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.

“We are all sick of hearing ‘Jingle Bells’!”

Actually this is an important moment! Let me explain:


Now that we are aware of the pitfalls of depending on memorisation in the process of learning to read music, I want to state categorically that I really do value the incredible role of memorisation in music. Without it, we are likely to be somewhat limited in our musical ability. It is a crucial skill in becoming an all-rounded musician.  By the same token, I totally value the role of reading music in a learner playing accurately what the composer intended.

Once a piece has been learned accurately and memorised to the point that the family is sick of it, you could say in some ways that they have only just started to learn the piece. The notes on the page are no longer relevant.  They have played it till they know it by heart. Now they can focus on the actual sound of it.

Here are the things they are learning or can learn with that piece:

Fluency. They will inevitably be able to play it at various speeds and this is a great way for them to develop finger dexterity and fluency in playing. The main thing to watch for is that the rhythms remain accurate as the speed increases.

Expression. With general confidence comes the ability to vary the expression with a variety of dynamics.

Musical theory. I have a pupil who recently referred to a favourite memorised piece when we were learning a particular aspect of theory. He remembered playing the pattern we were using in that piece and transferred that understanding easily to the new setting.

Repetition. This is such an important part of learning how to practice accurately. Without a willingness to repeat new music accurately the learning process becomes slow, difficult and will probably die a slow death. When they repeat their favourite piece they can hear the improvements being made and they don’t need to be told that practice is important – they can observe its value for themselves.

Transposition. I find that young children can understand patterns and learn transposing with relative ease. Knowing a piece well means the performer can transfer the patterns to another key.

Performance. If someone is able to play confidently without the music they can play it anywhere, anytime and are much less likely to be nervous.

Enjoyment. This really is the point of it all. We clearly enjoy being able to play something well and hear it unfold before us.

Motivation. Enjoying your own playing is in itself is a big motivator to move on to learning another piece to repeat the whole process.

Memory development. Unsurprisingly, the more you memorise music the more it develops your ability to memorise. This becomes a skill that goes beyond musical education to all aspects of learning. I know from my own experience that I have used the skills and patterns developed at the piano to help me with other learning. An example of this would be how basic algebra uses a similar process to how we transfer chord numbers in different keys. C chord is chord 1 in C major but in the key of G it is chord 4 because it is then based on the 4th degree of the G major scale.


Make the most of your young performer playing favourite pieces. If you are tired of hearing them, get a keyboard with headphones! If you want them to develop favourites that you like too, praise all attempts on the ones you like to hear.

I admit it…I am not a great fan of ‘Jingle Bells’! However, I have learned that it (any thrashed piece) can be an asset used the right way for the young person who is just discovering that they can learn it and then play it from memory. And that will lead to the next steps in musical progress. I can do something with that.

One approach to teaching (namely the Suzuki method), focuses on repeated hearing of a piece of music before the student attempts to play it. When I was using the Suzuki method to teach my three children, each of them had a different learning style.  Looking back now, a different approach may have been better for each.  Nevertheless, they all developed good memory skills, along with a good sense of how to play with lovely phrasing and expression. These are the positives from hearing how a piece is supposed to sound.  However, I find it is much better in general to give children the tools they need to decode the notes, even if only slowly at first. Once they have worked out the piece at a level they can manage, then, by all means, I will play it through for them so they can get a sense of how the music should sound once they can play if confidently.

Having said all that, I think one of the greatest assets learned using the Suzuki method was memorising the music.  This was always encouraged so that there was a focus on making a beautiful sound without being distracted by even the process of reading the music. After all, nobody actually listens to the notes on the page – that is just the starting point to learn the particular piece.  A good musician can still play excellent sounding music from the page, though, without having to memorise it. So, being able to read music well is a valuable tool that opens up a world of music written by thousands of composers, without having to actually hear any given piece first.

If your child is a memoriser, they will be looking for all the short cuts they can to avoid reading the notes. I know this because I have seen these little people in action! They have a keen lack of patience to work through that note reading process. Here are some suggestions to guide them to really read notes.

  • Play some note reading games with note flash cards relevant to the notes they are learning.
  • Get them to read aloud the names of the notes for a line of their piece
  • Make a jigsaw: Photocopy a page of their music, white out any words or distinguishing markings or bar numbers and cut it into bars or measures. Blue tack the jigsaw piece to a plastic backing like a clear book folder. Have them play the notes and work out which bar it is on their music.
  • For those with a good ear, choose a selection of 5 notes to learn. Have the child face away from the piano and give them the 5 notes on flash cards from low to high. Now you play one of the notes. Get them to identify the note and then come and play it in the right place. Place the note up on the piano and do the rest in random order. Then have them come and play them again, reading them at the piano.

If your memoriser makes any attempts at reading and you can see that they are getting it, you might like to offer some kind of reward so they will want to repeat that skill!

Reading/memorising: It should be both…and, rather than either…or. Next time I’ll try to show how both strategies for playing can work well together.

“I don’t need the written music – I can play it by ear!”

It is a wonderful skill to hear something and be able to play or sing it back. Many of us have this ability. But when we are supposed to be learning the skill of reading music we need to handle our memorising skill carefully.

In my beginner piano course: Headstart Piano, I seek to address this in a way that positively reinforces the skill to learn by ear, whilst teaching the more difficult skill to develop: that of reading music.

Those who lean towards playing by ear can adopt avoidance strategies when it comes to reading. Here are some “variations” I have observed on the “theme” of reading music:

  • Not reading the notes, but confidently playing with the use of finger numbers.
  • Looking at hands throughout, with complete memorisation of the piece from hearing it played for them.
  • Looking at the music but with glazed vision as they recall the sound of the piece from hearing it played for them.
  • Reading and playing the notes but not observing the correct rhythm.
  • Singing the song but not being able to identify the note names or rhythm.
  • Having to restart at the beginning whenever a mistake is made.

Notice how each of these observations relies on memorisation and actually works against learning the process of decoding the note length and/or pitch.

So much has to happen in the reading process. Here is a breakdown:

  • Hand is in position.
  • Eyes are looking at the written music.
  • There is recognition of the note on the stave as being “D”, or whatever.
  • Knowing which finger will play that note.
  • Knowing how long the note will be held for.
  • Knowing how to play that note in the flow of the music.

For all this to happen there first has to be the slow process of getting to know how to do it, such that we build up a vocabulary of notes and rhythms, increasing as we get more advanced. Conversely, if we go immediately to a complicated piece where the patterns can be memorised by ear, skipping these initial and intermediate steps, at some point we will need to come back to basics and learn the note reading skills. There are many different opinions as to how to do this. To some extent it will depend on the learning style of the pupil.

Next time I will cover some practical steps to help the learner who is better at memorising get more confident at reading.