How many of us have been in this situation: your piano student rushes into your studio grinning from ear to ear, brandishing a piece of sheet music bestowed upon her by a well-meaning family member. She’s desperate to learn how to play it; pumped up by her family’s excitement about the piece. You open the book and your heart sinks. It’s about 3 levels too difficult.
I’m betting you’ve been there several times (and possibly even several times a year with some students). Your professional opinion tells you it’s nothing but a minefield of misery. Your heart tells you you should take full advantage of your piano students’ enthusiasm. Your head tells you that you’re going to need to find some way to appease both child and family in any case.
What to do?
Making the Most of Incorrectly Leveled Sheet Music
The key in solving this problem is two-fold; you want to keep your piano student brimming with excitement (after all, we spend a heck of a lot of time trying to ignite this spark ourselves… we need to take what we can get!) and secondly you want to avoid un-doing the careful progression of learning you’ve worked so hard to achieve; no one likes to spend months hobbling through a piece that never gets finished. Here’s how to find a balance:
1. Avoid any discussions of it being too difficult. Children automatically hear this as “You’re not good enough” and that can be a confidence crusher. When first looking at the piece, talk about what your student likes about it, why the family member chose this particular piece, where they have heard it before… make connections with the music in the most basic of ways.
2. Take stock of what makes it too hard. Is it a rhythm thing? Is it the key signature? Is it a matter of coordination, speed, size of chords… what is it that is making you balk?
Once you have sized up the monster, it’s time to attack. And you want to attack immediately (before the well-meaning family member attempts to “help” at home).
1. Cut it down to size: If it’s a pop song, eliminate repeated verses, the bridge, and all but one verse and two repetitions of the chorus. If it’s a classical piece, find a place where it could “make sense” to stop (once the main theme has been repeated and slightly developed, and at a place where it resolves nicely or could be resolved nicely with a drawn-in cadence). Block off the rest of the song using post-it notes.
2. Eliminate Left Hand Difficulties: Most pop songs are difficult because of the left hand rhythm and coordination required. If they aren’t there already, write chord symbols for the left hand progression above the melody line. For the first bit, your student can simply play held 5ths based on these chord symbols as they master the right hand.
3. Encourage “By Rote” Learning of Right Hand Rhythm: We discussed this aspect of pop music playing while chatting with Jon Schmidt of the Piano Guys; much of what makes pop music difficult is the rhythm… and it’s okay for your student to learn this through imitation rather than through weeks of frustrating counting and reading. Students can often play better than they can read and, as long as it’s not the way you approach every piece, it’s okay to play upon this ability in this case.
4. Ease Key Signature Stress: This is the most difficult of the issues to remedy. However, it’s also a great opportunity to approach key signatures in a “This ain’t scary, you can do this!” fashion. I grew up petrified of key signatures with more than 3 sharps or flats… simply because I wasn’t exposed to them very often. Early exposure means that your piano kids are more likely to take it in stride. Use a color-coding system to help (for example, if she is used to playing in D major, but the piece is in A major, highlight the G# to help her remember the additional black key). If it’s way way too difficult, then it’s always best to suggest the purchase of the same song in a new key (musicnotes.com offers basically any song you could dream of with the opportunity to transpose and at a cost of under $7… well worth the avoidance of frustrations).
The Best Laid Plans
Was this particular piece in your plan for piano student? Likely not. Is it easier to nod and smile and tuck it back into her music bag in the hopes that it’s soon forgotten? Perhaps. However, I prefer to look at these moments as massive opportunities for your students’ growth. At some point she is going to want to learn to play a piece on her own (we hope!) and if you can give her the tools to tackle something she loves (even it it’s way too difficult) you open up a whole new world where she has the ability to explore music of her choosing. Capitalizing on enthusiasm is never a bad idea.
Did You Know?…
Did you know that when you purchase The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo (Piano Music For Boys) you actually receive 3 versions of the book; Early Elementary, Elementary, and Intermediate? It’s a great way to toss the “too hard or too easy” debate to the curb because you’re guaranteed to find each piano piece in a level that is just right for your students. If you haven’t yet discovered the secret weapon for teaching piano to boys, check out The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo.