted book back on the shelf.

“What do you say we choose this one, the Focus book?” I asked as I pretended to pull a book from the shelf. “I like that one, and I think it will be a good one to use in this half hour together.”

To my surprise, Coco played right along.

Later, when she lost concentration and spoke off-topic, she would catch herself and say, “Oh, right. The Focus book,” and turn her attention back to the lesson.

A few weeks later, Coco complained that a certain piece she was learning was ‘scary.’ It was a very simple piece with a steady chord in the left hand keeping time to a right hand melody. It was a beginning step to playing hands together. She got herself so worked up over this piece that I had her move onto another one. Though the next piece was slightly more difficult, with the left hand playing independently of the right, she played it with much more ease.

“You are doing much better on this piece because you haven’t psyched yourself out, telling yourself it’s ‘scary,’” I told her.

She smirked and said, “When I grow up I’m going to be a famous philosopher and use all these tidbits about confidence and distraction and stuff that you teach me in our lessons. Oh! But that won’t work! They’ll find it was you who said all those things, and you’ll get all the credit!”

First Lessons

All first lessons involve a good deal of diagnostics on my part. This is true whether the new student is a six-year-old, a middle schooler or an adult. No matter the age of the student, I’ll of course ask what experience they’ve had with music before.
“Do you have an instrument at home?”
“Have you ever had lessons before?”
“What are your goals?”
With my littlest new students, as well as with my middle school students, I’ll ask “What is your favorite book?”
When I have a first lesson with a young student, we’ll march (like a parade!) down the hall together to choose just the right lesson book for them. As we march, I’ll ask the question, “What’s you’re favorite book?” and invariably my boss will smile at me. He knows what I’m doing. I am assessing the student’s reading ability. For the youngest of my students, this is to discern whether or not they are reading yet. For the slightly older students, it is to assess for reading delays. The level of reading ability will inform my choice of lesson material.
Perhaps the student does not yet read at all. In that case, I will choose a lesson book that begins very slowly, using finger numbers instead of note names as the primary way to discuss and play the very first notes, such as Alfred’s Lesson Book One.  If the student has some reading ability but is not yet reading chapter books, then I will choose a slightly more advanced lesson book, but one that has plenty of cartoons and bright pictures, such as Bastien or Piano Adventures Level One. For the students with a confident reading ability and a demonstrable eagerness to learn, I will choose a much more fast-paced book, such as Michael Aaron Lesson Book One. I might choose the Michael Aaron for adults as well, if they have no prior experience with music.
When I asked Francesca, a five-year old, “What’s your favorite book?” she answered with enthusiasm, “Corduroy!”
My response was, “Oh, I love that book! Now, do you enjoy reading this book to your mom or do you like her to read it to you?”
“I like for her to read it to me.”
This response offers volumes.
First, this means that there is reading to the child in the home, which demonstrates the parents’ keen interest and participation in the growth and education of their child. And, perhaps more importantly, the answer demonstrates that child does not yet read regularly on her own. Francesca’s reading level is absolutely age appropriate, but because she still seems to be in the receptive mode of gaining new knowledge, perhaps she will not yet take the initiative to play piano on her own. This is not a deal-breaker, but I feel the best situation is when a student has her own impetus to delve into new areas.
Normally, I do not like to accept students who are not yet reading. But in our initial conversation in the studio, Francesca had already demonstrated to me an interest in piano and an ability to focus. This could mean that she is ready.

Another question I ask at every first lesson is “What is your favorite thing to play on the piano/flute?” This is most useful, of course, if the student has had lessons before and so is not new to the instrument. But it is also helpful with piano students who, despite not having had lessons, can indeed make a sound on the piano.  Many of them have already explored sounds that they can make and can show me what they find fun to play or pleasurable to hear. Usually new flute students cannot yet make a sound, and so the question is moot. When I ask the student who has had lessons before to play me the piece they most enjoy playing, the answer tells me a lot about how the lessons will go in the future. Firstly, this is of course a diagnostic question to discover the skill level of the student. But it also tells me about the student’s taste in music and their idea of what exactly might bring them joy as they play. Some students are caught off guard by the question.
“What do you mean my favorite piece? I didn’t know I was supposed to prepare something!”
To that I might say, “Then show me ‘joy’ through your playing. What does it look like and sound like when you are by yourself, loving making music? Pretend I am not here.”
Some will rise to the occasion and play their hearts out for me. Mistakes are not the issue here. It’s about how much the student likes to play. Or, indeed, whether or not they have ever thought about that. Many students will mumble, “I don’t know,” when asked to play their favorite piece, and come up empty even after some gentle prodding. This is not uncommon, but it is always a bit of a disappointment for me, especially if these students have already been studying for a few years. It’s at those times that I give myself a little internal pep talk.
“Okay, Meg, you might have your work cut out for you. What a shame that this kid doesn’t know yet that music can bring joy! We’ll change that in no time.”

Recently I had a first piano lesson with seven year old Maddy, who was transferring to me from another teacher due to scheduling issues. I asked Maddy to play her favorite song for me, and the poor thing had no idea how to answer the question despite the fact that she brought all of the books used with the other teacher. We looked through them trying to find a song that she had really enjoyed learning.
As I scanned the dull, out of date materials, I thought to myself, “No wonder she has no favorite song! This stuff is pretty boring.”
The books she brought were also quite varied in level. The previous teacher might have had a method to his madness, but I could discern no steady trajectory or sequential goals. I could see that Maddy had some knowledge of note reading, but not a lot. So we marched down the hall to pick up one of my favorite books, Faber’s Five-Finger Favorites. This book has many classic folk songs, like “Down in the Valley” and “Oh! Susanna.” I love teaching folk songs to children, especially when the child admits to me that none of the titles ring a bell. This is a necessary part of a child’s education! An added bonus to this particular book is that its cover is purple, a big hit with boys and girls alike.
When we got back to the studio, I mustered all of the wondrous excitement I could as I opened up to the table of contents.
“Look at all these great songs! Classics! Which will be our first?”
We chose “Aura Lee.” I explained that there was a very popular singer a long time ago that her parents might have heard of, who’s name was Elvis.
“He took this famous folk melody and made it even more famous by making up new words to it.”
And then I did my very bad Elvis impersonation, singing “Love Me Tender.”
“So,” I told Maddy, “when you play this song at home, your parents might smile and hum along or even sing the words as you play. They’ll absolutely love it. Won’t that be fun?”
The excitement in the room was palpable. She mastered the song in no time, just under ten minutes. Then came the best part. This book has a second part printed on the same page for the teacher to play a duet along with the student. So Maddy and I played “Aura Lee” again, and this time the sound was so much fuller with me playing accompaniment underneath. And she had to count in order for us to be a proper team. I congratulated her on being able to be part of an ensemble.
“Because after all,” I asked, “isn’t that the best part about music? Sharing it with others?”
She smiled and begged to learn another song. This time we chose “Camptown Races,” and after a few minutes were able to play that as a duet as well. That song has a rousing accompaniment! At the end of the lesson, with two minutes to spare, we invited Maddy’s mom into the room and regaled her with our two duets. Mom tearfully recorded the event on video with her phone.
“Wait till we show Daddy when he comes home,” she beamed.
As Maddy was leaving she whispered to me, “My other teacher never did duets with me. You’re nice.”
It amused me to learn that playing duets was equated with being nice.

Sometimes a trial lesson is warranted because the parent wants to learn from the teacher if this is the right time to start lessons for their very young child. My lesson with Francesca related above was one of those times. As I said, her lack of reading on her own does not mean absolutely that she is not yet ready for piano lessons, but it is a good indicator. Another indicator is whether or not the child is able to be alone with me in the music studio, without the parent present. Most often this readiness to be alone with the teacher is about the parent letting go, not the child. Occasionally I allow the parent to remain in the room, particularly for a trial lesson. I understand that the parent wants to witness my demeanor and way of interacting with their child. I’ll say without reservation, though, that the parent in the room is always a distraction, and this should not continue on an ongoing basis. The child often cranes their neck around to see what the parent thinks of something I just said or something they just played. This is natural for the child; there is too much of a temptation to interact with their parent.

Francesca’s mother sat in on her daughter’s first lesson. As is typical for a first introduction to piano with a very young child, I asked Francesca if she could see a pattern in the black keys on the piano. Francesca looked at the keys, looked back at her mother, and then looked at the keys again.
Just as I was about to give a tiny hint, I heard a stage whisper from behind: “They’re in groups of two and threes.”
Aye-aye ay, did I ask you, Mom? She was messing with my tried and true way of getting the kid to think on her own.
Then when I was introducing the hand position for playing the piano, I asked Francesca to imagine holding a very delicate bird’s nest in her hand.
“You don’t want bird claws,” I said with a funny face, “just the very delicate bird’s nest.”
“Or a bubble,” came from behind. “Don’t burst the bubble!”
Okay, so a bubble is a good image as well. But now Francesca was giggling with her mother about bubbles, and we nearly lost the topic entirely.
At the end of the lesson, I turned to the mother to discuss with her whether or not Francesca was ready. My advise to her was to go home and play Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals on the stereo and have Francesca imitate all the animals. Or buy some toy instruments and have a parade in her home. Invite some friends over and make it an event. Or sign up for a library class with general large motor movement to music. Something more wholistic than the relatively intense concentration of private piano lessons. As I was talking, Francesca had climbed on top of the piano bench and was sitting on her heels. During a lesson this would not be allowed, but this was the last two minutes as I spoke with her mom, and I saw no problem with it. The girl was not being reckless and was in no danger.
The mother regarded Francesca with alarm and said in a raised voice, “Remember that time when you fell off the piano bench?”
The child’s face was blank.
“You don’t remember?” The mother’s voice was rising in pitch now, “You were three years old and you fell off the piano bench!”
“My gosh,” I thought to myself, “two years ago is a lifetime to a five-year old. Of course she doesn’t remember.”
And that was the end of the story! No, “You fell off and got stitches,” or “You fell off and broke your collar bone.” Just, “You fell off the piano bench.”
Despite my recommendation that Francesca wait a year or two before starting private lessons, the mother left my studio and went directly to the office to sign up with me for the semester. During our second lesson together, the mother asked to sit in again, and I reluctantly agreed.
When I saw that the mother was texting on her phone, I said, “You know, Mom, Francesca and I are doing great. It would be fine if you waited in the hall while we finished the lesson.”
To my surprise, the mother looked relieved and said that, yes, she’d rather wait in the hall. She had work to do.
“So,” I thought, “do I.”

Sometimes when I suggest to a parent that their child is not yet ready for private lessons, they look crestfallen. I can understand this, as I made the same mistake with my own daughter by signing her up for private lessons at too early an age. My daughter, Sophia, was a fluent reader at the age of five, so I thought with great optimism that I could offer something that I actually wished for at that age: I’ll sign her up for piano lessons! I made a deal with a friend of mine: she would give both of my children piano lessons, and I would give her daughter flute and recorder lessons.
My friend told me that Sophia was pulling her pants down on the piano bench during the lesson.
“And did you tell her not to??” I asked, embarrassed.
My friend simply replied that “that was the age.”
I still did not get the hint from Sophia that she was not ready. It was not until about a year later, when my husband I were entertaining friends for dinner. We had “company” over, and the kids were to play on their own until it was time for dinner, allowing the grown-ups time to talk. Sophia made a sandwich board sign, draped it over herself, and marched past us as we sat on the deck, as though she were on strike.
“BEING FORCED TO TAKE PIANO LESSONS” is what the sign said.             Reluctantly, I discontinued the lessons with my friend.
Sophia did take up music later: viola in the elementary school orchestra, private guitar lessons from age eleven until graduating from high school, and she was a member of an excellent regional children’s chorus. I credit the directors of that chorus for Sophia’s impeccable ability to sight sing choral music. She even sang with me in my adult chorus during her last two years of high school. Though music is not her vocation today, she relies on it for personal expression, and this is all I could hope for any student of mine, or for anyone at all, for that matter.

Regardless of the demonstrated success in school or reading, I believe that young children are benefited by a more holistic introduction to music, rather than the intensity of one on one lessons in a single area. Start with the The Carnival of the Animals, as I said, with the toy instruments and the rhythm and movement classes. Sing folk songs with your children! (Pete Seeger’s  “Children’s Concert at Town Hall” is a great place to start). As I teach finger numbers to young children, so many of them don’t know the names of their fingers.
“Have they never sung ‘Where is Thumbkin’?” I ask myself in disbelief.
When, after I explain all of the above ideas to the parent and they still seem disappointed at the advice to wait a few years before beginning private lessons, I rely on another line of reasoning which I find to be equally true: the rate of progress in private lessons in a child of ten years as opposed to a six year old is remarkably greater. Here I might be able to appeal to the parent’s frugality. The three years’ worth of progress a child might achieve in private lessons from the age of six to nine years might easily be covered and mastered in one year of lessons with a ten year old. Nothing lost, hopefully a more wholistic experience gained.
Having said that, let me return to the topic of five-year-old, Francesca.
Three or four weeks after our first lesson, she said to me, “My daddy thinks he’s good at piano, but he’s really not.”
“Oh?” I asked, “He helps you practice, doesn’t he? That’s nice that you can learn together.”
“Yes, but he’s not as good at me.”
“Okay,” I said, “But let’s not tell him that. He’s learning, just like you are.”
“Yes, and you know what?” Francesca asked. “I have a secret that my mommy can’t hear.”
Though we were in my studio with the door closed, her mother waiting in the hallway, Francesca came close and cupped her hand to my ear, whispering, “Mommy doesn’t know it, but I am really, really, really, really good at piano!”
She looked at me with pride, then returned to whispering in my ear.
“I am the best piano in the whole wide world!”
Francesca’s confident self-estimation demonstrated for me a clear benefit of taking private piano lessons, despite the young age: a boost in self-esteem. She feels successful in the new area of study, and this will affect confidence in other areas of her life as well.

Prickly Heads

An unusual thing happens when I play certain types of music on the piano: my head tickles. The top of my head, right through the center.  I haven’t shared this curious fact with too many people.  It’s difficult for them to understand or believe. It happens when I am playing counterpoint, with two distinct lines in each hand, such as Bach’s two part inventions.  It’s a pleasurable sensation, and I always come away from playing such music in a very good mood. The tickling head adds to my enjoyment of the music.
I wonder what causes this? Perhaps it’s the two sides of the brain, working together. The sensations I feel correspond with the location of the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
From Wiki:
Musical training has shown to increase plasticity of the corpus callosum during a sensitive period of time in development. The implications are an increased coordination of hands, differences in white matter structure, and amplification of plasticity in motor and auditory scaffolding which would serve to aid in future musical training. The study found children who had begun musical training before the age of six (minimum 15 months of training) had an increased volume of their corpus callosum and adults who had begun musical training before the age of 11 also had increased bimanual coordination.

Until recently, I hadn’t met another person who experiences the tickling when playing counterpoint, but I suspected they must exist.
Yesterday, I found a fellow tickling head comrade in seven year old Thomas. He has been taking piano with me for eight months, and we were rehearsing his piece for the upcoming recital.  He was playing a little song that required him to play one note at a time in each hand, the two lines of music in oblique motion.
When he had finished playing the piece for me, he lifted his head, looked thoughtfully at the ceiling, and said, “You know, when I play that, my head prickles.”
I got chills. Maybe this boy experienced the same thing as me!
Trying not to get too excited, I calmly asked, “Oh yeah? Where does it prickle?”          Thomas ran his hand up and down the center of the crown of his head.
“Is it still prickling?” I asked.
“No, it started when I began playing the song, and stopped right when I got to the end.”
“Did it feel nice?”
“Yeah.”
“That happens to me sometimes too, that my head prickles and feels nice when I play piano.”
Thomas, like me, wanted to make sense of why this happened.
“Maybe it’s like when you leave your arm in one position too long and it starts to prickle,” he said. “Then you have to move it to get the prickling to stop. Maybe I was busy playing piano and so I left my head in one position too long.”
“But there’s a difference, isn’t there, Thomas, between an arm that’s fallen asleep and the head prickles.”
“Yeah, when my arm falls asleep it doesn’t feel good, but when my head prickles, it does feel good.”

Jolly Ranchers in the Flute Case

When Amelia first came to me for lessons, she was a fifth grader just starting on flute. She had been playing in the school band for a few months when it was suggested that she enhance her music studies with private lessons. It had been discovered that she was not tonguing any of the notes; that is to say, she was beginning all of her notes with an ‘h’ instead of a ’t’. In flute playing it is necessary to articulate the start of a note or phrase with the tongue. After two or three weeks of trying to coax proper tonguing from Amelia, I wasn’t sure if any progress would ever be made. I felt I had no more tricks up my sleeve. Then it occurred to me that perhaps she didn’t know what it felt like to use her tongue to begin a note. I asked her to pronounce several words that begin with ’t’.
“Say ‘Tuesday,’” I coached.
She rolled her eyes and said, “Duesday.”
To my surprise, Amelia did not use a definitive ’t’ to begin the word.
“Say, ‘talented,’” I asked.
And she answered with something like “Thalenthed,” the ’t’s’ being so soft that they were almost indiscernible.
I pointed out as gently as I could that I couldn’t hear her ’t’s’.
“Really?” she asked, slightly embarrassed.
“Nope. But let’s try a few more ’t’ words.”
We spent the next five minutes saying every ’t’ word we could think of.
“Tomorrow I’m taking my tiger to tango.”
“Tomatoes taste tangy today.”
I suggested she try to feel the tip of her tongue hitting the back of her front teeth. As more ’t’ words were spoken, her enunciation improved. Now that Amelia was aware of the issue, she was able to address it.
The next step was to transfer this new tonguing technique to her flute playing. It was not a difficult transition, and I cheered wildly while Amelia blushed.

After this great success, I looked forward to my next lesson with Amelia. I hoped she would retain her newfound ability to tongue properly, and casually wondered if the technique would influence her enunciation.
As she unpacked her flute, I noticed that there were Jolly Rancher candies being stored in the case, alongside the instrument!
My eyes widened at the sight, and I said, “Amelia! You can’t store candy in your flute case! It is so bad for your flute. Imagine if the candy melted. The pads would be ruined!”
Amelia moaned a bit and continued to assemble her flute.
“Amelia, please take the candy out of the case.”
“Okay, but after the lesson.”
“No, I want you to move them now. Put the candy in your coat pocket.”
Amelia would not budge, and neither would I.
“I will not start the lesson until the candy is out of your case and in your coat pocket.”
To my complete and utter surprise, great, big tears splashed from Amelia’s cheeks. I was moved, but perplexed. I didn’t quite know what to say.
“Amelia, you can’t be that upset about moving some candy. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s nothing,” she sobbed. “I’ve just had a hard day.”
“I’m sorry that you’ve had a hard day. What can we do, now, to shift the focus from the candy and the hard day to celebrate your fabulous breakthrough with the tonguing last week and have a really great lesson?”
She was inconsolable. The tears kept coming!
To her credit, Amelia nonetheless forged through and began warm-up exercises, all the while wiping her cheeks.
After a while, her distress seemed to dissipate, and we managed to have productive lesson.
But I was confused.
“What was the problem?” I asked myself. “Was I too harsh in asking her to move the candy?”
As I often do when I am riddling out a situation with a student, I called my mother, a child psychologist. She has all the answers. She guessed that maybe Amelia’s diet was being monitored at home, and she was not allowed to have treats, so she hid them in her flute case.
“Aha!” I said. “That makes sense.”
Whether or not that was the real reason for the tears and the candy in the case, the insight allowed me to have more compassion for Amelia and the hidden Jolly Ranchers.

Amelia continued to make significant progress in her flute playing over the next three years. She played in two auditioned regional bands in addition to the middle school band.
One day, she came in a bit disheveled, looking very tired.
I asked her what was going on, and she groaned and said, “Eh, too many obligations.”
I usually begin more advanced flute lessons with etudes by Gariboldi or Köhler, which can be challenging to concentration and focus for a young flutist. Amelia’s head was hanging so low that I didn’t see how I could launch into rigorous material.
“Forget the etude,” I said. “Let’s switch things up, lighten the mood, and play duets.”
Amelia smirked at the prospect of not having to slog through the etude, but her posture still belied any feigned enthusiasm.
“Great, we’ll play duets!” I continued. “But first, let’s get in the right mindset. We’ve got to take a stance, assume an energetic posture, and then we’ll be ready.”
“Whah?”
“Let’s go,” I commanded, “Ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over ankles.”
Amelia did as I asked, and I perceived an immediate shift of mood. She was smiling and standing up straight, ready to play.
“Alright!” I cheered. “Now we’re ready. Let’s make some great music.”
We had a nice time playing duets. I enjoy coaching the students on ensemble playing, practicing playing in tune and keeping an ear out for how the different lines of music interact and weave in and out of each other. At the end of the lesson, I asked Amelia to prepare the tabled etude for next week’s lesson, and she cheerfully agreed.
A week later, Amelia came to the lesson without having prepared the etude. It had been assigned three weeks in a row, and each week she hadn’t prepared it. She complained that it was too long.
“That’s part of the point,” I said. “Etudes demand concentration and stamina to
play well. It’s not enough to play one fast lick. Musicians also have to work on mental focus.”
She promised she’d prepare it for next week, but her demeanor was unconvincing.
“Remember when we first met?” I asked. “You had trouble articulating with your tongue.”
She nodded and looked at the floor.
“You have come a long way from that time, made a lot of progress. You need to respect yourself and your accomplishments by playing that etude!”
The next week she came in and played the etude beautifully. Asking her to honor herself by living up to her own potential is, I believe, a large part of the drive that led her to conquer the exercise.