When teaching piano beginners we need to remember that the skills we want them to master in the future need seeding from the start. So today I’m going to talk about how to sow the seed that will grow into easy and free arm movement and effective hand position changes.
And because it’s Kodály, it’s going to be fun, creative and playful.
#2 Story telling
#3 Part work
#4 12-Bar Blues
#5 Pre-defined movement
#6 Safari by June Armstrong
#7 Magic Beans by Ben Crosland
One of the many criticisms of the old fashioned piano method books is that they often use fixed hand positions such as “thumbs on middle C”.
I’m not going to delve into all the pitfalls of this approach and I’m sure some very good teaching can still be had using these books but they’re just not for me.
Something I do want my piano students to do, right from their very first lesson, is to explore the whole keyboard and realise that their pieces can be played in different places.
When we’re teaching using the Kodály approach we’re really emphasising relative pitch and interval recognition. We definitely don’t want our students feeling tied down to one particular position. And we really don’t want them associating any piano keys with any particular fingers.
We also want them to experience a sense of freedom of movement. To be able to move their arms across the keyboard and make those changes quickly and accurately within a piece so we don’t lose the pulse.
So here are a few of the pieces and activities that I teach my Doremi Teach Piano members to use in their lessons.
Of course in the first lesson we’re going to be exploring all of the piano keys. Playing up and down the black keys and the white keys. Making up atmospheric music to match a picture or a story. It’s a great way to break the ice and also gives them something musical to do at home while you’re still preparing the concepts for their first formal pieces.
#2 Extend short pieces using a story
Lots of the early pieces in the first book in the Doremi Piano series, Sing and Play, can be extended creatively.
The simple piece Black Crow is a so-mi song. It’s played on a minor third and we use any two black keys a minor third, or a skip, apart. For example F sharp and E flat are perfectly pitched for singing and you can use your high hand in a curved finger cluster for the so and your low hand in a curved finger cluster for mi.
When you’ve finished playing, what do you think the crow might do? Fly higher? Jump your hands to a new skip position and play again. And again, and again. Some students like to play all the skips up to the top of the keyboard. What a lot of repetition! Isn’t that what every student needs, and what every teacher dreams of?! Repetition without boredom. Repetition because it’s part of the game.
At this early stage it’s hard for younger students to jump without missing a beat. But that’s fine for now. I often move the piano bench out of the way so they can easily access the length of the piano.
Some of my students skip up in octaves, which I find fascinating because we obviously haven’t discussed that concept yet. I love to see what little hints of their future musicality are evident at this early stage.
#3 Position Changes and Part Work
The song Cuckoo is a two part so-mi song. It’s a hide and seek song. The first phrase is sung by the caller or seeker and the second phrase is sung by the cuckoo or the hider.
Once the piece is mastered on the piano, you can place the caller and the cuckoo in different skip positions all over the piano. Can we find where the cuckoo is hiding? It works really well.
I have one lovely student, Harry, who, when he started last year, found it impossible to make any kind of decision. Even choosing the colour of an imaginary balloon for our vocal warm up stumped him at first. Something that really helps him with this task is to place a small toy on white keys between his chosen skip position. I actually have a little bird rubber – or bird eraser if you’re in the US – and he pops that in position before he starts. Otherwise he would play the first phrase and then get analysis paralysis.
This little bird toy actually helps in lots of ways.
Benefit 1 – For some students it helps them figure out which changes sound right. Of course we know that we ought to jump the octave to be able to keep singing at the same pitch. And we can make the decision as teachers whether to mention that, or just allow the student some freedom. There’s no right or wrong answer. Allowing them to feel successful without correction is valuable, sometimes more valuable than accuracy.
Benefit 2 – As we’re developing pulse skills we want to try and eliminate the pause when we move positions. So removing that decision making for all students helps them make the change without missing a beat.
Benefit 3 – With a toy in place, we’re jumping somewhere pre-defined. Of course when we get onto more difficult repertoire, the position changes will be defined by the score. So this is the first step in mastering that whilst allowing the student to maintain creative control.
#4 - 12-Bar Blues
I love using the 12-Bar Blues to practise keyboard geography once we’re on the white keys.
We know we need C, F and G if we’re in C major. But don’t limit yourself to just one octave. Play the bass note at the start of each 8-beat phrase, but play any C when it’s C. Play any F when it’s F, or any G when it’s G.
For this you really need to think ahead. So we’re really starting to develop those movement skills.
Is it just me? But my students seem to want to look at me triumphantly when they’ve done something well. But when we’re playing along to my accompaniment, or sometimes we use a jazz band backing track, the music carries on. And when it’s time for them to play the next note they are taken by surprise and can’t decide where to go. I explain that they need to be using that time to look for the next note, wait by it, and then they’re ready to play when it’s time. And then straight away looking for the next one and so on.
The lesson from this is thinking ahead.
#5 Pre-defined Movement
The second book in the Doremi Piano series is Going Wild. These pieces are notated traditionally on the grand staff and involve hands together work and hand position changes.
On a Log has Mr Frog jumping up the Cs on the piano as he jumps away across the lily pads. Cloud of Starlings, which you have heard a snippet from in my podcast jingle, have alternating phrases in different octaves. Now we’re reaping the reward from the practise we did with the toys on the keys as our score now has pre-defined movements.
In order to keep in time with the piece the student needs to know exactly where they’re going, exactly which finger they need to land on, and feel exactly how far away it is. We start with a pause > look > move > play process and gradually remove the pause time and do the looking while finishing the previous phrase in the original position.
What I’m trying to eliminate is that table wiping action you get when you send your hand roughly to the right spot and then move it up and down while trying to find the right place. I mean it’s so stressful, right? And they can’t even see the keys while their hand is flailing around. And panic sets in. Keep it calm, look, move and play.
#6 Safari by June Armstrong
African Dawn by June Armstrong is a wonderful piece to start with because it has no clear pulse. It’s all about creating atmosphere and allowing the sound to die away. Plus I love to teach it using solfa.
The left hand jumps up and down the octave practising all the skills we have been developing but because it’s chilled, the students have all the time in the world to find their new positions without disrupting the flow.
Gazelles Standing also by June Armstrong has a pretty and delicate repeating right hand pattern that moves up a fifth and an octave and is very rewarding to play. At this stage, my students aren’t quite ready to sing this one in solfa so just playing from reading and imitation is sufficient for now. You can always revisit it later if they become more accomplished with their solfa.
#7 Magic Beans by Ben Crosland
Magic Beans by Ben Crosland contains a treasure trove of gems but one that jumps out for comment today is Thinking Out Loud. Such a mature sounding piece that my pre-teens and teens absolutely adore. The yummy opening motif is taken up the octave for its final repeat.
If you’d like to see my lesson plans for teaching piano using the Kodály Approach then you need to check out Doremi Membership. Doremi Members get access to my Doremi Teach Piano curriculum, including video walkthroughs, downloadable lesson plans and resources and access to my live coaching and Q&A calls and online community.
There are teachers just like you already in the community ready to support you and share your questions, successes and stories. So come and join us!
And so on. The sky’s the limit. Just remember just because a piece isn’t written to explore the keys and get those arms moving, doesn’t mean you can’t use it for that with a bit of imagination and creativity.