How do we stress the importance of learning the basics well to people who mistakenly think they are beyond them?

Let’s say Sally’s friend Mary has been teaching Sally a melody at the piano complete with a cute left hand idea. After a lot of demonstration from Mary and copying by Sally, she goes home armed with the knowledge that she can now ‘play the piano’. She tells her parents about it and everyone agrees she needs to get proper lessons. All is arranged and Sally heads off to her first lesson. She shows the new teacher what she can play and expects to move on from there. Her teacher acknowledges her lovely playing and knows with that example that she has the basic ability to do well, but knows she also needs to get a few basics covered for the best start at playing the piano. There is not much chance in that first lesson that Sally is going to get a complex melody like the one her friend taught her, and there is the potential that she goes home thinking her friend knew more about playing the piano than the piano teacher!

This little story is based on a range of my experiences teaching beginners at the piano. From a teacher’s perspective, such a situation needs careful handling. What I do about it will vary according to how much, and specifically what, the child has learned.

Sometimes I have given something extra to what they have learned for them to try. Sometimes I might say that we will learn more to add to their repertoire once we learn a few other basic skills first. There are all sorts of ways to handle it depending on the age and attitude of the pupil at the time.

It is important for the pupil to be patient in this beginning phase. It seems much harder for the older beginner (around age 11 and above) to be learning what feel like babyish pieces and basic exercises when they think they know what is required without actually having covered it. Sometimes basics may not be as easy as they at first seem, and the tutor may need to help a pupil break a difficult task into smaller learning bites. For example, some find the task of keeping fingers relaxed and in position a huge difficulty, but may perceive it doesn’t matter.

Here are a few tips to cover the basics well – so such learners can move quickly through to playing music they want to play:

Realise we all start somewhere. Famous pianists didn’t play concertos after their first two lessons. When learning a new task, there are going to be foundational things that need to be understand in the process.

Work on the ‘easy’ things well, exactly as the teacher requests. If the teacher is experienced enough he/she will have seen what happens down the track when someone doesn’t get first tasks sorted. For example, if Sally learned a great tune from Mary without fingers all sitting correctly, she would wonder why that should be important in a simple two note melody at the first lesson. She doesn’t realise that her teacher knows that the ability to not watch her hands and learn to read the music starts right there.

Get into the habit of practicing at a regular time and place, even if things seem simple and easy in the early stages of learning. Getting the routine sorted now will make for easier practice of the later music that will at some point challenge.

Trust the tutor to know when the next steps are appropriate.  A tutor will not hold a pupil back without a reason, and if pupils show that they are working on everything given them, their tutor will be keen to see progress being made at the right time.

Ask for help as soon as needed so bad habits don’t form.  Some enthusiatic pupils may want to go ahead and learn things on their own. While this is commendable, errors can creep in that tutor help could rectify (and the sooner fixed, the better in order to avoid bad habits from forming.)

Doing the basics well is the start of any life skill. If you can do it learning a musical instrument, you can do it for anything. Some of us are better than others at the self discipline of getting started at a new skill. If your child has recently started learning an instrument, he/she may need your help in setting up well in these areas. Facing the basics positively will build the resistance needed to work through challenges for life long learning at the piano, or any other instrument for that matter.

I promise – it is worth the effort.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Skip the Basics! – Getting it Right from the Start

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