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Learning to Speak Music


How did you learn to speak in your native tongue? If you are a hearing person, then your language acquisition likely followed this path:

  • hearing

  • speaking

  • reading

What does this have to do with music?

It describes what I believe is the ideal order in which to approach the study of music -- a language worth learning to speak.

But for many piano students (maybe you were one of them?), the hearing and "speaking" (playing without reading music) parts of the process were largely or entirely left off. Lessons began with an open piano book, often the same day as the introduction to the keyboard.

Which can work. To some extent.

But reading music is only one aspect of what a pianist does. A player must also be able to hear what quality of music one is producing.

And that skill is heightened by, first of all, listening regularly to good-quality music, and second, getting sufficient time to explore the sound and feel of the piano before adding in reading notes.

Let's talk about listening. In my experience, children who have been exposed to good music before beginning formal music study have an easier time playing with a steady underlying pulse.

If they've previously heard many examples of expressive playing, they are better able as students to go beyond markings on a page, playing with emotion early on in their studies.

Hearing high-quality music is a natural motivator for wanting to produce pleasing sounds with one's instrument. This is the "speaking" phase of musical language development.

Just as a young child does not need to know how to read a sentence or a book before speaking a sentence, a piano student does not need to interpret symbols on a page in order to make the piano "speak."

In practical terms, parents, the best music education you can provide before formal instrument study is to let your child first hear the musical language, then get a quality instrument for your child to explore for a time on his or her own.

Children with this background will be well-prepared for the further listening, rote-playing, and note-playing experiences of formal piano study.

Listen. Speak (play). Read. (And write, too! More about composing and its benefits coming in a future post.) You will be thrilled at how naturally your child will express the language of music when unhurried time is given to each of these activities in turn.

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