How would you approach this new student?
11 year old boy (6th grade)
can pick out favorite tunes & chords
no musical training
keyboard at home
interested in composing & playing
coming for an interview!
This description seems to fit so many teenage piano students who appear at our piano studio doors, doesn’t it?! Play-By-Ear Paul is keenly interested in piano and spends long hours switching between youtube and his smallish keyboard… painstakingly teaching himself to play his favourite songs. He dreams of one day playing keyboards in a band. His parents notice his aptitude and interest and do what seems natural… sign him up for piano lessons!
And then what?
Many of us feel like a fish out of water with these kinds of piano students. What do we do with Play-By-Ear Paul?
1. Continue on his quest to learn every Mumford and Sons song from memory and ignore note-reading and technique completely?
2. Ignore his passion for pop and give him a beginners method book to give him a “proper grounding”?
3. Spend hours combing our studio shelves for supplementary material that would suit his tastes while limping through quick explanations of the theory behind what he is playing?
I’m exhausted just thinking about it!
New Piano Students Who Play By Ear: Balancing Passion with Practicality
It is our job as piano teachers to give our piano students the skills they need to succeed. The tricky part is determining what is success for each particular student. If you really sit and think about Play-By-Ear Paul… he’s probably never going to ever need to know about Sonatina form. But does that mean we throw all technique and theory out the window and wile away his piano lesson hours simply picking out melodies by ear? Or do we plunk him into an old adult method book and listen as he slogs his way through “When the Saints Go Marching In”? and “Little Brown Jug”… Neither!
The key is in finding a balance between passion and practicality. Check out the list below for ways to approach the Play-By-Ear Pauls in your piano studio:
1. Avoid thinking either/or – Every activity you do during Play-By-Ear Paul’s lesson can be integrated to find a balance of reading vs. playing by ear. Having a great ear can really be a benefit… as long as it is also paired with the ability to use the score as a tool. Include eye-based learning by having Paul notate bits of melody he picks out by ear, by learning scores by sight and then improvising on them by ear, by asking ear-based questions about his score (When you hear this part, where is it on your score?) etc.
2. Use lead sheets to your advantage – Paul can learn a lot about reading notation by reading off lead sheets. It’s a great way to introduce note reading to someone who has previously only played by ear. You only have one clef to worry about, there is still the opportunity for improv and self-expression in the left hand, and the results are as immediate (and maybe even more so!) than playing by ear.
3. Introduce Paul to pseudo-classical music – Play-By-Ear Pauls crave that fantastically impressive sound. They’re not going to be happy with anything that sounds “beginner-ish”. Go on the hunt for music that satisfies his need for a gratifying sound… but that also has the opportunity to work on the technical aspects of playing the piano. The teen books we send out through PianoBookClub are designed to satisfy your teens’ need for gratifying yet not discouragingly-difficult repertoire. Play-By-Ear Paul has the tenacity to stick it out through a difficult piece – he’ll be committed to learning it, and you’ll have lots of great opportunities for teaching him theory along the way.
4. Compose – Play-By-Ear Paul has the ears for composing; he can feel his way around a keyboard and has likely spent hours on his own coming up with chord progressions that sound “cool”. Teach him simple ways to organize his “noodling” into a true piece of music. Teaching theory in this way makes it very relevant to these creative-type kids.
5. Assign method book pieces – Choose an Older Beginner method book and assign one piece per week. As much as he’d probably prefer to not play these pieces, it’s the best way to be sure there are no holes in his understanding. The method book should not form the basis for your lessons with him.. but rather serves as a “safety-net” for his piano education ensuring he has the “eye skills” to match his “ear skills”.
Play-By-Ear Paul has the potential to be your piano studio’s star. His passion and his natural musicality have laid the groundwork for what has the potential to be a truly fantastic piano student. By adjusting your teaching slightly to accommodate his interests and style, while maintaining his passion for piano, you’ll quickly begin to love his weekly lesson… and maybe even improve your own play-by-ear skills along the way!