A piano teacher recently wrote to us with a question: “I have a 9 year old piano student who just doesn’t seem to hear his mistakes. He happily continues on through missed notes, missed sharps, wrong notes… even if one hand is in a completely different key! Because he doesn’t hear his mistakes, he doesn’t stop to correct himself, so I feel as though I’m constantly interrupting him and I really don’t want to discourage him. Any ideas?”
Developing Piano Kids’ Listening Skills
For some students, piano is all visual… and you can’t really blame them! We make a big deal about what’s on their page; we say things like “eyes on your music” and we point to their score when a correction needs to be made. Piano kids are so busy watching what they are playing that they forget to listen to what they’re playing. There is a disconnect between eyes and ears, and it results in these students being completely oblivious to the sounds they are making.
Piano students who need to work on their listening skills are those students who:
1) Play wrong notes, miss notes or omit accidentals and don’t notice.
2) Continually play incorrect or modified rhythms, even after you have worked through it and corrected it with them.
3) Play extremely fast or extremely slow even when you talk about adjusting their tempo.
4) Have difficulties with dynamics, phrasing and the idea of rubato.
Often we assume that these piano kids aren’t understanding certain concepts (or that they’re not practicing) and therefore these mistakes continue to happen. Sometimes this is the case, but sometimes these piano students simply need to be taught how to listen to their own piano playing.
Ears on Your Hands!
Instead of “eyes on your music”, with these types of piano students, you want to instead encourage “ears on your hands”; and what I mean by that is the ability to simultaneously listen and play. This ability is simply a skill they need to develop (some more than others) and, as their piano teacher, it falls on you to help!
So the next time you encounter a piano student who needs listening help, try these 5 fun activities.
1. The Ear Police – Switch places with your piano students and have them close their eyes. While you play their current piece, insert “mistakes” at random (take away sharps, add extra notes, play wrong notes etc.). Every time your students hear you make a mistake they get to hold up a hand and say “Stop!” (like the Ear Police would do of course). You then discuss together what the mistake was… based only on what they heard (so answers like “it sounded sad there” or “you went too fast” are perfectly legit answers.)
2. Freeze on the Keys! – Explain to your students that while they play you are going to randomly whisper “Freeze!” Your students need to immediately freeze on the keys they have just played and hum the note that comes next in the melody line. In order to do this, their ears need to be engaged This activity also helps your students to learn to predict what “should” come next, which helps with sight reading and fluency.
3. Half an Octopus – It’s not 8 hands… but it will be 4! Sit beside your students on the bench and play along with them. Having your part layered on top of theirs forces them to use their ears as they make adjustments to their tempo, articulation and rhythms to match up with yours. If you give it this silly name it takes away any perception that you are “testing them”… it’s fun… and it works!
4. Woah Nelly – Once your piano students are comfortable with the Half an Octopus activity above, then they can start to play Woah Nelly. With this activity you also play along with with your students, but you make changes to your tempo as you play by speeding up or slowing down without saying a word. Your students need to adjust their own tempo to match you. This can be really fun if you vary your tempo drastically and often. Make it a “wild ride” and your kiddos will be excited to play this game. I suggest using only the right hand for this activity for the most effect.
5. Whoop There it Is – Ha ha… how many of you now have that song stuck in your head 😉 This activity teaches your piano students to be self-aware as they play. Together you choose a point in their piano piece that is the “Whoop”. This can be anything – a single note, a chord, a 5th… anything. Your student then needs to play through their piece from start to finish. While they play, once they reach the “Whoop” they pause, hold it for a few seconds and then continue on.
Even though your piano students are using their music and eyes to find the “Whoop”, they are also engaging their ears as they “halt” part-way through their piece. Make it more challenging by adding several “Whoops” to their page. These silly “Whoops” are a more positive focus than actual mistakes, but they will have the same effect as a mistake. These interrupting moments will give your students the skills they need to hear something that is out of the ordinary, act on the fact that it is different and to then carry on.
Trevor and I live to create fun and inventive ways to help your piano kids overcome obstacles. If theory happens to be one such obstacle for your kiddos, check out our resource, Pssst… Your Piano Teacher Thinks This Is Theory.
Creating Self-Aware Piano Kids
With these 5 activities, your piano kids’ ears will be tuned into what they are playing. We all want our students to develop a sense of fluency and the ability to continue on when mistakes do happen – but we also want our students to be self-aware while playing. Finding a balance between being hindered by mistakes vs. being completely ignorant of them is important… but it can also be fun!