Broadly speaking, you/your child learns the following skills:
- Playing by rote aka copycat games
- Playing by ear aka guessing games
- Improvising aka doodling games
- Note reading aka reading games
- Composing music aka music theory
The least information students/parents should know:
- copycat games: look at the reminder videos if your child can’t remember what to play. Or if there are other students in the family or who are friends, get them to show you how to play the tunes
- guessing games: print the book; you/your child need to listen to the tunes repeatedly and try to guess the notes (it may take weeks, months or years, and even thousands of times); fill in the book with your guesses and check against the answers
- doodling games: play along with the backing tracks created by Joseph
- reading games: decide which reading approach you prefer: the grand staff or lead sheet. Read about each approach below. If you are unsure or undecided, go with the grand staff as that’s what 99% of students learn when they learn piano. You can also switch at a later time. Get the book(s).
- music theory: make sure you get the book(s) and aim to complete at least one chapter a week
Read more about the skills
Playing by rote aka copycat games
I start all children that is aged pre-teen and below on playing by rote. This means that they observe and play what I demonstrate on the piano for them. They focus on creating music rather than reading notes, which is what most piano teachers start with. It is almost how most children learn a language – by observing and listening to their parents speak and imitating them. You won’t ever give a young child a book and expect them to talk only when they are reading the book? However, that is exactly what most piano teachers are doing when they start students on note reading from the very first lesson.
Also, students’ musical memory is gradually extended as they learn increasingly more pieces by rote. Playing by memory is an very important skill to have in playing the piano and playing by rote helps in developing this skill.
However, I gradually wean students off playing by rote as they progress in their learning journey as they can’t only learn by rote forever. They need to be able to learn by themselves independently which is why the next three skills come into play.
Playing by ear aka guessing games
Music is first and foremost an aural activity (even though strangely, as mentioned above, most piano teachers focus first on note reading). What it means is that music enters the ears, and the ear and mind then try to make sense of the music in terms of pitches, rhythm, timbre, etc. Playing by ear exposes a student to the different aspects of the musical sound and again, like a child imitating his/her parent on how to speak, the student learns to replicate what s/he hears.
A student starts off by playing very simple tunes but don’t underestimate the importance of being able to play those tunes by ear. Quite a lot of students can’t even do that after years of piano lessons.
Improvising aka doodling games
As mentioned earlier, it’s ridiculous if a child or an adult can only speak when they are reading from a book/magazine/website that is written by someone else. However, that is exactly how most students learn the piano. They can only play the piano if they are reading notes of a tune that is created by someone else. Wouldn’t it be nice and natural if a person can speak his/her own thoughts instead?
That is exactly what improvising is about. At first a student may feel like s/he is playing rubbish or something uninteresting. However, that is like the process of learning to talk. It takes time and practice to develop your voice and express yourself.
Note reading aka reading games
After a child has learnt to speak, the next thing to do is to learn to read which is exactly what we are doing here. Almost all piano teachers teach students to read the grand staff i.e. the treble clef and the bass clefs which are typically for the right and left hand respectively. However, I have a different perspective. Why not teach students to read lead sheets/fake sheets which comprise the treble clef and chord symbols.
The similarity of these two approaches are:
- the melody of the tune is (usually) notated using the treble clef
The differences between these two approaches are:
- with the grand staff, you are expected to play exactly what is written on the music sheet for both the right and left hand. There is little need for creativity here.
- with lead sheets, you are expected to use the notes of the melody and the chords to create your version of the tune. In order to do that, you need to understand chords, music theory and how to improvise and even how to comp (short for accompanying).
As an example, when one million people play Happy Birthday using the grand staff, they will all play the same melody and accompaniment. What may diff among them is that some may play some notes faster, slower, softer or loudly.
With lead sheets, the one million people will very likely play differently from one another as they are required to play the chords and melody in a way and style that make senses to them. For instance, some may play Happy Birthday in a rock style, pop style, jazz style, classical style, etc. You get the idea.
However, learning to play lead sheets is not easy as there is a lot to master. Also, it’s harder to score candidates in examinations as more subjectivity is involved. Therefore, playing lead sheets are not provided for in all music exams (RIAM, ABRSM, TCL, Rockschool) other than perhaps upper ABRSM jazz exam grades and upper LCM jazz exams. In other words, if you/your child intends to go for exams in the future, or do music as a junior/leaving certificate level, learning the grand staff is a much safer choice than learning lead sheets.
Composing music aka music theory