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Through the eyes of a child: pianistic paths for the smallest learners.

When I first moved to Los Angeles I was unaware of the adage that one should never work with animals or children. However, I was in dire need of income and responded to an ad for a music instructor in a local preschool. What started as a means of paying for graduate school has turned into a passion; 20 years on, my preschool teaching is a continuing source of interest, inspiration and exploration. In fact, my preschoolers are as critical to my teaching practice as my college students.

While studying in the doctoral program at the University of Southern California, I stumbled upon a school in the center of Hollywood called Montessori Shir Hashirim (frequently known as the Montessori School of Hollywood) that wanted to hire a music instructor. The school is full of curious and energetic children who are not much different than children in many other preschools. What is unique, however, is the "can-do" attitude of their director, Elena Cielak. From the moment I began working there, I noticed she was oblivious to the limits that I (like many other adults) place on young children's musical and intellectual ability. Over my first few weeks at this amazing school, I saw children reciting Shakespeare, participating in Suzuki violin classes, practicing yoga and speaking Chinese, Spanish and French with their multilingual teachers. Nevertheless, I looked past these wonders and instead focused on the job at hand: teaching bits of music to little bitty people.


I was at first left alone, content to sort my way through the vast library of songs, movement books, rhythm stick exercises and recordings that occupied the storage cubbies around the room. My master's degree is in piano pedagogy (specifically elementary), and I had never been exposed to large group teaching or to the formidable world of music education for the very young learner; the sheer amount of available materials is daunting. I had no idea where to start. Being an observant teacher herself, Elena let me succeed and fail on my own for a while before guiding me to what she really wanted the children to learn: music! Not just singing and music and movement activities, but rhythmic values, note reading, music terminology, keyboard topography, rote playing and the like. Did I mention there are no children in the school older than age 5?

At my "experienced" age of 26, I realized some of this was possible, but certainly not playing piano. First, I knew from my training that the vast majority of children younger than age 5 do not have the physical capability or independence of finger movement to successfully develop technique necessary for formal/traditional study of the instrument. Second, most of them cannot focus on one activity for more than a few minutes. What I failed to realize, however, is that Elena wasn't asking me to teach them to play piano. Instead, she was asking me to teach the concepts of the piano so the smallest learner could begin to understand the instrument. As it turned out, these children could learn about the piano, just not in a way in which I was accustomed. I needed to present the piano in a different way with a different desired end result.

My goals when introducing small children to the piano and the beginning concepts of reading and rhythm are to engage the young learner on a variety of levels (aural, visual, physical, intellectual) and to prepare a foundation for students to successfully continue into private study with a teacher who may or may not utilize these same teaching techniques.

Numerous studies point to the value of multi-modal presentations for reaching students of all ages and levels of study, while teaching students that there are multiple ways of doing things enables them to more-easily transition into one-on-one instruction with another teacher.

In planning this article, I realized that most activities presented in the 30-minute large group classes fall under the broader areas of keyboard topography, rhythm, note recognition, terminology and physicality. What follows are my ideas on introducing these concepts to the smallest learner.

Keyboard Topography

Most popular method books begin by presenting keyboard topography as an arrangement of black keys in groups of twos and threes that rise above (or are surrounded by) white keys. This is an extremely effective way of introducing the keyboard, as even the smallest students can easily recognize the groups of black keys.

For the preschooler, using a large keyboard floor mat that generates sound is engaging, as small students can be asked to stand on only the groups of two black keys or balance on the middle key of a group of three black keys. The process of physically involving the entire body is a comfortable first step for children while setting the foundational recognition of the two-black key groups that will later be utilized to learn the location of D (between the group of two black keys), and its neighbors, C and E. The three-black key groups and their surrounding white keys may be introduced in the same manner.


Using this large keyboard map also enables the instructor to have students walk steps and skips (seconds and thirds) on the white keys, using their body to learn intervals. Due to the span of their legs, most students can't create intervals larger than a fifth on these large mats, but the physical act of counting white keys, as well as the aural sound generated by the keyboard mat, enables students to understand intervallic distances between keys as a number (first, second, third) and the sound associated with those distances. As students gradually learn note names, which can be presented as letters, solfege or both, these can be incorporated into quizzes or fun games to further recognition of key names. Having students rock back and forth between the feet or gently jump up and down on two keys simultaneously can also easily teach the concept of melodic versus harmonic intervals.

I have found the keyboard mat to be successful on a variety of levels, and I will frequently use it several times between other activities because it is easily set up and put away and the activities used get students on their feet and physically engaged in the material.


I teach rhythm to students using flashcards I designed that first introduce the rhythmic value--students learn quarters, half notes, dotted half notes, whole notes and eighth notes in pairs--and then incorporate those values into cards containing two, three or four beats. Students are first taught to say the name of the note while clapping on the initiation of the note. For example, students seeing a quarter note will clap while saying "Quarter"; upon seeing a half note, students will clap on the word "Half and keep hands held together, as if they were holding down a piano key, on the word "Note"; dotted half notes are clapped on "Half while holding hands together for "Note Dot." Finally, whole notes are clapped on the word "Whole" and held together for "Note Hold Down."

Maintaining a strict rhythm is essential, and children who wish to speed ahead or slow down should be reminded that each member in the class is part of a train; like a train, the class all moves at the same speed. Corresponding rests are taught with hands moving to the side (no clapping) and only the word "rest" being utilized. For example, a student seeing a quarter rest says "rest"; a half rest, "rest, rest"; and so on. Using this method, students can easily learn to clap and count rhythms in groups of two, three and four beats. In fact, these groups can be combined into much longer rhythmic phrases. Young learners love the challenge of knowing the teacher is creating a rhythmic obstacle that can be conquered!

After students are comfortable with knowing the rhythmic values by name, it's possible to begin interchanging this with a number system: for quarter notes the same physical gesture is used but instead of saying "Quarter" the student says "1"; for half notes the student would say "1, 2," and so on. The same process is repeated for rests. Although there is a bit of confusion when numbers are first introduced, students quickly adapt and are soon able to move effortlessly between rhythmic names and their numeric value.

At this stage of development, time signatures are not introduced nor is the concept of how many counts should be in each measure.

Note Recognition

Utilizing flashcards, students begin learning note names for all notes within a five-finger pattern if both thumbs began on middle C. So, for the right hand, students learn to visually recognize C-D-E-F-G and for the left hand, F-G-A-B-C. Note recognition on the staff tends to be the most tedious and difficult to grasp. This concept can best be tackled by introducing the notes when they are first presented on the keyboard mat, which delivers the information in physical, visual and aural formats and in small bits. It is best to spend several weeks on one or two notes before adding others in a very gradual process. It is important to note that drilling these at every class is essential for retaining visual recognition. Having flashcards for the students to practice away from class speeds the process.


An assortment of musical terms and concepts may be taught using flashcards, with one concept per card, followed by a demonstration with the voice, piano of other instrument. Aural demonstration is essential, as the best results are achieved by presenting material in two or more learning modes.

* Dynamics (from pp to ff) can be shown using the piano or any other instrument or by singing or speaking at various levels.

* Tempo indications can be paired with the students' perception of the speed of particular animals (presto=cheetah, largo=snail) This is particularly fun, and it is always interesting to hear the perspective students have on how fast or slow certain creatures move.

* Slur, staccato, fermata and legato can all be introduced aurally and then reinforced visually with flashcards.

* Staff, barline, treble clef, bass clef, measure and the like can easily--over the course of several months--be taught using only a flashcard containing the symbol or element and an explanation of what each means.


I have taught many preschool classes that utilize only the above concepts, and I consider those to be extremely valuable on their own. For even further development, however, I have been fortunate to engage students via small keyboards that each child (or groups of children) share to further explore some of the concepts presented and to feel as if they are "playing" the piano.

I am very careful if presenting using keyboards, as I realize that many teachers, myself included, place great importance on establishing correct technique on an acoustic instrument, and I don't want the use of non-weighted, small-sized keys to negatively impact beginning technique. Consequently, I never go beyond teaching the concept of a standard hand position with a firm arch, level wrist and round fingers that do not buckle at the joint. In fact, most students just practice holding their hands in this position, without pressing keys--a feat in and of itself. It is possible, however, to have students use their index finger of either hand in a curved, firm position, or braced/supported by the thumb, to exaggerate a dropping arm motion and play short fragments by rote. I will frequently use my voice or the piano to call out simple rote melodies of four beats or shorter using note names to help develop the children's ability to hear and repeat.

What can also be reinforced on the small keyboards are the concepts of black key groups and key names (remember, these were presented first on the large keyboard mat), the idea of intervals using one key in both hands (seconds--fifths), white-key glissandos (children love saying the word and performing these), and playing on the black keys with a supported index finger to a teacher-accompanied ostinato. Needless to say, everyone sounds great if they play only black keys!


Should any of the above ways of making sound and learning at the keyboard be considered playing the piano? No... and yes! To the smallest learners engaging the instrument for the first time, they are "playing" the piano. As teachers, however, we know exactly what is happening, but we need to be open to the idea that the child is simply using a terminology that will change and develop as their musicianship and understanding grow.

Does that mean that what is being learned is not of value? Of course not! Rather than approaching piano instruction for this age from the standpoint of what children cannot do, I'm simply encouraging us to patiently find out what they can do and use that as a launching point to the idea of continued study. Many cultures engage their children at a very young age, and as long as correct technique is fostered--and incorrect technique discouraged--it can only be beneficial to having students embrace, at the earliest possible time, a discipline that will assuredly bring enjoyment to them for years to come. AMT

Suggested Reading

* Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function by Sylvain Moreno, Ellen Bialystok, Raluca Barac, E. Glenn Schellenberg, Nicholas J. Cepeda, Tom Chau; [Psychological Science:

* Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr; Ballentine Books, 1993 (reprint)

* "Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits" by Perri Klass, MD, 2012, The New York Times;

* "Music Lessons Enhance IQ" by Glenn Schellenberg, Psychological Science. August 2014

By Stephen Cook


Stephen Cook received a doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Southern California and MM and BA degrees from the University of South Carolina. He has served on the executive board of the California Association of Professional Music Teachers (including as president).
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Author:Cook, Stephen
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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