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Nurturing the Piano Student's Creative Spirit

For most of us who took piano lessons in our youth, and for many current students of any age, lessons typically consist(ed) of learning to read music and apply artistic expression in practice and performance.

As important and satisfying as it is to develop good technique and artistry in musical interpretation, one must ask if learning to read music is the only way to achieve beauty in playing the instrument.

Does the pianist's natural creative spirit help bring beauty to music-making? If so, and I believe it does, how can teachers and parents nurture that creative bent and provide opportunities to flourish that don't only concentrate on reading music?

I propose there is a better way to encourage the natural creativity present in today's piano students than to simply follow traditional music-reading instruction to the exclusion of everything else musically creative.

That solution is for teachers to offer creativity-based lessons and for parents to encourage music listening and playing the piano sometimes in ways that aren't "by-the-book." :-)

What are creativity-based lessons?

In my opinion, they are lessons that start with (and continue to facilitate) the way we naturally learned our native language. Because 1) music is a language that is effectively acquired in the same sequence as learning one's first language; and, 2) we are fundamentally and naturally creative beings at our core.

What skills are built through a creativity-based lesson philosophy?

Listening First

As I wrote in my post Learning to Speak Music (August 2017), learning one's native language is generally first achieved by listening to others speak it.

The musical parallel would obviously be listening to (hopefully high-quality) music to begin to understand music's basic construction, tone quality, rhythmic flow, melodic contour, harmonic texture, and the like.

Creativity-based piano lessons begin with the encouragement to listen regularly to great examples of artistically-rich music.

Speaking (Playing) Second

In language-learning sequence, the second element is one's actual verbalizing of the language.

With music-making, the "speaking" part is the production of musical sound.

Now for a future or current piano student we may think of that as experimentation at the piano -- playing without reading notes. But there is an even more fundamental aspect of music-making to consider: using one's voice to produce musical sound.

So I would submit that, for the fledgling piano player, the "speaking" part of a creativity-based lesson structure would ideally be two-pronged: 1) singing first; then, a little later in the student's development, 2) playing/improvising.

These activities can be encouraged at home, as well, both before and during the piano lesson years.

Reading Third

Consider how long it takes to get to this stage of language development after first hearing our native language and then speaking it. We're talking years!

And yet, often music reading is introduced almost as soon as a child gets an instrument and starts piano lessons.

Sure, the student has almost undoubtedly heard music before, and maybe has had a little time to fiddle around on the piano before beginning formal lessons.

But as I said above, the quality of the music being played in the household and the encouragement to sing and to improvise on the piano (make up music as you go along) both help lay the groundwork for successful note-reading.

Writing Fourth

Expressing oneself in writing is generally a skill that is learned after speaking and reading the language have been established.

Writing music -- taking one's musical improvisations and notating them -- likewise flows out of familiarity with other aspects of music production: hearing, playing, reading.

Conclusion: A New Paradigm for Piano Lessons?

Of course, the four parts of the language-learning cycle we explored above continually overlap once each part of the sequence -- listening, "speaking"/playing, reading, writing -- has been introduced.

And it's no surprise that this cycle is nothing new in regards to our understanding of verbal language acquisition.

What is new is its application to piano-teaching pedagogy.

Modern piano methods are beginning to incorporate more creative activities into their materials and encourage listening to recordings of music exhibiting concepts students are learning in their repertoire.

Conventions and workshops for independent music teachers, such as the 2020 MTNA Virtual Conference my professional colleagues and I were privileged to attend this summer, are increasingly devoting time to analyzing past trends, present situations, and future, research-based solutions for meeting the musical needs of today's piano students.

There's never been a better time to take up piano, in my admittedly slightly biased opinion. :-) As a piano teacher, I find it's an exciting time to be part of encouraging the next generation of music-makers as we strive to nurture the creativity inherent in every student who walks through our studio doors.

Let's hear it for our up-and-coming music-makers who bring fresh beauty into our lives at home and in the community with their creative spirit fully nurtured and encouraged!

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