So you’ve got starting position covered, key signature, time signature, accidentals, tempo, articulation, dynamics, fingering… expression…whew! … completing a piano piece is a lot of work! There are so many little details that combine to produce a “finished” piece (although I dislike saying finished… read why here).
But did you know there are 5 things about every piano piece that your kiddos should know… but likely do not?
These 5 details will make a difference to your piano students’ overall understanding of the piece. And while their head is filled with other need-to-knows, injecting just a bit more will only serve to make their piece even better.
1. Know Your Dead Guys (and Gals)… and Your Live Ones Too!
I’ve sat through countless music festivals where the adjudicator asked the performer who the composer of their piece was and the child had no idea. Sure method books are usually written by the same one person, but once you head into other repertoire sources it’s important to know who wrote the music! But I’m not talking about just his or her name (although proper pronunciation is important too!). It’s so helpful for your piano kids to make a connection to their piece by knowing some details about the composer. Bring those “dead guys and gals” to life by sharing some great stories about who they were. Injecting music history into your lessons doesn’t have to be done separate from other learning in formal music history classes – instead, take each new piece as an opportunity for some great discussion and teachable moments.
2. Feeling ‘Romantic’ Or Were Things ‘Baroque’?
Knowing the time period in which the piece was composed is also super important. Not only should it then affect the way in which your students approaches their pieces, but it will also broaden their understanding of why their music is the way it is. But don’t just discuss the musical time period – show them the artwork that was being created at the same time! Seeing an impressionist painting before learning to playing Debussy gives a strong visual of the influences these composers lived with every day. What was in fashion at that time? What did people wear? What did their houses look like? What were the orchestras playing? All of these details bring music alive for kids in a way that is memorable.
3. The Primary Chords
This is one of the very first discussions I have with students before approaching a new piece. Knowing the primary chords helps with memorization immensely – and, in those moments where you draw a blank mid-performance, can often “save you” in a way that no amount of drill and repetition can. Mark the primary chords directly on your students’ pages; circle the areas that are outlining and affected by each chord. Find the chord shapes that are “hidden” by alberti bass or other patterns, and search for primary chord tones within the melody; go beyond the obvious solid chords. Take their piece apart like a Lego castle and then build it back up. Kids love to see how everything is related; it makes those little black markings on their page truly make sense.
4. How Does it Sound When Someone Else Plays it?
We live in the wonderful age of youtube where you can find both glorious and horrific performances of almost any piece. And it’s important to listen to both! Listen to fabulous recordings. Discuss what makes it fabulous. Listen to not-so-great renditions and discuss what’s going wrong. Learning to critique a performance is one of the most valuable skills you can give your piano kids… they may be piano teachers one day and this skill is (obviously) a must!
5. What Would it Sound Like If We Did… This?!
Using your piano students’ current piece as an improv springboard can be a lot of fun. Brainstorm ways you can “mess with” their piece. What would it sound like if we changed it from major to minor or vice versa? What would it sound like if we changed the tempo? What would it sound like if we swung the eighths… or played it in the style of Bach? If Coldplay were to remake this piece, what would they do? Not only are you being inventive in encouraging fun practice, but you are also teaching valuable improv and variation skills. Plus it’s just fun.
Check Off #1 By Throwing a Party!
When creating our group piano resource “Happy Birthday Bach” we really wanted to connect kids with a composer in fun and meaningful way while also giving them an opportunity to enjoy music with their peers. In 1.5 hours they’ll learn a lot about Bach as they participate in a fully-planned Birthday party for the ol’ guy! And with his March birthday just around the corner it’s a great time plan a party.